Sunday, 16 December 2012

Liturgical Fragments from the Early Celtic Church III: The Book of Dimma

Below is a third paper in the series on Liturgical Fragments of the Early Irish Church, which looks at the history of The Book of Dimma.  The Book of Dimma is basically an Irish 'pocket gospel' but also includes an order for the Visitation of the Sick. The article includes the Latin text for this rite, but for reasons of space I have not reprinted it, nor have I included the footnotes. The author mentions in passing how the rites of unction developed in the Western church, which is somewhat different from the Eastern understanding, where unction is not reserved exclusively for the dying. One final caveat, the writer adopts a somewhat defensive tone in places and doesn't miss an opportunity to score a few points!



THE stranger who visits Dublin, for the first time, will not fail to remark the many signs of decay that present themselves. Streets without people, and quays without ships ; houses tenantless, and mansions of an older and better time that own their lords no longer all tell the same tale. Compared with the gay capitals of Europe, the old city by the Liffey contrasts unfavourably ; and there is a danger that our traveller, disappointed by first appearances, will not tarry to inquire if there be aught worthy of engaging his attention, or capable of repaying the trouble of his visit. It is to be feared to put it in fewer and plainer words that few comparatively of those who visit our capital ever think of visiting its museums and libraries; and yet museums and libraries there are, of which Dublin and Ireland may well feel proud. If indications of prosperity and wealth are lacking outside, within those walls there are treasures beyond price heirlooms which any nation might envy, and the like of which no other nation can show.

There was a time nor was it so long ago when the claims of this country to an early civilization were treated with contempt or with ridicule ; and writer after writer, from Cambrensis to Pinkerton, asked where were the proofs and remains of that civilization, if it ever had existed. O'Curry and Petrie, and O'Donovan men to whose genuine patriotism and vast though loving labours their country must ever be a debtor took up the taunt some sixty years ago; and, in the presence of the magnificent collections of the Royal Irish Academy and of Trinity College, it will never again be possible to question Ireland's claim to a civilization that was both very advanced and very ancient. They answer every question, and hush the taunts into shame. These collections are known throughout the world ; and it is no rare thing to meet in either of our great national museums, savants from distant lands examining, with surprise and delight, the beautiful and various works of early Irish art a jewelled shrine, or an illuminated manuscript;  a Tara Brooch, or a Cross of Cong.

Roughly speaking, they may be classed (a) Works in Metal ; and (b) Transcription and Illumination. As an illustration of the first we may take what has come to be known as the Tara Brooch ; and of it we find a hostile critic saying, that " it was more like the work of fairies than of human beings." A writer, no less unfriendly, writes of one of what were called the Books of Erinn:"The more intently I examined them, the more was I filled with fresh wonder and amazement. Neither could Appelles do the like; indeed mortal hand seemed incapable of forming them."

This, however, is a digression ; for our subject now is one of those Books of Erinn, and not the evidences of Ireland's early civilization. Of such books there were a great number. With pardonable pride Oengus refers to them as "the countless hosts of the illuminated Books of Erinn;" and Miss Stokes mentions that up to the irruptions of the Danes, every church of any note had a reliquary and a copy of the Gospels, together with a shrine or " cumdach," in which the sacred book was inclosed ; the shrines themselves being made of some precious metal, generally highly-wrought and ornamented with precious stones. Many of the books referred to are not now known to exist, and are probably lost for ever. Happily, however, a few still remain. The Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow, both of the sixth century, and the MS. in the Domhnach Airgid, as old even as the age of St. Patrick, are among them.

A book of the same kind, which is not, perhaps, so well known, but which is, nevertheless, a most interesting and valuable relic, and not without features of interest peculiar to itself, is that, the name of which I have placed at the head of this Paper. A manuscript written more than twelve hundred years ago must have an interest for all; written in the old abbey, beneath whose shadow I write, it naturally has an especial interest for us here, and it will be a great pleasure if I can show that, like Armagh, and Durrow, and Kells, Roscrea can lay claim to one of those venerable and priceless heirlooms, which have now become the treasure of a nation, and in which every Irish scholar must take a just pride.

Writers who treat of the Book of Dimma, lay it down as very probable that the book now in Trinity College Library is the same as that mentioned in connexion with St. Cronan, of Roscrea. I hope to be able to show that there can be no reasonable doubt on this head. But apart from that question it is hardly necessary to premise it is beyond all doubt an object of the greatest interest and value, as well as of unquestioned antiquity. What is the Book of Dimma, as found in Trinity College, and how did it come there? Then, what is known of Dimma's Book, written in Roscrea Abbey for St. Cronan? And, finally, what are the reasons to believe that they are one and the same?

