Cathach of St. Columba

Last updated

Royal Irish Academy
The Cathach, f.48r.jpg
Folio 48r, Cathach of St. Columba
Also known asThe Battler
Type Psalter
DateBefore AD 561
Place of originIreland
Language(s) Vulgar Latin
Material Vellum
Size27cm x 19cm
Format Folio
Script Insular

The Cathach of St. Columba, known as the Cathach (meaning "the Battler"), [1] is a late 6th century Insular psalter. It is the oldest surviving manuscript in Ireland, and the second oldest Latin psalter in the world. [2]


Its cumdach (a type of ornamented metal reliquary box or carrying case for holy books) dates to the late 11th century, and was refurbished in the 14th and 16th centuries. The shrine belonged to the Chiefs of Clan Ó Domhnaill, the Lords of Tír Chonaill, as a rallying cry and protector in battle. [3]

The Cathach was taken to the continent in 1691 following the Treaty of Limerick, and did not return to Ireland until 1813. That year the cumdach was reopened, leading to the rediscovery of the manuscript. It was by then in very poor condition, but underwent a major restoration in 1982 when the extant pages were rebound and remounted on vellum leaves. [1] However the Cathach remains badly damaged, with just 58 vellum leaves surviving from an original 110. [1]

Today the manuscript (RIA MS 12 R) is in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin and the cumdach is in the archaeology branch of the National Museum of Ireland. [4]


The Cumdach of the Cathach of St. Columba. Contenitore per manoscritto di san colombano, di cathach, in argento e cristallo di rocca su anima lignea, 1090 ca. poi xiv secolo, da ballymagroarty, co. donegal 01.jpg
The Cumdach of the Cathach of St. Columba.

An Cathach was used as a rallying cry and protector in battle. It was said to protect and guarantee victory in war to the Donegal leaders. Before a battle it was customary for a chosen monk or holy man (usually attached to the Clan McGroarty, and someone who was in a state of grace) to wear the Cathach and the cumdach, or book shrine, around his neck and then walk three times sunwise around the warriors of Clan O'Donnell. [3]

As de facto Chief of the Name of Clan O'Donnell, the manuscript was inherited by Brigadier-General Daniel O'Donnell (1666–1735), and was regarded by him, in accordance with its traditional history, as a talisman of victory if carried into battle by any of the Cinel Conaill. He first served King James II during the Williamite War in Ireland and then, following the Treaty of Limerick, General O'Donnell went into exile in France and served King Louis XIV as an officer in the Irish Brigade. He placed the Cathach in a silver case and deposited it for safety in a Belgian monastery, leaving instructions in his will that it was to be given up to whoever could prove himself Chief of Clan O'Donnell. Through an Irish abbot it was restored to Sir Neale O'Donnell, 2nd Baronet, of Newport House, County Mayo, in 1802. [5] His son, Sir Richard Annesley, entrusted the relic to the Royal Irish Academy in 1842. [5] The leaves were stuck together until separated at the British Museum in 1920; the manuscript was further restored in 198081. [6]



Folio 19r, not the abraded and stained edges caused by impact damage as the pages moved against the cumdach, which was not large enough to hold them flat in place. The Cathach, f.19r.jpg
Folio 19r, not the abraded and stained edges caused by impact damage as the pages moved against the cumdach, which was not large enough to hold them flat in place.

The manuscript consists of a Gallican version of the Vulgate version of Psalm 30:13 to 105:13, and is tradittionally assumed to have been written by St. Columba (Colum Cille, d. 597). [8] It is dated to 560–600, measures 27 cm x 19, and at present consists of 58 folios; the complete manuscript would have contained around 110 folios. [6]

Decoration is limited to the initial letter of each Psalm. Each initial is created from a thick black line that is larger than the main text and decorated with trumpet, spiral and guilloche patterns. They are often outlined with orange dots, and have areas of the lettering coloured white, madder, pink and orange tinges. The art historian Françoise Henry described the initial as "an essential landmark in the history of insular illumination", and speculated that the now lost front page "would have been invaluable for our knowledge of Irish illumination". [9]

The initials are followed by a series of letters that gradually diminish in size before merging with the main text. [10] [11]

