Contemporary Art and St.Colmcille

Last Friday I saw the oldest surviving manuscript in Ireland. It’s called the Cathach (meaning the Battle Book) and it was used by the O’Donnell Clan as a protection or talisman when going into battle.

Because of its fragile state, it is rarely shown to the public but there’s an art project called Colmcille’s Spiral, organised by Difference Exchange, exploring the legacy of the 6th century saint and because of this, we got to see the priceless relic in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin the other day. It’s actually a book of the psalms, once thought to have been written by St.Colmcille himself, but now believed to have been produced by the monks of his order, shortly after his death in the year 597.

photo by Eoin Mac Lochlainn of the Cathach
The Cathach at the Royal Irish Academy

The Colmcille’s Spiral project has been ongoing since June this year and there have been various events and exhibitions in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales ( but this was the Dublin leg of the project, entitled: The Object, curated by Clíodhna Shaffrey and Ruairí Ó Cuív. It was a re-interpretation of historical objects in a contemporary context, a guided tour, a series of talks by artists and academics and an art installation in St.Mary’s Abbey by Tracy Hanna. I must say that I was quite taken by the whole affair.

Emma Fallon was our very informative guide for the morning. First of all, we saw the Cathach in the Royal Irish Academy in Dawson Street. It’s not as highly decorated as the Book of Kells but the handwriting is beautiful (tiny and very neat). It was a rare privilege to see it. Next we went to the National Museum of Ireland where we saw the Shrine of the Cathach. This was the intricately decorated metal box in which the book was kept. This box along with a bell, a crozier and various other items had been in the possession of the O’Donnell clan and had been brought over to Leuven in Belgium at the time of the Flight of the Earls (1607).

Emma Fallon in the National Museum of Ireland
Emma Fallon speaking at the Shrine of the Cathach

Next we went to Trinity College to look at the Book of Kells (so that we could compare and contrast).  Of course the Book of Kells is amazing (check out but apparently it was more for ceremony or show, whereas the Cathach was made to be actually used in prayer. Then we continued on to the Chester Beatty Library and again, it was really interesting. We had a look at a page from the Canons of St.Basil, an Egyptian Coptic manuscript which looked quite similar in style to the Irish manuscripts. The ‘creature’ in the margin here was definitely closely related to the ‘creatures’ that decorated the Book of Kells, reminding us of the spread of ideas and the two-way traffic between Ireland and the Mediterranean back in those times. Next we went to Marsh’s Library and this was to view a relatively new book – from the 15th century. It was a collection of the lives of the saints, and the first story was – you guessed it – The Life of St.Colmcille, written about a thousand years after the saint had passed on.

Clíodhna Shaffrey speaking in Marsh's Library
Clíodhna Shaffrey speaking in Marsh’s Library

The whole tour was emphasising for us the significance of this man – the mystery and the legend, how his book was thought to have protected soldiers in battle, how it would cure sick animals… there are several holy wells in Ireland with cures attributed to St.Colmcille. It was also said that he had the gift of Prophecy. I wonder what he would’ve thought of this project.

Finally, we crossed over the Liffey and walked up to St.Mary’s Abbey to see Tracy Hanna’s art installation: “Everything’s moving below the surface”. Combining modern technology with ancient bog peat, the work operates in the realm of the imaginary. Installed in the old chapter house, the only remaining remnant of what was once a great monastery, Hanna’s artwork invited us to cast our minds back to ancient times, to ancient rituals and human sacrifices, even before the time of St.Colmcille. As we stood there in the gloom the centuries seemed to merge and overlap and gradually we could pick out the tiny videos projected onto small glass disks – film of holy wells, coming from deep within the earth, like portals into another world. We stood for a long time…

St.Colmcille's Holy well in Co.Offaly
St.Colmcille’s Well in Co.Offaly

The Colmcille’s Spiral Project will culminate in Derry with a creative convention: The Fold on the 30th of November, 2013



  1. A friend of mine in New Zealand wrote to me about the holy well in the photo above. He told me that the inscription on the plaque reads:

    ” St Columba used this well

    When he preached the Gospel and

    Built an Abbey near it

    A D 550

    Here Angels shall enjoy my sacred cell

    My sloe my nut mine apple and my well “


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