Kildare Voice: 28 September 2007
Whatever happened the book of Kildare?
The Audio visual presentation at the decorated arts section of the National museum of Ireland uses one of the great tributes to our monastic tradition, “it seems not the work of men but of angels.”
The AV has seen better days and is a little jaded now, but it cleverly runs these words over the pages of the Book of Kells. It was not the book of Kells that this phrase alluded to at all, but of Kildare.
The words were written by Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales, Gerald de Barry 1146-12Z3) a Bill Bryson of his time whose valuable chronicle of Ireland during his visits in 1182 and 1185-6 is spoiled somewhat by his deprecating and somewhat offensive attitude towards Irish culture. He has been accused of creating the original stage-Irish caricatures, portraying the Irish as barbarians, and barely Christian.
But in Kildare, he came across a decorated manuscript produced by these barbarians that was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
Was it more impressive than the Book of Kells? The work of angels disappeared shortly afterwards. More great Irish manuscripts have been lost than survive, so we can only speculate when and where it was compiled and how richly decorated it may have been.
Brigid was Ireland’s widest known saint in the 9th century, possibly more widely followed than Patrick, so the possession of a great gospel book or Psalter would have been a pre-requisite for the monastery.
The development of decoration can be traced only sketchily. First in the late 6th-century Gospel book Usserianus Primus, where decoration is confined to a framed Chi Rho, surrounded by red dots, The Cathach Psalter traditionally attributed to St Colum Cille (d. 597), but probably written early in the 7th century, which employs spiral and trumpet devices, fish and cross symbols, as well as the calligraphic technique of diminuendo’ (diminishing letter size), the late 8th-century Book of Mulling, from St Mullins, Co. Carlow, contains striking portraits of three evangelists,, and the Book of Dimma, from Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, contains less naturalistic images. The early 9th-century MacRegol Gospels from Birr, Co. Offaly, employs strong colouristic effects.
Ireland’s most important monasteries inspired the two most famous of all, the Book of Durrow, and later in the Book of Kells, where devices are integrated with motifs borrowed from metalwork, and with animal and figure drawings derived from Mediterranean prototypes.
In Armagh the earliest extant New Testament copied in Ireland, along with a dossier of texts relating to St Patrick (the Book of Armagh), was produced around 807 by Ferdomnach and other talented artist-scribes.
In Clonmacnoise, the 11th-century Annals of Tigernach and the 12th-century Lebor na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow) were produced.
The book of Kells, or Book of Iona as it probably should more likely be described, was an expensive proposition compiled with the help of purple dye imported from Afghanistan. Cellach mac Ailello, was abbot of both Kildare and Iona shortlay after the book was compiled.
It is the Book of Kells that we tend to use when we try to imagine what Kildare’s book, or collection of books, must have been like, if it was to be described as the work of men, and not of angels.
Cell Dara was described as Cride Hérenn: The Heart of Ireland, in Trecheng Breth Féne, the Triads of Ireland which were compiled form Irish sources at almost the same time Giraldus was making his tour. They also list Kildare is also listed as one of Trí clochraid Hérenn: the three stone-buildings of Ireland, an important place indeed.
We have no manuscripts from Kildare – although Bishop Find of Kildare (d. 1160) collaborated in the production of the book of Leinster, compiled in Terryglass, Co. Tipperary.
Some might yet show up. Ancient Irish manuscripts are stashed in the great libraries of Europe and have barely been touched since a flurry of activity in at the beginning of the 20th century. Less than a tenth of them have been properly read and catalogued, a prospect less likely now that Early Irish and Latin are being dropped by our universities.
One of the most important documents from the 7th century to have survived was discovered by accident in an Italian library two years ago. A miscatalogued Book of Kildare or more likely, a contemporary account of its origin and content, might yet show up.
There is another side to this. Giraldus was essentially a propagandist. His depiction of the barbarian Irish was to justify the Norman invasion.
He outlined strategies for completing the conquest of Ireland, which he hoped to persuade King Henry, and later Richard to implement in Ireland.
He extolled the bravery of his relatives, the Geraldines, at the expense of their Cambro-Norman rivals, especially the dreaded Strongbow, and argued that the Geraldines were harassed unjustly by royal officials while other Normans were given an un fair advantage. The whole point of his trip might have been to push the Gerladines’ case.
The Geraldines were already in the business of seizing control of Kildare from the Irish Kings who had held power there fro four centuries. The Book of Kildare might, like Armagh, have had more emphasis on content than motifs.
Giraldus could have made the whole thing up. Don’t tell the AV people in the museum.
750-800 Book of Kells illuminated, possible compilation of Book of Kildare
1170 Naas Offalia granted to Maurice Fitzgerald
1175, Giraldus Cambrensis appointed archdeacon of Brecon
1185 Giraldus Cambrensis sees Book of Kildare
1188 Topography of Ireland compiled
1189 Expugnatio Hibernica compiled.
1220 Henry de Londres, archbishop of Dublin raids Kildare monastery, Book of Kildare lost for ever
A note on the illustrious ‘Book of Kildare’ by Eoghan Corry from his regular feature in the Kildare Voice. Our thanks to Eoghan.
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