Posted by: kljolly | February 19, 2012

Irish Eucharist

I just finished reading O’Donoghue’s The Eucharist in Pre-Norman Ireland, exploring it mainly for aspects of Irish liturgy that might shed light on Northumbrian practice.  His main thesis, in line with other recent scholarship, is that the notion of a separate “Irish Christianity” with unique practices apart from Rome is overly simplistic; he shows both complexity and give-and-take between Roman and Irish traditions.  After a historical background chapter, the main body of the book is concerned with sources, first the written and then the archaeological and iconographic (with several black and white plates).  The Appendix has a copy of that peculiar but insightful Old Irish Mass Tract found in the Stowe Missal and the Leabhar Breac, with its highly allegorized reading of the eucharistic rites.

Ardagh Chalice, 8th century

One of the problematic issues is the participation of the laity in the eucharist:  their presence inside or outside of the church, how often they communicated, and whether in both kinds, bread and cup.  In the historical background to this issue (p. 51), O’Donoghue points out the degree to which the actions of the eucharist became more important than the words (spoken in Latin, and at the crucial moment, whispered by the priest only to himself).  The actions became stylized, and interpreted typologically in the same way as the Old Testament was read as prefiguring Christ.  Lay people experienced the eucharist, and were taught what it meant, by means of the actions and their symbolic meaning.  They watched, and they watched in awe, if not fearfully, at this great mystery of Christ’s Incarnation and Redemption.

My Protestant background causes me to rebel against this view on several levels, but in some ways it makes sense.  Jesus’ actions at the last supper—from foot-washing to the bread and cup, not to mention all of Holy Week from Palm Sunday through Good Friday and Easter—were object lessons his followers could only watch and ponder, in amazement or mystified.  These events needed to be witnessed and experienced, not just described or explained, as the apostles did later.  Curiously, by the end of the book I was quite taken with Catholic sacramental theology—admittedly this interest was also sparked by reading Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, as well as dabbling in some Radical Orthodoxy writings.

Derrynaflan hoard, 10th century

O’Donoghue does point out some unique aspects of Irish liturgy (pp. 65, 87, passim), including a eucharistic hymn and a very complicated way of dividing the bread (fractio panis) and displaying it on the paten dish (which answers some questions I had about certain Anglo-Saxon remedies involving writing on a paten).  Several practices like this might be adaptable to Aldred’s Northumbrian context and their Irish traditions:  the eulogia, bread blessed but not part of the Eucharist, that can be taken by laity (p. 107); the use of a chrismal, a house-shaped box, used in this case to store reserved eucharist elements, carried by a priest, perhaps hung by a necklace (p. 121, 139).  Some of these boxes are thought of as holding relics—but relics and reserved host have a fundamental similarity as sacralized objects, “tangible grace.”

Finally, I enjoyed his brief discussion of the Book of Kells, which brought back memories of my undergraduate study abroad at Trinity College Dublin, with all of the American tourists stopping me , whom they took to be a nice Irish girl, to ask “where’s the Book of Kells?”  One tidbit he mentioned was the association between sanctity and writing:  saints “wielding their own pens” in Irish hagiography and Christ himself writing in the apocryphal Carta dominica (p. 196).  This I can use to consider Aldred’s obsession with writing.

Book of Kells

A second tidbit on the Book of Kells has to do with those marvelous and curious images of cats chasing mice or rats that have a eucharist host in their mouths (p. 197).  Seemingly irreverent, this concern for degradation of the host actually illustrates how sacred it was considered.  Cats were favored at Irish monasteries for this purpose and also for reputedly keeping the food on Noah’s ark safe.  Rodents figure in Durham A.IV.19 both in the blessing of a vat of ale fouled by rodents and in the field blessing for purging birds and other vermin destroying the crops. I must therefore consider getting a cat for Aldred at Chester-le-Street.


Neil Xavier O’Donoghue, The Eucharist in Pre-Norman Ireland (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011.

Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist (New York: Doubleday, 2011).

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