The Cathach / The Psalter of St Columba
RIA MS 12 R 33 c. A.D. 560-600 Vellum: 27cm x 19cm 58 leaves (original c. 110 leaves)
The Cathach is the oldest extant Irish manuscript of the Psalter. It may also be the earliest example of the form of Irish writing known as insular majuscule script. The surviving portion of the manuscript contains a Vulgate version of Psalms XXX (10) to CV (13) with an interpretative rubric or heading before each psalm. It is written in Latin.
It is traditionally ascribed to St Columba (Colum Cille) as the copy, made at night in haste by a miraculous light, of a Psalter lent to Columba by St Finnian. A dispute arose about the ownership of the copy and King Diarmait Mac Cerbhaill gave the judgment ‘To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy’. The arbitration failed and the controversy led to the battle of Cúl Dreimne in AD 561, where an alliance of northern septs defeated King Diarmait. St Columba left Ireland and went to Iona in AD 563, perhaps exiled as punishment for the lives lost in the battle. It is possible to date the manuscript to the late 6th or early 7th century from the script, but modern historical scholarship has cast doubts on St Columba's authorship.
The story of the circumstances in which St Columba’s manuscript was produced was written down in the early sixteenth century by Manus O’Donnell, in his new life of the saint who was patron of his kin group (O’Kelleher & Schoepperle, 1918; Lacey, 1998). The story is sometimes cited as the earliest example of copyright, but it reflects attitudes to manuscript ownership in the sixteenth rather than the sixth century.
The script, in the hand of a single scribe, is early majuscule with ornamental capitals, some of which are in red and, like the red in the lettering for the rubrics, the colour has faded. The beginning of each new psalm is indicated by an ornamental capital. The framework of the capitals is often outlined by a series of scarlet dots and the decoration consists mostly of spirals and animal heads. The capitals do not stand out from the text but are drawn in by a series of letters of diminishing size (Herity & Breen, 2002).
Between 1062 and 1098 a special cumdach or shrine was made to protect the vellum manuscript, which may already have become fragmentary (Ó Floinn, 1995; 1997; Ó Cróinín, 2009). In the later Middle Ages the Psalter was in the possession of the O’Donnells but in the custody of the Mac Robhartaigh family at Ballymagroarty, Co. Donegal. It became known as the Cathach’ or ‘Battler’ from the O’Donnell practice of carrying it thrice right-hand-wise around the field of battle as a talisman.
The Cathach was taken to France in 1691 by Colonel Daniel O’Donnell (1665–1735) of Ramelton. In 1723 he had the book-shrine refurbished and added an inscription to that effect. He also had the O’Donnell arms engraved on the front of the shrine. Before his death, the Colonel is said to have deposited it in an Irish monastery in Flanders being unable to identify the rightful owner. It was brought back to Ireland by Sir Capel Molyneux and given to Sir Neal O'Donel of Newport, Co. Mayo, either in 1802 or 1813 (Herity, 2000). The manuscript was re-discovered inside the shrine in 1813 when the cumdach was opened by Sir William Betham. The book-shrine, with the vellum manuscript inside, was deposited in the Academy by Sir Richard O'Donel in 1843.
The leaves when taken from the casket were caked together and cockled. In 1920, in the British Museum bindery, the leaves were separated and mounted in paper frames and the butt joints were overlaid with white net. In 1980–1 more elaborate repair and rebinding work was carried out by Roger Powell and his assistant, Dorothy Cumpstey, at a cost of Stg£6,150 for the repair and Stg£250 for the case. The paper mounting, from which the vellum leaves had come adrift, was replaced by new vellum mounts specially stained to match the colour of the original leaves. Pieces of degreased fish skin were used for joining butted edges in the vellum mounts. The leaves, assembled in sections, were sewn within a zig-zag of hand-made paper onto cords and bound in English oak boards. The spine was covered in white alum-tawed pigskin. To keep the vellum under pressure and to prevent cockling, the rebound manuscript was put into a special box designed by David Powell and made by George Taylor in Edward Barnsley's workshop.
The Cathach was published in CD-ROM format by the Academy in 2002.
Each vellum page of the Cathach has been digitized for the Irish Script on Screen project for publication online in 2021, believed to be the 1500th anniversary of the birth of St Columba.
The late 11th-century shrine (cumdach) of the Cathach, made by Sitric of Kells, Co. Meath to the order of Cathbarr O’Donnell, may be seen in the National Museum of Ireland, having been transferred there from the Royal Irish Academy in the 1930s.
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