The Cathach

Newport Church door, Co. Mayo
Personal photo

The Psalter of St Columba

This Manuscript known as the ‘Battle Book of the O ‘Donel’s’ was credited to have been written by St. Columba from 561 to 1843 A.D.  St. Columba was the Founder of a Monastery on Iona, Scotland, (he is revered as the patron saint of Poets)  St. Columba was a Prince of the O ‘Donal’ Clan. [i] 

The Psalter passed to the O ‘Donnell Clan following the Battle of Cul Dreimhne in A. D. 561.  While it remained in their ownership it was in the Custody of Mac Robhartaigh family of Ballmagroarthy in Co. Dublin.  Between 1062 – 1098 a Special Shrine or Cumdach was manufactured by Sitric of Kells, Co. Meath to the order of Cathbarr O ‘Donnel for the Manuscripts Protection.  During 1691 following a Battle in Limerick one Family Member brought it to France when he was exiled.  It was a century before it was discovered by Renowned Genealogist Sir William Betham then returned to Sir Neal O’ Donel at Newport during 1803.  In the first half of the nineteenth century this Manuscript was kept at Newport House in County Mayo.   The Cathach was donated during 1843 by Sir Richard O’ Donel to the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.  [ii]

Oldest Manuscript

This Manuscript was written in Latin with fifty – eight leaves: the original had circa one hundred leaves.  A Vulgate version of Psalms XXX (10) to CV (13) with an Interpretative Rubric or Heading preceded each Psalm.  The Manuscript was named Cathach or Battler as it was carried into battle with the practice of ‘carrying it thrice right-hand-wise around the battle as a talisman.’   [iii]

The Cathach of St. Columba is the oldest Irish Illuminate Manuscript.  The surviving fifty – eight Folios contain Psalms 30:13 (Vulgate version)   [iv]

The Cathach is the first Insular book in which decoration begins to assume a significant role in articulating the text, with its decorated initials (their crosses and fish perhaps influenced by manuscripts associated with production in Rome under Pope Gregory the Great, combined with native Celtic ornament) and the diminuendo effect of the following letters linking them to the actual text script.  Herein lie the origins of the magnificent full-page illuminated incipits of the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells.’  (Brown Michelle P. 2004Preaching with the Pen the Contribution of Insular Scribes to the Transmission of Sacred Text’, from the 6th to 9th Centuries’  University of London) [v]


The earliest recorded historical case-law on the right to copy comes from ancient Ireland. The Cathach is the oldest extant Irish manuscript of the Psalter and the earliest example of Irish writing. . . .  It is traditionally ascribed to Saint Columba as the copy, made at night in haste by a miraculous light, of a Psalter lent to Columba by St. Finnian.  A dispute arose about the ownership of the copy and King Diarmait Mac Cerbhaill gave the judgement ‘to every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy.’  [vi]


The Script was in the Hand of a Single Scribe with early Majuscule with Ornamental Capitals several appeared in red like the red in the Lettering for the Rubrics: the colour has now faded.  The Framework of the Capitals was often outlined by a series of Scarlet Dots.  The Decoration consists mostly of Spirals or Animal Heads.  The Capitals do not stand out from the Text but are drawn in by a series of Letters of diminishing size. [vii]


The Leaves of the Cathach when taken from the Cumdach were caked together & cockled.  During 1920 within the British Museum Bindery: Leaves were separated then Mounted on Paper Frames. The Butt Joints were overladen with White Net.  Rebinded work was carried out with further repairs between 1980 /1981 by Roger Dowell with his assistant Dorothy Cumpstey at a cost of six thousand, one hundred & fifty pounds for the Cathach also two hundred & fifty pounds for the Cumdach.  The Paper Mounting, from which the Vellum Leaves had come adrift, was Replaced by new Vellum Mounts especially Stained to match the colour of its Original Leaves.  The Butted Edges in the Vellum Mounts were joined with pieces of degreased Fish Skin . The Leaves assembled in Sections were sewn together within a zig- zag of Hand – Made Paper onto Cords then Bound in English Oak Boards.  The Spine was covered in white alum – tawed Pigskin.  To keep the Vellum under pressure also to prevent Cockling, the Rebounded Copy was encased within a Special Box designed by David Powel; made by George Taylor in Edward’s Barnsley’s workshop.  [viii]


