Category Archives: Irish

The Stowe Missal Litany

One of the unusual features of the Stowe Missal, at least compared to modern liturgies, is that the Eucharist celebration begins with a penitential litany, and this is one of the areas that Moel Caich, the only named owner of the missal, expanded. The original litany begins like this:

“We have sinned, O Lord we have sinned.

Spare us from our sins. Save us!

You guided Noah over the waves of the flood. Hear us.

You called back Jonah from the abyss with a word: deliver us.

You stretched out your hand to Peter as he sank: help us O Christ.

O Son of God you showed the wonderful works of the Lord to our ancestors, be merciful to us in our times: put forth your hand from on high and deliver us.

Christ hear us! [Christ graciously hear us].” (O’Loughlin, p. 137)

The litany then continues by calling on the intercession of a collection of typical New Testament figures: Mary, the apostles and Paul. For Moel Caich, this was not nearly enough. He adds over 30 universal and local saints, mostly local. Moel Caich added some saints that are universal like Stephan the protomartyr, Jerome, Augustine, Gregory (the great), and Martin (of Tours).  By far most of the additions though are local saints including multiples with the same name, so there are two Brendans, two Columbas, two Finans, etc. In those days, everyone walked in the footsteps of the saints because local saints were celebrated in nearly every locality. A medieval priests calendar was peppered with local celebrations in between the major feasts. These local feast days were important to each local community who celebrated services and fairs on the feast day. A feast day is supposed to be a joyous celebration; fairs and feasts could go on for days that make today’s parish picnics a bare pale shadow of the old parish feast celebrations. A local patron saint was more than an excuse for feasting and fairs though. They were the local people’s own prayer warrior in heaven. One of their own whom they could beseech to intercede for them with the Lord to heal their hurts and celebrate their victories.

“A litany is a declaration that the group gathered imagines itself not just made up by those in the building, but of a communion of saints. … Present on a Sunday morning, the groups identity is not primarily that of being the Christians on one part of the monastery lands at Tallaght who have to assemble as they need the services of a priest and ‘the church’; their identity is rather that of a small group within the whole communion which Christ had established….at the local level, they wanted those saints who were part of the monastic communities of Ireland, and therefore should have a special interest in them as close relatives.  Equally these were the actual intercessors whom they knew in their everyday lives were seeking to follow and be in communion with; these were the stories from just ‘down the road’, and it would be in their company that they would rise again ‘in the resurrection at the last day’ (Jn 11:24). …For our practical purposes how many were gathered for the Eucharist at Tallaght in the early ninth century is a matter of detective work in lieu of counting heads; but from a theological perspective of participants, it was a far more complex matter.” (O’Loughlin, p. 140-141).

The original text of the Stowe Missal is about a generation before the Martyrology of Tallaght. Moel Caich, who expanded the litany lived at some later date, so we ulitmately do not know whether the litany as it exists now is before or after the martyrology. A medieval martyrology is a essentially a church calendar because by the ninth century those listed were no longer all martyrs. These calendars are called martyrologies by convention that dates back to the 5th-6th century when the transition was made to add non-martyrs to the calendar. Once Christianity had become legal under Constantine, early Christians had the conundrum of wanting to honor some of the holy people among them who, from their perspective, unfortunately did not die as martyrs as had earlier holy men and women. The sixth century is the tipping point when holy men and women like Benedict of Nursia and his sister Scholastica, Gregory the Great, Germanus of Auxerre, Martin of Tours,  Genevieve, Patrick and Bridget die peaceful deaths. For some like Germanus of Auxerre, their sainthood was secured immediately upon their death by declaration of the crowd. Apostles like Patrick (Apostle of Ireland) who did not die as martyrs added more tension and were declared immediately upon their death. The sainthood of Bridget was destined without doubt but much more complex. Others were added retrospectively once non-martyrs began to be honored more widely.

The Martyrology of Tallaght is perhaps the most detailed martyrology that I have seen. I did look at it a few years ago when I was working on the Calendar of Willibrord, a project yet unfinished. It is not unusual for the Martyrology of Tallaght to have 20 or more names per date. The compilers of the Martyrology of Tallaght did not want to leave anyone out so they took all the names from all of the calendars they came across, whether they knew anything about them or not. This style of martyrology did not continue for obvious practical reasons. Yet, like the Stowe litany it reflects the theology of Tallaght that everyone who deserved to be honored anywhere should be honored there as well. It reflects a theology of gracious radical inclusion.


Thomas O’Loughlin. (2000) Celtic Theology: Humanity, World, and God in Early Irish Writings. Continuum.

