The Book of Pilgrims to Santiago

What the book is:

The Book of Pilgrims is handmade, fully bound in green leather and embossed in gold leaf. The paper is of the highest quality. It was made by a master craftsman, the late Des Breen, of Antiquarian Books in Rathfarnham, County Dublin, Ireland. Its quality is intended as an homage from our culture to the Camino de Santiago and an act of “giving back”. In the book are inscribed the names of Pilgrims from all over the world who have made the journey to Santiago de Compostela, with the month and date of their arrival. There are also illustrations of real quality. Occasionally there are short notes in the tradition of the margin notes or marginalia of the ancient Irish manuscripts.

Where it is kept and how to get your name into it:

The book is normally on display at the Pilgrim Office at St James’s Church, James’s Street, Dublin. This is the part of Dublin normally associated with the Camino with links extending back at least 800 years. References to the Book and how to become part of it are available also on our website:
For a small subscription – simply to cover costs – anyone who has completed the Camino and received the Compostela can have their name inscribed in the book. Think of it as a way of recording your Camino for posterity and making a work of art because that is what we are doing name-by-name, step-by-step, in exactly the way a Camino is made.

The significance of Irish Calligraphy:

We take books seriously in Ireland:

“According to tradition, sometime around 560, the Irish abbot and missionary Saint Columba became involved in a quarrel with Saint Finnian of Movilla Abbey over a psalter. Columba copied the manuscript at the scriptorium under Saint Finnian, intending to keep the copy. Saint Finnian disputed his right to keep the copy. Thus, this dispute was about the ownership of the copy (whether it belonged to Saint Columba because he copied it or whether it belonged to Saint Finnian because he owned the original). King Diarmait mac Cerbaill gave the judgement, “To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy.”

Here is that phrase in our native language: le gach bó a buinín agus le gach leabhar a chóip. (1)

Some say that this pronouncement by the High King is the first recorded copywrite decision. And if it is, then it’s a great one, because it is clear, commonsensical and succinct. But Columba did not agree and a great battle ensued. It resulted in around 3,000 casualties and the subsequent exile of St Columba (Colmcille).

The dominant script in the Book of Pilgrims is a modern variant of the insular script used in ancient Irish manuscripts. Our calligraphers are Noeleen Frain and Kevin Honan, members of Peannairi, the Irish Association for Calligraphy. Ann O’Clery has contributed some architectural drawings and watercolours of exquisite quality.

These days Irish calligraphy has lost its significance. Yes, people understand it to have importance, even cherish it, but people have lost some of their feeling for it. Just as, until some short years ago, we had lost our feeling for walking the Road.

Peannairí and Camino Society Ireland clg hope that interest in Irish calligraphy will revive. This book is an effort in this direction.

How did it happen, in the first place, that this very beautiful and clear – crystal clear – script developed in Ireland?

Professor Marie Therese Flanagan (Queens University Belfast) explains in an essay “The contribution of Irish missionaries and scholars to medieval Christianity”:

“Irish scribes abandoned the scriptio continua of their exemplars and introduced spaces between words and new punctuation marks, in a graded series that indicated the pauses according to a hierarchy of importance, that is the number of pause marks increased according to the importance of the pause. The Irish deployed and popularized other techniques such as giving more visual emphasis to the beginning of a text, and to sections within that text, deploying such strategies as enlarged or decorated initials and the use of diminuendo. Punctuation, layout, decoration, construe marks linking grammatically related words, were combined to facilitate access to the written word, to enable Irish students to grasp the Latin language whose syntax and word order were quite different from their own.” (2)

The idea that you would have spaces between words and punctuation has, thankfully, persisted and was surely an immense contribution to literature. But marks indicating pauses are no longer in use in literature. Stage directions such as “pause” or “long pause” are the closest we get. We get a hint here perhaps that the books were not only to be read but to be read from.

The Irish scribes had to make the language clear because Irish (Gaelic) was not a romance language, the Romans had never conquered (or even tried to conquer) Ireland so that Latin was not a spoken language here and therefore the written message of the Gospels had to be delivered as clearly as possible. All that beauty that is evident in Irish manuscript art, therefore, is the result of a search for clarity and accuracy and a rejection of obscurantism. All that beauty, therefore, is a result of the search for Truth.