The Cathach was displayed during 2009 as part of an Exhibition at The Royal Academy in Dublin.  According to the R I A Historical Scholars ‘have cast doubts on the authorship by St. Columba as well as on the dating.’  [ix]

The Pedigree of the O’ Donel’s may be viewed on this site:

The ‘Battle Book of the O ‘Donel’s’ is featured as a short article at this link:

The Cathach may be assessed in Dublin R I A MS 12 R33 c. A. D. 500 – 600 Vellum: 27cm x 19xm 58 leaves (original c, 110 leaves) at this site:

The Cathach was published in CD-ROM format by the Academy in 2002.  Each Vellum Page of the Cathach was digitized for ‘The Irish Script on Screen Project’ for publication during 2021 as was believed to be the one thousand, five hundred Anniversary of St. Columba’s Birth.[x]

Further Reading

Adomnán of Iona 1857 ‘The Life of St. Columba’ Adomnán of Iona 1857 Dublin / Cork republished 2004 / 2011.

Alexander J. J. G. 1978 ‘Insular Manuscripts 6th to 9th Century’ London (pages 28 /29)

Betham, William 1827 ‘Irish antiquarian researches’ Dublin (pages 107 – 21)

Bourke Cormac (ed.) 1997 ‘Studies in the cult of St. Columba’ Dublin

Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland (Annála Rtoghachta Éireann’ by the Four Masters from the earliest period to the year 1616, compiled during the period 1632 – 1636 by Bro. Micheál Ó ‘Cléirigh translated by John O ‘Donovan 1856, republished by De Búrca Dublin in 1998.

Brown T. Julian 1982 ‘The Irish element in the insular system of scripts to circa A.D. 850’ in H. Lowe (ed), Die Iren und Europa im früheren Mittelalter Stuttgart (pages 101 – 19)

Brown T. Julian 1984 ‘The oldest Irish manuscripts and their late antique background’ in P. Ní Chatháin & Michael Richter (eds)  ‘Ireland and Europe: the early church’ Stuttgart (pages 311 – 27)

Byrne F.J. 1979  ‘A thousand years of Irish script: Catalogue of an exhibition of Irish manuscripts in Oxford Libraries’ Oxford

Cunningham B. & Fitzpatrick, S. 2013 ‘Aon amharc ar Éirinn: Gaelic families and their manuscripts’ Dublin (page 33)

Douglas Chrétien.1935 ‘The Battle Book of the O’Donnells’ Berkeley

Esposito Mario 1916 – 20 ‘The Cathach of St Columba’ Louth Archaeological Journal, 4 (page 80 – 3)

Hennessy W.M. & Kelly D.H. 1875 (ed. & trans) ‘The Book of Fenagh’ Dublin

Henry Françoise 1983 – 5 ‘Les débuts de la miniature irlandaise’ in F. Henry & G. March-Micheli ‘Studies in early Christian and medieval art’ 3 Vols London ii (pages 25 – 7)

Herity Michael & Breen Aidan 2002 ‘The Cathach of Colum Cille: an introduction’ Dublin

Herity, Michael 2002 ‘The return of the Cathach to Ireland: conflicting accounts of the repatriation of the Cathach from the continent’ in Alfred P. Smyth (ed.) ‘Seanchas: studies in early and medieval Irish archaeology, history and literature in honour of Francis J. Byrne’ Dublin (pages 454- 64)

Hourihane Colum 2003  ‘Gothic art in Ireland, 1169-1550: enduring vitality’ New Haven

Kenny J. F. 1929 ‘Sources for the early history of Ireland: 1 ecclesiastical’ Kenny J. F. New York (pages 638 –  639)

Lacey Brian 1998 (ed.) ‘The life of Colum Cille, by Manus O’Donnell’ Dublin  (Includes a modernised English translation the ‘copyright’ story, slightly abridged pages 97 – 8)

Lawlor H.J. 1916 /17  ‘The Cathach of St Columba’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 33 C 11 (pages 243 – 443  Contains a full transcript of text of the Cathach)

Löwe, E.A.(ed.) 1972 ‘Codices Latini antiquiores ‘ 2nd  Edition Oxford No. 266.

