Kells, County Meath

IMG_4212For 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.

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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. IMG_4260

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 It is agreed by most scholars that the Book of Kells originated in around 800 making it possible that it was originally made in either Kells or Iona.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.

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It is in St Columba’s Church that you can also see the plaque dedicated to my ancestor.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

IMG_4253IMG_4254The 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

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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

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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

IMG_6389The Book of Kells was absolutely worth the wait, it is truly remarkable.

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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:

Matthew

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The opening page of this gospel is portrait of Matthew

Mark

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The opening page of this gospel is the four symbols of the Evangelists.

Luke

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The opening of this Gopspel is the word QOU N IAM

John

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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:

Jesus

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and Mary

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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.

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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.

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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.

References:

Iona Past and Present with Maps by Ritchie 1934

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher De Hamel 2016

ISBN: 9780241003046

The Book of Kells by Bernard Meehan 2012

ISBN: 9780500238943

The Antiquities of Ireland Volumes I and II facsimile copy 1982

ISBN: 0946198020

The Story of Kells by  Leo Judge

ISBN: 18724901070

http://www.heritagetowns.com/kells.shtml

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)

 

 

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 22nd: Skellig Michael

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There is debate over when the Skellig monastery was first founded, but it was part of the early Christian monks’ attempts to find sanctuary, refuge, seclusion and closeness with God in distant and remote places. As a rock in the Atlantic 11.6 km off the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry, Skellig is about as remote as it gets.

The monastery was probably founded in around the sixth century, no one is entirely sure and I have been unable to find any real agreement on this date. It consists of a collection of drystone beehive huts that are as weathertight today as they would have been when they were built. The integrity of the construction is truly remarkable.

They would have been inhabited by a community of 12 monks and an Abbot. The conditions would have been harsh to say the least. We know they had fresh water because a rainwater collection system still exists, and works as well when it’s been cleaned out, but beyond that we don’t know much about their day to day existence. They would have lived and eaten very simply.

If the community of 12 on Skellig Michael was not remote enough then there was also a hermitage built high on another point of the rock, it’s almost a sheer cliff so currently inaccessible. It is possible that this was also a refuge during viking attacks of which there were several.

The first was in c. 795 CE. They were attacked again in 812 CE and again in 823 CE. Some records of this third attack remain beyond the fact that it occurred. It is recorded in the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Inishfallen that this time the Vikings took Etgal, the Abbott of Skellig Michael, and they starved him to death. There were also further attacks in 833 CE and 839 CE.

Somehow despite all this the Skellig community survived. It isn’t known exactly when monks ceased to live on the rock, but Gerald of Wales reported that they returned to the mainland to become part of the Augustinian priory in Ballinskelligs at the end of the 12th century, however other sources report that there was still repair work going on into the 1300s.

For more information and References see my extended post on Skellig.

https://historicalragbag.com/2015/06/14/skellig-michael/

The photos are all mine

 

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 21st: Clonmacnoise

Clonmacnoise1clonmacnoise2Clonmacnoise3Clonmacnoise  in County Offaly was founded on the banks of the Shannon River by St. Ciaran in 544.

St. Ciaran didn’t have the chance to lead the monastery he founded for long. Clonmacnoise was founded on the 23rd of January 544 and St. Ciaran died of the plague on the 9th of September 544, he was only 33.

Clomanoise has buildings from a variety of ages:  round towers, temples and high crosses from the 10th and 11th century, a cathedral,  temples and churches from the 12th century, an Anglo-Norman castle from the the 13th century and 17th century temples. Clonmacnoise has also been an important burial site since its inception, with everyone from kings to saints buried there.

Clonmacnoise was much more than a simple monastery however, it was a renowned school that was a seminary for all of Ireland not just the local area. Masters were chosen for their learning and their zeal and abbots were changed on a rotation from all around Ireland. Students flocked to the monastery from all over Europe. From the eighth to the tenth centuries if boasted a legendary Scriptorium.

In the Scriptorium monks copied and illustrated bibles and other classical works. This was the golden age of monastic arts and craft and exquisite Celtic motifs. In the community at the same time stonemasons were carving the spectacular high crosses you can see today.

Sadly Clonmacnoise wasn’t allowed to remain a peaceful site of learning. It was the object of many raids by vikings, local lords and once the Anglo-Normans arrived they enacted almost yearly raids. The monastery was burnt and rebuilt many times, either partly or wholly. The ultimate demise of Clonmacnoise was down to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It was reduced to ruins by the English garrison of Athlone in 1552. They carried away absolutely everything of value leaving the monastery devastated.

References:

Site visit 2015.

