• Ali Isaac

where do you go to see the book of kells?

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

Answer: Not Kells!

Sadly, you have to go all the way to Dublin to see this famous manuscript, which now resides in the library at Trinity College.

The famous Book Of Kells is an illuminated manuscript of the four gospels of the New Testament written in Latin and highly decorated, it really is a work of art. It is believed to have been written around 800BC by Columban monks from Iona, and is named after the town of Kells because it was kept at the abbey there for many centuries.

Despair not, my friends, because you don’t have to go all the way to Dublin to view this masterpiece, oh no! For through the wonders of modern technology you can view the Book of Kells right here!

page from book of kells

Kells is a small town in Co Meath about twenty minutes drive from where I live. Its Irish name is Ceanannas, although it’s not really known what it actually means. In history, it has also been referred to as Kenelles, Kenlis, amongst other names, and it is suggested that these forms could derive from the Irish Ceann Lios, meaning ‘head fort’.

There is a restaurant in the town called ‘The Headfort Arms’, and yes, there is an ancient iron age fort here, too, but more about that later.

Ceanannas is not the prettiest of towns, built as it is on a major junction of busy roads, but with its book and its abbey, it certainly has a lot of history.

The abbey with its impressive round tower was founded in 804AD by Columban monks from St Columcille’s abbey in Iona who were escaping from marauding Vikings.

Later, as a border garrison of the Pale, Kells was the unfortunate site of many battles between the Breifne Irish and the Normans. Then, in 1641, Kells was burned by the O’Reilly clan. It survived, only to be ravaged fiercely by an Gorta Mór, the Great Famine which began in 1845 and lasted for seven years.

During the summer, I paid a visit to another of the town’s attractions. The Hill of Lloyd is named after Thomas Lloyd of Enniskillen, who camped with his army here during the wars of 1688-91 against the Jacobites.

Crowning the summit, the Spire of Lloyd juts 30m skywards, and dominates the landscape. Built in memory of the 1st Earl of Bective, Thomas Taylor, by his son, it takes the form of an 18th-century lighthouse folly topped with a glazed lantern, from which you can view the magnificent countryside.

It is said that on a clear day, you can see as far as the distant Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland. In fact, the tower was used in the C19th to watch horse racing and hunting.

Impressive though the tower is, that was not why I stopped by. Beside the monument lies another, far humbler monument known as the Paupers Grave. Here, the victims of the famine were buried, and in honour of their memory, mass is still said there once a year. Its a poignant place, with a peaceful aura, adrift with the whisper of long forgotten names.

Last year, a geophysical survey of the hill top found evidence of an early iron age/ late bronze age circular fort 100m in diameter dating from 1000BC to 500AD, which would have dominated the skyline. It was fortified with a circular ditch, a bank and palisade fencing, and its entrance pointed east towards Kells.

There’s nothing to see above ground, unfortunately, but a path leads you around its circumference, and is a pleasant, if somewhat overgrown, walk.

Image from Boyne Valley Tours. I know it looks flat, but it’s actually a big hill

The hill was known as Mullach Aiti, which became Mulloyde, now Lloyd.  The Hill fort guarded the approaches from the Kingdom of Bréifne (Cavan) to the ancient Kingdom of Midhe (Meath).

Fiery Queen Medbh was said to have camped here with her armies on her way to steal Ulster’s prize stud bull in the story of Táin Bó Cúailnge (“The Cattle Raid of Cooley”).