Cathach of St. Columba

The Cathach of St. Columba (Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, s. n.) is a late 6th century Insular psalter.

Royal Irish Academy
Text from the Cathach of St. Columba
DateBefore AD 561
Place of originIreland
Language(s)Vulgar Latin
Size27cm x 19cm

An Cathach (meaning "the Battler") was a relic used by the Clan Ó Domhnaill (O’Donnell Clan), the old Gaelic royal family in Tír Chonaill, as a rallying cry and protector in battle. It is the oldest surviving manuscript in Ireland, and the second oldest Latin psalter in the world.[1]

The manuscript

The Cathach of St. Columba is traditionally associated with St. Columba (d. AD 597), and was identified as the copy made by him of a book loaned to him by St. Finnian, and which led to the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne in 561 in Cairbre Drom Cliabh (now in Co. Sligo). Paleographic evidence dates the manuscript to 560-600, or a little later, but that it was written by Columba is now doubted. The 58 folios in the damaged and incomplete vellum manuscript contain the text of Psalms 30:10 to 105:13 in Latin (the Gallican version); the complete manuscript would have contained 110 folios. The maximum folio size is 270 by 190 mm.[2]

The decoration of the Cathach is limited to the initial letter of each Psalm. Each initial is in black ink and is larger than the main text. They are decorated with trumpet, spiral and guilloche patterns and are often outlined with orange dots. These patterns are not merely appended to the letters or used to fill spaces. They instead distort the shape of the letters themselves. The letters following the enlarged initials gradually reduce in size until they reach the same size as the main text. Although the motifs of the Cathach decoration are not similar to decorations in later manuscripts, such as the Book of Durrow (which followed the Cathach by as many as seventy years), the ideas of decoration which distorts the shape of the letters and the diminution of initial letters are ideas which are worked out in great detail in later Insular art.


An Cathach was used as a rallying cry and protector in battle. It was said to protect and guarantee victory in war to the Donegal leaders. Before a battle it was customary for a chosen monk/holy man (usually attached to the McGroarty clan, and someone who was sinless) to wear the Cathach in its cumdach, or book shrine, around his neck and then walk three times around the troops of O'Donnell. The name derives from the Irish Gaelic word cath (pronounced KAH) meaning "battle". An Cathach means "the battler". Its hereditary protectors/keepers were the Mag Robhartaigh/McGroarty clan from Ballintra in south Donegal. An Cathach, the Battler, has been dated to around the period 590 to 600 AD. The decoration throughout An Cathach is limited to the initial letters of each psalm. An Cathach is now housed in the Royal Irish Academy (entrusted to them in 1842).

The manuscript was rediscovered in its cumdach in 1813, and given by its last hereditary keeper to the Royal Irish Academy in 1843. The leaves were stuck together until carefully separated at the British Museum in 1920; the manuscript was further restored in 198081.[2]

The specially made cumdach is in the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology. The initial work on the case was done between 1072 and 1098 at Kells, but a new main face was added in the 14th century with a large seated Christ in Majesty flanked by scenes of the Crucifixion and saints in gilt repoussé (NMI R2835, 25.1 cm wide).[3] This was done by Cathbharr Ó Domhnaill, chief of the O'Donnells and Domhnall Mag Robhartaigh, the Abbot of Kells. The shrine cover consists of a brass box measuring 9 inches long, 8 inches wide and 2 inches thick. The top is heavily decorated with silver, crystals, pearls and other precious stones. It shows an image of the Crucifixion and an image of St Colm Cille.[2]

See also


  1. McNamara, Martin (2000). The Psalms in the Early Irish Church. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 8. ISBN 9781850759256.
  2. RIA
  3. Antiquities, 233, 269; Stokes, 79; Reproduction in New York


  • "Antiquities": Wallace, Patrick F., O'Floinn, Raghnall eds. Treasures of the National Museum of Ireland: Irish Antiquities, 2002, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, ISBN 0-7171-2829-6
  • De Hamel, Christopher. A History of Illuminated Manuscripts. Boston: David R. Godine, 1986.
  • Stokes, Margaret, Early Christian Art in Ireland, 1887, 2004 photo-reprint, Kessinger Publishing, ISBN 0-7661-8676-8, ISBN 978-0-7661-8676-7, google books
  • "RIA" = The Cathach at the Royal Irish Academy
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