Irish manuscripts were typically written in localized scripts. The Cathach written for the most part by a single scribe who used a book hand of round lettering and strong Latin or wedge-serifs on the upright strokes. [12] According to the historian and calligraphier Timothy O'Neill, the scribe employed an edged rather than pointed quill, which he held at a flat angle "to produce thick downstrokes and thin horizontals". [1] [10]

Cumdach (book shrine)

The Shrine of the Cathach. Length: 8.5 in (220 mm), width: 7.25 in (184 mm), breath: 2.1 in (53 mm). National Museum of Ireland, NMI R2835 Shrine of the Cathach.jpg
The Shrine of the Cathach. Length: 8.5 in (220 mm), width: 7.25 in (184 mm), breath: 2.1 in (53 mm). National Museum of Ireland, NMI R2835

The specially made cumdach (book shrine) comprises an oblong, hinged wooden box covered with decorative bronze and gilt-silver plates, with mounts holding glass and crystal settings. Prior to this the manuscript would likely have been kept in a type of protective leather satchel known as a "tiag", [14] similar that made for the 9th century Breac Maodhóg.

The shrine underwent three main phases of construction. The initial work was completed between 1062 and 1098 at Kells, County Meath while the manuscript was in the possession of the O'Donnells [13] and was the their chief relic. A new main face in gilt repoussé, was added between 1350 and 1375 with a large seated Christ in Majesty flanked on the right by a Crucifixion scene, and by a saint (likely Columba) on the left. [15] [16] Further embellishments and repair works were carried out in the 16th century, [7] and again in 1723 while it under the care of Daniel O'Donel while he was in Paris. [5]

The cumdach has been in continuous use since its earliest construction, including by its hereditary keepers, the Magroarty family, of Ballymagrorty, County Donegal, one of whom was killed in 1497 when the shrine was captured. It is today in the collection of the National Museum of Ireland. [7]

Side panels

Short-side Shrine of the Cathach short side(a).jpg
Lower long-side Shrine of the Cathach long side(a).jpg
Lower long-side

The long and short side panels contain inserts and mounts of different phases. The long sides mostly consist of contain traditional animal ornaments and abstract designs. The dominant mounts on the short sides contain more sophisticated patterns influenced by the Ringerike style of Viking art. [7]


The shrine contains a number of inscriptions, although the lettering is badly damaged in places, the wording contains misspellings and contractions, and they were modified or added to at later dates. [17] Written in Irish and placed clockwise along the borders of the reverse of back of the shrine (beginning at top-left), they are signed by its goldsmith, Sitric Mc Meic Aeda (Sitric, son of Meic Aeda), who records that he built the shrine under the instruction of Domnall Mac Robartaigh (an abbot at Kells who had retired before his death in 1094, but is described in the inscription as "successor of Kells”), [18] who in turn was under the commission and payment of Cathbarr Ua Domnaill. [19] [6]

The full inscriptions have been translates as:

"A prayer for Cathbarr Ua Domnaill who had this shrine made
and for Sitric son of Mac Aeda who made [it]
and for Domnall Mac Robartaig, coarb of Kells, by whom it was made". [20]

Nothing is known of Sitric outside of a record that his father worked as a craftsman at Kells. Given the number of misspellings and lack of consistency in the script, it has been suggested that Sitric was illiterate and was simply transcribed a script given to him. [21]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 O'Neill (2014), p. 12
  2. McNamara, Martin (2000). The Psalms in the Early Irish Church. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 8. ISBN   9781850759256.
  3. 1 2 Stokes (2011), p. 80
  4. "Royal Irish Academy | Library | Special Collections | Cathach". 2 July 2014.
  5. 1 2 3 Joynt (1917), p. 187
  6. 1 2 3 "The Cathach / The Psalter of St Columba". Royal Irish Academy. Retrieved 3 January 2021
  7. 1 2 3 4 Mullarkey (2021)
  8. Herity; Breen (2002), p. 1
  9. Henry (1965), p. 61
  10. 1 2 Herity; Breen (2002), p. 7
  11. De Hamel (1986), p. 20
  12. Herity; Breen (2002), p. 5
  13. 1 2 Joynt (1917), p. 186
  14. Michelli (1996), p. 8
  15. Wallace; Ó Floinn (2002), pp. 233, 269
  16. Stokes (2011), p. 79
  17. Michelli (1996), p. 12
  18. Michelli (1996), p. 14
  19. Michelli (1996), p. 10
  20. Herity; Breen (2002), p. 10
  21. Michelli (1996), p. 21


Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Columba</span> Gaelic Irish missionary monk

Columba or Colmcille was an Irish abbot and missionary evangelist credited with spreading Christianity in what is today Scotland at the start of the Hiberno-Scottish mission. He founded the important abbey on Iona, which became a dominant religious and political institution in the region for centuries. He is the patron saint of Derry. He was highly regarded by both the Gaels of Dál Riata and the Picts, and is remembered today as a Catholic saint and one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.

