Clear evidence is to be presented that the Book of Kells, Ireland’s greatest treasure, was made by the monastic community of St Brigid run by women at Kildare and that the scribes and illuminators of the book were likely to have been women.
Francis O’Reilly, an independent researcher, will present this evidence in a paper at the 2019 Irish Conference of Medievalists in Cork on Saturday 29 June.
It will be shown how the 7th century Kildare life of its saint, Brigid, and the Book of Kells can be used to understand each other. The theme of a woman who can compel a man unifies both.
His research will show that Kildare in its Life of Brigid was claiming primacy for its bishop in Ireland, yet asserting that at Kildare this archbishop was subject to the abbess. In the Book of Kells, Brigid was portrayed as the Goddess who can compel any man. She is depicted as the Virgin in the Virgin and Child page and the Celtic Goddess with sovereignty over God and man who could take dragon-form.
He claims that for the Kildare Life of Brigid, written in Latin, a male author pseudonym was adopted to make the same point, Cogitosus.
"They went so far as to have this fictional man open the life by punning on his name, writing “Cogitis me” ‘I am compelled’," Francis O'Reilly said.
"In the Book of Kells, the creation of the book itself is represented as the work of women and it’s likely it was created by women. This can only have taken place at Kildare. The received theory that it was made at an all-male community associated with St. Colm Cille, at either Iona in Scotland or Kells in Co Meath, rules women out as its creators."
Sr Phil from Solus Bhride in Kildare town has welcomed the claim. "This has only come to our attention now and we are excited about it and wish that it were true. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility."
Meanwhile links have been made prior to this with Kildare and the Book of Kells. The 12th-century writer Gerald of Wales, in his Topographia Hibernica, described seeing a great Gospel Book in Kildare which many have since assumed was the Book of Kells. Since Gerald claims to have seen this book in Kildare, he may have seen another, now lost, book equal in quality to the Book of Kells, or he may have misstated his location
The original Book of Kildare, was always said to have been found at St Brigid's cathedral, which historians believe may have been even more impressive than the Book of Kells.