Friday, 29 June 2012

The Termon of Durrow - I

Below is part one of a paper on the Columban monastic site of Durrow delivered to the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland in 1898 by an Anglican clergyman. As is always the case with material of this age, the antiquarian speculations of the author have been superceded by the findings of more recent scholarship, but the paper nevertheless brings together a lot of interesting lore. The author gives a useful summary of the major relics associated with the monastery of Durrow, namely the Book of Durrow and the Durrow Crozier. His account of the tendency to dunk priceless hand-written books in water in the belief that they could not be damaged is a wonderful testimony to faith, although I suspect that modern archaeologists would be relieved that this practice has now died out!



[Read MARCH 29, 1898.]


''IF you really intend to go deeply into the question of Celtic Antiquities'' (said Professor Max Muller),"it is to Ireland you must go" ; and I think I may be justified in saying that even in Ireland we could hardly find a more favourable field for study than the county in which I now reside, since, amongst many others, it presents such fields for inquiry as Clonmacnoise, Rahin, Tihilly, and Durrow.

On a previous occasion I read a Paper on " The Old Churchyards of Durrow Parish," and I then brought before you some of the interesting remains which have so far withstood, to some extent, the ravages wrought by the hand of time, aided and abetted by the trying nature of our climate and the destructive habits of our race.

I have now to show you illustrations of a different kind, which will direct your notice to objects of interest connected with my parish which could hardly be said to come under the title of my former paper; and I give, as addenda, some extracts from ancient documents and notices of the annalists in which I find reference made to this ancient and historic spot.

This will, I think, help to group together the important records of the parish, and show that Durrow continued to be an important centre of learning for many years, and that though the light kindled then by St. Columba may have waxed dim or even flickered for a time, that still the lamp of truth which he kindled has never been altogether quenched, even though it may never have shone so brightly as in its first and most palmy days.

Any account of monastic life in Durrow which did not take notice of its celebrated MSS. would be very incomplete indeed. Concerning one of them I cannot, I think, do better than quote the words of the late Professor Stokes, whose loss I am sure we all feel. Writing about the celebrated epistle of Cummian, written to the Abbot of I Columkille in the year 634, he says:" I call it a marvellous composition because of the vastness of its learning. It quotes, besides the Scriptures and Latin authors, Greek writers like Origen, Cyril, and Pachonius, the head and reformer of Egyptian monasticism, and Daraascius, the last of the celebrated neo-Platonic philosophers of Athens, who lived about the year 600, and who wrote all his works in Greek. Cummian discusses the calendar of the Macedonians, Hebrews, and Copts, giving us the Hebrew, Greek, and Egyptian names of months and cycles, and tells us that he had been sent as one of a deputation of learned men a few years before to ascertain the practice of the Church of Rome with regard to Easter." ''This long letter" (said Professor Stokes) "proves to demonstration that in the first half of the seventh century there was a wide range of Greek learning, not ecclesiastical merely, but chronological, astronomical, and philosophical, away at Durrow in the very centre of the Bog of Allen." It will be in the recollection of all who are interested in the subject that Cummian's epistle engages in controversy on the great Pascal question as to the time when Easter should be celebrated. St. Cummian advocated the Roman method, while Segenius and the monks of Hy held to the opposite, as observed by St. Columba. St. Fintan of Taghmon (the founder of Tihilly, now in the parish of Durrow) also held to the Irish method of observing Easter. Perhaps, however, it is only right to mention that all writers do not seem as certain respecting Cummian's identity with Durrow as was Professor Stokes. Reeves, in his " Adamnan" (Lib. i., p. 27), tells us that Cummian, in 636, appeared at a Synod at Campus Lene (or Magh Lena), near the modern Tullamore, when he pleaded for uniformity of practice. Colgan's " Acta SS.," p. 411, says, " Cummian is said to have been Abbot of Durrow." Lanigan thinks the notice of him does not refer to the great monastery of Durrow, but to Disert Chuimin. However, in vol. ii. page 393, he says that "He seems to have been a Columbian monk, and was probably educated in the Columbian monastery of Durrow, which was subject to the superintendence of the Abbot of Hy. At the time of the proceedings now related he had apparently an establishment of his own, which was in all likelihood that of Disert Chuimin, so called from his name, now Kilonin or Kilcummin in the King's County, near Roscrea." A work which is in the monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland, called " De poenitentiarum mensura," was also, Lanigan thinks, written by him.

