What’s in a name? The Garland of Howth

Early Insular Gospel Books are typically named either after the saint with whom they are associated (as the Books of Dimma and Mulling), or the place where they are thought to have been made (as the Books of Durrow, Kells and Armagh). In a number of cases colophons (dedicatory inscriptions) can assist in tracing the ultimate origins or authorship of a book, while in others, the addition of material such as the eleventh- and twelfth-century legal transcriptions in the Book of Kells can help to establish if not where a book was made, at least where it was at a certain point in the distant past.

Figure 1 Garland of Howth, fol 22v.
Fig. 1 The Garland of Howth, 8th-9th century, TCD MS 56, f. 22r © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

The so-called ‘Garland of Howth’ (fig. 1), has no such aids to establishing its provenance. Then known as the Kerlower (from the Irish Ceathair Leabhair, or ‘four books [of the gospels]’), it first entered the historical record in the early 1530s, when the Archbishop of Dublin, John Alen, recounted the tale of how St Nessan had been reading his gospel book on the island of Ireland’s Eye, off the Dublin coast at Howth, when he was accosted by an evil spirit. He repelled it with holy water, ejecting it with such force that it struck the adjacent coastline imprinting its face on what is now known as Puck or Devil’s Rock. In the process the book was lost in the sea. It was later miraculously recovered by sailors, and came to be held in such veneration, according to Alen, that the locals feared to swear on it lest they purjure themselves and meet some terrible fate.1

Fig. 2 Church on Ireland’s Eye. From, Margaret Stokes, Early Christian Architecture in Ireland (Dublin, 1878).
Fig. 2 Church on Ireland’s Eye. From, Margaret Stokes, Early Christian Architecture in Ireland (Dublin, 1878).

There has been a church on Ireland’s Eye since at least the eighth century. The small building there now, known as Kilmacnessan (fig. 2), was much rebuilt in the nineteenth century, but appears to have had a vaulted chancel with integrated bell-tower, probably dating to the late eleventh or twelfth century.2 It most likely fell out of use in the 1230s when a new church, St Mary’s, was built on the mainland. Alen’s account clearly associates the book with the island, but, in common with much hagiography, a tale that incorporated an ancient church in the area and puzzling feature of the landscape, may simply have been a means of adding authenticity to the ancient fragmentary gospel book.

Fig. 3 View of Ireland’s Eye from St Mary’s,Howth, Gabriel Beranger, 1779. Source.
Fig. 3 View of Ireland’s Eye from St Mary’s,Howth, Gabriel Beranger, 1779. Source.

When seen by Archbishop Ussher almost a century later, it seems to have been in Howth, where he noted with some distain that the Kerlower had become vulgarly known as ‘The Garland of Howth’.3 The origins of that name are not known. Some suggest that ‘garland’ is a more extreme Anglicization of Ceathair Leabhair, and others that the term garland implies a talismanic function, common to a number of relics of the time. In the seventeenth century, when the name is first documented, the word ‘garland’ was also used to denote ‘the principal ornament, the thing most prized’, and it may be that this lies at the root of the name.

In the nineteenth-century the Trinity Librarian T.K. Abbott changed the name of the manuscript to the  Codex Usserianus Secundus, to reflect his belief that Archbishop Ussher had been responsible for its accession to the Library (see previous post). However, as Ussher’s relationship with the manuscript is far from clear, it has since reverted to being the Garland of Howth, the name that reflects most what little we do know about its history.

Rachel Moss, Assistant Professor, Department of History of Art and Architecture


  1. Calendar of Archbishop Alen’s Register, c. 1172-1534, ed. Charles McNeill  (Dublin, 1950).
  2. Robert Cochrane, ‘Notes on the Ecclesiastical Antiquities in the Parish of Howth, Co. Dublin’, JRSAI, 23 (1893), pp 386-407 at 396-403.
  3. The whole works of the most Rev. James Ussher, D.D., Lord Archbishop of Armagh, and Primate of all Ireland : With a life of the author, and an account of his writings, ed. by Charles Richard Elrington, 17 vols (Dublin, 1847-64), vi, p. 531.