my first trip to Ireland, I decided not to stand in line to see the Book of Kells, which is probably for the best — at that point my knowledge of Irish history was rooted solidly in the twentieth century. having learned more about it and other illuminated manuscripts in the intervening years (in addition to seeing the delightful film of the same name), this time I was keen to make the trip to Trinity.
scholars generally agree that the Book originated in a monastery founded by St Colum Cille located on an island off the coast of Scotland. for quite some time, tradition held that St. Columba himself penned the text, though recent scholarship discredits that claim, dating the composition of the Book to more than two centuries after Columba’s death. some suggest the Book was created, likely by three primary authors, to honor the saint on the 200th anniversary of his death.
after a Viking raid in the early 9th century on the Isle of Ione, the monks relocated to a new monastery in Kells, from which the Book derives its name. creation of the Book dates to around this time, though no definitive evidence exists to indicate whether the Book was produced entirely at Kells, Ione, or at both. the printing of the text may have occurred at one, the illumination at another; it may have been done all at Kells, all at Ione, or even wholly the north of England or Scotland.
the first written reference to the text comes from the early 11th century, when the Annals of Ulster made reference to the theft of a great Gospel of Columba by Viking raiders. the volume was recovered (without its bejeweled, golden cover) some months later under a bit of sod. it remained at Kells after the dissolution of the Abbey, which became a parish church, until Cromwell’s men quartered there in the 1650s. the governor of the town thought it best to send the book to Dublin for safekeeping. in 1661 the bishop of Meath presented the manuscript to Trinity College permanently and it has remained there, with rare exceptions of loans, since. it went on display to the public in the 19th century and nowadays you see two different pages when you visit — one illuminated and one of standard text.