Renowned academic authority on the Book of Kells

Jennifer O’Reilly: April 28th, 1943 - February 10th, 2016

Jennifer O’Reilly: a gifted communicator, it was impossible to leave one of her lectures unmoved.

Jennifer O’Reilly: a gifted communicator, it was impossible to leave one of her lectures unmoved.

 

The Cork medieval scholar Jennifer O’Reilly, who has died aged 72, was a gifted university teacher and a renowned authority on the Book of Kells and similar treasures of antiquity.

In her long and distinguished career, she made substantial and ground-breaking contributions in the fields of history, theology, art history and manuscript studies.

In a moving eulogy, her great friend Colmán Ó Clabaigh OSB of Glenstal Abbey, compared her untimely and unexpected death to “watching a library burn” .

Describing her as “a gifted communicator”, he said it was “impossible to leave one of her lectures unmoved and without wanting to hear more. Nor was this ability confined to adult audiences: there is a wonderful picture of her and Terry teaching their eldest grandchild, Liam, to read.

Intensity

“She is gazing at the text with the same intensity with which she scrutinised the Book of Kells or the Lindisfarne Gospels. The book in this case was Bob the Builder and the Little Blue Van.”

Brother Ó Clabaigh said that it was true that she looked with wry amusement and dry wit at university politics and policies. But in the 20 years he knew her he never once heard her utter an unkind or uncharitable word about anyone.

“How to put this delicately? This is not a common virtue in Irish universities. Nor is it a common attribute of Irish monasteries so I certainly am not speaking from any position of moral authority.”

Born in the UK and educated at the Barr’s Hill School in Coventry, O’Reilly obtained her first degree in 1965 from the University of Nottingham, where she studied under the medieval historians James Holt and Bernard Hamilton and the art historian Alistair Smart. She was awarded the Diploma of Education with a distinction by Oxford. The O’Reilly family moved to Cork in 1975.

A devout woman, she had a lifelong engagement with Christianity and her great love was to study and teach the history and art of these islands in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. She played a key role in establishing the BA programme in the history of art at UCC.

In her academic research, she was particularly interested in the connections between Ireland and Britain, and the creation of an English Christian community, to which Irish missionaries made a great contribution.

Links with Rome

Her work has added significantly to the understanding of Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England in the early Middle Ages.

She also explored relationships between these islands and Rome, and indeed the eastern Mediterranean, through the visual arts and especially Insular gospel books, including the Book of Kells.

She also examined the fusion of barbarian and classical art in these works and saw the key to their puzzling iconography in scriptural exegesis.

Her contributions to scholarship were acknowledged in 2005 when she was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and again in 2007 when she became a member of the Royal Irish Academy, a distinction she shared with her husband, Terence, a former professor of Spanish at UCC.

In 2008 a two-day conference in her honour was held at the university and at Glenstal, the proceedings of which form the nucleus of the publication Listen, O Isles, Unto Me.

Fittingly, the sung music chosen for the funeral service was the Agnus Dei of William Byrd (1543-1623) , the Nunc Dimittis of Christopher Tye (1505-1573?) and the Congregational Hymn of George Herbert (1593-1633).

She is survived by her husband, Terence, and sons Michael and Thomas.