The town of Kells was originally known as Ceannus Mor, meaning “Great Residence”. Founded as a monastic settlement by St Columcille in the 6th century, the original settlement was built on a circular pattern, still evidenced by the current layout of the modern streets.
The Book of Kells
The town is best known as the origin of the famous Book of Kells. The manuscript – a unique, hand-illustrated medieval version of the Gospels – now resides at Trinity College in Dublin. In its early years, the monastery at Kells was considered one of the great religious centres of Western Europe. A few replicas are however on display in the town, including at the Civic Offices, and the Church of Ireland. In flight from the Vikings in the 9th century, a group of monks from the island of Iona took up residence here.
A centre of Irish monasticism and learning in the early Christian period, Iona has been a Scottish territory since the middle ages. Many historians claim the monks brought the famous Book– then a work in progress, or perhaps even completed – with them. Records say that the treasured tome was stolen in 1007, because of its rich golden case, and then hidden – buried in a nearby bog where it was found months later.
Impressive remnants of the Ionan community can still be found in Kells today. The best-preserved part of the monastic settlement is St. Columcille’s House, which sits among the town’s modern dwellings. Once a church that housed the relics of St. Columcille, visitors can access the room where, according to local tradition, the Book of Kells was completed. This a small two-chambered vault just beneath the roof at the top of a metal stairway.
The house is also unusual for its architecture -- it is made entirely of stone blocks, with a stone roof, using no cement or mortar. This is a technique that is found in many oratories in early Christian Ireland -- for example, the Gallarus Oratory in county Kerry. You can find St. Columcille’s house located just behind St. Columba Church. Note: the house is usually kept locked, but may be opened upon request. See the notice posted on the gate of the house (this may involve making a phone call or knocking on a door of a nearby caretaker)!
This 10th century cloighteach (bell tower) is 90 feet tall, when measured from the original ground level. There was no stairwell -- the upper floors were reached only by ladders. The purpose of the tower was to sound an alarm during attacks on the town, and also to serve as a place of refuge.
In the churchyard stands an impressive round tower, along with some High Crosses. The Market Cross is most unique, engraved with ornate versions of biblical stories. Near the Market Cross is the Old Court House, which now houses the Heritage Centre. Here, you can take in an audiovisual presentation about the origins of the Book of Kells, and can view actual pages with the aid of touch screen computers.
The Centre also contains a model of the monastic settlement as it looked circa 800 AD, and some interesting replicas of other treasures that are now located in the National Museum.
Kells is located about 50km northwest of Dublin on the M3 motorway.