Birr Historical Society

Macregol Gospels: detail of John initial page, fol. 127r

Macregol Gospels
Detail: John Initial page, folio127r.

Macregol Gospels. Detail of Matt. Beatitudes. Fol. 6v

Macregol Gospels Detail:
Matt. Beatitudes, folio 6v.

St Brendan's Old Churchyard, perhaps the site of the early Christian monastery at Birr

Birr Old Churchyard formerly

St Brendan's Old Churchyard

Interior of the new Birr Library
where the facsimile of the
Macregol Gospels is on display

Interior of the new Birr Library

Interior of the new Birr Library


The Macregol Gospels
also known as
The Rushworth Gospels
The Book of Birr
Bodleian Manuscript D.2.19

A facsimile of the Macregol Gospels is on permanent display free of charge in the magnificently restored Pugin-designed Birr Library.

The Macregol Gospel Book is a manuscript copy of the Four Gospels made about 800 AD. It consists of 169 vellum folios (leaves) about 345mm high and 270 mm wide.

The script used is a formal one called insular majuscule or insular half-uncial and it somewhat resembles one of the hands of the Book of Kells. A translation or gloss in Old English cursive script was inserted between the lines about a thousand years ago.

Eight pages are illuminated in the style of about the eighth or ninth century AD with pigments including red lead, verdigris and orpiment probably bound with white of egg.

It is unclear how the manuscript came to be in
England but towards the end of the tenth century two clerics, Farman and Owun inserted a translation into the Old English of that time. It is therefore a valuable source for the history of the English language.

The manuscript first came to the attention of the general public after it was presented to the Bodleian Library, Oxford in 1681 by John Rushworth (c.1612-1690), Clerk-Assistant to the Long Parliament, lawyer, politician and historian.

Several writers discussed it in the belief that it originated in
England. But Charles O'Conor STD of the O'Conor Don family demonstrated by internal evidence in 1814 that the manuscript must have originated in Ireland. He pointed to two panels on the final page: 'Macregol dipinxit hoc evangelium. Quicumque legerit et intellegerit istam narrationem orat pro Macreguil scriptori.' (Macregol illuminated/coloured this gospel. Whoever reads and understands the story, pray[s] for Macregol the scribe).

O'Conor noted the Irish prefix 'Mac' and the use of the Irish genitive case in the second example of the scribe's name. He also pointed to features such as punctuation and abbreviation and to the Irish Annals which record the death of the scribe Macregol (AFM 820 AD & AU 822 AD).

Macregol's stately Latin script has been much admired and his illuminations are strong, bright and confident, if careless at times.

The Old English gloss is the second oldest version of the Gospels in any form of the English language, that in the Lindisfarne Gospels being the oldest. Farman's gloss in the Mercian dialect (Rushworth1) is especially valued by historians of English. The following in modernised alphabet and punctuation is the 'Our Father' from Matt. 6 as glossed by Farman:

Faeder ure, thu the in heofunum earth. Beo gehalgad thin noma. Cume to thin rice. Weorthe thin willa, swa swa on heofune, swilce on eorthe. Hlaf userne/ure dadgwaemlice/u/instondenlice sel us to daege. And forlete us ure scylde, swa swa we ec forleten thaem the scyldigat with us. And ne gelaet us gelaede in constungae. Ah gelese us of yfle.

In 2006, Birr Historical Society, courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford and thanks to the generosity of local people and of friends, obtained a facsimile of the Macregol Gospels to be freely on display in Birr Town Library.

Macregol Committee view the facsimile for the first time.
The Macregol Committee view the facsimile for the first time.
Left to right: Researcher Margaret Hogan, Hon. Treas. Bridget Sullivan,
President Rev. Irene Morrow, Project Co-ordinatorTeresa Ryan-Feehan

Birr Historical Society organised a conference on the manuscript which took place on 1-3 September 2006. Report of the Macregol Conference

575. Death of St. Brendan the Elder of Birr.
697. Cain Adomnain for the protection of women & children promulgated at a Synod at Birr.
822. Death of Macregol, scribe, bishop and abbot at Birr.
841. Birr plundered by the Vikings 'of the Boyne'.
C. 975. The Macregol Gospel book is in England & is being glossed in Old English by Farman & Owun at 'Hara wudu'.
1681. John Rushworth presents the manuscript to the Bodleian Library.
1705. Humphrey Wanley describes the manuscript as 'Dano-Saxon'.
1814. Rev. Charles O'Conor shows that the manuscript was made in Birr.
1911. Rev. Samuel Hemphill wrote an article on the manuscript for the PRIA..
2000. Birr Historical Society begin fundraising and organising for a facsimile of the manuscript

A facsimile copy of the Macregol Gospels is on display at the new Birr Library, courtesy of the Bodleian Library.
2006. Birr Historical Society organises a conference in Birr on the Macregol Gospel Book.

Birr Historical Society sincerely thanks all those who generously gave funds, time and encouragement in support of this project.