I have also obtained a copy of a photograph of a MS. which is in the Bodleian Library, of which I shall speak more presently. But the best known of our MSS. is, of course, the Book of Durrow, which is in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. And, as I look at those illustrations, I think with pride of the literary work which used to be done in my parish in olden times, though it be mingled with regret that we cannot now attempt to emulate the skill and artistic taste of the scribe who wrote it. Perhaps it may interest you to hear that I am sometimes asked by persons whether I have obtained any of the information I have been able to get about Durrow from this celebrated book. It may not therefore be amiss to say, as briefly as I am able, something of what is known about "The Book of Durrow." To begin with Its antiquity is proved beyond doubt both by the character of the book itself and also from the fact that it is recorded that the first book-shrine or comdach we read of, the date of which can be fixed with any historical certainty, was made for this book by the King of Ireland, Flann Sinna, son of Malachy, who reigned between the years 877 and 916. This bookshrine is indeed now lost, but it was seen by Roderick O'Flaherty in 1677, who wrote the following on the flyleaf of the Gospel it was made to enshrine (" Inscriptio Hibernicis literis incisa cruci argenteae in operimento hujus Libri in transversa crucis parte nomen artificis indicat ; et in longitudine tribus lineis a sinestra et totidem dextra et sequitur + oroit acus bendacht Choluimb Chille do Flaund Mac Mailsechnaill do Righerewn la sa ndernadacumdach so ' "(i.e., An inscription in Irish letters cut on a silver cross in the corner of the book or the transverse part of the cross indicates the name of the maker, and on the length three lines from the left, and the like number on the right, as follows: " Columkille's prayer and blessing for Flann, son of Mail Sechnaill for the King of Ireland by whom the case was made "). This Flann, son of Malachi, was King of Ireland, A.D. 879-916. The Most Rev. Dr. Healy, writing of this work, describes it as follows:

"The 'Book of Durrow' is a highly ornate copy of the Four Gospels, according to Jerome's version; it is written across the page in single columns. The MS. also contains the Epistle of St. Jerome to Pope Damasus, an explanation of certain Hebrew names, with the Euseheian Canons and synoptical Gospels."

This description may fitly be supplemented by a quotation from the " National MSS. of Ireland," by John Gilbert, F.S.A.

“The Book of Durrow is," he says, "an ornamental copy of the Four Gospels in the Vulgate version, written across the page mainly in single columns, and preceded by the Epistle of St. Jerome to Pope Damasus, an explanation of Hebrew names, Eusebeian Canons, and synoptical tables. It contains symbolical representations of the Evangelists, and pages of coloured, spiral, interlaced, and tesselated ornamentation. The general number of lines on a page is 25 or 26. Among the capitals, Greek letters are occasionally introduced, and the peculiar red dotted and lineation occur abundantly throughout the book."

Miss Margaret Stokes, commenting on the fact that it was associated with the name of St. Columba, and venerated accordingly as early as the ninth century, yet points out that the fact that it is according to St. Jerome's version would indicate that it was not so old as the sixth century, as at that period a different version was in use. Accordingly, we find that the date ascribed to it in Trinity College Library is the seventh century. Miss Stokes also points out a curious fact connected with the book, i.e. that, in the miniature, at the end of the book, of an ecclesiastic, the Irish tonsure and not the Roman is used. On what was originally the last folio of the book (now folio 15, by error of binding), we find the usual request of the Irish scribe:

"Rogo beatitudinem tuara sce praesbiter Patrici ut quicunque hunc libellum manu tenuerit meminerit Columbae scriptoris qui hoc scripsi [ -] met evangelium per xii dierum spatium gra dni nri."

" I pray thy blessedness, holy Presbyter, Patrick, that whoever shall take this book into his hands may remember the writer Columba, who have myself written this Gospel in the space of twelve days, by the grace of our Lord."

I am indebted further to Miss Margaret Stokes for this remark, that while "the Book of Durrow has fewer varieties of design in it than the Book of Kells, yet that those it does possess belong to the most characteristic and archaic style of Christian art." The MS. was preserved at Durrow until the year 1623, when it was taken possession of by Henry Jones, who had been scout-master to Cromwell's army in Ireland, then Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin, and afterwards Bishop of Meath. O'Flaherty saw the Book in 1677. " I have seen," he says, "handwritings of St. Columba in Irish characters, as straight and as fair as any priest, of about 1000 years standing, and Irish letters engraven in the time of Flann, King of Ireland, deceased in A.D. 916." I cannot refrain from repeating again the reference to this Book which is in the "Annals of Clonmacnoise." The writer tells us that St. Columba wrote 300 books with his own hand, and that they were all New Testaments, and also that he left a book to each of his churches in the kingdom -

" which Bookes have a strange property, which is that if they, or any of them, had sunck to the bottom of the Deepest waters, they would not lose one letter, signe, or character of them, wch I have seen partly by myselfe of that book of them which is at Dorow, in the Ks County, for I saw the Ignorant man, who had the same in his Custody, when sickness came on cattle, for their Remedy putt water on the booke, and Suffered it to rest there for awhile ; and saw also cattle returne thereby to their former or pristin state, and the book to receave no loss."