Mc Namara M. 1973 ‘Psalter text & bible study in the early Irish Church A. D, 600 -1200’  Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 73C7  (pages 264 – 9)

Ó ‘Cochlain R. S. 1968 ‘The Cathach Battle Book & the O ‘Donnell’s’  The Irish Sword (pages 157 – 77)

Ó Corráin  Donnchadh 2017 ‘Clavis Litterarum Hibernensium’ 3 Vols Turnhout Vol. 1 item 12 (pages 45 / 6)

O Croinin Dathi 2009 ‘The Cathach & Domnach Airgid’ in Cunningham Bernadette / Fitzpatrick Siobhan ‘Treasures’ Royal Irish Academy Dublin (pages 1 – 8)

Ó Floinn Raghnall 1995 ‘Sandhills, silver and shrines: fine metal work of the medieval period from Donegal’ in William Nolan, Liam Ronayne & Mairéad Dunlevy (eds) ‘Donegal, history and society: essays on the history of an Irish county’  Dublin (pages 85 – 148)

Ó Floinn Raghnall 1997 ‘Insignia Columbae, I’ in Bourke Cormac (ed.) Studies in the cult of St Columba Dublin (136 – 61)

O’Kelleher A. & Schoepperle, G. (eds) ‘Betha Colaim Chille: life of Columcille’ compiled by Ó Domhnaill Maghnas in 1532, ( edited & translated from Manuscript Rawlinson B 514 in the Bodleian Library Oxford (Illinois 1918 reprint Dublin 1994)  (Contains the Irish text of Manus O’Donnell’s ‘Life of Colum Cille’ including the ‘copyright’ story, along with an archaic English translation )

O’Neill Timothy 1997  ‘Columba the scribe’ in Bourke Cormac (ed.)  Studies in the cult of St Columba Dublin (pages 69–79)

O’Neill Timothy 2009 ‘Quills, inks and vellums’ in Cunningham Bernadette & Fitzpatrick Siobhán (eds) Treasures of the Royal Irish Academy Library Dublin (pages 45 – 9 )

O’Neill Timothy 2014 ‘The Irish hand: scribes and their manuscripts from the earliest times’ 2nd Edition Cork, (pages 12 – 13, 76)

O’Sullivan William 2005 ‘Manuscripts and palaeography’ in Ó Cróinín Dáibhí (ed.) ‘A new history of Ireland, I: prehistoric and early Ireland’ Oxford (pages 511- 48) at (517, 521 – 2)

Reeves William 1857 ‘The Life of S. Columbawritten by Adamnan’ Dublin

Roth U. 1979 ‘Studien zur Ornamentik früchistlicher Handchriften des insularen Berrichs’  in Bericht der Romisch – Germanischen Kommisssion 60 (pages 61 – 87)

Schauman B. 1978 ‘Early Irish Manuscripts: the art of the scribes’ Expedilus (pages 33 – 47) in the ‘Irish Scripts of the Manuscript ‘Biblioleca Ambrosiana’ Scriptorium  (pages 3 –18)

Schauman, Bella 1979 ‘Early Irish manuscripts: the art of the scribes’ Expedition (pages 33 – 47)

Simms George Otto 1963 ‘The Psalms in the days of St Columba: the story of the Cathach the Battle-Psalter’ Dublin

Above titles may be viewed at this link: (list updated  on site 15th Apr 2021)


[i]  Newport Heritage ( [assessed 25th July 2019]

[ii] The Cathach – Psalter of St. Columba ( [assessed 25th July 2019]

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Saints and Stones ( ) [assessed 29th July 2019]

[v] St. Columbanus founded the Monastery  ( [assessed 25th  July 2019]

[vi] Ibid

[vii] The Cathach – Psalter of St. Columba ( [assessed 25th July 2019]

[viii] Ibid

[ix]  Saints and Stones [assessed 29th July 2019]

[x] The Cathach – Psalter of St. Columba ( [assessed 25th July 2019]

No Comments

Start the ball rolling by posting a comment on this page!

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *