Vikings, Rebels, Saints and Scribes: The Heritage Town of Kells

May 30th, 2016

The Secret of Kells

Continuing north from Tara, my next stop on the 109 was to Kells (Gaelic: Ceanannas).  Kells has a rich history and I had been reading and learning about it prior to my journey.  I had recently discovered a film called The Secret of Kells, a brilliant animated production telling the tale of an illuminated manuscript, while exploring the mythology of this incredible country.  As a lover of both animation and mythology, this has become one of my favourite movies and I was extremely excited to immerse myself in that history.

Threat of Invasion

In the 8th and 9th centuries, vikings pillaged even the most remote areas of the UK and Ireland and monastic settlements fell under their relentless assaults.  Holy islands such as Lindisfarne and Iona were raided, burned and pillaged. Settlements were massacred repeatedly for over a century, until they were abandoned.  Precious books and metal wear were hidden, quickly buried or sent away to what was hoped to be a more secure location inland.  It is said that this is how Ireland’s most famous book, the “greatest of all surviving Gospel codices” arrived in Kells.  

Illuminated Script

The Book of Kells is the epitome of the illuminated manuscript and a great relic of the Western world. It took around 185 calfskins to use as vellum pages on which to scribe the four gospels of the Christian bible in Latin. The monks here had as many as 1200 cattle, used for leather, food and vellum!  A number of interesting dyes were used to colour the illustrations, including ultramarine blue dye thought to be drawn from the Lapis Lazuli stone from the Middle East.  The decorated full coloured pages are called Carpet Pages. Reeds and feathers were used as quills. Monks laboured endlessly. One bored scribe even went so far as to write near the end of the book, “very long, very verbose and very tedious for the scribe”.

After viewing this most famous Irish codex the day before at Trinity College and armed with what little knowledge I had already garnered, I loaded up a walking tour guide on my iPhone (download here for free) and stepped off the bus in the heritage town of Kells.

Founding of Kells

The monastery at Kells was founded by Columcille in the 6th century. Columcille (or Colmcille) was just a nickname, meaning Dove of the Church.  His real name was Crimthann, meaning ‘fox’ but he’s better known as St. Columba, one of Ireland’s patron saints. The Book of Kells was completed by the monks here, in the early 9th century.    

The Old Court House

The walk begins at the Old Court House.  I’m alone in the streets as I put my earbuds in to hear the audio tour, that is until a school nearby is let out and a whole parade of 8-10 year olds strut across the path ahead of me as I stare up at the old Court House.  I have to wait until they pass before snapping this shot.  One boy walks along the bricked ledge of the building, slowing climbing around, before hopping down and scurrying to catch up to his schoolmates.

The courthouse was built in 1801 by commission of Lord Headford and designed by Francis Johnston who also designed the General Post Office & Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin.  It replaced the old courthouse which used to be housed in Kells Castle.  The castle was built in 1178 by Hugh De Lacy, first Norman Lord of Meath as a counter to Strongbow’s hold on Ireland.  By the 1800’s the castle had fallen derelict and was torn down and around the same time this courthouse was built.

Market Cross

The 9th century Market Cross, known as the ‘cross of the gate’ sits in front of the Old Court House.  It was originally located at the eastern gate of the monastery.  It symbolized a place of sanctuary for fugitives entering the monastic area.  Ironically enough, it’s believed to have been used to hang the captured Irish Rebels after the 1798 rebellion.  Known as Croppies for either their farming roots or for cropping their hair in the new revolutionary French style, the Rebels resisted English domination of their country.  Their efforts were immortalized in “Requiem for the Croppies”, a poem by Seamus Heaney.  The cross was damaged in the 17th century by Oliver Cromwell’s army.

The Cross’s panels depict biblical stories and celtic spirals influenced by neolithic tombs. Christ in the tomb and his mourning disciples are among the visible images.  These panels would have been used by clergy to teach the largely illiterate population and once would have been painted in vivid colours.  Imagine the colourful cross in it’s glory days as entrance to the monastic site!

St John’s Cemetery

Further up the road is St John’s Cemetery and the ruins of Kells priory of the Knights Hospitallers of Saint John of Jerusalem.  Hugh De Lacy’s son, Walter invited the Knight’s Hospitallers here in 1199 and set up the Hospital of Crutched Friars of St John the Baptist.  Founded in Italy in 1113 the Knight’s Hospitallers protected pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. Once both a military and religious order, these days they have evolved into the ambulancemen of the Order of Malta, operating in 128 countries, providing ambulance services, emergency shelter and soup kitchens.   