This is a very old tradition, and it seems to owe its origin to an incident recorded in Adarnnan's "Life of St. Columba." In. Book II. two chapters are devoted to this subject. In chapter viii., he tells us of a youth who fell into the River Boyne, and was drowned, his body not being recovered for twenty days, when a leaf of a book, written by St. Columba, was found in his pocket, dry and uninjured, amongst a number of others, which were not only corrupted but putrified; and then he proceeds in chapter ix. to give us the following narrative.

" At another time a book of hymns for the week, written by S. Columba' s own hand, together with the leather satchels in which it was contained, fell from the shoulders of a certain boy, who slipped off a bridge and was drowned in a certain river in the province of Leinster, which little book remaining in the water, from the Nativity of our Lord until the end of Easter Week, and afterwards found on the bank of the river by some women who were walking there, is carried in the same satchel, which was not only wet but putrified, to one Jogenan, a Presbyter, and a Pict by nation, to whom it had previously belonged, and when the same Jogenan opened the satchel, he found his little book incorrupted, and as clean and dry as if it had remained all that time in a case, and had never fallen into water. But we have learned without doubt, from men of experience, that other like things occurred with respect to books written by the hand of S. Columba, which books, be it known, being immersed in water, could in no way be corrupted."

I have to express my gratitude to the Rev. Dr. Abbott, who has kindly allowed me to examine this most interesting MS. connected with the history of Durrow, and which was preserved there for so many centuries; but I would add that he did not give me permission, nor, indeed, did I seek for it, to experiment with it in this way, or bring back the water cure for the diseased cattle of my parish. However, my inspection of the book satisfied my mind as to the veracity of the account given in the " Annals of Clonmacnoise," as I had ocular proof, from numerous water stains, that water evidently had been poured on the book in the way the writer describes. Another fact regarding the book which I thought of interest is the precatory entry in Irish made in it by Connell M'Geoghegan, the translator of the "Annals of Clonmacnoise," in May, 1633, and who probably made the entry at the time the book was in "the ignorant man's" possession, to whom Connell M'Geoghegan refers as quoted above. The date, too (1633), has an interest for me. For the date of Connell M'Geoghegan's visit to Durrow is the same (as its hall-mark indicates) as that of the presentation of the silver chalice, which is still used in Durrow Church. I think, therefore, I may be justified in supposing that this silver chalice was presented at this time to Durrow Church, by the translator of the " Annals of Clonmacnoise," when he visited Durrow, wrote his name in its celebrated book, and had ocular proof of the historic water-cure. The M'Geoghegans were at this time people whom one would expect to make a gift of the kind, for in the "Martyrology of Donegal," completed about 1620, we find a memorandum which not only shows that the Book of Columcille, called the Book of
Durrow, was at Durrow, but adds that Durrow was then in the district of the M'Geoghegans. The name then continued in the district for some time, and a Connell M'Geoghegan attended vestry meetings in Durrow parish, as his signature witnesses, in 1713, 1714, 1719 1721 and 1722.

Then with regard to the illumination of the book itself. One feature which especially interested me and attracted my attention was how largely the zoomorphic element entered into the designs. My mind at once reverted to the strange interlaced dragons on Tihilly Cross which have been so well illustrated for me in a former paper by Mr. Westropp. One cannot help wondering what brought such strange and hideous monsters into a beautifully written sacred document. In each case there is a striking contrast between the beautiful geometrical interlacing, "fret patterns and spirals which we find there, upon which the eye always rests with delight, and these strange uncouth monsters. It is the same, I think, as the feeling one has in some grand cathedral when you turn from examining the tracery of its windows or the symmetry of its arches and doors, and your eye rests on some hideous gargoyle. And yet there is undoubtedly an interest and strange fascination in them. As I write, some of the unconth monsters outside the beautiful churches of Normandy appear before me, and I contrast the Angel Choir in Lincoln Cathedral with "The Devil overlooking Lincoln" and its well-known cross-legged imp. But to return to the Book of Durrow. Another curious illustration is the calf or bull, at the commencement of St. Luke, with a spiral on its leg or hip. I drew a comparison in my mind at once with the High Cross, and thought of the same kind of decoration on the angel's wing. I daresay other parallels will occur to the reader's mind of this archaic design. I have seen the same kind of spirals in the British Museum on gold ornaments found at Enkoni, near Salamis, in Cyprus, and which go back to the Mycenaean Period. There is also an Irish MS. there, written by Maelbrigte Hua Maeludnaig at Armagh, A.D. 1138, in which there is a figure which bears a striking resemblance to the one in the Book of Durrow. It has been noticed by more than one writer that there is not the slightest trace of a floral or foliaceous design in this MS., and Mr. Brun, in his description of the book, seems to make a strong point of this; and also I note that Miss Margaret Stokes (whose opinion is of value) says that there is no sign of any floral forms being used. Nevertheless, it seems to me that one cannot look at the ornamented page used as a frontispiece to the Epistle of St. Jerome, without seeing that leaves are used for decorative purposes amongst the trumpet and interlaced patterns which we find there, even though they do not take a prominent place in the design.