The Stowe Missal and Early Irish Theology

The Stowe Missal is a rare witness to early Irish theology and liturgy. It is named for the library where it was discovered in Stowe House, Buckinghamshire. Analysis of the well worn, 67 page vellum book and its contents date it to between 792 and 811/2. Given that the litany mentions St Maelruain (d. 792), founder of Tallaght, but not Eochaid his successor, who was also listed as a saint in early litanies, there is a good possibility that it was written at Tallaght in Ireland. O’Loughlin mentions that the Stowe Missel was therefore written around the time the Celi De movement began around Tallaght (near modern Dublin).

O’Loughlin notes that the theology of the Stowe Missal reflects the paramount importance of community over individuality. There is a tangible continuity between the living community and those who have gone on, between the church militant, church expectant, and church triumphant. The Irish had a well developed theology of the communion of saints and it is reflected in their comprehensive litanies. For the people who wrote the Stowe Missal being totally absorbed into a community was the goal and an ideal life. They freely gave up their individuality to belong to something greater than themselves. The Martyrology of Oengus (c. 825) and the Martyrology of Tallaght both date from about twenty years after this missal.

We imagine liturgical books as impressive altar tomes and as having a rigidly fixed text. Both assumptions are products of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries owing not a little to the nature of the printing and the fears of the Reformation period. Then it suited all sides to promote uniformity, and their desires were made possible through the new technology. In the earlier period missals had no definite shape as books and their form depended on the particular conditions of when and where they were commissioned and the availability of resources. As to their contents there was a similar variability, not just because no two manuscript books have ever the exact same text, but because the nature of their production allowed for variations and additions to be made with minimal difficulty. Then when that missal was used as an exemplar for another book, all its accretions would be transmitted to the new book as its basic text. We have a fine example of this process of accretions made during use in the Stowe Missal. (O’Loughlin, p. 130-131)

There are several points found its content that support this date and its uniqueness as a witness of the early Irish church and yet illustrates that that the Irish church was fully involved in wider European Christendom, from O’Loughlin:

  • Space left to include “our abbot [and] bishop” in the Eucharistic prayer suggests that it was originally written for a monastic context. In the early Irish church abbots of major monasteries were also bishops. This gave a monastery nearly complete independence.
  • “Stowe’s basic text is that of the Roman rite; for example, it has labeled the Eucharistic Prayer ‘the Canon of Pope Gelasius’, and it shows several post-seventh century Roman developments such as a Gloria.” (O’Loughlin, p. 131).
  • The inclusion of the Nicene creed suggests influence from Spain.
  • The text for the breaking of the bread is similar to that used in Milan.
  • A gaelic (Irish language) description of the Eucharist is included, probably as an aid for sermons.
  • On the last folio there are three spells in Irish.
  • Orthodoxwiki notes that there are phrases and prayers in common with Ethiopian, Coptic and East Syrian texts.

There have been multiple owners of the book who each left notes and additions. An owner named Moel Caich added several pages and made several changes to the text including erasing some of the original scribes text and replacing it. Moel Caich added a baptismal rite and rites for the sick to the missal. O’Loughlin stresses that the Stowe Missal is a working book for a working priest so Moel Caich’s changes reflect his actual usage of the text.

Stowe Missal inital page
Stowe Missal initial page for the gospel of John, bound with the missal.

At some point early in its life it was bound with a partial copy of the Gospel of John. Although O’Loughlin refers to this text as a defective copy of the gospel, it has also been speculated that it contains common readings to use with the liturgy. Not all parts of the gospel are used equally in the liturgy. However, as far as I know, there hasn’t been a study done comparing the intact portions of the gospel of John bound with the Stowe missal with the lectionary. In an era when all manuscripts were hand written, it would not have been unusual for a working priest to have a copy of the gospel that had omissions or lacuna. Once bound together the texts were intended to stay together. The gospel is bound first in the book with an initial page on the first folio and a miniature of St John with his eagle symbol is bound on the last page leading into the the liturgical text.

St Kevins Kitchen, Glendslough
St Kevin's Kitchen, Glendslough

St Kevin’s Kitchen is the type of small rural church where O’Loughlin envisions the Stowe Missel being used. Most priests would have celebrated their masses in places like this rather than in the grand churches within monasteries, though many monasteries may have had particularly small churches.

The liturgy of the Stowe Missal has been authorized for use in the Russian Orthodox Church. The Orthodox church has produced at least two English language translations.


