Words have a magical power.
They can raise up the spirits or dash them down.
They can bring laughter as easily as tears.
Spend words like a miser counting coins.
Make each word count.
~ Old Irish Proverb
Some ancient people believed books were magical, powerful, and could bring fortune. That might be difficult to comprehend today. Sure, we like books, but we wouldn’t go to war over one. We can just make a copy (legally or illegally.) But wars were fought over books in ancient Ireland. It’s the reason Columcille (St. Columba) was banished to the island of Iona. The book he illegally copied is thought by some to be the Cathach or Battler, an incomplete Psalter dating to Columcille’s day. (You can read about it in my post, Book Wars: http://irishfireside.com/2011/06/10/book-wars/
A Cure For Sick Cattle
The Book of Durrow, an ancient manuscript thought to have been created around 680 AD, seemed to have the magical power the Irish proverb quoted above speaks of. This book is considered as the earliest of the magnificently decorated Gospels created by Irish hands.
In the 17th century a man named Conal Mac Geoghegan of Lismoyne recorded in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, “I have seen myself part of that book which is at Durrow in the Kings County in the custody of an ignorant man. When sickness came upon cattle, for their remedy put water on the book and suffered it to the rest there a while and saw also cattle return thereby to their former or pristine state and the book to receive no loss.”
A man dunked the ancient book into a cattle trough! According to The Ancient Books of Ireland by Michael Slavin, The Book of Durrow does show signs of water damage and “a hole in the top right-hand corner of the leaves indicates that they could have been suspended by a thong in the ‘cure’ process.”
The Books Today
I had the opportunity to see the Book of Durrow displayed alongside the pages of the Book of Kells when I visited the library at Trinity College in Dublin. Most folks were crowded around the Book of Kells, which is a treasure, but ignored the Book of Durrow, which is older and just as fascinating.
These books were treasured not only for the scriptures they contained, but also for the incredible works of arts on the calfskin pages. (The Book of Kells is estimated to have taken 180 meticulously prepared calfskins to produce.) In addition, some of the ancient books contained genealogies and other information that helped establish the rights of a kingdom, making them invaluable to ancient clans. Copies were rare, and that’s understandable when you consider that only a small percentage of people (monks) could read or write.
The fact that some of these manuscripts survive is a wonder, maybe even a miracle.
Cindy Thomson is the author of Celtic Wisdom and Brigid of Ireland. She enjoys exploring Irish history, especially the Early Christian period. She has written numerous articles on Irish genealogy. Visit her blog Celtic Voices and her web site where you can sign up for her monthly newsletter.