The Story of Clonmacnoise and St. Ciaran: History, stories and legends of Clonmacnoise ISBN: 9781782800217

The photos are all mine

 

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 19th: Drumlane Monastery

Drumlane 1Drumlane 3Drumlne 2The first monastery at Drumlane in County Cavan, Ireland was founded in the 6th century either by St Colmcille or St Maodhog.  The main building remaining from the original monastery is the round tower the lower part of which dates to the 10th or 11th centuries. The upper levels, which are much less well built, date probably to the 15th century.

The monastery was re-founded in the mid 12th century as a priory of Augustinian canons. They replaced the original wooden buildings and began building in stone. The buildings suffered extensive fire damage in 1246, they were burnt by the O’Rourkes, and most of what survives from the church now is from the 15th and 17th centuries.

Drumlane was for many years the site of a shrine that was said to contain relics of Saints Lawrence, Mark and Stephen. They were gifted  to Drumlane by Saint Mogue. It was believed that a false oath taken on the shrine would result in visible divine punishment. The shrine remained at the monastery until the beginnings of the 18th century when it was moved to parish priest of Drumlane. Then in 1846 it was borrowed and not returned, it eventually made its way to the national Museum in Dublin.

The abbey was dissolved in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but the church continued to be used as the parish church for another 200 odd years. The English crown granted some of the lands to the O’Reilly family.

 

References:

Site visit 2015

http://www.drumlane.ie/index.php?page=monestry

http://homepage.eircom.net/~milltownns1/hist.htm

 

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 18th: Boyle Abbey

Boyle2Boyle1Boyle3Boyle Abbey  in County Louth, Ireland was founded in 1161 with monks arriving from Mellifont Abbey another Cistercian abbey. It is unknown who actually founded the abbey, but the MacDermot family were early patrons.

The complex follows the standard Cistercian lay out, but carving work that has survived especially in the church is truly remarkable. The church was consecrated in 1218 but there was a pause in construction and you can see the difference in the style of architecture. The nave was probably completed between 1215 and 1220 but the overall building time for the church was roughly 60 years.  The carvings on the capitals in the church are largely of School of the West style. They’re unusual both because of their quality and because Cistercian monasteries of the time tended to be simple and austere. You can see some of the carvings in the photo above.

In 1202 Anglo-Norman baron William de Burgh in alliance with the King of Connacht sacked the abbey for three days. They broke and burnt everything and this  is probably what delayed the completion of the construction of the abbey church.

The abbey was raided again in 1235 by English forces, but this time at least compensation was paid.

Along with Jerpoint Abbey Boyle was part of the Conspiracy of Mellifont in 1227, a power struggle between the Irish and Anglo-Norman Cistercian abbeys. Along with all the other Irish abbeys the abbot of Boyle was deposed. In Boyle’s case it was put directly under the control of Clairvaux in France, one of the original Cistercian monasteries.

Boyle was dissolved in the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1584. This is significantly later than most of the monasteries and is largely due to Boyle’s remoteness and Abbot Glaisne O’Culleanain’s refusal to renounce Rome. He was eventually executed in Dublin for his lack of renunciation. Boyle was leased to William Usher from 1589 until 1599 and then until the 18th century it was under military occupation.

References:

Site visit 2015

OPW Boyle Abbey booklet

The photos are all mine.

 

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 17th: Kilmacduagh

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The monastic site in County Galway Ireland is made up of 6 key structures:

 

IMG_3409Heynes abbey or Heynes church: It was built in the first half of the 13th century and was originally supported by intricate columns with flowers on them.

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Glebe House: It was probably the abbot’s house and was originally built in the 14th century, but was significantly reconstructed later.

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Saint John’s Church: This is the oldest masonry on the site, with parts dating to the 10th century.

IMG_3400Our Lady’s church: A small 13th century church which might have been built with stone from an earlier church.  You can see it second from the left in the above photo, I sadly don’t have a closer photo.

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The Cathedral: The earliest part dates to the 11th century and was probably built to replace a wooden cathedral.

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The leaning tower: This round tower dates to the 10th century probably and at 102 feet is the tallest round tower in Ireland. For more information on round towers see this previous post.

Kilmacdaugh Monastery was founded by St Colman Mac Duach early in the 7th century. He built a monastery and church. St Colman presided over the diocese until his death in 814. It remained the seat of the bishop of Kilmacdaugh until the 16th century. The churches were plundered in the 13th century but Maurice, the bishop of Kilmacdaugh who died in 1283,  introduced a foundation of Augustinian canons. The canons survived until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid 1500s when the land and the site were granted to the Earl of Clanrickarde.

