The Irish Book of Psalms

Martin McNamara has written an extensive article describing the discovery of the Irish Book of Psalms found in an Irish bog and its significance to the early Irish church. The article was published in the SBL Forum and is available on line. The following is an introduction to McNamara’s article.

Initial Report of the Find

On 25th July 2006 the National Museum of Ireland issued a press release on a “Significant Discovery of Ancient Manuscript” made on July 20. Points made in the press release were: “One of the most significant discoveries in decades and one unique in European and World archaeology has just been reported to the National Museum of Ireland. In discovery terms this . . . is being hailed by the Museum’s experts as the greatest find ever from a European bog. Fragments of what appear to be an ancient Psalter or Book of Psalms were uncovered by a bulldozer in a bog in the south Midlands. It is impossible to say how the manuscript ended up in the bog. It may have been lost in transit or dumped after a raid, possibly more than a thousand to twelve hundred years ago.” The Director of the National Museum of Ireland, Dr. Pat Wallace, commented that “it is not so much the fragments themselves, but what they represent, that is of such staggering importance. In my wildest hopes, I could only have dreamed of a discovery as fragile and rare as this. It testifies to the incredible richness of the Early Christian civilization of this island and to the greatness of ancient Ireland.” The find has even been compared with that of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The pages recovered appear to be those of a slim, large format book with a wraparound vellum or leather cover from which the book block has slipped. Raghnall Ó. Floinn, Head of Collections at the Museum, estimates that there are about forty-five letters per line and a maximum of forty lines per page. While part of Ps 83 is legible, the extent to which other Psalms or additional texts are preserved will only be determined by painstaking work by a team of invited experts probably operating over a long time in the Museum laboratory. Dr Bernard Meehan, Head of Manuscripts at Trinity College Dublin, has seen the discovery and has been invited to advise on the context and background of the manuscript, its production, and its time. He reckons that this is the first discovery of an Irish Early Medieval manuscript in two centuries. Initial impressions place the composition date of the manuscript at about 800 AD. How soon after this date it was lost we may never know.

The Ps 83 intended in the press release was that of the Vulgate numbering, not of the Hebrew Text or modern translations. This led to a certain misunderstanding as the psalm was understood in some press reports as dealing with “wiping out of Israel” (Ps 83 in Hebrew numbering). A later Museum press release on 27th July clarified the matter.

Another Museum report, published in the Irish national press on Saturday 5th August, gave further information on the find. More fragments of an ancient manuscript concealed in a Co. Tipperary bog over one thousand years ago with a view to later recovery, have been found by the National Museum of Ireland. The discoveries also include a fine leather pouch in which the manuscript was originally kept. Museum experts have excavated the site [now more precisely identified as] at Faddan More, in north Tipperary (near the town of Birr, in Co. Offaly), since the discovery of the manuscript in July. The report also said archaeologists and conservators had completed excavation of the area where the ancient manuscript was found. The site was excavated over seven days by archaeologists and conservators from the National Museum of Ireland. “Part of a fine leather pouch in which the book was kept originally was recovered as well as other small fragments of the manuscript and its cover. The investigation results suggest the owner concealed the book deliberately, perhaps with a view to its later recovery,” the statement noted. All the excavated material is now being conserved and analysed in the National Museum of Ireland and samples of the peat surrounding the find spot have been sent for specialist analysis. The report noted that the area around Faddan More bog is rich in medieval history. Of particular relevance are important monastic foundations such as Lorrha and Terryglass in Co. Tipperary and Birr and Seirkieran in Co. Offaly, which are located nearby. A leather satchel was found in the same bog six years ago and has been radiocarbon dated to between the seventh and ninth centuries AD.

In the remainder of his article, McNamara discusses the arrival of Christianity in Ireland and the significance of the Psalms in the early Irish church. This is a very informative article that provides valuable information on this important finding.

To read the entire article, visit the SBL Forum by clicking here.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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