Book of Armagh, The
Celebrated Irish-Latin manuscript preserved in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin
Armagh, The Book OF, technically known as LIBER AR(D) MACHANUS.—-A celebrated Irish-Latin manuscript preserved in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. It is a vellum, in small quarto, and in a fine state of preservation, with the exception of the commencement, where a few pages are missing. In its present condition it consists of 221 leaves (442 pages) with the writing in double or, less often, in triple columns. The Irish hand is used throughout, but some of the initial letters are in Greek character, and some of the letters are lightly colored black, red, green, and yellow. The penmanship is, on the whole, very beautiful, distinct, and uniform. The only drawings in the manuscripts are four, representing the symbols of the Evangelists. Because of the value that the Irish placed on the Book of Armagh, it was often richly bound, and encased in shrines of artistic workmanship. The Book of Armagh was also known as the “Canon of Patrick”, and it was once thought that it was the Patron’s own book and in part the work of Patrick himself. It was left for Bishop Charles Graves, however, to discover from the erasures in the manuscript itself, and from references in the Annals to names which he had pieced together from the Book of Armagh, that the name of the scribe of, perhaps, the entire work was Ferdomnach of Armagh, who died in 845 or 846, and that he wrote the first part of the Book in the year 807 or 808.
The Book of Armagh is, in the main, a transcript of documents of a much older period than the Book which has preserved them, and these documents are of inestimable value for the early history and civilization of Ireland. Above all, this collection is valuable because it contains the earliest writings that have come down to us relating to St. Patrick. The author of one of the Lives of Patrick, which the Book of Armagh contains, was one Muirchu Maccu Machteni, who wrote at the request of Aed, Bishop of Sletty. The author of the other Life was Tirechan, who wrote, we are told, for Bishop Ultan of Ardbraccan. Both these authors wrote at about the middle of the seventh century, and had as their authorities even older memoirs. The Book contains other miscellaneous documents relating to St. Patrick, and gives considerable information on the rights and prerogatives of the See of Armagh. Among the miscellaneous contents may be mentioned the “Liber Angueli” (so spelled in the Irish fashion to show that the g was not palatalized), “the Book of the Angel”, wherein an angel is represented as entrusting to St. Patrick the primatial rights of Armagh; the Eusebian Canons, St. Jerome’s letter to Damasus, Epistles of St. Paul, with prefaces, chiefly by Pelagius, Epistles of James, Peter, John, and Jude; the Apocalypse, the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke, and the “Life of St. Martin of Tours”, by Sulpicius Severus. At the bottom of folio 16 verso, there is an entry which the scribe says was made “in conspectu Briani imperatoris Scotorum”, that is, in the presence of Brian Borumha, probably in the year 1002.
St. Bernard, writing in the twelfth century, in his “Life of Malachi”, speaks of a certain book which, he says, was one of the marks of the primatial rights of the See of Armagh. This was probably the “Liber Ardmachanus”. In such high estimation was this Book held that a custodian was appointed for it and in virtue of his office he had, as his remuneration, no less than eight townlands. It was probably one of his functions to carry the Book on occasions of state and ceremony. The name of the keeper (in Irish, Maor, “steward”) became in the course of time the family name of the keeper, since the office was hereditary, and they became known as mac (pl. meic) Moor, or, anglicized, Moyre, Moyer. The precious Book thus changed hands frequently, and there is mention in the records that it was once pawned as security for a claim of five pounds. In the latter part of the seventeenth century it passed from the hands of the MacMoyres into the possession of the Brownlow family of Lurgan, with whom it remained until 1853, when it was purchased for three hundred pounds by the Irish antiquarian, Dr. Reeves, and by him transferred, on the same terms, to the Anglican primate Beresford, who presented it to the Library of Trinity College. There is evidence to show that the Book was often used when giving testimony, and that oaths were sworn, and covenants ratified on it. This may account for some of the pages having the appearance of having been rubbed or touched frequently.
The Irish of the Book of Armagh is of the greatest importance for the history of the Irish language. It is not only one of the very oldest monuments of the Old-Irish, since it is antedated only by the fragmentary glosses in the Irish manuscripts preserved on the Continent, but it is the earliest extant specimen of a continuous narrative in Irish prose. It represents the language of the end of the seventh, or of the beginning of the eighth, century. The phonetic peculiarities of the Irish of that period, as evidenced in the Book of Armagh, are described briefly by Whitley Stokes and John Strachan in the preface to the second volume of their “Thesaurus Palaeohibernicus”, XIII, sqq. This same volume contains all the Irish found in the Book of Armagh.