References:

Site visit 2015

Kilmacduagh: A short guide by James P. Hynes

http://www.libraryireland.com/topog/K/Kilmacduagh-Kiltartan-Galway.php

The photos are all mine

 

 

 

 

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 16th: Kells Priory, County Kilkenny

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IMG_2233The first Norman church at Kells was founded by Geoffrey FitzRobert de Marisco in 1183. Ten years later he invited the Augustinian canons from Bodmin in Cornwall to come to Kells, and the priory was established. He also built a Norman style town beside it. It is worth noting that this is not the Kells that the Book of Kells comes from, that’s in County Meath and you can see pictures and some information here.

The buildings at Kells have several different dates. The extremely dominating walls which are the first impression of the site date to the late 15th early 16th century. They exemplify the war like nature of the area in this time period, as does the fortified prior’s house which dates to the same era. The remains of the original complex are more densely clustered, including the priory church (the canons would have ministered to the local inhabitants, they were not cloistered), a cloister, a mills and brewery. The remains of the church most likely date to the 12th century at least in part. This was not a large community of canons, with between 3 and ten canons in residence during it’s history. That being said there would have been a laity working for and with the canons and the acreage that the priory covers was impressive. Even today it still occupies around 10 acres, making it one of the biggest monastic complexes in Ireland.

From the very beginning the history of the priory itself is largely one of conflict.  FitzRobert came out to Ireland with Strongbow in the 1170, Strongbow granted him 44 000 acres and he married Strongbow’s widowed sister Basila. Geoffrey was appointed Seneschal of Leinster by William Marshal in 1204, a post he held till 1208 and this brought him into conflict with King John. Geoffrey ended up as a hostage to King John as a guarantor for the Norman Barons in 1208. Geoffrey remained a hostage until 1211 when he died in Hereford.

This conflict was beginning of the distinctly warlike history of Kells priory. The priory was often at the heart of conflict, it was sacked a number of times. In 1252 Lord William de Bermingham burnt down the town of Kells and sacked the priory. In 1316 Lord Edward Bruce took possession of the town, though he didn’t damage it. Between 1308 and 1312 the last member of FitzRobert’s line died out and a series of landlords who were largely absent took over the priory, this led to the district being unprotected and frequent raids. Kells began to decline. In 1327 the town and priory was sacked and burnt again and over the next two hundred years it went back and forth between a few different lords, with the office of prior being a bone of contention amongst the local families.

Ultimately in 1540 it was dissolved as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The land was divided amongst the aristocracy who were loyal to Henry VIII. The majority went to James Butler, Earl of Ormond.

References:

Site visit 2015

A Brief History of Kells, Co. Kilkenny by Albert Smith 1993.

The photos are all mine.

 

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 15th: Jerpoint Abbey

Jerpoint1Jerpoint2Jerpoint3Jerpoint Abbey in County Kilkenny Ireland was founded in c. 1160 probably by Donal MacGillpatrick King of Ossory. However in 1180 it was taken over by Cistercians monks from Baltinglass Abbey in County Wicklow.

The tower and the cloister date to 14th and 15th centuries where as the remainder of the church and the chapter house and the refectory date to 12th and 13th centuries.

Jerpoint was at the heart of the the early 13th century power struggle in the Cistercian Order between the Anglo-Norman Abbots and the Irish Abbots. The Abbot of Jerpoint was deposed in 1217 for instigating the riot of Jerpoint. The General Chapter of the Cistercians had organised a visitation to Ireland to investigate reports of misconduct by the Irish Cistercians. When the investigator arrived at Jerpoint he was greeted with a riot involving Jerpoint and four other abbeys. The Abbot of Jerpoint was blamed. Matters came to a head in the Conspiracy of Mellifont when all the Irish abbots were deposed. Jerpoint was removed from Batlinglass and was made subject to Fountains in Yorkshire. The Irish affiliation was restored after about fifty years.

The carvings you can see in the photos above date largely to the 15th and very early 16th centuries. In 1442 the abbey was granted an indulgence to repair the cloister, bell tower, dormitory, other offices and chapel of St Moling after they pleaded poverty following the English Irish conflict at the time. The carvings on the tomb are apostles.

In 1228 the number of brethren at Jerpoint was fixed at 36 monks and 50 lay brothers, but by the time the abbey was dissolved in 1540 as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries it was down to the abbot and five monks. The possessions of the abbey went to James Butler Earl of Ormond.

References:

Site visit 2015

OPW Jerpoint Abbey booklet

https://www.hrionline.ac.uk/cistercians/abbeys/jerpoint.php