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Friday, 27 June 2014

  Just inside the Dublin ring road I stopped at a very self-consciously US-style diner, where most of the staff seemed to be from Romania. Sometime later I had a major panic, as I’d inadvertently left my diary[1] in a phone box, about half an hour’s walk away. Striding back purposefully, but with no idea how I would react or what I would do if it was lost – thanks be to God, it was sitting in the place where I’d left it. As I resumed the trek, I told myself that this experience should serve to inoculate me against losing it again. On the way into Dublin-proper I passed Glasnevin Cemetery, the final resting place of many of Ireland’s most prominent national figures, including Daniel O'Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, Michael Collins, Éamon de Valera, Arthur Griffith, Maude Gonne, Kevin Barry, Roger Casement, Constance Markievicz, Pádraig Ó Domhnaill, Seán MacBride, Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, Frank Duff, Brendan Behan and Christy Brown.[2] Compline (also known as Night Prayer) was being said when I came, at 9pm, to St Saviour’s Dominican Priory on Upper Dorset Street, after which eventually I tracked down the International Youth Hostel. Besides being very crowded with visitors from continental Europe, the building was notable for having previously been a convent – a life-sized stone statue of Our Lord, showing forth His Sacred Heart, remained standing in the back garden. In fact I had reason to be grateful to Him that a bed was available, since I’d already discovered that rough-sleeping options in the centre of Dublin were decidedly thin on the ground.

   On Saturday 25th May, the feast of St Bede the Venerable, I checked out of the hostel (but left my baggage) and made for the Chapel of St Martin de Porres I’d been told about. It was closed, but there was a good shop, where I bought a Crosóg Bhríde, St Brigid’s Cross, made out of reeds from the River Shannon. I also commended the Filipino assistant there on his compatriots’ faithfulness to the Church, which makes the Philippines truly a light to the nations. Then after Mass in honour of St Bede, celebrated by an American priest at the pro-cathedral, I made my way to Trinity College, and joined a group for a tour of the grounds, conducted by a moonlighting female member of the student fraternity. Trinity was a Protestant foundation of 1592, though Catholics apparently were allowed to enrol at quite an early stage, and we heard in detail about the process by which women came to be accepted in the 20th century. As well as beautiful old buildings, she also pointed out some hideous ‘brutalist’ newer ones. Meanwhile a game of cricket, there in the middle of Dublin, under a cobalt blue summer sky, was surely a vision upon which even St Bede, most English of English historians and theologians, would surely gaze in spellbound wonderment. With a tinge of excitement I then joined a queue for the famous library and its star attraction, the Book of Kells, though I bristled at the sight of a tour guide from North America, binning all the sets of headphones just used by his group as they came out. Where will this insane propensity to classify everything as ‘disposable’ actually end?
The library, Trinity College Dublin.
   St Columba’s Gospel Book, more commonly known as the Book of Kells, was produced in about the year 800AD. Experts agree that its origins are closely associated with the monastic community founded by St Columba on Iona, though the exact details of its production are obscure. Since the Lindisfarne Gospels, probably a hundred years older, are known to have been dedicated to St Cuthbert, it is reasonable to suppose that this edition was also dedicated to a saint, who until the 19th century was always said to be St Columba. One felicitous though unverifiable hypothesis holds that the book was produced to mark the bicentenary of his death, therefore dating it to ca797AD [Henry cited in Bernard Meehan, p.16]. In any case though, ‘Book of Kells’ is a secular, academic, and frankly rather hum-drum moniker, referring to Kells in County Meath, where it may have been produced in whole or in part, and certainly where it was kept for many centuries until the turbulence of the Civil War era. It is…  

‘…the work, not of men, but of angels’ 

…according to 13th century historian Gerald of Wales. The illustration and ornamentation are so glorious and scintillating that although none of the Book’s authors are known with any certainty, the name of Connachtach, said to have been an Abbot of Iona at around the relevant time, deserves to be mentioned, just in case he was indeed partly responsible. Besides the Gospel Book, the library contained further, almost equally compelling examples of the output of mediaeval scriptoria, including a volume with tiny-yet-perfect calligraphic lettering. I took my own diary out, and put it next to this hallowed manuscript (on the other side of the glass obviously), because the writing I used was about the same size, but nothing like as beautiful.


[1]In ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’, Harrison Ford’s eponymous hero is sent a little notebook, containing all his father’s most intimate and detailed jottings about theories and legends relating to the whereabouts of the Holy Grail. He takes it with him to war-time Europe, where his father is a prisoner of the nazis. In one of the most famous lines from the film, when Sean Connery (Jones Sr) realises his son has allowed this precious book to fall into enemy hands, he mutters in high dudgeon , “I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers”.
[2] “The high wall with watch-towers surrounding the main part of the cemetery was built to deter body-snatchers, who were active in Dublin in the 18th and early 19th century. The watchmen also had a pack of blood-hounds who roamed the cemetery at night. Prime Minister, Robert Peel, when questioned in Parliament on the activities of the body-snatchers, admitted that it was, indeed, a ‘grave matter’” [Wikipedia]

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