Medieval manuscript returns to St Kierans

Last Friday, amidst great excitement, a very rare late medieval illuminated manuscript, which disappeared without apparent trace more than forty years ago was returned to its rightful owners, St. Kieran’s College.

Last Friday, amidst great excitement, a very rare late medieval illuminated manuscript, which disappeared without apparent trace more than forty years ago was returned to its rightful owners, St. Kieran’s College.

The Consultant College Archivist, Mr John Kirwan, acting on instructions from Monsignor Kieron Kennedy, the College president, proceeded to Dublin to collect the ‘lost’ manuscript from the National Library of Ireland, where it had been found after a year long search amongst its holdings.

This late medieval manuscript which is approaching its 600th birthday is one of a bare handful of devotional books which survives from an Irish context, in the country. It gives us a rare insight into late medieval piety, which period in Ireland lasted about 1100 to 1500 AD. The manuscript also has post Reformation additions which event occurred in Ireland in the 1530s. Thus we get an even rarer insight into the devotional practices of the clergy and laiety of Ossory during a very troubled period of our history – a period which saw much civil and religious change.

The search began in the Summer of 2010, when a letter from 1966 was found amongst a set of files in the College. This had been written by a senior staff member of the National Library of Ireland, to the late John, Canon Holohan, then President of St. Kieran’s College. Piecemeal over the year the story unfolded with phonecalls and correspondence from the College. In the 1970s, the manuscript had been found in the safe of the National Library without any of its pertinent documentation. Subsequently, the manuscript was “miscatalogued” into the Library’s holdings.

The illuminated manuscript, which consists of a lectionary or commentary on the Four Gospels, and a calendar of Feastdays, was originally compiled in the fifteenth century for use in a church inter Anglos, that is a church in an English milieu. This was possibly in England, or as is more likely in areas of English influence, such as the Irish Pale or Kilkenny, or indeed from the Pale lands adjacent to Calais, in northern France, which the English Crown finally lost during the reign of Queen Mary (1553-58). By the early 1570s the manuscript had definitely arrived in Ossory.

The scriptorium, or workshop of highly trained calligraphers, who were generally monks from one of the many monastic institutions, which produced this magnificent manuscript was subject to extensive English influence. In style it is not unlike many French liturgical books of the 14th and 15th centuries. A lectionary of this kind was intended for the use of a lector, or reader, during the communal recital of office which suggests that there was a functioning chapter in Ossory in the late sixteenth century. The monks as well as being expert calligraphers would have had extensive knowledge of the preparation of calf skins for the production of vellum upon which to write and dyes for inks by which to write. The writing instruments, generally quills from fowl, had to be sourced locally.

The calendar, which lists a large number of English saints is in a fifteenth-century hand. Most remarkably, the calendar has a number of Irish saints including Malachy, Fintan, Colman and Senan interpolated individually at the dates of their feastdays, in addition to the saints of the universal church. These interpolations, or additions, are in a sixteenth-century hand.

The 1570 addition or comment which definitely links the manuscript to Kilkenny and Ossory, is the obit or death notice on page two-hundred-and-thirteen, of the Rev. Nicholas Power, a sub-deacon of Ossory. In 1545, the Rev. Nicholas, became vicar or parish priest of Kilmocar, to which living he had been presented by the English crown, in the person of Henry VIII. In the wake of the latter’s divorce from his first queen, the pious and very Catholic, Katherine of Aragon, Henry assumed the headship of the English church in his dominions, which was still in all its essentials Catholic. The Protestant ‘reforms’ which changed the nature of the English and Irish state churches, only came in the reign of his successor, the boy-king, Edward VI (1547-53), his only son by his third wife, Jane Seymour who had died within days of his birth in October 1537. Incidentially, James Butler, 9th. Earl of Ormond of Kilkenny Castle, who was to die of food poisoning in 1546, had a prominent role in the baptism of this Prince of Wales. James most likely had a say in the appointment of the Rev. Nicholas Power as vicar of Kilmocar, which event occurred in 1545.

The manuscript is a very large one, originally almost five hundred pages and involved many hours of dedicated handwork, thus its production was a costly undertaking which could only be afforded by a wealthy institution or individual. The first eleven pages which are loose, are incredibly fragile. Some pages are missing at the end. The cover, which is of decorated leather, is believed to be the original and has been dated to c. 1450-70, by the former head of conservation in Trinity College, Mr. Tony Cairns.

The manuscript was presented to St. Kieran’s College by the Rev. J.F. Shearman of Howth, Co. Dublin, in the 1880s. Fr. Shearman, who had very old ancestral links with Kilkenny, had great affection for the College, city and county. Many of the older people of Kilkenny will recall Shearmans who had various businesses in Kilkenny city. The family also married into the farming community, notably at Redbog near Gowran.

Now this very rare treasure is back in St. Kieran’s College, where it joins another fifteenth century manuscript, which contains devotions and prayers, some in Latin and some translated into English, produced in response to a commission from a specific wealthy and no doubt high-born customer.

Books of this kind constitute the essential source for studying late medieval piety in its widest context, as well as giving us examples of the skills of 15th. century book producers. The newly found Lectionary suggests that a scriptorium may also have existed in Ossory as late as the 1570s.