Thomas O’Loughlin. (2000) Celtic Theology: Humanity, World, and God in Early Irish Writings. Continuum.

Stowe Missal Wikipedia

Stowe Missal Orthodoxwiki

English translation of the Stowe Missal from the Web site of the Celtic Orthodox Christian Church (via Wikipedia references)

Brendan the Voyager

St Brendan the Voyager
St Brendan the Voyager

Today is the feast day of St. Brendan the Voyager.

Brendan is one of my favorite early medieval saints. There is no doubt that he was a real Irish abbot who had a  bit of wanderlust. His most likely real area of travel was along the Irish sea, up along the northern isles in western Scotland, along western Ireland and probably reaching Brittany. Legends claim that Brendan founded monasteries all around Ireland and the Irish Sea. So how did he do it? Well, Brendan’s monasteries of Clonard and Ardfert were huge with hundreds of monks. When left on his voyages he would take many adventurous monks with him who were willing to remain in monasteries he founded in places of need during his travels. Some of these monasteries were in lonely isolated places and may not have last long, others remained long enough to leave Brendan’s name scattered around the Irish and North sea. While its unlikely that Brendan ever tried to reach North America, he was the one adventurous abbot who his fellow monks could imagine making such a voyage.

The Voyage of St Brendan the Abbot survives in its oldest copy from about the 9th century (about 250-300 years after Brendan) Germany. Yes, Germany…. Brendan’s monks wondered far from the sea as well. At about the same time near Tallaght in Ireland the Martyrology of Oengus (c. 825) commenorates Brendan and the 60 monks who accompanied him to the Land of Promise.

I have blogged on St Brendan and the Navigiato frequently on my other blog Heavenfield. This page indexes those posts.

Aidan and Cuthbert

New Blue book on the proposed revised calendar for the Episcopal Church is out to be approved at this summer’s general convention. There are a large number of changes and many additions.

Cuthbert has a vision of Aidan being carried to heaven on the night he died, from a version of Bede's Life of Cuthbert.
Cuthbert has a vision of Aidan's soul being carried to heaven on the night he died, from a version of Bede's Life of Cuthbert.

One of the changes combines the feast day for Bishops Aidan and Cuthbert of Lindisfarne on August 31st (Aidan’s feast day). We have been saying for years that Cuthbert is the politically correct version of Aidan and now they will share a feast day. On top of that, they share Aidan’s feast day. I think that is appropriate given that Aidan is the founder of Lindisfarne and is probably more popular among the neo-Celtic movement, but I’m sure in terms of historic popularity, Cuthbert was more popular. Having the feast in August will remove it from the complication of possibly falling in Lent. It will also move Cuthbert from the shadow of St Patrick a couple days earlier. Overall, I can’t say that I mind too much, but it does decrease the number of early medieval and Anglo-Saxons feasts. This is more relevant because they are proposing to add so many post-Reformation people.

New proposed collect:

Everliving God, you called your servants Aidan and Cuthbert to proclaim the Gospel in northern England and gave them loving hearts and gentle spirits: Grant us grace to live as they did, in simplicity, humility and love for the poor; through Jesus Christ, who came among us as one who serves, and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

O’Loughlin’s Celtic Theology

[cross posted from Heavenfield]

Thomas O’Loughlin’s Celtic Theology: Humanity, World, and God in Early Irish Writings, Continuum, 2000.

Going through my backlog of drafts and I just realized that I never came back and finished this book review. Better late than never!

This really is quite a valuable book that dispels some common myths and gives you a real sense for what we know of the Irish church. I know my book will be used until it is dog-eared. This book should be a must read for anyone interested in early medieval theology.

This book covers such a wide range of topics that the only way I can think to review is fully is chapter by chapter.


  1. Celtic Theology?: Discusses the concept of Celtic theology and more importantly what it is not. O’Loughlin’s attitude is that Celtic theology is a type of local theology.

  2. Patrick the Missionary: Analyzes Patrick’s work through the two documents that are genuinely accepted as being written by Patrick, notably his Confessio and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. His discussion of Patrick’s world view and personal theology is very interesting. Patrick’s theology of his fulfilling the commandment to preach at the ‘ends of the Earth’ is especially telling.

