12.04.05, O'Donoghue, The Eucharist in Pre-Norman Ireland

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Salvador Ryan

The Medieval Review 12.04.05

O'Donoghue, Neil Xavier. The Eucharist in Pre-Norman Ireland. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011. Pp. 352. ISBN: 978-0-268-03732-1.

Reviewed by:
Salvador Ryan
St. Patrick's College

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Neil Xavier O'Donoghue's recent monograph on the Eucharist in pre-Norman Ireland is the fact that it has taken so long for such a work to appear. Indeed, the book's blurb intimates how O'Donoghue has picked up the baton from F. E. Warren whose Liturgy and Ritual of the Celtic Church, published in 1881, was the last significant attempt to address this topic. It has been a long wait. Yet the wait has not been fruitless. Indeed, in the intervening period, the field of early Irish studies has been utterly transformed and O'Donoghue's study takes full account of these major advances. The pioneering work of Martin McNamara on Irish biblical apocrypha, Colman Etchingham on church organisation, Pádraig Ó Riain on early Irish hagiography and, more recently, Tomás Ó Carragáin on early Irish ecclesiastical architecture are cases in point. It is also immensely helpful that Marie-Therese Flanagan has recently published a magisterial study of the twelfth-century Irish church, which O'Donoghue's study foreshadows and indeed further illuminates. What this study does most effectively, however, is to invite liturgical studies back to the early Irish studies table as a truly significant conversation partner. This is early Irish liturgy's day in the sun.

O'Donoghue's work is divided into three long chapters--Historical Background, Written Sources, and Archaeological and Iconographic Sources. The first chapter concerns itself with a survey of the history of the church in pre-Norman Ireland, taking into account the most recent historiography. The rationale behind this long survey is captured in O'Donoghue's observation that liturgy cannot exist in a vacuum. Topics such as the origins of the Patrician church, the development of pastoral care and early Irish monasticism, the Viking invasions, relations between the sees of Canterbury and Dublin and the lead-up to the Norman conquest and church reform in twelfth-century Ireland are each discussed in turn. At this point, O'Donoghue turns to a broader survey of the development of the Eucharist in western Christianity over the same period. This is important, for the author is keen to situate the history of the liturgy of the Eucharist in pre-Norman Ireland firmly in the broader context of the history of the Eucharist in the West. As more recent studies have observed, it is distinctly unhelpful to imagine the so-called "Celtic church" as an enclave of variant religious practice at odds with mainstream western Christianity. Indeed, O'Donoghue argues that there is little evidence to suggest the existence of a separate Celtic Eucharistic rite, positing that the Irish used instead a form of the Gallican rite that was common in the West.

The second chapter turns to the evidence of the written record. Here familiar sources such as the Stowe Missal are treated alongside less well-known manuscripts such as the earlier so-called Palimpsest Sacramentary, an Irish liturgical manuscript located in Munich, which was unknown to Warren, having been published only in 1964. This comprises a list of masses for various feasts of the liturgical year in addition to a large sanctoral. O'Donoghue highlights the strong parallels between this manuscript and other Gallican missals, a point which strengthens his argument against the existence of a separate Celtic rite in addition to refuting John Hennig's claim that the absence of a sanctoral was a feature of that distinctive rite. According to O'Donoghue, however, this source has been somewhat of "an unwanted child" among scholars of early Ireland (79). This chapter also mines a number of other important written sources for evidence of Eucharistic practice in Ireland--including the rich and perhaps under-utilised (for this purpose) body of early Irish penitentials. O'Donoghue points to the balance which was struck between, on the one hand, withholding the Eucharist from those performing long and arduous penances and, on the other, ensuring that they were not irreparably damaged by the withdrawal of this "celestial medicine". O'Donoghue also makes some insightful suggestions regarding Eucharistic practice on foot of his examination of hagiographical sources. In Adomnán's Life of Columba, for instance, a monk named Silnán is instructed by the saint to dip some "healing bread" in water to cure people and livestock of plague. O'Donoghue links this to the practice of eulogia whereby extra bread was brought to the altar, not to be consecrated and consumed at Holy Communion, but to be blessed at the offertory and then removed to be later consumed by those unable to attend the Eucharist. This "blessed bread," O'Donoghue argues, itself a sacramental, should not be confused with the sacrament itself. Yet O'Donoghue later makes much of the apparently distinctive use of chrismals among early Irish clergy--small vessels in which the sacrament was carried. From a survey of their appearance in Irish saints' lives especially, he argues that their use as talismans to invoke divine protection constituted the primary motivation for the carrying of chrismals, with the administration of viaticum being a secondary consideration. I am not so sure that such a fine distinction should be made here. Indeed, the examples cited are reminiscent of some later medieval Eucharistic miracle stories, which are most usefully understood in their broader sacramental context. Among other significant texts examined by O'Donoghue in this chapter are the twelfth-century Tract on the Real Presence of Echtgus Ua Cuanáin of Ros Cr (which has been the subject of recent study by Elizabeth Boyle at Cambridge), the Cáin Domnaig tract and the poems of Blathmac, son of C Brettan.

Perhaps the most innovative research carried out on early Christian Ireland in recent years has been in the fields of archaeology and early ecclesiastical architecture. O'Donoghue's third and final chapter examines the architectural setting for the celebration of the Eucharist in pre-Norman Ireland. The advances in knowledge allowed by such disciplines as dendrochronology (which may explain the adoption of stone churches at the beginning of the tenth century on account of a shortage of large oak) have opened up vistas of research possibilities that F. E. Warren could only have dreamed of. The addition of chancels to many churches in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, O'Donoghue argues, was not due to any architectural breakthrough; rather, he argues, it may indicate larger numbers of laity attending the Eucharist and also the desire for a greater distinction between clergy and laity in line with continental developments. This chapter also examines recent scholarship on the purpose of the distinctive Irish round towers and the phenomenon of monastic "cities" before examining the many physical objects associated with the celebration of the Eucharist--altars, patens and chalices, in addition to sections on the kind of bread used at the liturgy and the issues surrounding the distribution of wine at the Eucharist. There also follows a fascinating discussion of liturgical fans (flabella) as illustrated in the Book of Kells, now used exclusively in Eastern rites and originally a form of ancient fly-swatter. Interestingly, the Old Irish word for the flabellum (cuilebad, literally "fly-killer") also alludes to this origin. The chapter closes with a discussion of Eucharistic imagery on that most recognisable of symbols of Irish Christianity--the high cross.

This is an important and timely work. It re-situates early Irish Eucharistic practice firmly within the broader Western liturgical tradition while drawing from the best of modern Irish scholarship in the areas of history, archaeology, architecture, art history, hagiography, and Celtic Studies more generally. But it also reminds scholars from these various disciplines that neither can they afford not to engage seriously with the most recent developments in liturgical scholarship. The "meeting of the minds" that O'Donoghue's work has facilitated is to be warmly welcomed and one hopes that it will encourage future scholars to emulate this approach. It should be added that O'Donoghue's copious endnotes and bibliography (together spanning about 130 pages) constitute an important resource in their own right and render this meticulously well-researched work even more attractive.

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Salvador Ryan

St. Patrick's College