One summer a few years ago I stayed in student rooms in Trinity College. Although the accommodation was rather spartan with the traditional blue tack scars on the walls, it was so atmospheric to be able to wander around the old buildings of the Dublin university long after all the tourists had gone.
Best of all was the chance to visit the Book of Kells as many times as I wanted. (The Library displays a different page each day.) These illuminated manuscripts are one of the wonders of medieval Europe.
Imagine the monks in their stone huts, battered by sea winds, bent over their painstaking work. Strictly speaking, rather than The Book of Kells, named after a town in County Meath, it should be called the Book of Iona, as it’s thought that it was monks on that remote Scottish island who were the original artists.
They were inhabitants of a monastery founded there in the 6th Century by the Irish monk Columba, or Colm Cille as he’s known in Irish. In fact, for many centuries the manuscript was believed to be the great Gospel of Columba.
But scholars now place the book in a later period and think it was completed by 800 AD. I find it extraordinary that in such a wild place with limited materials that these men were able to create a work of art that is so delicate and ornate.
You can imagine the monks inside their beehive-shaped stone huts, battered by sea winds with squawking gulls outside, bent over their painstaking work.
I’ve visited another early settlement on Skellig Michael off the coast of Kerry in the Atlantic and it is hard to express how bleak and remote those lives were.
The library at Trinity College, Dublin displays a different page from The Book of Kells each day (Image Credit: Photograph by Alamy).
But it wasn’t just forces of nature with which the monks had to contend. The monastery, like many early Christian communities, came under the threat of Viking raids. In 806, following a raid that left 68 of the community dead, the Columban monks took refuge in a newly-founded monastery at Kells in County Meath in Ireland to keep them safe.
The most likely theory is that the monks took the manuscript with them. Amazingly since they were written, the majority of the pages have been passed down through the generations with just 60 pages missing. But medieval sources do record that an illuminated manuscript was stolen from the stone church of Kells in 1006 which is likely to have been the Book of Kells.
According to the Annals of Ulster it was found “two months and twenty days” later “under a sod.” After fighting in the Cromwellian period, the church at Kells lay in ruins, and in 1653 the book was sent to Dublin by the governor of Kells for safekeeping.
A few years later it reached Trinity College where it remains today. Light of the dark ages
The scale and ambition of The Book of Kells is incredible. Written on vellum, it is estimated that the skins of 185 calves were needed for the project. Practically all of the 680 pages are decorated in some way or another. On some pages every corner is filled with the most detailed and beautiful Celtic designs.
This is a description thought by many to be of the Book of Kells by the 12th Century writer Gerald of Wales: You might say that all this were the work of an angel, and not of a man – Gerald of Wales.
“This book contains the harmony of the Four Evangelists according to Jerome, where for almost every page there are different designs, distinguished by varied colours.
Here you may see the face of majesty, divinely drawn, here the mystic symbols of the Evangelists, each with wings, now six, now four, now two; here the eagle, there the calf, here the man and there the lion, and other forms almost infinite.
Look at them superficially with the ordinary glance, and you would think it is an erasure, and not tracery.
Fine craftsmanship is all about you, but you might not notice it.
Look more keenly at it and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and so subtle, so full of knots and links, with colours so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this were the work of an angel, and not of a man.”
The title page of St John’s Gospel shows the thoughtful-looking saint, along with a less respectable figure swigging from a goblet of wine (Credit: The Book of Kells)
Kilmainham Gaol was a working and silent prison that housed men, women, and children, and was in operation from from 1787 until 1924.
The youngest child imprisoned at Kilmainham was believed to have been just seven years old. In the years of the harshest famines, people would intentionally break the law to enter the Gaol, in the hope that they would be fed while incarcerated, which led to severe overcrowding.
Women and children were forced to sleep on the floor in the corridors with no blankets while men were squeezed into cells that held up to five people at a time.
Kilmainham Gaol became notorious for its rebel prisoners. Irish Nationalists were sent in great numbers to the prison and almost every Irish Republican leader had been housed within its walls at one time or another, during its years of operation.
Many were executed there as well.
In 1916, during an event called the Easter Rising, Irish republican rebels took over the General Post Office and other locations in the heart of Dublin to protest being ruled by the British.
They held their positions for six days before surrendering. When they did surrender, the leaders were sent to Kilmainham Gaol.
Once there, they were tried in secret, found guilty, and executed by firing squad in the yard.
All seven signatories on the Proclamation of Independence were shot at Kilmainham, including one who had just been married in the prison chapel and another who had to be tied to a chair due to his injuries.
But the executions, intended to quell the nationalist uprising, had the opposite effect.
A movement that had before been the interest of only a few gained momentum and strength as word spread about these martyr-like executions, eventually leading to independence for the majority of Ireland just a few years later.