The Round Tower in Kells, Co Meath ... a monastic site dating from the ninth, or even the sixth century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
On my way back from Cavan to Dublin last weekend, I stopped briefly in Kells, Co Meath, to see the ancient monastic site, the high crosses and the round tower.
Kells (Irish Ceanannas, Ceann Lios, “head fort,” or Ceannanas Mór) is off the M3, 16 km from Navan and almost half-way between Cavan (50 km) and Dublin(65 km).
Until the M3 opened three years ago, Kells was a busy junction town and well known as a bottleneck on the N3. Now the town is quieter, with a lot less traffic, although Kells has expanded in recent years, becoming a dormitory town for many Dublin commuters, with a population of 2,257.
A monastery, church and cathedral
The present Church of Ireland parish church, Saint Columba’s, and its grounds mark the original monastic site in Kells, associated with Saint Colmcille, or Saint Columba, and withboth the Book of Kells, now in the Library in Trinity College Dublin, and the Kells Crosier, which is the British Museum.
Tradition says the Abbey of Kells was founded by Saint Columba around the years 550-554 on the site of a former Irish hill fort. According to the Book of Lismore, King Diarmait or Dermot, High King of Ireland, granted the Dun or Fort of Kells to Saint Columba to establish a religious community.
The abbey received a new lease of life or was refounded in the early ninth century when the Columban monks fled Iona, the island monastery founded in Scotland by Saint Columba, to escape repeated invasions and raids by the Vikings. The move began in 804 and in 807 the Columban monks transferred their principal monastery from Iona to Kells. In 814, a new church was completed and the Abbot of Iona, Ceallach, moved to Kells. After further Viking raids, more goods and relics were transferred from the abbey to other Columban houses, including Raphoe in Co Donegal, Dunkeld in Scotland and the Abbey of Kells in Co Meath.
However, the monks did not escape the Vikings completely. The Vikings continually raided Kells during the tenth century, and the abbey was sacked and pillaged repeatedly. Throughout these constant raids, the monks kept the Book of Kells intact until 1006, when it was stolen. It was returned two months later without its cover, and with illustrations missing at the beginning and end of the book. Nor were the Vikings the only threat to Kells – in 1117, the Abbot and Community of Kells were killed in a raid by Aedh Ua Ruairc.
A major synod of the church met in Kells and in nearby Mellifont in 1152, and this Synod of Kells completed the transition of the Church in Ireland from a church organised around the monasteries to a church organised in dioceses. This Synod of Kells raised Kells to diocesan standing, making it the diocese for the Kingdom of Breffni and the monastic church a cathedral in its own right.
At the end of the 12th century, Hugh de Lacy was granted all of Co Meath. Under the Anglo-Normans, religious life flourished in Kells, which became a border town garrison protecting the Pale. When a Cistercian monk tried to assert his rights as Bishop of Kells in 1185, he was ejected by the Bishop of Clonard, who assumed the title of Bishop of Meath. When the last Bishop of Kells, M Ua Dobailén, died in 1211, the Diocese of Kells was absorbed into the Diocese of Meath by Bishop Simon Rochfort. The Diocese of Kells came to an end after 60 years, and the former abbey church and cathedral became the parish church of Kells, known as Saint Columba’s.
Kells was burned again by Edward Bruce in 1315. The monastery was dissolved in 1551, but the church remained the parish church of Kells.
Decorative mediaeval features on the old tower beside Saint Columba’s Church, Kells (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
Following the Reformation, the church was in ruins. It was rebuilt in 1578 on the initiative of Hugh Brady, Bishop of Meath (1563-1584). The rebuilding was carried out by the Archdeacon of Meath, John Garvey, who was also Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (1565-1595), Bishop of Kilmore (1585-1589), and Archbishop of Armagh (1589-1595), and by the Sovereign (Mayor) of Kells, Nicholas Daly. This church was a large cruciform building with a chancel and tower, although the bell tower is the only portion of the mediaeval church still standing.
Meanwhile, from 1561 to 1800, Kells was represented by two MPs in the Irish House of Commons. During the rebellion of 1641, Kells was burned by the O’Reillys of Cavan during their attacks on the pale.
