St Mary’s Abbey Manuscript Acquired for Trinity

Trinity College Library Dublin has acquired the only medieval Irish manuscript to have been offered for sale for a century, a highly significant early 14th-century manuscript produced at St Mary’s Cistercian Abbey in Dublin. Lost to the world of scholarship since the 18th century, it has not been in Ireland since the 16th century.

A press launch announcing the acquisition, on 19 March, was followed by an event to thank the donors who were invited to a special viewing of the new arrival. They were then addressed by the Keeper of Manuscripts Bernard Meehan, the Professor of Medieval History at Trinity Seán Duffy and scholar Br Colmán Ó Clábaigh, OSB.

Librarian and College Archivist Helen Shenton said the manuscript includes a “considerable body of new information which will help to re-evaluate the history and culture of St Mary’s Abbey and the civic life of Dublin in the 14th and 15th centuries”.

The Cistercian Abbey of St Mary’s, after which Dublin’s Mary’s Street and Abbey Street are named, was the wealthiest monastic house in medieval Ireland. So important was it that the parliament, having no permanent building in the city, frequently met there.

MS11500Apart from legal texts, such as an early version of the 14th-century Ordinances which restricted the power of King Edward II, the manuscript also includes an account of the Trojan war by Dares Phrygius; Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pseudo-history of the kings of Britain, and works by Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales, died 1223), the Topography of Ireland and Conquest of Ireland.

After the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII the manuscript fell into private hands; it was eventually purchased by the first earl Somers whose bookplate is in the volume. The manuscript was acquired by Trinity College Library Dublin at Christie’s auction in London in November 2014.

The acquisition of the manuscript aligns with Trinity College’s strategy of engagement with the city of Dublin as it contains a considerable body of new information which will help to re-evaluate the history and culture of St Mary’s Abbey and the civic life of Dublin in the 14th and 15th centuries. Digitising, scientific analysis, textual and codicological examination of the manuscript will provoke widespread research and popular interest. This ‘new’ manuscript will, through research, focus further attention on other manuscripts, from the same Abbey, which are held in major international repositories, including the British Library and the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

The level of enthusiasm among scholars, across the university and among the wider historically-minded community in Ireland, for the return of this manuscript to Dublin, was given practical expression: when the Library turned to its alumni and friends, seeking much needed support for this acquisition, the response was unprecedented.

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