I. The Book of Dimma, which any visitor can see in Trinity College Library, is an illuminated MS., inclosed in the usual case or shrine. The MS. consists of a copy of the Four Gospels, and an Office for the Visitation of the Sick and forms a small quarto of seventy-four leaves. It is written in Latin, but in pure Irish character; and, in this respect it is, perhaps, the very oldest MS. extant. The reverence shown to the sacred writings is proved by the costly shrines made to inclose them, and hence the Cumdachs of our ancient MSS. divide our attention with the MSS. themselves. The box in this instance is of brass, and part, at least, of it is of the same date as its contents ; there have been, however, several repairs. It is open at one end to admit the book, is silver-plated, and ornamented with a crystal and eight pieces of lapis lazuli. It was repaired in the twelfth century, by O'Carrol, Lord of Ely, and again by Donald O'Cuanain, Coadjutor Bishop of Killaloe, in 1230 A.D.

At the bottom there is a representation of the Passion, with the two Marys, and the following inscription beneath:

" Tatheus O'Kearbuill Beideev Meipsum
Deauravit Dominus Domnaldus Ocuanain
Converbius Ultimo Meipsum restauravit
:Tomas Ceard Dachorig in Minsha."

Petrie, in his Christian Inscriptions, edited by Miss Stokes, refers as follows to it :

"The manuscript and box were preserved in the Abbey of Roscrea till the dissolution of monasteries, when it disappeared. It was found, in the year 1789, among the rocks of the Devil's Bit Mountain, in the Co. Tipperary, carefully concealed and perfectly preserved. ... It then came into the possession of Dr. Harrison of Nenagh, from whom it was purchased by Mr. Monk Mason, who afterwards sold it to Sir William Betham. Then it was purchased by the Rev. Dr. Todd, for Trinity College, in the library of which it is now deposited."

Sir William Betham, in his Irish Antiquarian Researches, gives a somewhat similar account of it; and reference is also made to it in O'Curry's Manuscript Materials, as well as in the National MSS. of Ireland. It is, we think, the last-mentioned glorious work that traces it one or two steps further, by saying that the Mr. Harrison got the MS. from a Father Meagher, of Birr, who, in turn, received it from a priest in Roscrea. While in the hands of Mr. Mason it was exhibited to the Society of Antiquaries of London. He afterwards exhibited it at the Royal Irish Academy, with a Paper, afterwards published in its Transactions. The Paper was headed: A Description of a rich and ancient Box, containing a Latin copy of the Gospels, which was found in a Mountain in the Co. Tipperary.'

So far about the MS. now in Trinity College.

II. St. Cronan, founder of the Abbey of Roscrea, lived in the later part of the sixth and beginning of the seventh century, the probable date of his death being A.D. 620. One of the most notable events, mentioned in his Lives, is his asking a famous scribe named Dhimma, or Dimma, to write for him a copy of the Gospels. The scribe could afford but one day for the Saint's work, but St. Cronan, "by divine grace and power," caused the rays of the sun to shine forty days and forty nights, Dimma writing on the while, without feeling the want of rest or food till his work was completed...

Whatever may be thought of this legend and it is not at all, for our purpose, to be insisted on the fact itself, to which the old chroniclers, after their custom, append it, is authentic, and indubitable. Many would entirely eschew, as unworthy of attention, the whole body of such legends; but most of us would be disposed to concur in the opinion of one who was of such matters the most competent of critics, in recent times : viz., " that in doing so we would be only depriving ourselves of the intimate knowledge of the social, political, and religious state of society obtained through the medium of this most valuable class of Irish writings." And if we do not insist on their acceptance, it should be also observed, it is nowise in deference to the views of that modern school of criticism, which leaves no room for the supernatural; which is shocked at nothing so much as the appearance of the finger of God in the affairs of men, and whose creed, with some slight alteration, may be expressed

" A part du Roi defense a Dieu
De faire miracle en ce lieu."

III. As before stated, the value of the MS. preserved in Trinity College in no way depends on its identification with the copy of the Gospels written by the scribe just referred to: of their identity, however, we think there can be no doubt, for the following, among other, reasons:

(a) The matter in each case is the same. Dhimma wrote for St. Cronan the four Gospels : and the Book of Dhimma that is extant consists of the four Gospels, with the addition of a Visitatio Infirmorumwhich, however, there is reason to believe, may be of later date. In Irish MSS., and books, different styles of writing are often met with.

