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 in Newport in 1803.  During the first half of the 19th 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: it had fifty – eight leaves, the original had circa one hundred leaves.  It contained a Vulgate version of Psalms XXX (10) to CV (13) with an interpretative rubric or heading before 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 illuminated 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.’  (‘Preaching with the Pen the Contribution of Insular Scribes to the Transmission of Sacred Text’, from the 6th  to 9 th Centuries’ Brown Michelle P. 2004 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 is in the hand of a single scribe, is early majuscule with ornamental capitals, some of which are in red, also 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 plus cockled.  During 1920 within the British Museum Bindery, the leaves were separated then mounted on paper frames. The butt joints were overladen with white net.  In further repairs between 1980 /1981 rebinding work was carried out by Roger Dowell with his assistant Dorothy Cumpstey at a cost of £6,150 stg for the Cathach plus £250 stg 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.  Pieces of degreased fish skin were used for joining the butted edges in the vellum mounts. 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 rebound 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 seen 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 19 xm 58 leaves (original c, 110 leaves) at this site:

Further Reading

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

‘Irish Antiquarian Researches’ Betham 1827 Dublin Pages 107 – 121 in ‘The Last element in the insular system of script’s circa A. D. 850’ in Lowe H. 1982 Stuttgart pages 101 – 119 in ‘Die Iren und Europa im früheren Minelatter.’

‘A Thousand years of Irish script: Catalogue of an exhibition Manuscripts tin Oxford libraries.’ Byrne F. J. 1979 Oxford.

‘The Battle Book of the O ‘Donnell’s’  Doughlas C. 1935 Berkeley.

‘The Cathach of St. Columba’ Esposito M. (1916 – 1920) Louth Archaeology Journal 4 pages 80 – 83.

‘The Psalms in the days of St. Columba’ Simms G. O. 1963 Dublin.

‘Quills, Ink & Vellum’ O ‘Neill Timothy in Cunningham Bernadette / Fitzpatrick Siobhan ‘Treasures’ 2009 Royal Irish Academy pages 45 – 9.

‘The Irish Land’ O ‘Neill Timothy 2014 Cork pages 12 / 13 & 76.

‘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.

‘The Cathach of St. Columba’ Lawler H. J. Proc. R I A 33c11 (1916 – 1917) pages 243 – 443.

‘Latini Antiqueriors’ Lowe E. A, 1972 Oxford no. 266.

‘The Cathach Battle Book & the O ‘Donnell’s’ Ó ‘Cochlain R. S. 1968 pages 157 -77.

‘Aon imharc ar Éirinn’ Cunningham B. / Fitzpatrick S. 2013 Dublin page 33.

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

‘The Cathach of Colum Cille: an introduction’ Herity M / Breen A. 2002 Dublin.

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

Early Irish Manuscripts: the art of the scribes’ Schauman B. 1978 Expedilus 21 pages 33 – 47 in the Irish Scripts of the Manuscript ‘Biblioleca Ambrosiana’ Scriptorium 32 1978 pages 3 – 18

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

 ‘Sandhills, silver & shrines: fine metal work of the medieval period for Donegal’ Ó ‘Floinn et al in History & Society 1995 Dublin pages 58 – 148.

‘Psalter text & bible study in the early Irish Church A. D, 600 -1200’ Mc Namara M. Proc. RIA 73C7 1973 pages 264 – 9.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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