Book of Kells

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.

Trinity College Long Room

when I visited Ireland previously, I hadn’t any particular interest in queuing up to see the Book of Kells at Trinity College. it seemed too much like trying to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre — lots of craning and waiting to discover that, while impressive, it really is much smaller than you’d think and the crowds prevent you from spending any satisfying length of time studying it. upon reflection (and after viewing the animated film of the same name), however, I rather regretted that decision and put it on my list of sights for any future trip to Dublin.

and adding it to my list was worth it if for no other reason than it granted me access to see the Long Room situated above. a byproduct of my love of history, I am also partial to unique or interesting libraries that have some interesting artifacts or stories behind them (I always loved Seymour Library for that very reason). both the space and the exhibit in the Old Library at Trinity did not disappoint.

stretching some 65 meters long and originally constructed between 1712 and 1732, the Old Library at Trinity started out with a boring plaster ceiling and books filling only the lower shelves. in 1801, however, it became the “copyright library” (or legal repository, like the Library of Congress) for all materials published in Ireland (and , uniquely, the United Kingdom) and it quickly exhausted its existing space. in 1860 the roof was raised to allow for constructed of the vaulted ceiling and second level of shelving.

the Old Library now holds some 200,000 books, some of the oldest held by the university, including some on display when we visited for an exhibition on preservation and conservation techniques. on display were books bound in leather and with wood; written on clay, papyrus, paper, vellum; texts in ancient languages, modern languages; illuminated manuscripts (like their more famous cousins downstairs) and hand-written scientific observations, or notes scribbled in a random on-hand journal; some decades old, some centuries old. just beside the entry door is one of the few remaining copies of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic read out by Pádraig Pearse in front of the General Post Office in 24 April 1916, something it seemed most people brushed past, just as a fair number trundled down the Long Room without looking at the rare manuscripts on display, their mission of seeing the Book of Kells accomplished.

the only downside to such an historic and impressive building — it was not built to compensate for the weather on the day we visited. as with each day on the Dingle Peninsula, our day out in Dublin proved unseasonably warm and without air conditioning or the ability to open any of the windows on the first floor to get a cross-breeze going, the informative exhibit on the Book of Kells was a trifle stuffy. the room housing the Book was, understandably, closely climate controlled and a welcome change after reading all the informational material.