Cathach – The Book

The Cathach or the “Battle Book” is derived from the oldest surviving Irish manuscript psalter. Only fifty-eight leaves survive and it is dated as far back as the sixth century. It's an appropriate coincidence that our bookshop is only minutes away from the Royal Irish Academy where the remaining pages of the Cathach manuscript repose.

THE CATHACH / The Psalter of St. Columba
R.I.A. MS 12 R 33
c. A.D. 560-630
Vellum: 27cm x 19cm
58 leaves (original c. 110 leaves)

Written in Latin. The Cathach is the oldest extant Irish manuscript of the Psalter and the earliest example of Irish writing. It contains a Vulgate version of Psalms XXX (10) to CV (13) with an interpretative rubric or heading before each psalm. It is traditionally ascribed to St. Columba 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 judgement "To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy". The arbitration failed and the Psalter of St. Columba passed into the hands of the O'Donnells after the battle of Cul Dremhne in A.D. 561. St. Columba went to Iona in A.D. 563. It is possible to date the manuscript late 6th or early 7th century from the script, but modern historical scholarship has cast doubts on the authorship by St. Columba as well as on the dating.

The Psalter remained in the possession of the O'Donnells but in the custody of the Mac Robhartaigh family at Ballymagroarty, Co. Donegal. Between 1062 and 1098 a special cumdach or shrine was made for it and the manuscript was named ‘Cathach’ or ‘Battler’ from the practice of carrying it thrice right-hand wise around the field of battle as a talisman. It was taken to France in 1691 and brought back to Sir Neal O'Donel, Newport, Co. Mayo, in 1802. The manuscript was discovered in 1813 when the cumdach was opened by Sir William Betham. It was deposited in the Academy by Sir Richard O'Donel in 1843.

The script by one 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 framework of the capitals is often outlined by a series of scarlet dots and the decoration is mostly by 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.

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 further repair and rebinding work was carried out by Roger Powell and his assistant, Dorothy Cumpstey, at a cost of £6,150Stg for the repair and £250Stg 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.

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