The Book of Armagh

The Book of Armagh

The atmosphere of ancient, historic Armagh still surrounds the ninth-century manuscript. We find in its pages repeated references to the city’s name. It is quaintly spelt, sometimes as ardd machae or again as altum mache.

The book was written in a monastery where prayer, study and all sorts of domestic work filled the programme of each day. In the book, we read of the Irish Church both at worship and out among the people teaching and preaching. Mention is made of the hymns they sang and the words they spoke: the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist are linked with the study and life of the monastic community.

In the workshop their craftsmanship in bronze and wood became famous. Assicus the smith worked in bronze and silver to furnish the sanctuary on the Hill of Armagh with sacred vessels. In the writing-place (scriptorium) the scribes were highly honoured for the skill of copying and decorating the manuscripts such as the Book of Armagh. This book is now in the Library of Trinity College Dublin, together with other Irish manuscripts, such as the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells. The Book of Armagh was known as Patrick’s ‘testament’. It contains the earliest piece of writing in Irish history – Patrick’s Confession, a Life of Patrick by Muirchu and another book of Memoirs and Sayings (Dicta in Latin) about Patrick by Tirechan.

Also within the covers of this book, which is now bound in two volumes, is the Book of the Angel which tells of the importance of Armagh as a Christian centre. A life of St. Martin of Tours was included to provide some account of the background of Patrick’s training for his ministry. There is a strong tradition, although this story is often mingled with legend, that Patrick had his clerical training in a French (Gaulish) monastery. Famous, too, in this book is the earliest known Latin New Testament to be found in Ireland.

We are fortunate to have Muirchu’s life which has many quotations from Patrick’s Confession. Yet we know that since Muirchu wrote so long after Patrick’s death, legends are quite clearly mixed in with history; stories about Patrick have been passed from mouth to mouth and have been exaggerated in the telling. This often happens when no written evidence hss survived. We cannot be certain that popular accounts of one who was so greatly admired in Ireland as Patrick obviously was, are completely accurate and free from bias.