Medieval chants bring 15th century St Brigid’s Day celebrations back to life

Posted on: 01 February 2024

Sacred chants found in precious medieval manuscripts are shedding fresh light on the cult of St Brigid and how her feast day was celebrated in medieval Ireland, according to a music historian in Trinity who is working to identify the music and prayers associated with Irish saints preserved in medieval manuscripts.

In the Middle Ages elaborate liturgical ceremonies, known as ‘Offices’, were specially composed for religious celebrations on saints’ feast days. The office of St Brigid is preserved in a number of rare manuscripts held in the Library of Trinity College Dublin including an antiphonary originally believed to be associated with Kilkenny but known as  the ‘Clondalkin Breviary’  (TCD MS 78) and a noted breviary associated with Kilmoon, Co Meath (TCD MS 80). Both date from the 15th century and are now available for the public to explore online as part of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies Project and the Virtual Trinity Library programme.

Irish saints’ offices are the subject of the Amra project, under the direction of Dr Ann Buckley, who is investigating music, texts, and the wider context of the history of their religious cults celebrated in Ireland and throughout medieval Europe.

As part of the research project, the music and Latin texts are transcribed from the manuscripts into modern notation and editions prepared for performance and wider scholarly study. Recordings of some of this music can be listened to on Amra’s Soundcloud here. (Items 24-30 relate to St Brigid).

The research also involves comparative analysis of the chants and texts of the offices found in different manuscripts, and an examination of the hagiographic sources from which the texts are derived.

Dr Ann Buckley, Trinity’s Medieval History Research Centre, explains:

“These precious manuscripts are among only a handful of notated liturgical books to survive from medieval Ireland. They contain, among other things, the chant, spoken prayers, and readings for a host of Irish saints which would have been used by religious communities across medieval Ireland to celebrate their feastdays up to the time of the Reformation around the turn of the 16th century.

“Much of what we know about Irish saints today is drawn from hagiographic sources — texts describing saints’ lives often collected in anthologies. Liturgical texts are also a valuable but much overlooked source for fresh understandings of the history and veneration of St Brigid, St Patrick and other Irish saints as well as the changing social and political contexts of the promotion of the cult of these saints.

“These texts and the liturgical calendars illustrate the high status afforded to St Brigid in the middle ages. Along with St Patrick and St Colmcille, St Brigid’s feast day is highlighted in red ink in many of the manuscripts. This is the original of the modern term ‘red-letter day’.

“The 1st of February was celebrated as a double feast with nine readings about St Brigid included in Matins. These readings and the texts of the hymns and prayers also tell us much about the miracles associated with St Brigid, describing how she ‘restored the hand cut off, cleansed lepers from their ills, she showed the lame how to walk, healed those who had lost their sight’.’’

“It is not possible to date these offices with any accuracy because the only surviving manuscripts are late, but from their musico-poetic style and also the history of cults of these and other Irish saints promoted by the church in Anglo-Norman Ireland, we can reasonably assume that they originated around the 12th/13th century, and some were modified and expanded over the years.

Support for the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies Project was provided by a philanthropic grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. Recordings of some of the Amra project material are also available on CD in the Trinity Gift Shop. These were performed by Anúna (dir. Michael McGlynn).

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