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    Early manuscripts from Ireland

Medieval Irish books
Stowe Missal (Latin)
Book of Kells (Latin)
Book of Durrow (Latin)
The Lindisfarne Gospels (Latin)
Psalter of St Columba (Latin)
Irish Script on Screen (DIAS project)

There are manuscripts from Ireland which date back to the 7th century and which are in Latin. They were copies of sacred texts – typically the Gospels or lives and writings of saints. Writing in Irish begins with interlinear glosses found in copies of Latin texts, e.g. the letters of St Paul (the Würzburg Glosses), some psalms (the Milan Glosses) or the Latin grammar by Priscian (the St Gall Glosses). Interlinear glosses were words or short phrases in Irish which were written by monks to help them understand the Latin original. Both the Latin and the Irish text were written in the Insular Script, a modification of an early Latin form of writing which was used in the British Isles as of the second half of the first millennium AD. The lenition of consonants was indicated using a punctum delens – a device in early manuscripts to indicate that a letter was to be deleted – establishing a tradition which was to last in Irish into the 20th century.

Early Irish manuscripts are not just texts but works of art in their own right. This is particularly true of the Book of Kells (written about the end of the 8th century and associated with the monastery of Kells, Co. Meath). It is the best example of an illustrated manuscript, a text with ornate letters and pictures which illustrate the section of the text where they are found.

Medieval Irish books

The Book of Ballymote (Irish: Leabhar Bhaile an Mhóta)

The Book of the Dun Cow (Irish: Lebor na hUidhre)

The Speckled Book (Irish: Leabhar Breac)

The Book of the O’Lees (a collection of medical treatises)

The Stowe Missal

The Stowe Missal is so named because it was acquired by a Duke of Buckingham who kept it in a library at Stowe. The missal is associated with the monastery at Tallaght (now in metropolitan Dublin) because of mention of an abbot from there in the Missal. It is a translation from Latin and dates from the 9th century.

Cover of the Stowe Missal

Extract showing a genealogy from the Stowe Missal

Extract of the opening of the Gospel according to St John from the Stowe Missal (beginning In principio erat verbum ... ‘In the beginning was the word ...’)

Book of Kells

The Book of Kells is justly the most famous of all the early illuminated manuscripts in the British Isles. It is traditionally associated with Kells in Co. Meath where it is recorded just after 1000AD. But the place of composition is uncertain as are the number of scribes who were working on it. The text consists of the Four Gospels and is in Latin. The ornate letters at the beginning of each section, for instance the Chi Rho page (first below) are rightly well-known. Other famous pages are The Arrest of Christ, Portrait of Christ, Christ and the Devil, Virgin with Child and the Four Evangelists. Today the Book of Kells is housed in Trinity College, Dublin where it is on view to the public. There is much literature available on the Book of Kells including a facsimile reproduction and a CD-ROM of the entire book. An accessible introduction can be found in George Otto Simms 1988. Exploring the Book of Kells. (Dublin: O’Brien Press). A more detailed investigation can be found in Heather Pulliam 2006. Word and Image in the Book of Kells. (Dublin: Four Courts Press).

Chi Rho page

Chi Rho page in very large format

Open of the Gospel according to St. Luke

Arrest of Christ

Portrait of Christ

Christ and the Devil

Virgin with Child

Four Evangelists

Four Evangelists (Book of Armagh)

Page of writing, 1

Page of writing, 2

Page of writing, 3

The Book of Durrow

The Book of Durrow is a 7th century illuminated manuscript which was probably prepared at the abbey in Durrow, Co. Offaly. It is similar to the Book of Kells in style of illumination and also contains the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The following image is that of the so-called Nitium page which is the beginning of the Gospel according to Mark.

The Lindisfarne Gospels (Latin)

The illuminated text known as the Lindisfarne Gospels was composed in the Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island off the coast of Northumbria in north-east England in the late 7th or early 8th century. They are not Irish but in style they show similarities to the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow which are from Ireland.

The artist who created the book is known to us as Eadfrith. A translation of the Gospels into Old English was added in the late 10th century by writing the English text between the lines of Latin. Below the image on the left shows the initial page of the Gospel according to St. John and that on the right is the first page from the Gospel according to St. Matthew.


Psalter of St Columba

One of the earliest Irish manuscripts is the Psalter of St Columba (who died in 597); also known as An Cathach ‘battle book or reliquiary’. This was supposedly written in the mid 6th century but it was probably composed some time later, in the 7th century.

Book shrines

Eighth century shrine from Devenish Island, Co. Fermanagh. It is called Soiscéal Molaise ‘The Gospel of St. Molaise’ after the saint associated with the island where it comes from.


Shrine of the Book of Dimma (from Roscrea in Co. Tipperary) with image of Evangelist from text.


The above is not a shrine but a bronze plaque (found near Athlone) which was, however, probably fastened to the cover of a book which has since been lost.

Irish Script on Screen

There is a project currently being carried out under the direction of Pádraig Ó Macháin at the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies called Irish Script on Screen / Meamram Páipéar Ríomhaire. The introduction provided at the site of the School of Celtic Studies states that the following.

The object of ISOS is to create digital images of Irish manuscripts, and to make these images - together with relevant commentary - accessible on a WWW site. The purpose of such a site is to provide an electronic resource which will:

provide exposure on the internet for a vital part of Ireland's cultural heritage.
place these primary materials at the disposal of scholars and students.
contribute to the conservation of these valuable books and documents by creating images of high-resolution detail which, generally speaking, will reduce the need to handle the artefacts themselves.