Oldest known Irish manuscript to be exhibited publicly

Item will be shown for the first time in 2016 after Trinity College secures funding

The oldest known surviving Irish manuscript will be among a number of works to be exhibited publicly for the first time in 2016, after Trinity College Dublin secured funding for a major conservation project.

The Codex Usserianius Primus, or First Book of Ussher, is an incomplete copy of the four Gospels on vellum, which may have been created as early as the 5th century, several centuries earlier than the Book of Kells.

Comprising fragments of 80 pages, and named after Archbishop Ussher, the 17th century scholar, the book is unusual for, among other things, naming the thieves crucified with Jesus.

It is currently held in fragmented form in the archives of the TCD library. But after work funded from the Bank of America Merrill Lynch art conservation project, the codex will be mounted in book form.


It will then be part of a new, expanded display of manuscripts, alongside the university’s better-known treasures, the books of Kells, Durrow, and Armagh.

'Garland of Howth' Three other manuscripts will also benefit from the conservation work: the Book of Dimma, the Book of Mulling (or Moling), and the so-called Garland of Howth.

The Book of Mulling is an 8th-century pocket gospel that includes portraits of the evangelists and featuring illuminated lettering. It is named after St Moling, a bishop of Ferns who died in 697 AD, but is thought to be the work of three later scribes, who may have copied it from a book owned by the saint.

The Garland of Howth is what remains of a 9th- or 10th-century book of the Gospels (the name "garland" is a corruption of the Irish "ceithre leabhair") and is considered the work of multiple scribes, none of them first class.

It was produced at the monastery of St Nessan on Ireland’s Eye, but was long held in a parish church in Howth. Although damaged and much reduced in size, it remains highly colourful, with illuminations in orange, white, yellow, and blue pigment.

The Book of Dimma is another pocket gospel of the 8th century, associated with the Abbey of Cronan in Roscrea, Co Tipperary. Each of its gospels is signed by the scribe, Dimma MacNathi, hence the name. It too is very colourful, with red, yellow, blue, and black pigments.

According to legend, MacNathi was commanded by Cronan to produce the book in a single day. He worked unceasingly and without food until it was finished, by which time the sun had still not set. But

, as the legend adds, 40 days had passed in the book’s making. The continuous sunshine was a miracle.

The TCD conservation project will take somewhat longer than 40 days: about two years according to the library’s keeper (conservation), Susie Bioletti. It will involve technical examination of the pigments and parchment, conservation treatment, digitisation, and art-historical study.

Neither Bank of America nor Trinity would put a figure on the value of the latest grant. But Ms Bioletti said it was unusual in covering the entire project, from conservation to display. It would allow to carry out “really careful, complex, and subtle” work required.

Frank McNally

Frank McNally

Frank McNally is an Irish Times journalist and chief writer of An Irish Diary