Neil Xavier O’Donoghue’s The Eucharist in Pre-Norman Ireland

One of the happiest experiences I had while teaching at the University of Notre Dame was to lead a seminar in which some exceptionally keen graduate students and I attempted to reconstruct the liturgy of the city of late antique and early medieval Ravenna. What made the seminar so much fun was that we did not limit ourselves to the usual textual sources (liturgical books proper such as sacramentaries, lectionaries, ordines, etc.) but incorporated other textual data (such as homilies, hymns, and inscriptions) and attempted to correlate them with architectural and visual art data (from the many monuments still extant in the city). While we were left with many questions, I think we also gained a much more “holistic” sense of the liturgical life of the area and period than simple reliance on liturgical books (since there are few if any available strictly for Ravenna in this period). In the prescient words of Lawrence Hoffman, we were attempting to go “Beyond the Text” in our holistic approach to liturgical studies.

With that experience as background I have read with pure delight Neil Xavier O’Donoghue’s groundbreaking and magnificently “holistic” The Eucharist in Pre-Norman Ireland (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011) ISBN-13: 978-0-268-03732-1. On the one hand, the author updates a field that has not been carefully surveyed since F. E. Warren’s Liturgy and Ritual of the Celtic Church, published in 1881. On the other, he models for all students of liturgical studies the integration of textual and non-textual data called for in “holistic” liturgical studies. After an extensive chapter outlining the historical development of Irish Christianity (and in the process challenging many of the assumptions and methods of earlier historians of the area), O’Donoghue lists, situates, and interprets the written sources by which pre-Norman Irish liturgy might be re-constructed. These include liturgical texts proper (the Stowe Missal with its Old Irish Mass Tract, the Palimpsest Sacramentary , various rites of the sick, the Old Hymnal and the Antiphonary of Bangor) and ancillary texts found in the Penitentials, monastic rules, saints’ vitae, homiletic materials, and treatises such as Gille of Limerick’s De statu ecclesiae and Gerald of Wales’ The History and Topography of Ireland. Having exhaustively gleaned these textual sources for what they can tell us about Eucharistic practices and texts, the author then surveys the remaining monuments in which the Eucharist might have been celebrated in pre-Norman Ireland (church construction, round towers, altars, monastic “cities” and stational liturgies) as well as the objects associated with its celebration (Eucharistic vessels, bread, flabella, and the Eucharistic iconography of high crosses and illustrated manuscripts).

O’Donoghue quotes Robert Taft in the conclusion of this wonderful work to the effect that “the history of liturgy is a mosaic of reconstruction, a work-in-progress, and it is not guesswork but only the recovering, cleaning and repositioning of each small tessera that renders this reconstruction possible.” I strongly encourage the readers of Pray Tell to make The Eucharist in Pre-Norman Ireland part of their reading, if not to dispel any myths about a separate Celtic or Irish Eucharistic rite in this period, to observe a master of “holistic” liturgical studies incorporating written and non-written sources in re-constructing a portion of the mosaic of Christian worship practices.


  1. Historical research is indeed interesting especially when one discovers that the Eucharist is like a diamond with many different facets. Obviously, prior to when Pope Gregory the Great emphasized sacramentaries, presiders composed their own eucharistic prayers leading to more individualized Masses but all with the same intent. Thank you Michael for giving us an insight into your process of holistic discovery!

  2. This sounds like a fascinating book. Michael, thanks so much for the recommendation; it’s on my “wish list” now! I’m anxious to hear other readers’ thoughts on this book.

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