Forty days of sunshine

Ireland's oldest known surviving manuscript, the Codex Usserianius Primus, or First Book of Ussher, is among a group of works that will shortly join the Book of Kells on display at Trinity College, Frank McNally in The Irish Times (June 21st) tells us. The “book” (actually a series of fragments) may date from as early as the fifth century and is named after Archbishop James Ussher, a man best known for having determined the precise date of the creation of the universe (Saturday night, October 22nd, 4004 BC – are you paying attention down there at the back, Dawkins?)

Ussher was C of I, but of a rather Calvinist hue and, like many a strict scriptural man, he could seldom resist accusing others of living in darkness: “The religion of the papists,” he wrote, “is superstitious and idolatrous; their faith and doctrine erroneous and heretical; their church in respect of both, apostatical; to give them therefore a toleration, or to consent that they may freely exercise their religion [as the monarch at the time, Charles I, wished], and profess their faith and doctrine, is a grievous sin.” Come to think of it, Professor Dawkins, a man reluctant to allow error any room for manoeuvre, might well agree with the archbishop on this point, if on little else.

Also to be displayed by Trinity is the Book of Dimma, a “pocket gospel” of the eighth century, associated with the Abbey of Cronan in Roscrea, Co Tipperary. Each of its gospels is signed by the scribe, Dimma MacNathi. According to legend, McNally writes, “MacNathi was commanded by Cronan to produce the book in a single day. He worked unceasingly and without food until it was finished, by which time the sun had still not set. But, as the legend adds, 40 days had passed in the book’s making. The continuous sunshine was a miracle.” (This cannot possibly have occurred – RD.)

In some respects perhaps the closest equivalent we have today to the Book of Dimma is what we might call the Book of Frank, otherwise The Irish Times, which is produced from start to finish in a single day (and most intensively in the evening) six days a week by the person-hours of a couple of hundred Dimmas, comprises up to 150,000 words per issue and contains far fewer scribal errors than it might ‑ though readers of a certain stripe can get very high-horsey about those that do slip through.

The new material to be displayed at Trinity is rounded out by the Book of Mulling, an eighth century gospel that includes portraits of the evangelists, and the Garland of Howth (the name “garland”, Frank says, is a corruption of the Irish ceithre leabhair; I am not so sure about this etymology – the OED records the meaning of an anthology or miscellany in book form for “garland” from 1612). Be that as it may, the Garland, he adds, “is considered the work of multiple scribes, none of them first class”, which only a bounder would say about The Irish Times.

Read Frank McNally: http://bit.ly/1qA2CTY