Book of Kells 8th-century illuminated manuscript Gospel book, held in Trinity College, Dublin

The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin, containing the four Gospels of the New Testament together with various prefatory texts and tables. It was created in a Columban monastery in either Ireland, Scotland or England, and may have had contributions from various Columban institutions from each of these areas. It is believed to have been created c. 800 AD. The text of the Gospels is largely drawn from the Vulgate, although it also includes several passages drawn from the earlier versions of the Bible known as the Vetus Latina. It is a masterwork of Western calligraphy and represents the pinnacle of Insular illumination. The manuscript takes its name from the Abbey of Kells, County Meath, which was its home for centuries.

Book of Durrow

The Book of Durrow is an illuminated manuscript dated to c. 700 that consists of text from the four Gospels gospel books, written in an Irish adaption of Vulgate Latin, and illustrated in the Insular script style.

In Scottish folklore, sunwise, deosil or sunward (clockwise) was considered the “prosperous course”, turning from east to west in the direction of the sun. The opposite course, anticlockwise, was known as widdershins, or tuathal. In the Northern Hemisphere, "sunwise" and "clockwise" run in the same direction, because sundials were used to tell time, and their features were transferred to clock faces. Another influence may have been the right-handed bias in many cultures.

<i>Cumdach</i> Medieval Irish case for a reliquary or book

A cumdach or book shrine is an elaborate ornamented metal reliquary box or case used to hold Early Medieval Irish manuscripts or relics. They are typically later than the book they contain, often by several centuries. In most surviving examples the book comes from the peak age of Irish monasticism before 800, and the extant cumdachs date from after 1000, although it is clear the form dates from considerably earlier. The majority are of Irish origin, with most surviving examples now in the National Museum of Ireland (NMI).

Finnian of Movilla Irish missionary (c. 495–589)

Finnian of Movilla was an Irish Christian missionary. His feast day is 10 September.

Stowe Missal

The Stowe Missal, which is, strictly speaking, a sacramentary rather than a missal, is a small Irish illuminated manuscript written mainly in Latin with some Old Irish in the late eighth or early ninth century, probably after 792. In the mid-11th century it was annotated and some pages rewritten at Lorrha Monastery in County Tipperary, Ireland. Between 1026 and 1033 the manuscript was encased within a protective cumdach, which was refurbished and embellished a number of times in the late medieval period, in particular before 1381, the year of death of Pilib O'Ceinneidigh, Lord of Ormond, who then had possession of the shrine.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Insular art</span> Post-Roman British and Irish style of art

Insular art, also known as Hiberno-Saxon art, was produced in the post-Roman era of Great Britain and Ireland. The term derives from insula, the Latin term for "island"; in this period Britain and Ireland shared a largely common style different from that of the rest of Europe. Art historians usually group Insular art as part of the Migration Period art movement as well as Early Medieval Western art, and it is the combination of these two traditions that gives the style its special character.

An Leabhar Breac, now less commonly Leabhar Mór Dúna Doighre or possibly erroneously, Leabhar Breac Mic Aodhagáin, is a medieval Irish vellum manuscript containing Middle Irish and Hiberno-Latin writings. The manuscript is held in the library of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, where it is catalogued as RIA MS 23 P 16 or 1230.

National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology National museum in Dublin , Ireland

The National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology is a branch of the National Museum of Ireland located on Kildare Street in Dublin, Ireland, that specialises in Irish and other antiquities dating from the Stone Age to the Late Middle Ages.

