DELICATE BUT PARTIALLY INTACT A page from the Faddan More Psalter.
A painstaking journey from bog to museum
Fr Kevin Hegarty
George Eogan, the distinguished archaeologist, died recently. He was professor of Celtic Archaeology at UCD for several years. Pat Wallace, a former director of the National Museum, called him the most influential archaeologist that Ireland has produced.
For 40 years Eogan led archaeological excavations at the Knowth passage tomb in County Meath. He and his team discovered the two largest passage tombs in western Europe. They also discovered a gallery of megalithic art unequalled anywhere in the world.
Professional archaeologists using increasingly sophisticated techniques, have made an immense contribution to our understanding of prehistoric and early Irish society, among them Seamus Caulfield in his exploration of the Céide Fields.
Sometimes important discoveries happen by chance. In the summer of 2006, a bulldozer driver, Eddie Fogarty, was digging peat at the Faddan More bog in north Tipperary when he unearthed an ancient leather wallet. Inside the wallet was the entire text of the psalms from the Old Testament. The outside of the cover was painted with a black carbon-based pigment. On the inside there is a sheet of papyrus, used to stiffen the cover, giving further credence to the theory that there may be links between Irish Celtic Christianity and the Egyptian Coptic Church.
As Faddan More is close to significant early monastic foundations in Lorrha and Terryglass in Tipperary and Birr in Offaly, it is probable that the manuscript, dated around 800 AD, was created in one of them.
The National Museum of Ireland declared it one of the most significant archaeological finds of recent decades. Bernard Meehan, Trinity College librarian and author of a major volume on the Book of Kells, asserted that the psalter was the first discovery of an early Irish manuscript in two centuries. It joins an exclusive club of monastic books that have survived with their original bindings intact. They have their origins in the religious Insular Art of of Britain and Ireland. The earliest is St Cuthbert’s Gospel, dated around 700AD, which is in the British Library.
The Faddan More manuscript contains the entire text in patin of the psalms, written on vellum and gathered into five sections. Eddie Fogarty had the presence of mind to cover the psalter with damp soil. Otherwise it might have disintegrated due to exposure to dry air.
John Gillis, the chief manuscript conservator at Trinity College, was given the task of restoring the psalter. The college library is the repository of The Book of Kells, the Book of Armagh and 450 medieval manuscripts. It is worth noting how absorbing Gillis found the Tipperary treasure: “[The Faddan More Psalter] was by and far the most challenging, most interesting project that I have ever undertaken,” he said, “and to put that in context, I am surrounded by these iconic manuscripts.”
The restoration took five years. There was no template for the work. The process of stabilising it, drying it out and then unpacking and unfolding the pages was complicated.
At first the mass of squashed pages, leather and turf was placed in a walk-in fridge in the museum. It gave Gillis the time to assess how he might go about his task. In an interview with The Guardian, he said that he spent “…the first three months bringing it up to my lab and just staring at it, trying to make sense of it before I could start any kind of intervention work. Because once you disturb it you are in effect losing evidence. Although the bog was responsible for its very poor condition, it was also responsible for locking it in its original condition.”
After trying various versions of freeze drying, vacuum sealing and drying with blotting paper, he decided on a de-watering process using a vacuum chamber to lessen shrinkage and decay.
It took two years before the folio fragments were sufficiently dry to allow dismantling to begin. Many of the spaces between the letters written in iron gall ink had disintegrated leaving several thousand standalone letters. Piecing them together in the correct sequence on the right pages was very time consuming. For Gillis, it was a privilege to be working on a manuscript of such importance and antiquity.
The psalter is now on display in the National Museum in Dublin. A book on the restoration, ‘The Faddan More Psalter: The Discovery and Conservation of a Medieval Treasure’, by John Gillis, has just been published.