Now, the phrase “Irish manuscript” needs to be handled carefully. The Book of Durrow produced sometime in the second half of the seventh century – 100 years before the Book of Kells – illustrates this point. (3) The book takes its name from the monastery at Durrow, Co Offaly, where the book was for 700 years and for the last 450 years has a been in the possession of Trinity College, Dublin. The book could have been produced in Durrow, or at Lindisfarne or in Iona, at any rate in one of the Columban familia of monasteries, a network that expanded from Colmcille’s work of spreading the Gospel. It is now to go on loan to the British Library for an exhibition of world importance called: “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War”.

What’s going on here? What’s “our” book doing at an exhibition on Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms?

It’s not simply “our” book but a work that flows from a conjuncture of cultures, a synthesis of influences from the Mediterranean, the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic worlds. The book is from the time before nationalism. It is meaningless to talk in terms of such separations as in “our” this or “their” that.

I suspect that the toxic pigments used in its creation such as iron gall, red lead, and arsenic sulphide also came from far and wide. The Book of Durrow as Dr. Claire Breay (lead curator of the exhibition at the British Library) has said “highlights the impact of the interconnectedness of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and Ireland. We see the same interconnectedness with continental Europe as well”. (4)

When we walk the Camino we see very early on that we are connected with the people we meet, and that nationalism as a separating force (which it so nastily is) does not survive even the first few steps.

That time Danny Sheehy and the Crew of the Naoimh Gobnait approached Santiago at the end of the famous Camino na Sáile expedition was the moment of the most intense Brexit debates and I was thinking then of the poets and dreamers like Danny and the others, who have visited places in Ireland, England, Wales, France, Spain, the Basque Country, Britany and Galicia and brought music, dancing, stories and songs, and who were received with warmth and hospitality and music, dancing, and I was thinking of those Brexiteers. I knew the leadership I preferred.

It is great that the Book of Durrow is going to the British Library for the exhibition.

While Irish calligraphy is a confluence of various influences what was going on here on this island, at the end of the known world, was quite extraordinary.


Kevin Honan explains to me that the Book of Kells is more than the solemn, venerated, significant tourist attraction in Trinity College Dublin, it is: “the work of unexampled complexity, beauty, artistic sophistication in the world at the time it was made. It is extraordinary in the daring of its design and in its endless imaginative resources. It takes everything, for example, that the Book of Lindisfarne has and drives it forward. Its wilder in design with evidence of masterly improvisations. Critics say that it is too uncontrolled, that it doesn’t have the restraint proper to a Gospel work. But that is the whole point about it – this supernatural wildness is what makes it great. Here in the Book of Kells, we have the celebration of the Gospels and here we have angels, otters, mice, men wrestling, cats chasing those mice, in a work which is just artistically out-of-sight in its magnificence. The books are not just reading material but symbolic statements of the centrality of the Gospels to life. They make a statement these books and they give a beautiful physical body to a text which deserves it. It’s like that distinction between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law. Calligraphy is the attempt to embody the spirit in the Gospel words.”

This great excitement with ideas, this exuberance that Kevin describes in the work of the
Calligraphers is surely derived from our island situation on the very edge of the known world and the welcome lack of imperial control. You could give these scribes the message but you could never quite control their expression of it just as you couldn’t control their means of spreading it. Dicuil, author of a cosmography “De mensura orbis terrarium” (“On the measurement of the earth”) for example, “tells of voyages by Irish monks beyond the northernmost islands of Britain to where the sea turned to ice; Irish solitaries were the first to establish Christianity in Iceland, and their adventures may perhaps have provided inspiration for some of the Brendan legends” (5). In their lives and in their literature they were pushing things to their limits and beyond. The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” reported the arrival in Britain on the Wessex coast in the year 891 of three Irishmen, Dubsláinne, Mac Bethad, and Maél Inmuin (6).  They had set out in a currach without oar or rudder “following where the Lord’s will would take them”. When they landed they headed directly for Alfred the Great’s Court. They were doubtless of the same kind as the Irish group who landed on the coast of Gaul and took themselves off to the local market, there to announce (like Oscar Wilde) that they had nothing to declare but their genius” (7).

