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Irish Medieval Music – in a European Context

23 March 2018 - Dr Ann Buckley (Visiting Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin Medieval History Research Centre) has edited a collection of essays from contributors around the world that opens up discussion on the liturgical music of medieval Ireland by approaching it from a multidisciplinary, European perspective.  Music, Liturgy and the Veneration of Saints of the Medieval Irish Church in a European Context was launched recently in the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute.

Discussing the collection, Dr Buckley explained that, until relatively recently, the prevailing view was that medieval liturgical music in Ireland and Scotland was quite distinct from the rest of Europe.  This notion of an idiosyncratic ‘Celtic Rite’ was grounded in a preoccupation by earlier scholars with pre-Norman Gaelic culture, to the neglect of wider networks of engagement between Ireland, Britain and Continental Europe, and was bolstered by the belief that no manuscripts with musical notation had survived from the Irish medieval times.

In adopting a more inclusive approach, the new book of essays portrays a different view which demonstrates the diversity and international connectedness of Irish ecclesiastical culture throughout the Middle Ages.  ‘Exploring this music’, says Dr Buckley ‘gives a wonderful opportunity and vehicle to investigate this story of Ireland in a European context’. Until relatively recently, the surviving manuscripts containing medieval Irish music were effectively overlooked.  This is because they were primarily contained within manuscripts of the ‘Sarum Rite’   – the standard rite of the medieval church across England.  Because of the prevailing notion of the ‘Celtic Rite’, Sarum manuscripts were not expected to contain music of specific local interest to Ireland – effectively, says Dr Buckley ‘people were looking for a particular kind of music and manuscript so these passed people by’.

Now though, it is known that there are 33 surviving liturgical service books from medieval Ireland, between the 12th-15th centuries.  The 33 manuscripts can be identified as Irish either by comments, annotation or autograph within the manuscript, or because they include the special celebration of local, Irish saints within their calendars.  Trinity College Dublin Library holds 11, while 17 are spread across the UK and the remaining three are in Switzerland, Iceland and the US.  The two main liturgical services are the Mass and the Office, which contains chants for Church holy days, but also for veneration of both universal and local saints, who are honoured with a 24-hour cycle of singing and prayer on their feast days. ‘We have’ says Dr Buckley, ‘only begun to scratch the surface on study of these 33 manuscripts… and I’m always looking for more of them too!’ 

The multinational contributors to the new essay collection represent a variety of specialisms, including musicology, liturgiology, palaeography, hagiology and more.  From this rich range of perspectives they investigate sources from chant texts to later manuscripts with music notation, and explore the far-reaching cultural impact of the Irish church in medieval Europe through a range of case studies on topics from liturgy and the Voyage of St Brendan, to the complex politics behind the choice of St Andrew over St Columba as the patron saint of Scotland.

The collection is linked to a project Dr Buckley has been working on for some time: to assemble all the liturgies written for Irish saints across Europe.  Dr Buckley explains: ‘When the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe were being built and new orders like the Augustinians and Dominicans being established in the 11th-13th centuries, there was a great revival of interest in the renowned Irish missionaries of the 6th-8th centuries – Columbanus, Gall and the like... so many of the cathedrals are dedicated to Irish saints and monks across Europe composed new liturgies based on the old stories of these early Irish saints’.  Investigating these European liturgies for Irish saints is, says Dr Buckley, another way to reveal the European context of medieval Ireland, just as work in archaeology and other disciplines has uncovered the Viking and European past of Ireland and its cities.

Dr Ann Buckley’s recent lecture on MS 78 was part of the ‘Beyond the Book of Kells’ series at the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Institute.  While the Book of Kells attracts over 600,000 visitors annually, the TCD library holds many more medieval treasures and this series offers an opportunity to encounter eight other extraordinary   manuscripts from the collections, all newly accessible through digitisation.  

The next event in the ‘Beyond the Book of Kells’ series will take place on Tuesday 3 April 6.30-8pm at Trinity Long Room Hub.  Professor Pádraig Ó Macháin from University College Cork will discuss TCD MS 1339: The Book of Leinster, which contains the largest collections of Irish myth and history from before the twelfth century, including one of three surviving copies of the Táin and the earliest personal letter in Irish.

Details of all forthcoming events at the Trinity Long Room Hub

Contact: Niamh O'Flynn, Communications Officer | Trinity Long Room Hub | | 01 896 3895

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