For a town with a population of not much over 6000 Kells has made an inordinately strong mark on Irish History.
It is best known as the original home of what is , arguably, the most famous illuminated manuscript in the world.
But while the Book of Kells is truly incredible, and I’ll talk more about it later, Kells itself (especially the abbey) has its own fascinating history. I am also slightly biased as some of my family comes from Kells and the surrounding area. A plaque to one of my ancestors can still be seen in the church at the abbey.
This post isn’t going to cover the entire history of Kells, there’s simply too much of it. It will, however, look at the early history of the town, the Book of Kells, and some of the key buildings in town.
So to begin at the beginning.
There were possibly people in the area before, but the history of Kells as a settlement dates back to the 6th century, when it was a fortification of the High King Diarmait mac Cerbaill. The site was gifted to Saint Colmcille who founded the abbey which remains today, though none of the exisiting building are contemporary.
The second image is an etching from the late 1700s.
Saint Colmcille (known in latin as Columba) was born to the ruling family of present day Donegal. Still standing in Kells today is Colmcille’s cell which dates around the 10th century. It is too late to actually have been used by Colmcille and was in fact probably an oratory that may have housed his relics, with some sleeping accommodation for some monks.
In roughly 561 Colmcille travelled to Scotland as a ‘pilgrim for Christ’ and to convert the Picts. In 563 he settled on Iona and founded the abbey there. It went on to be one of the most influential in the area inspiring the foundation of other houses, including Lindisfarne. In the 9th century Iona was subject to fearsome Viking raids and they relocated most of the community to Kells in 804. It is agreed by most scholars that the Book of Kells originated in around 800 making it possible that it was originally made in either Kells or Iona. It was definitely at Kells by 1007 when the Annals of Ulster record it as being stolen from the stone church in Kells.
This is not the church we see today. From 808 to 814 a new church was built, though it was rebuilt after the Viking raid of 920 and most likely again after other raids over the years. By 1655 it was well and truly in ruins and it was used as a horse barracks by Cromwell. The current church dates to 1788.
It is in St Columba’s Church that you can also see the plaque dedicated to my ancestor.
However there are parts of the site that do date to earlier. Firstly the round tower. Round towers are honestly one of my favourite structures ever and I’ve visited quite a number. You can find out more about their history in this previous post.
The Kells round tower dates to the 10th century and it is 90 feet tall without its roof, which would have been conical. Is has six floors and would probably have been accessed by ladders. There is still a lot of debate as to the purpose of round towers. It is possible that they were simply bell towers, part of the system of the call to prayer with the height made necessary by the size of the ecclesiastical sites. They may have also been symbols reaching towards the glory of God and illustrating the importance of the ecclesiastical site, conveying messages of spiritual and temporal power. There is also an argument, though currently thought of as a little less likely, that they were watch towers and were part of defence systems. They may have been built partly as a response to Viking and other attacks. The monks would have been able to climb in, store their treasures, burn the stairs to the door, keep the raiders out and possibly ring bells from the top of the tower to call for assistance. Essentially no one is absolutely certain as to their purpose. It is also plausible that there were multiple purposes, combinations of the possibilities listed above.
Kells Abbey also boasts three partly complete high crosses. There are between 60 and 70 high crosses remaining in Ireland (in varying states of repair), they are usually richly decorated often with biblical scenes and probably served as sermons in stone, telling the stories of the bible to the mostly illiterate population.
The 9th century south cross depicts: the crucifixion, the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the sacrifice of Isaac, Daniel in the lions den, the fall of man, the death of Able, Saints Paul and Anthony and the Evangelists.
The 10th century west cross depicts: the entry into Jerusalem, the presentation in the temples, the miracle at Canna, the baptism of Christ, Noah’s Arc and the fall of Able. There would have been more on the arms of the cross.
The 12th century east cross shows the crucifixion
There is also a north cross, of which only the stub remains and I don’t have a photo. In the town of Kells itself is the market cross, which unfortunately I didn’t see on my visit, so I don’t have a photo of it either.
The high crosses in the church yard were constructed in a time of great prosperity for the abbey and the town. By the tenth century it was the most important Columban abbey in Ireland. The downside was that as it was wealthy Kells became one of the most attacked towns in Ireland. In 951 a Viking raid was said to have carried off 3000 people and goods. By the 12th century Kells had been burned twenty one times and plundered seven times. These were not all Viking raids, several Irish kingdoms were also responsible. It was also not all raids. In 1152 the Synod of Kells was held and many laws were codified. It was in this period that the other treasure of Kells (apart from the Book of Kells) was probably made. the Crozier of Kells dates to the 9th 11th and 12th centuries and is housed in the British Museum.