The battle of Cúl Dreimhne took place in the 6th century in the túath of Cairbre Drom Cliabh in northwest Ireland. The exact date for the battle varies from 555 AD to 561 AD. 560 AD is regarded as the most likely by modern scholars. The battle is notable for being possibly one of the earliest conflicts over copyright in the world.

Domnach Airgid 8th century Irish book shrine

The Domnach Airgid is an 8th-century Irish wooden reliquary. It was considerably reworked between the 13th and 15th centuries and became a cumdach or "book shrine", when its basic timber structure was reinforced and decorated by elaborate silver-gilt metalwork. Its front-piece was enhanced by gilded relief showing Jesus in "Arma Christi", alongside depictions of saints, angels and clerics, in scenes imbued with complex iconography. It is thus considered a mixture of the early Insular and later International Gothic styles.

Breac Maodhóg

The Breac Maodhóg is a relatively large Irish house-shaped reliquary, today in the National Museum of Ireland. It is thought to date from the second half of the 11th century, and while periods as early as the 9th century have been proposed, the later dating is believed more likely based on the style of its decoration.

Daniel O'Donnell (1666–1735) was a brigadier-general in the Irish Brigade in the French service. He belonged to the derbhfine of the last Chief of the Name of Clan O'Donnell and Lord of Tyrconnel.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Shrine of Miosach</span> 11th-century Irish cumdach (book shrine)

The Shrine of Miosach is an elaborately ornamented 11th-century Irish cumdach. It originates from Clonmany, north County Donegal, and is first mentioned in the 1165 Irish annals. It is dated to the late 11th century, when it probably contained a manuscript with psalms or extracts from a Gospel. However, the shrine was empty when first described in detail in the 18th century. It was originally associated with St Cairneach, patron saint of Dulane, County Meath, but by the late medieval period had become part of the cult of the abbot and missionary Colm Cille.

Soiscél Molaisse 11th-century Irish book shrine

The Soiscél Molaisse is an Irish cumdach that originated from an 8th-century wooden core embellished in the 11th and 15th centuries with metal plates decorated in the Insular style. Until the late 18th century, the shrine held a now-lost companion text, presumed to be a small illuminated gospel book associated with Saint Laisrén mac Nad Froích, also known as Molaisse or "Mo Laisse". In the 6th century, Molaisse founded a church on Devenish Island in the southern part of Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, with which the cumdach is associated.

Insular crozier Type of processional bishops staff

An Insular crozier is a type of processional bishop's staff (crozier) produced in Ireland and Scotland between c.  800 and 1200. Such items can be distinguished from mainland European types by their curved and open crooks, and drop. By the end of the 12th century, production of Irish croziers had largely ended, but examples continued to be reworked and added to throughout the Romanesque and Gothic periods. Although many of the croziers are associated with 5th- and 6th-century saints, the objects were not made until long after the saints had died. A majority originate from around the 9th century, and were often used as embellishment between the 11th and 13th centuries.

Crucifixion plaque Crucifixion sculptures with ancillary panels

Crucifixion plaques are small early medieval sculptures with a central panel of the still alive but crucified Jesus surrounded by four smaller ancillary panels. consisting. of Stephaton and Longinus in the lower quadrants, and two hovering attendant angels in the quadrants above his arms. Notable examples are found in classical Roman and 8th to mid-12th century Irish Insular art.

St. Columbas Crozier

St. Columba’s Crozer is a badly damaged and incomplete 8th or 9th century Irish Insular crozier fragment. It consists of a wooden core covered by sheet bronze tubes decorated with a bronze knope lined with silver and gilt. The wooden shaft measures four-feet and is elaborately decorated but incomplete: it was found broken in two and both its foot and crook are missing.

Corp Naomh 9th or 10th century Irish bell-shrine

The Corp Naomh is a 9th or 10th century Irish shrine made to enclose a now lost hand-bell. It was likely produced between 600 and 900 AD, and owned by a saint whose identity is also lost. It was rediscovered before 1682 at Tristernagh Abbey, near Templecross, County Westmeath, on a site that in the 10th century also included a church, priory and graveyard. It is made from cast and sheet bronze plates mounted on wooden core, and is decorated with silver, niello and rock crystal. It is severely damaged and has suffered extensive losses and wear across the centuries. When discovered a block of wood had been substituted for the bell itself, however the remaining elements are considered of high historical and artistic value by both archeologists and art historians.