BY ANTHONY QUINN
AN ABBOT has unearthed an extraordinary collection of historic documents and forgotten rare books which had been gathering dust in the cellars of his priory.
Father Chris O’Brien, the head of the Servite Priory at Benburb, is an avid book-collector with a mission.
Dressed in a woollen cardigan and sporting a distinguished grey beard, he could easily pass as an academic or librarian. But the books in his care are more fragile and astonishing than those to be found in any ordinary library.
Standing by a narrow winding staircase, he leads us down into the monastery’s dimly-lit cellars, a place where ordinary members of the public are seldom admitted.
Secret libraries found in monasteries have become a source of fascination and myth since Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose which featured a labyrinthine library and a hidden book holding the clue to a murderer’s identity.
And depending upon how much faith you have in Dan Brown’s novels, monastic libraries might contain documentary evidence of earth-shattering secrets such as Mary Magdalene’s real relationship with Jesus.
Unlocking a series of doors, Fr O’Brien guides us into a chambered room with a tiny barred window and dark wooden shelves filled with hundreds of ancient books.
Running his hand along a shelf, he lifts down a Latin book of meditations dating to 1588. The book is almost as thick as it is wide, its yellowed pages remarkably clear of the ravages of time and human hands.
Then, with considerable effort, he lifts down a huge volume with a shredded leather cover, which turns out to be a King James Bible printed in 1680.
The secret library, parts of which has been transported from the order’s English and Italian monasteries, contains some of the earliest and most lavishly illustrated books of medieval Christianity, as well as an extensive collection of books on Irish history and centuries-old artefacts.
Within the cellar rooms, we find accounts of the lives of countless saints, medieval theological tracts, the collected writings of Augustine published in 1626, and books documenting miracles and legends.
The ancient texts are written in Latin, Hebrew, Irish and French.
There are rare fictional and philosophical works dating from the 19th Century including bound copies of Dickens novels when they were serialised in periodicals.
One of the rooms is dedicated to books on Irish literature, history and language including early copies of Bedel’s Irish bible, and the Annals of Loch Ce.
Some of the most fragile documents include lavishly detailed architectural drawings by Pugin, the father of the Gothic revival in the British Isles.
There are also copies of historic acts such as the 1695 Act for the Better Securing the Government by disarming the Papists, as well as the Acts of Settlement.
The archive of documents relating to the Servite Order itself contains details of a centuries-old dispute with the Vatican state, a collection of papers relating to the Counter-Reformation, as well as working documents on the Second Vatican Council.
Fr O’Brien has personally overseen the transportation of many of the books and documents from the Servite Order’s other monasteries throughout Britian.
A number of the books which have migrated to the Benburb priory were once housed in Italian abbeys but were moved when a wave of anti-clericalism swept through the country after reunification in the latter half of the 19th Century. Now Fr O’Brien is hoping to preserve the collection for future generations in a specially designed library at the priory.
“We are considering a number of grant applications to bodies such as the Heritage and Lottery Fund, and are also seeking assistance from the local council”, he said.
“Our aim is to make this library more accessible to the public, and to house it in a safe environment.
“The books will certainly be of interest to historians, and anyone who wants to discover more about the Servite Order.
“The library fills four store rooms at the minute and it would be beneficial for all to have it housed in a secure modern building.”
However, when it comes to viewing the Servite’s own archive, browsing will be strictly forbidden.
Anyone who wishes to view the secret archive will have to say what document they wish to look at, said Fr O’Brien.
Before leaving, he points out a nine-volume collection of theology dating from the 1600s. When he arrived at the monastery, eight years ago, one of the volumes was missing, he remarked.
After much searching, he discovered it on top of a piece of furniture. It was being used as a weight to keep a curtain in place.