Birr Historical Society

Macregol Conference
1-3 September 2006

At last, Birr Historical Society had obtained the facsimile of the Macregol Gospel Book or Book of Birr or Rushworth Gospels and by an astonishing coincidence only a few weeks previously the ninth century vellum Psalter found in Faddan More Bog only a few miles away and in Birr parish had been reported worldwide as a unique sensation. So there was an air of excitement in the County Arms Hotel, Birr as the Macregol Conference opened on 1 September 2006.

 Rev. Irene Morrow, President of Birr Historical Society welcomed the large gathering and introduced Amanda Pedlow, Co Offaly Heritage Officer who complimented Birr Historical Society on their hard work in acquiring the facsimile and organising this conference which was taking place during Heritage Week 2006. Then she declared the conference officially open.

The manuscript

The context of the manuscript

Making the facsimile

Faddan More Psalter find

The manuscript
Macregol Conference lectures, 1-3 Sept. 2006

The conference took off with an illustrated overview of the Macregol Gospel book by Margaret Hogan who described the manuscript and outlined its history. About 1681 John Rushworth presented it to the Bodleian Library where it was known as the Rushworth Gospels and presumed to be of Anglo-Saxon origin till traced to Ireland, Birr and its abbot Macregol by Rev. Charles O'Conor in 1814. She explained why Farman's translation of Matthew in the Mercian dialect of Old English is important for the history of Modern Standard English and amongst her slides was an image of the newly found Faddenmore Psalter accompanied by the Latin text of Psalm 83/84 highlighted beneath. The Macregol manuscript is now the subject of ongoing research by scholars of language, art, scripture and history and the facsimile in Birr will facilitate further investigations.

 Jennifer O'Reilly of UCC dealt with the iconography of early Christian insular art. Christ, though seldom depicted, is absolutely central to the art of the period. The great ideas of Christianity somehow arrived in these islands and eventually took firm root. Pilgrims brought loose drawings of Mediterranean architecture, sculpture and painting in an artistic style which was alien here but was reproduced in the native mode. The style of the Macregol Gospel book is more 'primitive' and shows less Mediterranean influence than that of the earlier Lindisfarne Gospels, for instance. The Four Creatures found in Macregol as in many insular gospel books derive ultimately from Ezechiel, later correspond to the four evangelists, but a deeper reading links these symbols to the ideas of the Fathers of the Church associating them with Christ: the Man/Incarnation, the Calf/Passion, the Lion/Resurrection and the Eagle/Ascension.

Carol Farr's title was 'The Word and the World'. As an academic, she places Macregol's illuminated pages in the context of wider European influences and she dovetailed well with Jennifer O’Reilly's presentation. She illustrated her lecture with images from sources as diverse as Roman sarcophagi, the Godescalc Evangelistary, the Barberini Gospels, the Lindisfarne Gospels of course, and an Anglo-Saxon silver penny. The first four of the framed panels on the final page just above Macregol's colophon contain hexameters composed by Juvencus in the fourth century referring to the four evangelists. She discussed at length the problems involved in interpreting the human figures in the illuminated pages and reminded us how Macregol might have needed to assert his monastery's authority at a time of violence and escalating power play.

 Timothy O'Neill, author on Calligraphy and himself a practitioner, described a vellum manuscript in basic terms as 'a wooden sandwich with a leather filling'. The great religions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity all depend on books and Christianity brought books to Ireland – all hand-written until the development of printing about fifteen hundred years ago. Judging by Macregol's insular majuscule script and illumination, Timothy considered him to be a vigorous, extravert and confident character. The scribes of the Book of Kells might be described as more restrained. How long might it have taken Macregol to write a page of his book? Timothy thought ruling a vellum page might take five to ten minutes and the script might take about three quarters of an hour. It is less easy to say how long an illuminated page would take. Such expertise took years to achieve and required constant practice.

  The context of the Macregol manuscript
Macregol Conference lectures, 1-3 Sept. 2006

Maire Herbert of UCC summarised recent research on the lives of early Irish saints, including the Slieve Bloom group. Many of the sources are fifteenth century but believed to be copied from ninth century material. The concepts of peregrinatio and stabilitas featured. Several saints left their native Kerry, Cork or Waterford on peregrinatio or pilgrimage from their own people to found monasteries in the Midlands; they might have been taught by Welshmen in Ireland and either gone or dreamt of going to Rome. Stabilitas on the other hand meant that they would find a special place where they would stay put to await their resurrection. Fascinating aspects of social history emerged from the lives of local saints such as Ciaran of Saighir, Finan Cam of Kinnitty, Mo Chuda of Rahan, Colman of Lynally and Cainneach of Ossory amongst others.