  3. The Penitentials: The Human Dilemma: He discusses the development and rationale behind the penitentials, and pays special attention to the Penitential of Finnian (Uinniau) and the penitential of Cummean,

  4. Adomnan: A Theologian at Work: O’Loughlin is best known for his work on Adomnan and this chapter does not disappoint. Adomnan was very much on par with Bede as an influential churchman and this chapter highlights all of Adomnan’s other accomplishments other than writing the Life of Columba. I think you would be hard pressed to find a more influential churchman anywhere in the British Isles in the 7-8th century than Adomnan, Abbot of Iona. His three main works, the Cain Adomnan / Law of the Innocents, On the Holy Places, and the Life of Columba are just now really becoming appreciated for the theology, skill and depth of knowledge they reflect.

  5. Muirchu: Dramatist or Theologian? Muirchu is the author of the First Life of Patrick. He notes that Muirchu was skilled at narrative theology, and this is what the Life of Patrick really is. Narrative theology, teaching theology through a story, is fairly rare today but this is the form taken by Scripture itself. The different narrative theologies of the four evangelists accounts for much of the differences between the four gospels. O’Loughlin also discusses Muirchu’s biblical models for Patrick, such as Daniel.

  6. The Collectio canonum hibernensis: Marriage and Sexuality Ireland had a well developed legal system that was independent of Roman law and this legal system influenced the Irish canons. He shows that contrary to popular opinion that Ireland was a female friendly, Augustine-free zone, the canons were quite the opposite and influenced by the theology of Augustine. (Just to back this up, read the 9th century treatise on Cain Adomnan and you’ll see how anti-female it could be!) These canons are one areas where there is plenty of detail in early medieval practices.

  7. The Stowe Missal: The Eucharist as Refreshment: The Stowe Missal is one of the only liturgical sources we have for the rites of the Celtic church dating to c. 800, probably at Tallaght. While the Eucharistic rite was Roman, other aspects of the celebration differed more modern practices. Attitudes toward community and communion of the saints was more intense that any we experience today. They really felt strongly in communion with the saints how have already departed this life, especially those of their community, and this is reflected in their liturgy. For example, they stressed that all present must share one loaf of bread at the Eucharist and in the prayers chanted by the congregation while the priest breaks the loaf into as many as 65 pieces arranging them in special patterns on the patten.

  8. The Litanies: Petition, Procession, Protection: This is a specialized section on the differences between early medieval litanies and modern litanies in text, form and function. He particularly focuses on how medieval litanies were processions, such as the litany Augustine of Canterbury led as he approached Æthelberht, King of Kent, for the first time. I would add that we also see these processional litanies occurring in times of pestilence when processions would snake through large communities in an effort to end the plague. Gregory the Great led such a procession in Rome to end the Plague of Justinian. Although not often mentioned in insular sources, we must imagine that frequent processional litanies must have occurred during the plague of 664 and other plagues.

  9. The Cycles of Prayer: This chapter focuses the calendar and daily office among the Irish. He spends some time talking about alternative perceptions of time and how ordinary and festal time was viewed. There is a short discussion of how the daily office is reflected in Adomnan’s Life of Columba and in the Navigatio Sancti Brendani, and on the Teachings of Mael Ruain.

  10. Jerusalem: Our Mother and Home Above This last chapter is a part of a departure from the rest of the book because this chapter focuses on eschatology. O’Loughlin takes Jerusalem as his theme as a “taster” of Irish eschatology. What did Jerusalem mean to the Irish and what symbolism did they invest in it? O’Loughlin focuses on the presentation of Jerusalem in three different works: Jerusalem in Adomnan’s De Locus Sanctus (On the Holy Places), Barrand’s Island in the Navigiatio Sancti Brendani, and the plan of New Jerusalem in the Book of Armagh.

  11. Conclusions

One of the areas that O’Loughlin left out was a discussion of the literature on St Bridget and is generally light on female topics. Likewise he did not really treat Irish Marian theology which is surely present. It has been suggested that Adomnan’s attitudes toward the the Virgin Mary influenced Cain Adomnan, the first law for the protection of women from violence in Ireland. Marian theology has also influenced the literature and traditions about St Bridget. While Bridget is a fairly common topic in Irish scholarship, we still await a systematic survey and Marian scholarship for this period, is even further behind. Given the breadth of topics he did cover, this is not a major detraction.

Do not look to this book for a history of monastic families or even of monastic movements. O’Loughlin’s purpose here is the study of theology more than history. He chooses examples that fit his topic, but makes no attempt to be systematic surveying all possible examples. Hagiography is also not a major topic outside of chapter 5. Here, as in the chapter on Adomnan, he is more concerned with examining the author than his work. His basic question is how was theology done in early medieval Ireland? What was the personal theology of Patrick, Adomnan and Muirchu? How was theology put into practice? I believe that you will find his answers fascinating.