By the time the Normans arrived in 1172 Kells (along with the rest of Meath) passed into the hands of Hugh de Lacey one of Henry II’s barons and one of the key Normans in Ireland. A castle was constructed in Kells in around 1176, though pretty much nothing remains today. The town’s walls were constructed by de Lacey in the early 1170s. The Normans also founded the abbey of St Mary and the priory of St John again pretty much nothing remains of the buildings.
Over the following centuries Kells suffered and profited with the fortunes of both England and Ireland. It was burned a number of times and rebuilt, it was caught in raids and rebuilt. Today it is a small Irish town steeped in history and its greatest legacy and claim to fame is the Book of Kells.
I’ll be using two of my favourite books to discuss the Book of Kells.
Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher De Hamel
It is a fascinating dialogue with some of history’s most interesting illuminated manuscripts. De Hamel not only tells the stories of the manuscripts, he traces his own journey in accessing the manuscripts. It is a truly remarkable read.
The Book of Kells by Bernard Meehan
This book is an in depth examination of the Book of Kells and contains truly incredible facsimiles of much of the Book of Kells. The photos you’ll see below are my pictures of images in Meehan’s book, I apologise for the glare in a handful of them.
So, as I explained earlier the first definite mention of the Book of Kells was when it was stolen in 1007. The Annals of Ulster describes it thus:
“The Great Gospel of Colum Cille was sacrilegiously stolen in the night from the Western Sacristy of the church of Cennas. It was the most precious object of the Western Would, on account of its covers with human forms. The Gospel was recovered after two months and twenty nights, its gold [probably a shrine it was housed in] having been taken off it and with a sod over it.”
The Book of Kells remains a ‘treasure of the Western World.’ It is a national monument of Ireland, it’s included on the Memory of World list put together by UNESCO, it’s been on Irish coins, Irish stamps and its designs and scripts are synonymous with Ireland. Today it is housed in Trinity College library in Dublin and attracts 520 000 people to view it each year, of which I was one in 2012. You can see the viewing queue below
The Book of Kells was absolutely worth the wait, it is truly remarkable.
But how did it come to end up in Dublin at Trinity College?
The Book remained in Kells until 1641 when Irish rebellion against Protestant settlers caused serious harm to Kells. The church would remain ruined for another forty years. It was decided the Book wasn’t safe there anymore so it was removed in Dublin probably in 1653 by the Governor of Kells Charles Lambert, 1st Earl of Cavan. Henry Jones the Bishop of Meath presented it along with the Book of Durrow to Trinity College. The Book entered popular consciousness in the early 19th century and at this time it was assumed that it dated to the 6th century and had been created by Columba. Queen Victoria was shown it as the book of Columba. In 1874 it was described as the oldest book in the world, which is definitely not true. The Queen’s visit and the Exhibition in Ireland generated even more interest and the Book became cemented in the consciousness of Ireland.
The Book of Kells is a manuscript of the four Gospels:
The opening page of this gospel is portrait of Matthew
The opening page of this gospel is the four symbols of the Evangelists.
The opening of this Gopspel is the word QOU N IAM
The opening of this Gospel is a portrait of John.
The evangelists aren’t the only portraits in the Book of Kells. Other key biblical figures feature as well. Such as:
Along with others. It is reasonable to assume that originally portraits of Mark and Luke were probably also intended. They may have been lost over the years. The Book of Kells has been rebound at least five times. One of the most disastrous was the rebinding in 1826 by George Mullen. He trimmed the pages so he could gild them (losing decoration in the process), he painted some of the margins with purple wash and filled in all the natural holes in the vellum with new vellum.
The current binding was undertaken in 1953 by Roger Powel, many of Mullen’s additions were removed and Book of Kells was split into four volumes, one for each Gospel. The Book of Kells has had a hard life and it is remarkable that any of it has survived.
It is a symbol of a time of learning and culture. The detail is extraordinary as is the depth of colour, even in the pages that are predominately writing.
The work is very Celtic, very much of its time. We have no hope of understanding what all the symbols and imagery would have meant to the people of the time. We can, though, appreciate it for its beauty and have the enjoyment of trying to understand the people who could have made something this exquisite.
The Book of Kells will always be inextricably be linked with the town of Kells, as it should be. But as I hope I’ve shown, the Book is not the only worthwhile part of the history of Kells. This small Irish town has been at the heart of Irish history for centuries, it is well worthwhile being celebrated in its own right.
Iona Past and Present with Maps by Ritchie 1934
Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher De Hamel 2016
The Book of Kells by Bernard Meehan 2012
The Antiquities of Ireland Volumes I and II facsimile copy 1982
The Story of Kells by Leo Judge
The photos are all mine apart from the photo of the plaque and one photo of the church which are by Penny Woodward (used with permission)