 Caimin O'Brien, author, archaeologist and a native of Birr has made a special study of the monastic sites of Co Offaly. He addressed the problem of locating the site of St Brendan's monastery, in view of the multi-period medieval church ruins and the multi-layered landscape that is modern Birr. His illustrations of maps and of the results of archaeological techniques such as aerial photography and geophysical exploration showed that the typical Offaly monastery was D-shaped with a semi-circular enclosure bounded on one side by a river or marsh. Most also were near territorial boundaries or main roads. That pattern fits Clonmacnoise, Durrow, Rahan, Leamonaghan and Seir Kieran. In many cases the Anglo-Normans later built a motte nearby. The juxtaposition at Birr of Birr Castle near the site of a former motte, St Brendan's Well, St Brendan's Old Churchyard and the nearby Camcor River seems to point to the location of the monastery in the area near the medieval church and the castle.

 Daibhi O'Croinin of NUIG researches medieval Irish texts abroad and finds interesting accounts and varied attitudes to Irish wandering scholars, many of whom brought manuscripts with them to the Continent and left them behind. Amongst the largest collections are those at St Gallen and Wurzburg. In his Life of Charlemagne, Nokter recounted how Irish monks impressed the emperor with their wisdom and learning and were invited to set up prestigious schools. Erudition could be one's passport: six men interrogated at Holyhead were given a passage in Greek to translate as proof of their claim to be Irish monks. So, a great reputation was built up and inevitably led to jealousy and even to false accusations - but Boniface's sensational complaints met with a cool reception from the Pope. 

 Mairin Ni Dhonnchadha placed ninth century Birr in a geographical and historical context. In the time of Macregol it was near the borders of Munster, the Southern Ui Neill and near the Osraige. It was convenient to the Sli Dhala, to the spurs leading off it and to the important highway of the River Shannon. So the area was seen as progressive and Birr was  the chosen venue for major synods such as Cain Adomnain in 697 to which Adomnan of Iona was able to attract over ninety powerful guarantors. The exact location of Moylena and whether it is a place (as in the Synod of Moylena) or an area (as in the Plain of Moylena) or both came up for discussion. Clues, more or less accepted, have pointed to a place in Firceall, usually north of Kilcormac. But a very large enclosure called Fortmoylena lies just outside Birr and in the territory of Firceall. And Macregol is described as grandson of Maglena in the Annals. Mairin considered it necessary to take a fresh look at this coincidence.

The making of the facsimile
Macregol Conference lectures, 1-3 Sept. 2006

Birr Historical Society delegated the task of ordering the facsimile to four: Rev. Irene Morrow (President), Margaret Hogan (Researcher), Teresa Ryan-Feehan (Coordinator) and Bridget Sullivan (Treasurer).

Teresa Ryan-Feehan told the conference how the facsimile came about. She had lived abroad including in London and the Middle East and on her return to Birr attended a lecture on the Book of Birr given by Margaret Hogan her former teacher in 2000. She there and then proposed a facsimile and travelled to Oxford with her fiance Joseph Feehan where they met Dr. Bruce Barker-Benfield, Senior Assistant Librarian at the Bodleian Library and viewed the manuscript together. She reported back to Birr Historical Society and in March 2001 the society formally accepted the offer of the Trustees of the Bodleian Library to have a one-only exhibition copy of the Macregol Gospels made for Birr to be displayed to the public free of charge. Teresa was Project Coordinator of the team of four which undertook the challenging task of fundraising and of ordering the facsimile on behalf of Birr Historical Society. Sadly, Joseph Feehan, like herself a native of Birr, did not live to see the fruits of all the hard work - she and Joseph married and had a son Simon, but Joseph was killed in a tragic accident. Teresa noted that the people involved in the actual production of the facsimile: the photography, printing and binding, were now together in Birr and meeting each other for the first time.

