— with special focus on Offaly
If you remember the old Irish £5 note, you will maybe also remember the illumination from the "Book of Kells" which appeared on its back and is similar to Macregol's in the "Book of Birr"
Macregol is one of the few artists of the Early Christian Period whose name we know because he signed his book at the end: "Macregol illuminated these gospels. Whoever reads and understands this narration, pray for Macreguil the scribe." His illuminated manuscript copy of the Four Gospels is now in the, Bodleian Library in Oxford, one of the greatest treasures there. It was only in 1814 that Fr. Charles O'Conor of the O'Conor Don family, saw the connection between the Macregol of this book and the entries in the Irish Annals about the year 821:
"Macriagoil Ua Magleni, Scribe, Abbot, Bishop of Birr, died". So the manuscript got another name: "The Book of Birr" in addition to "Macregol's Gospels", and it is also called "The Rushworth Gospels" after the man who presented it to the Bodleian library in the seventeenth century.
Macregol's book must have been one of the treasures of the Early Christian Monastery of Birr, founded by St. Brendan of Birr in the sixth century. Indeed this book is all that remains materially of that foundation. Whether it was brought by monks, or stolen by Vikings we do not know,. but within a hundred and fifty years of Macregol's death his gospels were in Harewood, Yorkshire, in the possession of two men called Farmen and Owun. In the ordinary handwriting of the time they wrote their own translation of the gospels between the lines. This was a defacement of the beautiful Latin version produced in illuminated Insular script by Macregol. However, written material has survived. Their "Interlinear gloss" is still being studied by scholars of linguistics and was one of the reference books for the Oxford Dictionary.
An example of the English spoken by Farman in the North of England in the Late tenth century might be selected from the first few sentences of the "Our Father" in his translation of the Gospel of St. Matthew: "Faeder ure, thu the in hoefunum earth, beo gehalgud thin noma. Cume to thine rice.
Nothing is known about the manuscript for the next seven hundred years until the late seventeenth century when John Rushworth, a native of Northumberland and Deputy Clerk of the Long Parliament gave it to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It has since featured in many articles and books about the history of the English language, of handwriting and of Early Christian Art.
Even though the name Macregol sounds Irish, and that he had used the Irish genitive case in the second version of his name in the epigraph, "Macreguil", no one seems to have noticed it and the manuscript was believed to have been produced in a monastery in the north of England until Rev. Charles O'Conor proudly reclaimed it for Ireland and for Birr.
Macregol was illuminating his gospels at about the same time as the anonymous scribes of the Book of Kells. His script is similar to their scripts, one of which is featured on the back of the (old) Irish five pound note but his illumination is not as elaborate. The cover and some pages are missing but the book is otherwise in good condition.
After twelve centuries and all those adventures, what a historic occasion it would be, and what a tribute to the great craftsman and churchman, Macregol, if his manuscript came full circle, perhaps for a visit, to Birr, where he served as "Scribe, Bishop and Abbot".