Psalter to go on display in 2011

 

FOUR YEARS after its sensational discovery in a midlands bog, new photographs today reveal the conservation work on the 1,200-year- old “Faddan More Psalter”.

The National Museum of Ireland has announced that the eighth century religious manuscript “of staggering importance” will go on public display for the first time next year.

The book was found in 2006 by a workman operating a mechanical digger on the bog at Faddan More, near Riverstown in north Co Tipperary.

Yesterday, the museum’s director, Dr Pat Wallace said the psalter was so rare and important it now ranks among the top 10 of the tens of thousands of objects in the national collection.

It will form the centrepiece of a permanent exhibition in a room of its own expected to open by “early summer 2011” at the museum’s Kildare Street galleries.

Dr Wallace said the discovery was “more important for Ireland than the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls” had been for biblical scholars and has changed our views about how ancient Irish manuscripts were produced.

He added: “We never thought anything like this would ever be found.”

He praised the “magical and internationally important work” undertaken by senior conservator, John Gillis.

Mr Gillis (49), who is on secondment to the museum from Trinity College Library, was “confounded” when he first saw what had been salvaged from the bog and initially “transfixed with fear” at the scale of the “once-in-a-lifetime” restoration task.

He began his work in January 2007 and described the now almost completed project as “an absolute privilege and the highlight of a career”.

He had experienced “the whole gamut of emotions from fear to joy” as he developed new techniques to restore “the first early medieval manuscript to come to light in 200 years anywhere in Europe”.

In recognition of his “incredible work”, the Heritage Council has announced that its inaugural conservation award will be given to Mr Gillis. Chief executive Michael Starrett said: “Conservation work is quite often invisible.

“People see the finished work but don’t often get a sense of the skills and labour involved in keeping our heritage objects in a good state.”

Mr Gillis recalled: “We never before had to deal with a manuscript recovered from a bog” and described its survival as “miraculous” because normally vellum “shouldn’t survive – it should gelatinise away”.

When he first saw the psalter, “it didn’t look like a book at all”. The A4-sized manuscript originally contained 60 pages of vellum, a parchment made from animal skins, which had been inscribed with “the complete text in Latin of all 150 of the Bible’s Book of Psalms”. He said “about 15 per cent has survived”.

The pages were contained in a “tanned leather cover – the early medieval equivalent of a folder” which has also survived. The vellum pages alone would have required the skins of 30 calves, he said.

Mr Gillis said further scientific research was needed to determine whether the manuscript had been produced in Ireland or overseas, but it could have come from the scriptorium of a monastery which was “up the road” from the bog in Birr, Co Offaly.

He had visited Faddan More and when he saw the vast area of peatland was “astonished they had found something so small and brown – the same colour as the bog”.

The psalter was found on the afternoon of July 20th, 2006, by Eddie Fogarty, a workman who was operating a mechanical digger.

He spotted the book in the bucket of his digger and contacted the bog’s owners, Kevin and Patrick Leonard, who gathered the fragments and covered them with wet peat before notifying the staff of the National Museum.

A specialist team that arrived at the scene discovered that the psalter had fallen open with lines from Psalm 83 clearly visible.