From the Book of Durrow I pass to another interesting relic of Durrow's past celebrity. It, too, has been removed from our care and taken for safe keeping to the Royal Irish Academy's Museum. I refer to the Durrow Crozier. Miss Margaret Stokes, in her "Early Christian Architecture in Ireland," reminds us that the crozier originally had its origin in "the oaken staff of the itinerant bishop, which is still visible through the chinks and openings in which it was afterwards enshrined (chap. iii. "Stone Churches with Cement"). The best example of this which I have come across is the Crozier of Durrow, which exemplifies to perfection what Miss Margaret Stokes here describes, and this is made the more interesting since O'Donnell, in his "Life of St. Columba," informs us that when Scanlann, after the Synod of Drumceatt was liberated, St. Columba gave him his staff to serve as his safe conduct, directing him to proceed to Dermagh and deliver it to Laisranus. Whether it is too great a demand to make from you to ask you to suppose that this is the same staff which we now have in the Museum I must leave yourselves to decide, but no one can see the Crozier of Durrow without at least being convinced that it bears signs of very great antiquity. Indeed, in the Museum we see a notice which tells us that its date is the sixth century. We are also informed that the head is wanting, that the casing and knobs are of bronze, with jewel settings, and that the upper knob is inlaid with gold. It seems, however, a matter for regret that when old relics of this kind were handed over to a Museum the traditions respecting them were not preserved. Some traditional history must have been connected with this crozier, which we would expect to have been handed down in the McGeoghegan family who were its custodians.

An interesting notice in the " Annals of the Four Masters" tells us that Farrell Roe Oge, the son of Farrell Roe, son of Donough, son of Murtagh More McGeoghegan, a captain of great repute and celebrity, was killed and beheaded at Cruagh-abhal (now Croughool, in the parish of Churchtown) by the son of the Baron of Delvin and the grandson of Pierce Dalton. They carried his head to Trim, and from thence to Dublin for exhibition, but it was afterwards brought back and buried along with his body in Durrow Cholum Chille.

Dean Butler, in his book on Trim, mentions that there seems to have been some old ecclesiastical connexion at one time between Durrow and Trim, as a monastic seal of the fourteenth century was found near Mullingar bearing on the obverse side the inscription, " Sigill. M. Abbatis S. Marie de Truim," and on the reverse, " Si. M. Abb. S. Marie de Durmag.," which, he adds, is figured in the Dublin Penny Journal. The seal itself was in the possession of Mr. K. Murray, of Mullingar i 1808. It is ascribed by Petrie to the thirteenth century, and is now I believe, m the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy.


Sir Henry Piers, in his "History of Westmeath," gives at length a full description of what a termon land was:

“In time past" he says "it was provided that whoever founded a church should endow the same with certain possessions for the maintenance of those who were to attend God's service therein, insomuch that a bishop might not consecrate any church before an instrument of such a donation was provided by the founder: . . . Hence it came to pass that every church had allotted to it a certain proportion of land (with servants appertaining thereunto) free from all temporal impositions and exactions." . . . "Neither is it to be doubted," he says, " but that those who founded churches upon their lands, being willing to assign an endowment unto them in places most convenient would, for this purpose, especially make choice of the lands next adjoining to the house they had builded, as Bede (" Hist. Eccles.," lib. 3, chap. 17) particularly recordeth, in his history of Bishop Aiden, that he had no proper possession, "excepta ecclesia sua et adjacentibus agellis." Now erenach and termon lands being free from all charges of temporal lords as also ecclesiastical possessions, were by the fourth constitution of the council held at Cashel, anno 1172, the bishops being the chief lords of them, and the churches being commonly built upon them, the reparation of a great part whereof being continually upon the erenach that belonged to them, there is no question to be made but they were of this nature, and forasmuch as unto these lands certain freedoms were annexed i.e. the privilege of sanctuary the land from thence was called termon or free and protected land, for the word Tearmann is used in the Irish tongue for a sanctuary (whence Termon-feckin, a town belonging to the Archbishop of Armagh hath his denomination as it were the sanctuary of Feckin, and may well be thought to have been borrowed by the Irish (as many other words are) from the Latin terminus by reason that such privileged places were commonly bounded by special marks and bounds."

(To be continued.)

JRSAI, Volume 29 (1899), 44-51.

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