By Yvette Campbell, Assistant Librarian, Special Collections & Archives
As Assistant Librarian working on the Russell Library Cataloguing Project, I am often in the fortunate position of becoming intimately familiar with the historical collections of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. Whilst carefully describing each book, pamphlet, or manuscript, I have found that it is often the little things that can surprise and delight.
From time-to-time, I have unearthed pieces of ephemera hidden within the pages of an early printed book; a hand-pressed flower, personal photographs, handwritten letters, poetry, mysterious inscriptions, squashed insects, and even a four-leaf clover preserved within the pages from long ago!
Cataloguing the personal collection of Father Corkery, former librarian of St. Patrick’s College, was no different in this regard. It was such a joy to re-discover a personal handwritten letter in the pages of a booklet marking the centenary of John’s Lane Church in Dublin.
The letter in question was written by a friend of Fr. Corkery in 1962 enquiring about the lost Seal of St. Augustine by the Liffey that was used for marking documents in Dublin almost 650 years ago. It had apparently survived in Dublin until circa 1902 after which there doesn’t appear to be any further mention of its existence. It moved to the Protestant Church of St. Nicholas Within and after the closure of this church in the late eighteenth century, all the possessions including this seal passed to St. Audeon’s Church in Dublin.
The author wishes to know if Fr. Corkery had ever come across it in his extensive travels. After enquiring about his recent trip to America, the author writes as follows:
“Did you ever in your travels around museums, churches, libraries etc. & in meeting with collections of antiquities come across th[is] ancient seal…”
He asks Corkery further if it ever reached Maynooth, as it may have been found in libraries or museums. This letter was re-discovered in a booklet which helpfully includes an image of the seal itself, accompanied by a brief article regarding its history at the time of publication (1962).
The seal was a plaque of brass measuring almost two inches across. It has an engraving of four Augustinian figures, two on each side facing inward, and gazing reverently with uplifted hands at a crescent moon, above which hangs a star.
The style of lettering and punctuation indicate that it was made circa 1300, possibly in the early or middle period of the reign of Edward III. It was most likely made by the King’s coiner and brought by the Augustinians from England to Dublin. The outer inscription much abbreviated reads:
‘Sigillum capital provincialis heremitarum ordinis sancti Augustini in Anglia’
‘Seal of the Provincial Chapter of the Hermits of the Order of St. Augustine in England’
The four figures represent the four Definitors of long ago. The crescent moon represents Our Lady, while the star represents St. John the Baptist. The article concludes with sadness that the seal survived in Dublin 119 years ago and cannot now be found.
This interesting letter naturally provoked my curiosity and I immediately went about investigating. I searched through our copies of ‘St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Museum of Ecclesiology’ and the Tóstal catalogue from 1955 but unfortunately found nothing.
Perusing through our various newspaper databases that we subscribe to at Maynooth University, I found a reference to the seal through the Irish Newspapers Archive from the same year that the letter is dated, which includes an appeal on the missing seal, thought to be in private hands.
We would love to know how Father Corkery replied to this intriguing request, and if he indeed came across this seal whilst on his travels. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the seal ever made its way to Maynooth. Despite it all, it was wonderful to have the opportunity to scroll through our fantastic newspaper database. It was even more fun to play a detective/archaeologist while it lasted!
- Augustinian Order. (1962). Church of St. Augustine and St. John the Baptist : centenary 1862-1962, Dublin. Dublin: Augustinian Community, John’s Lane, Dublin.
- Breen, P. J. (1995) St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Museum of Ecclesiology. Maynooth University
- Frazer, W. (1879). ‘Description of the Brass Matrix of an Ancient Seal Belonging to the Augustinian Hermits, with an Account of the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, near Dublin, and Observations on the Symbolism of the Crescent Moon and Star’ Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Polite Literature and Antiquities, 2, 465-471. Retrieved January 27, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20651546
- ‘Missing for 60 Years’, The Irish Independent, 22 November 1962. Retrieved: 12 February 2021, from Irish Newspapers Archive.
- St. Patricks College Maynooth (1955). St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth museum. An Tostal display 1955. Maynooth University.
- ‘Search for a Seal’, The Irish press, 21 November 1962. Retrieved: 12 February, 2021, from Irish Newspapers Archive.