The Calligraphers and Boatmen, they were surely cut from the same cloth? If you understand one set you will understand the other? At times perhaps they were one and the same? Were these calligraphers fairly wild, exuberant, adventurous, learned, innovative, reckless-at-times, highly-talented and creative? One suspects so. And remember also, that their range of learning and contribution to civilization was immense. They were very far from the Pharisees; as far as it’s possible to get. And incidentally, they had no small opinion of themselves as evidenced by their marginalia.

The significance of marginalia

As the Irish scribes dedicated themselves to their work of copying or transcribing precious words they sometimes also engaged in tremendous acts of originality and self-expression by writing their own thoughts in the margins of the text!

Sometimes it was just a note of protest at the working conditions and other times a work of poetry. You must marvel at this and you must love this! Here is precious ink, precious paper, and precious thought and on the margins, the person who is actually doing the job throws in a few observations of his own. There may be as much truth in the margins as there is in the text. There may be as much truth (indeed more) in the margins of our lives as in the big noble ideas. Sometimes its what you say to someone on the way into the Big Meeting or the Big Event – like “How’s it going?” or “How are all they all?” that’s more important than anything else, than any of the grand ideas expressed inside.

“Here is the text” these scribes seem to say and “Here’s how I’m feeling at this moment and all of it is important and even if it’s not important I’m writing it anyway – right here in the margins of the precious manuscript!”.

The scribe of the Book of Armagh remarked for example at the foot of the page that he had completed that piece of writing with just three dips of the quill (8). “Another Irishman, exasperated by the grammarian Priscian’s longwinded-ness greeted the close of one exposition with the brusque comment “he’s made his point at last!” (9).
And so, it was that sometime the 9th Century at Reichenau Abbey in Southern Germany, an Irish monk wrote a poem in the margins about his cat, Pangur Bán (white Pangur), and he compared the cat’s hunt for mice with his search for words saying that it was “a like task” they were at:

“Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light”
(translation by Robin Flower).

And it is wonderful to know that Spain, which has given us all so much, played its part in this flourishing of art and literature in Ireland as the following example shows.
The works of Isidore of Seville arrived to radically transform Hiberno-Latin studies in the seventh century (10). “By mid-century his most important writings, the “Etymologiae” and the De natura rerum (“On the nature of things”) were in general use with Irish authors, and by the end of the century all but one of his texts had arrived “ (11)
“So popular did he become in fact, and so esteemed were the “Etymologies” especially that the Irish referred to him affectionately as Issidir in chulmin (Isidore of the summit, i.e. of the summit of learning). In fact, tradition has it that the Irish literati were unable to recover the great native saga-tale “Tain Bó Cuailnge” in its entirely because someone had swapped it for the Spanish Fathers work!”

So, why cherish calligraphy in an age of beyond-print or why cherish walking when the bus, plane and train are available?

Well, the Book of Pilgrims is not a ledger. It does not just record the names of pilgrims to Santiago. It seeks to embrace and capture the Spirit of the Camino de Santiago. It comes to every Pilgrim wherever you are as a gift out of our culture to you. It comes to every single person living or working on the Camino who helps Pilgrims, wherever you are, as a way of saying thank you for what you have given us.
It’s one of our principal ways of giving back to the Camino and giving back is the fundamental purpose of Camino Society Ireland clg.

Our book is your book.
Turlough O’Donnell

References and Sources:

(1) Wikipedia
(2) The contribution of Irish missionaries and scholars to medieval Christianity by Marie Therese Flanagan. An essay published in Christianity in Ireland – Revisiting The Story by the Columba Press and edited by Brendan Bradshaw and Dáire Keogh ISBN I 85607350 5
(3) An article in the Irish Times on the 20th of September 2018 by Ronan McGreevy is my source for this information.
(4) Quoted in the above Irish Times article
(5) Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Hiberno-Latin literature 1169 A New History of Ireland Vol 1 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-821737-4 p 395
(6) ibid
(7) Ibid at page 396
(8) Ó’Cróinín at page 379
(9) ibid
(10) ibid 390
(11) ibid at page 390