 James Allan, Head of Imaging Services at the Bodleian Library, Oxford outlined the history and functions of the Imaging Services. They are customer driven and provide analogue and digital images of the library’s holdings. They are working on the development of a digital library for the web which would involve uploading about 100,000 images online quite soon. A medieval manuscript like the Macregol Gospel book poses problems for the photographer because the book cannot be taken apart and the vellum is likely to be cockled. The manuscript was first previewed and the condition of the binding, vellum, text and illumination noted prior to digitization. Then the book was tightly bound in a Grazer cradle which has a device capable of sucking back the pages to keep them flat for scanning. After the shots were taken at a high resolution, a full set of images on TIFF files was transferred to an electronic archive for permanent storage and another set burned to CDs and sent to Diarmuid Guinan, Brosna Press, Ferbane, Co. Offaly for printing.

 Diarmuid Guinan of Brosna Press, Ferbane said how glad he was to have been involved with the facsimile project. It was an immense challenge, not the firm ' s core business by any means, the labour commitment being very great but the ' shelf-life ' would be long, the work was for posterity. From the Bodleian Library he received 59 CDs with 344 images of about 100 Mb each. He had crucial decisions to make and revise frequently in consultation with the Project Committee and fortunately there were advances in the printing process during the project. In an illustrated presentation he showed how images needed to be edited and adjusted to suit variations between different monitors, printers, inks and papers, the major objective being to achieve colour accuracy. Towards the end he worked in conjunction with conservation bookbinder Tony Cains and it was agreed that the facsimile needed to be bound in two volumes. In sum it was a complex experience but certainly a rewarding and a learning one.

 Tony Cains, a professional conservation bookbinder, received many compliments on the amazing standard of the Macregol binding. It was just as well he brought some of the tools of his craft to the conference because people were curious as to ' how he did it ' . For the Macregol project he studied the Book of Armagh which has the oldest surviving Irish manuscript binding . The original leather cover , though now faded, was terracotta colour and he used it as a reference point. Slides demonstrated how he put the pages on a frame to sew and how he laced in the binding boards using a technique dating back to the sixteenth century. He advised that the book should be treated carefully and kept in a controlled atmosphere.

 In reply to several questions, the facsimile group succeeded in giving straightforward, comprehensible answers, even when describing complex technical procedures.

The Faddan More Psalter find
Macregol Conference lectures, 1-3 Sept. 2006

There was a buzz of excitement in Dooly's Hotel at the news that Patrick Wallace, Director of the National Museum of Ireland and Bernard Meehan, Keeper of Manuscripts at Trinity College, Dublin were in attendance and willing to address the conference about the Faddan More Psalter, recently found in Birr parish and only five miles from the town.

 Patrick Wallace told us he was 'dignifying our area and our conference' in using this occasion as his first public discussion of the sensational find. He sincerely complimented finders Eddie Fogarty and Kevin and Patrick Leonard for 'knowing exactly what to do' at first and declared he was only now recovering from the shock of this most unexpected discovery. A body of experts from Ireland and abroad had been assembled to deal with a unique situation, with what looked like 'a very large platter of lasagne' in wet cold storage. Archaeology Ireland would feature an illustrated supplement in October and in time there would be an RTE/BBC documentary. He believed the manuscript consisted of about one hundred pages and contained significant decoration. It was Raghnall O'Floinn who first recognised the words of Psalm 83/84 and it was only a coincidence that this was the page turned over by the digger. It concerned the 'valley of tears' but it 'took Tipperary' to get the media into a twist over the fundamentalist misinterpretation which was reported worldwide.

 Bernard Meehan told us how he was at home 'three weeks ago' when he received a telephone call to say he was wanted urgently at the National Museum. Security problem? A discovery? A chalice or other metalwork or stone object? But a manuscript? In a bog? He never dreamt of such a find and was now still in a state of shock. When the trolley was wheeled in at Collins Barracks Conservation Area he didnt recognise at first that what he saw was a book - there were lumps of turf and it was hard to focus. At this preliminary stage he judged the manuscript to be Irish, conceived on a large scale, large script, few abbreviations and at least three decorated initials but it will not be easy to revert the find to book form. No other Psalters from that period have been found and the form of the binding is very exciting as the only other one to survive so far is that of the Book of Armagh. Preservation work and scientific analysis is ongoing and at this stage every day brings new excitement.