The Mac Durnan Gospels

McDurnan Gospels
The Mac Durnan Gospels (image Lambeth Palace Library)

The Mac Durnan Gospel is a beautifully illustrated, but little known Irish manuscript that now resides in the Lambeth Palace Library in London. A relatively small book, measuring just 15.9 cm by 11.1 cm in size, it contains the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). These are written in Irish miniscule script, a style of writing characterised by the use of small lettering, which was popular in Ireland during the 8th and 9th centuries AD.

St.John with Pen and Book (image Lambeth Palace Library)
St. John with Pen and Book (image Lambeth Palace Library)

An inscription found inside the book suggests that it was either written or commissioned by Máel Brigte mac Tornáin (Mac Durnan), an abbot of Armagh, whose death is recorded in 927 AD (Annals of Ulster). The book was subsequently given to King Aethelstan of England, possibly as some form of diplomatic gift. Aethelstan in turn bequeathed the manuscript to Christ Church, Canterbury, where it resided for most of the medieval period.

The Mac Durnan Gospel (Lambeth Palace Library)

The Mac Durnan manuscript is in essence a pocket gospel, a type of book which was favoured in Ireland between the 7th and 9th centuries AD. At least eight of these small but superbly illustrated gospels survive, with extant examples including the Book Of Moling, the Book of Cadmug and the Book of Dimma. Extremely portable, they were probably put to a variety of uses, including private prayer, public preaching and missionary work.


Henry, F. (1957) ‘An Irish Manuscript in the British Museum (Add. 40.618)’, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 87, No. 2, pp. 147-166

Keys, S. (1985) ‘King Athelstan’s Books’ in Lapidge, M. (ed) Learning and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England, Cambridge University Press, pp. 143-203


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