During King Henry VIII’s reign (Reformation), monasteries were being dissolved and the church was the only structure left of the priory. In 1539 the property was surrendered to Henry VIII. Soon after, it would have began it’s use as a burial ground.  By the mid 17th century the church was barely still standing. In 2002 the wall was reinforced to prevent the graveyard from spilling out onto the street. (It’s right beside the road and the cemetery is like a tall raised bed)

Tombstone Blues

It’s a strange feeling, walking through this medieval cemetery, past erects crosses and fallen tombstones.  Up here in the raised graveyard, under the sheltered branches of yew trees, the air is still and I delicately pick my steps, meandering among the grave markers trying to decipher dates, names and symbols.  Luckily there is a map of the graveyard and it becomes a puzzle trying to track down the different headstones.  The earliest dated stone is 1720, but an undated carved Celtic Cross was common in centuries prior and the graveyard contains a number of those.

I am able to track down the 19th century gravestone, an early Christian stone cross and some graves with the simple celtic cross.  One nearly 240 years old reads Fargus Gibney 1779, another 1759 and another the gravestone of a child of ten. Near the back of the graveyard sits a large medieval effigy, a grave slab picturing a lady in a linen dress (wimple) wielding a stick. She is known as “The Abbess” despite the more probable guess that it is actually a depiction of a knight of the priory in full chain mail armour.

It is fascinating to see the old stones and learn the history, but I am ready to reenter the world of the living and continue up the road into the centre of the town.

Town Hall

My next stop is the Town Hall, which was built as Kells first bank in 1853.  Today, it’s a tourist office and I pop in to see some of the facsimile relics of the Book of Kells and artwork from The Secret of Kells film depicting the invasion of Kells.


Parnell Garden

Just across and up the street a short way is Parnell Garden.  The garden features a sycamore tree trunk sculpted into “The Angel of the Past”, by local artist Patrick Morris. The sycamore would have been standing tall in 1867 as Charles Stuart Parnell addressed the people of Kells about Irish tenant land rights. After his rallying speech, the crowd cheered and carried him on their shoulders and then even unhitched his carriage horses so they could pull it themselves!  They must have really loved him!


I’ve reached the crossroads, now a busy intersection, where the Market Cross and Kells Castle would have once stood. The audio guide leads me up to the top of the hill to the remains of Kells monastic site, through the walls marking the original limit of the monastery.

The Abbey of Kells

In the 6th century, Diarmuid Mac Caroll (Cerbaill) High King of Tara granted the dún of Ceanannas (Kells) to his cousin Columcille to establish a monastery.  After disputes with Diarmuid, (particularly the first ruling of copyright law that ultimately sparked a battle causing the death of three thousand men on the slopes of Benbulbin at Cooldruman, Sligo!) Columcille left for Iona with his disciples under self-exile and started up a monastery there. Much later, after Columcille’s death, his monks returned in the 9th century to rebuild the site.  Built in 1778 the present St. Columba’s church stands on the site of the original Columban monastery. In 1132 a synod was held in Kells, bringing the Celtic Christian Church inline with Rome and converting the monastery into a cathedral with a diocesan structure.   The spire was erected in 1783.

High Crosses

Kells arguably has the most important collection of high crosses in Ireland and even someone with little to no religious background can’t help but marvel at their intrinsic beauty. There are 3 high crosses and a cross base on this site. As with the Market Cross, the biblical images would have been painted and used for religious instruction.

The 9th century Broken Cross or West Cross was once the highest of the Kells high crosses before being damaged in the mid 17th century while Cromwell’s soldiers were garrisoned here.  The top may be buried somewhere on the grounds.

The East Cross, despite being unfinished, is of interest because it shows the making of the cross, using panels slotted together.  

The South Cross also known as the Cross of St. Patrick and Columba was also crafted in the 9th century. It once bore their names in Latin and an inscription by the artist ‘Muirdeach made this’.

The Round Tower

Now, onto the architectural feature I was most wanting to see.  The 10th century round tower would have made a great lookout, for early detection of invaders. The tower is 30m high from street level to roof.  There are 6 floors but no staircase, they would have used ladders and the doorway is about 3.6m above ground. There are 5 top windows, overlooking the 5 ancient roads and town gates. The annals mention the murder of a new high king in the round tower in 1076.