The spire on the bell tower was erected by the 1st Earl of Bective in 1783 to celebrate the building of the new church in Kells (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
The chancel of Bishop Brady’s building was still in use as the parish church in the late 17th century, but was demolished later to make way for the present church, designed by Thomas Cooley, and built in 1778. The spire on the bell tower was erected by Thomas Taylor, 1st Earl of Bective, in 1783 to celebrate the building of the new church.
Incidentally, the names Kells, Kenlis and Headfort, as well as Bective all became parts of the titles taken by the Taylor family, who were Earls of Bective and Marquises of Headfort and who also owned Ardgillan Castle, between Skerries and Balbriggan, and a shotting lodge that is now the Park Hotel in Co Virginia..
The church was altered in 1811, and again, in 1858, when the interior was re-ordered. In more recent times the Church roof was restored in 1965 and the interior was redecorated. At the time, the old disused gallery was turned into to exhibition space.
The monastic site
The Round Tower at the South Gate of Saint Columba’s Church, Kells, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
The churchyard wall surrounding Saint Columba’s was restored in the early 18th century and again in the 1990s, and marks the boundaries of the site of the original monastery.
The round tower and five large High Crosses or their remains still stand in Kells today, with four of those high crosses or parts of them in the churchyard.
The Round Tower, which stands at the south gate of the churchyard, is 27 metres tall and was built in the tenth century, although it has a ninth century doorway that may be a later insertion.
The ‘South Cross’ is the most complete High Cross in Kells (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
Close by the Round Tower stands the ‘South Cross,’ which is 3.4 metres high. This is the most complete cross in Kells and it is also the most elaborate, decorated on all four sides.
Only the base and shaft of the ‘West Cross’ survive to this day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
The ‘West Cross’ is an incomplete cross. Only the base and shaft remain, but they are 3.5 metres high, making it higher than the ‘South Cross.’
The ‘East Cross’ was never finished. A Crucifixion scene and a panel of four figures are on its east face.
The small base and socket designed to hold the shaft of the ‘North Cross’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
The ‘North Cross’ no longer exists, but a small, decorated conical base with a socket, designed to hold the shaft of the cross, remain close to the bell tower.
The ‘Market Cross’ now stands in front of Kells Heritage Centre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
On the road out of Kells, I stopped to see the fifth high cross in Kells, the ‘Market Cross,’ which now stands in front of Kells Heritage Centre. The ‘Market Cross’ is an eighth or ninth century high cross and originally stood at the gate of the monastery. It lay on the ground for many years and was re-erected at the instigation of Dean Jonathan Swift. It is said locally that the ‘Market Cross’ was later used as a gallows during the 1798 Rising. It stood in the present Market Square, a busy crossroads, until it was damaged in an accident involving a local school bus.
The ‘Market Cross’ now stands in front of the former courthouse, and is protected from the elements by plastic roofing. Sadly, it was re-erected in the wrong orientation, so that the west face now faces north.
The base of the ‘Market Cross’ has two friezes, including a deer hunt (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
The shaft of the ‘Market Cross’ is 2.5 metres high. The top of the shaft and part of the wheel are broken. In addition, the cross has been badly damaged from weathering, although what remains of the carving is splendid. The main scene shows the Crucifixion, in which Christ is shown without a halo. Some of other scenes depicted on the cross include: the Adoration of the Magi, Loaves and Fishes, Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, and Adam and Eve. The base has two friezes, including parading horse and foot soldiers and a deer hunt.
The former courthouse, where the ‘Market Cross’ stands, is now the Kells Heritage Centre. It was designed by Francis Johnston and built in 1801.
The Book of Kells
The exhibits in the Heritage Centre include a facsimile copy of the Book of Kells. Much of the Book of Kells may have been created in the monastery, although historians differ about the exact date or circumstances of its creation. Some say it may either have been started in Iona and finished in Kells or written entirely in Kells by successive generation of monks.
The Book of Kells was kept in the abbey and the parish church throughout the late mediaeval and early modern period until the 1650s, when it was sent to Dublin for safekeeping. Since 1661, it has remained in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin.
The Parish of Kells today
Today, Kells is an active and lively parish in the Church of Ireland. Saint Columba’s Church, Kells, is grouped with Saint Patrick’s Church, Donaghpatrick, and the Rector of Kells is the Revd Asa Bjork-Olafsdottir, who moved from Iceland to the Diocese of Meath last year.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral.