Lost medieval manuscript returns to Dublin

Books Editor


The library in Trinity College has bought a highly significant early 14th Century manuscript produced at St Mary’s Cistercian Abbey in Dublin.

Written out on velum, it was created some time after 1304, but passed into private hands at the dissolution of the monastery under Henry VIII, and had been lost sight of in a private collection since the 18th Century.

This was the first time a medieval Irish manuscript had been offered at auction in recent times. Purchased at Christie’s auction house in London on November 9, 2014, it now returns to Ireland after some 400 years.

The Keeper of Manuscripts in Trinity College Library, Dr Bernard Meehan, an authority on the Book of Kells, told The Irish Catholic that the library was grateful for the generous support of numerous benefactors that has enabled Trinity College Library to acquire “the first Irish codex to change hands for many decades, and the first manuscript from St Mary’s Abbey to emerge in over a century”.

He added: “The level of enthusiasm, across the university and among the wider historically-minded community in Ireland, for the return of the manuscript to Dublin was unprecedented.

“So few Irish medieval manuscripts survive that any such ‘discovery’ has the capacity to alter our understanding of religious and cultural life in the period, not only for St Mary’s Abbey but for the civic life of Dublin.”


“It is the intention of Trinity College Library and History School to embark on a programme of research. Digitising, scientific analysis, textual and codicological examination of the manuscript will provoke widespread research and popular interest.”

A number of other manuscripts from St Mary’s survive in other libraries.

The opportunity now arises for future research to throw a flood of light on the intellectual life of medieval Dublin.

Among the texts collected in the volume are versions of Gerald of Wales’ Conquest of Ireland and his Topography of Ireland. Also recorded are texts of The Prophecies of Merlin, a Welsh text, and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which are the origins of the Arthurian mythos that captured the imagination of Europe, which some see as having its source deep in Celtic tradition.

St Mary’s Abbey, founded in 846, lay on the north bank of the Liffey. Originally Benedictine, it passed to the Cistercians in 1147.

The abbey was one of the largest and richest in Ireland, and its library must have reflected this – though its collection might only have numbered a hundred or so volumes.


Today its name lingers on in the designation of Abbey Street; all that survives of it is the Chapter House in a lane off St Mary’s Abbey, Capel Street.

This was where Silken Thomas threw down his rebellious challenge to Henry VIII in 1534. In 1539 the abbey was closed.

The Chapter House is also the setting of an episode in Joyce’s Ulysses, an indication of the long historical connections that have created the culture of a city such as Dublin.