During the 10th century, the abbey was repeatedly sacked and pillaged by The Vikings. Treasures from the church would have been rushed into the round tower from a nearby porticus for safekeeping during invasions. Miraculously, the monks managed to keep the Book of Kells safe, until it was stolen in 1006.  Luckily the manuscript was discovered after two months, albeit missing it’s elaborate bejewelled cover and some of the illustrations near the cover pages.

Columcille’s House

Further up the hill is Columcille’s House. This house or oratory is an amazing feat of architecture, built out of necessity. It is constructed entirely of angled stone, most likely as a defensive measure against it being burned by Vikings.  Well, it worked and St. Columba’s house is still standing 1000+ years later.  Relics may have been housed here and legend has it there is an underground passageway from here to the church.  In fact, the book may have been finished inside this house before being transferred to the porticos of Columba’s church in the monastic site.

Apparently, in order to see inside you need to go pay a visit to Ms Carpenter, a few doors down the hill on Church Lane and retrieve the key.  Now, this might sound right out of a storybook, but that’s just what Ireland is like! 

Unfortunately, the afternoon sun is waning and so is my mood. All I can think about is food and I didn’t have the energy to get into what could be a long bout of Irish pleasantries.  There is really no small talk in Ireland, instead you’re likely to hear a whole life story upon first meeting and I just wasn’t physically or mentally prepared for that, so I decided to play it safe and just wander back into town to find a restaurant.  In retrospect, Ms Carpenter probably would have had fresh baked bread or pastries to share with guests, so perhaps I made the worst mistake by not rapping on her door.

Back Through Town

Knowing I was missing out on interesting history and a social visit, but being too hungry to care, I quickly took one photo of the Spire of Lloyd, Ireland’s only inland lighthouse, from the top of St. Brigid’s Terrace. The Spire sits on the camping grounds of important historic figures such as Queen Maeve (Medbh) & Edward The Bruce.  I walked speedily back down the hill, making a quick pop by Bective Square to finish the audio tour.

Local artist Betty Newman Maguire recently sculpted a lovely bronze oak tree in this square in honour of Columcille’s love of oak trees. I finished up the audio tour and then I headed straight into the nearest place selling chips. This demonstrates that hunger is often my main weakness. Well, the restaurant had beer too, so…

Anyways, it was a somewhat rushed, lonely meal in the nearly empty Kelltic Bar on Market St, but I was grateful for the food and the vegetarian options on the menu. Tuckered out and ready to catch the bus home, I crossed the street to the bus stop.  I knew when the bus was scheduled to arrive, but I ended up boarding a charter express bus instead that only made one or two stops on the way back to Busaras in Dublin.  I’m not even sure if it was the same bus company, but they honoured my return ticket (so kind) and I nestled into the plush seats of this pleasant surprise of a vehicular upgrade.

Return to Dublin

The countryside swept by and back in Dublin I walked the now familiar route down Talbot St to the Spire and up Moore Lane, past the empty market stalls which had been bustling that morning. I stopped to get some beer for the guys and flowers for the girls who let me share their tiny flat for the past few days. Sebastian was back after a weekend of apartment hunting in Galway and I had to introduce him to what was my favourite pub in the city, one which he had never come across in the many months he had been living here.  

It was only a few short blocks from home base and for the second time is as many days, I rung the buzzer of the nondescript door of Hacienda Bar, hoping Shay would let us in.  Such a gracious host he is indeed. We enjoyed cheaper pints than most other Dublin pubs offer, met some new friends and played some pool.  After seeing all the photos on the wall of the pub of bar owner Shay with the many rock n rollers and famous actors who visit this fine establishment, I got Sebastian to take my photo with Shay (who insisted on donning his cool shades first), before we headed out the door.  Another fun night in Dublin and my last for awhile, as in the morrow I am heading south and west by train and bus, right across the country, with a quick stop in Killarney then along the Ring of Kerry to Cahersiveen, Skellig Michael and the Wild Atlantic Way!

Keeping The Light On

It’s incredible to fathom the importance of this rugged island country, and the tiny communities therein. As Europe was plunged into the Dark Ages, it was the small places like Kells that kept the light of knowledge safe.  The monks and scribes who resided here worked endlessly and risked their lives to preserve the histories of civilization.  Without their sacrifice, the world would be a very different place.

“If there were no books, all knowledge would be lost for eternity” – The Secret of Kells


wanderer, adventurer, dreamer

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