A history of Ireland in 100 objects


The Domhnach Airgid, circa 1350

The Domhnach Airgid – or Silver Church – is a splendid exercise in medieval retro. It is not just an antique; it is a very deliberate display of self-conscious antiquity.

One of the reasons the Anglo-Normans provided a far more potent threat to the established order in Ireland than the Vikings had ever done is that these newcomers were enormously interested in controlling the Irish church.

The reform of a supposedly decadent Irish Christianity was the key ideological justification for the Anglo-Norman invasions. This also justified the supplanting of native by foreign abbots and bishops.

Long before the coming of the Anglo-Normans, however, the Irish church was in touch with the reforming movements of European Christianity, including those in England. This was especially true of the Hiberno-Norse towns of Waterford and Dublin, whose bishop Giolla Pátraic was consecrated in 1073 by the archbishop of Westminster, whom he recognised as “primate of the Britains”.

The reorganisation of the Irish church into territorial dioceses on the continental model was likewise completed before the Anglo-Norman invasion. The great continental monastic orders were already established in Ireland, notably at the Cistercian abbey of Mellifont, founded in 1142 by monks from the mother house of Clarivaux.

Effectively, the old “Celtic” monastic Christianity was dead before Strongbow ever set foot in Ireland. The newcomers nevertheless had a huge impact on the church in Ireland. They brought – in tandem with their establishment of lordly manors – the system of parishes that has had such a profound impact on the Irish sense of belonging. They encouraged the rapid expansion of the Cistercians, Benedictines and Augustinians, as well as the introduction of new orders such as the Templars and Hospitallers.

This influx created a direct challenge to the authority of native bishops, not least when, in 1217, it was decreed that, as “the peace of Ireland has been frequently disturbed by elections of Irishmen” as bishops, none should be consecrated in future – a move denounced by the pope as an “unheard of audacity”.

Part of the fightback by the native clerical aristocracy can be seen in a rash of elaborate refurbishments of ancient sacred objects associated, especially, with the founder of the Irish church, St Patrick.

The Domhnach Airgid was made to enclose a manuscript that consists of fragments of 39 sheets of the Gospels, written in the distinctively Irish lettering of the eighth or ninth century. Traditionally, the book was claimed to be that given by St Patrick himself to his companion St Macartan, making it an object of great veneration. Oral tradition collected in Co Monaghan as late as the early 20th century claimed that the Domhnach Airgid was used in the inauguration ceremonies of the local Mac Mathghamhna kings.

Around 1350, the abbot of Clones, John O Carbry, commissioned a substantial remodelling of the Domhnach Airgid. It brings the ancient relic up to date, with figurative depictions of Jesus, Mary and various saints. It fuses contemporary feudal ideals (Christ enthroned as king) with an insistence on the validity of indigenous traditions: the veneration of Patrick and an early depiction of St Bridget. Already, an object from the distant Irish past is being used to make a contemporary political point.

Where to see it National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Kildare Street, Dublin 2, 01-6777444, museum.ie