(b) The name coincides. In both cases it is Dhimma, or Dimma. But more than this. The writer of the extant MS. subscribes himself "Dimma Mac Nathi." Now, of the many persons of this name " Dimma," it would appear it was the Dimma Mac Nathi that was St. Cronan's scribe ; for the saint is said to have been a grandson of Nathi, and, at the same time, a relative of Dimma, who was son of Nathi-Mac Nathi.

(c) The place is the same. There are many persons of the name Dimma; but one of the most remarkable was Dimma, a scribe of Helm or Ely 0' Carrol. The writer, then, of the MS. in question was a native of Ely O'Carrol ; in the same place it was written, and in the same place we find it preserved, and traced from hand to hand, until we find it in its present secure abode. This is, I think, the most important link in the evidence of identification, in presence of which there can be no reasonable doubt that the venerable Book of Dimma, which is one of the richest treasures of our national collections is the same which was written circa 600 A.D. in the Abbey of Roscrea. The only difficulty against this thesis, of which we are aware, arises from an inscription, at the end of the Gospel of St. Luke, in which prayers are asked for Dimman of Dissidu who wrote (or for whom was written) the book. As there is a difference of opinion as to the exact meaning of the words, we will not delay further to consider it. It may be a confusion of two names that were so similar, or that part of the book the Gospel of St. Luke was dedicated to the person indicated, Dimman Dissidu.

Coming to the contents of the MS. the reader will agree with Sir William Betham, that the most interesting and curious part of it is the Office for the Visitation of the Sick ; and we will, therefore, give the exact copy of it, as it is found in his Researches:

[Please consult the original volume for this Latin text]

The reader will not fail to notice, in this most interesting old Order, that mention is made of the two sacraments which are still administered to the sick Extreme Unction and the Viaticum. The order, however, of their reception is reversed, for this was pretty generally the custom, for many ages in the Church. "Antiquitus," says Lehmkuhl, quoting from Ben. XIV., " Extrema Unctio ante Sacrum Viaticum administrabatur; nunc vero quum praxis et ordinatio Ritualis contraria sit, sine rationabili causa id non est faciendum." The reason for the change, to the order as at present in the Roman Ritual is, theologians tell us," the importance of receiving the Viaticum while the mind is clear." Till the publication of the Ritual of Paul V., in 1614, there was, in fact, a great variety in the names as well as in the matter of such books, and each diocese was practically free to adopt its own. According to the circumstances of time or country such books were called Ritual, Manuale, Pastorale Sacerdotale, Agenda Institutio Sacramentale, Baptizandi, and the like. It would also appear that the MS., including Gospels and Ordo was meant to be a manual for the priest in the discharge of his duties ; "and in this respect," observes Sir W. Betham, "it is perhaps the oldest Irish MS."

In conclusion, a few words on the first portion of the MS. There are four pictures, or illustrations, of Matthew, Mark, Luke, before their Gospels, and that of an eagle before that of St. John ; but, though we would not, perhaps, be justified in claiming for either illumination or pictures any high degree of artistic merit, we cannot fail to observe in both the peculiar features of the early Irish school in this branch of art, for the design is everywhere as bold and fantastic as the tracery is intricate. It need hardly be noted for it is too obvious how fervent was the zeal of the saints of the early Church in Ireland to multiply copies of the Gospels. Of one it is said that he copied no less than three hundred copies, and made as many croziers and as many shrines. In the first, we presume, some modern critics and historians would find an argument for the undying hatred of the Church for the Scriptures ; and in the remaining work, a proof, just as convincing, of the indolence and ignorance that reigned supreme within the walls of the monasteries.

In the Manuscript Materials O'Curry points out some slight but curious differences from the reading in the Vulgate, as also from the Book of St. Moling attributed to a later part of the same seventh century, At the end of the Gospel of St. Matthew is the inscription: "Finit. A prayer for Dimma who wrote (this) for God; and a benediction." At the end of St. Mark: "Finit, amen, deo gratias ago," and in Irish, "Pray for Dimma." The inscription after the first Gospel is also in Irish. At the end of Luke: Finit, amen ; deo gratias ago," and some Irish, of which there are various readings. At the end of the last Gospel, is written in Irish characters:

Finit. Amen Dimma mac Nathi.

Then follow two lines of verse in Irish " the oldest piece of pure Gaedhilic writing, perhaps, in existence," says O'Curry "in which the Scribe hopes to escape " venomous criticism" and to come to a reward for his labours. With those lines he concludes his book. With a translation of them, by the learned writer just mentioned, and with same hopes as the scribe, we will conclude this rather lengthened notice of it:

"I beseech for me, as the price of my labour
(In the following chapters without mistake),
That I be not venomously criticized,
And the residence of the Heavens."


Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol 11, (1890), 325-334

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