Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition
The Irish Charters in the Book of Kells (Author: [unknown])

section 15

Observations on the foregoing Charters.

The foregoing Charters are of a date some centuries later than that of the Book of Kells itself, in which they are found; and it will be necessary to distinguish between the date of the Charters, i.e. of the contracts to which they relate, and of the copies now extant in the Book of Kells, which were probably transcribed from the original deeds into this sacred and venerable book in order to secure their preservation. The ink has in many places so faded that several words are illegible; and this appears to have been the case even in the time of Ussher, who had faithful transcripts of the first six of them made into a paper book, now preserved amongst his manuscripts in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin (E. 3. 8.) These transcripts, although not always accurate, have preserved some words which have since been destroyed by the bookbinder.

That the hand-writing of these documents, as they are now found in the Book of Kells, is not coeval with the persons whose names are mentioned in them, is evident from the fact that they appear to have been transcribed, at the same time, whereas it is quite obvious that Nos. 2 and 4 are at least half a century older than No. 1. The period at which they were transcribed into this book may be conjectured from the character of the writing and the contractions, which would appear to belong to the latter part of the twelfth century; but the dates of the deeds themselves can be pretty accurately fixed, from the notices of the deaths of the parties concerned, which are recorded in the Irish Annals, and will be given in the following remarks.

These Charters are exceedingly interesting to the historian, as proving that the ancient Irish had committed their covenants to writing in their own language before the Anglo-Norman invasion;


and that their chiefs, though not succeeding according to the law of primogeniture, claimed the right of binding their successors to covenants lawfully made by them—a right which Shane O'Neill and others called in question in the sixteenth century.

The other extant Charters made in Ireland at the same period are very few indeed, and are all in the Latin language. They are 1. The Charter of the foundation of the Abbey of Newry, granted about the year 1160, by Muirchertach or Mauritius Mac Loughlin, monarch of Ireland, by consent of his nobles.122 2. The Charter of the foundation of the Cisterician abbey of Rossglass, Monastereven, by O'Dempsey, about the year 1178.123 3. The Charter of foundation of the Augustinian monastery of Ferns by Dermot Mac Murrough, King of Leinster, previously to his having invited the English to invade Ireland, that is, about the year 1161.124 4. The foundation Charter of the Priory of All Saints on Hoggin Green in 1166.125

How early the ancient Irish began to commit their contracts and convenants to writing has not yet been determined, nor indeed made a subject of inquiry by any one qualified to arrive at just conclusions. If we may credit the compiler of the Book of Ballymote, Cathaoir Mor, monarch of Ireland, who died in the year of Christ 128, made a long last will and testament, which this compiler has transcribed, and which would puzzle any lawyer in Christendom to


explain. We have also copies of the testamentary precepts of Moran Mac Main, who was chief Brehon to the Irish monarch Feradach the Just, in the first century. But without insisting on the authenticity of these predictions, we may clearly infer from some entries in the Book of Armagh that deeds of contract and even of sale of lands were committed to writing from the earliest ages of Christianity in Ireland. It is more than probable that hundreds of such deeds were preserved in the Irish monasteries, but it must be confessed that very few of them are now known to our antiquarians, if indeed they have survived the ravages of time.