A taste of Kells

Trip Start Jan 01, 2008
Trip End May 28, 2017

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Lucy's walking tour of Kells

Flag of Ireland  , County Meath,
Sunday, July 31, 2011

Back in Ireland for a few days mid-Summer and it's the perfect time to delve briefly into some of my hometown history.

So with Granny we take a short drive out of Kells to one of Ireland's prettiest villages - Moynalty. With the sun shining warmly we pay respects to loved ones in the local cemetary and enjoy a lovely country drive down around Kilmainhamwood, Screebog andd Ughtyneill.

Then it's back to Kells on time for a walking tour with some interested family members and a tour guide lady called Lucy who turns out to be a fountain of knowledge on some of our ancient heritage sites around town.

Starting at the "bottom" of town and the Market High Cross we work our way up to the top of the town and the site of an ancient monastery with time for admiring and discussing our historical monuments as we go. It's a beautiful evening for a stroll around town and even little Bella just home from England is happy to tag along on the leash.

Starting at the Headfort Arms and turning left to the end of the street and the first of our famous monuments. Probably the most famous of the five high crosses in Kells is this "Market Cross".

When I was going to school here, this cross known as the Cross of Kells sat in the middle of the town at a very busy junction of 2 main roads. The older men and the smokers would sit on the base of the cross whiling the day away.

The Cross of Kells dates from the 9th century. This is a sandstone cross standing at 3.35 metres high.  After it was hit by a bus it was moved to its present site for safety but judging from photos taken in the early 90s compared to now it appears to be getting quite damaged by weather, pollution and even graffiti in it's current location outside the now closed Heritage Centre.

Lucy tells us that originally these crosses were richly decorated and coloured even using Lapis Lazuli blue stone from Afghanistan in the coloration as in the Book of Kells. Various berries, seeds and even egg white were also used to make the colours. Today there's no evidence of this at all as the cross is quite weathered - after all it's been sitting outside in Irish weather for over a thousand years but its still magnificent.

We walked a few hundred metres up to the top of this very quiet town to visit the churchyard of St Columba. Here we find the remaining 4 high crosses (for one of these only a base still exists) The crosses were originally sited at the entrance of each of the 5 ancient roads into Kells.

All are dated back to the same era when the Monks of Colmcille had returned from Iona in Scotland to the relative safety of Kells. Colmcille who was of noble birth had been given the fort of Kells by his cousin King Dermot, High King of Ireland in the middle of the 6th century but subsequently he self-exiled with his monks to Iona where he founded his first monastery. He was also given a hill at Derry where he founded one of his largest monasteries which subsequently became the City of Londonderry.

He was to become a legend in his own right with thousands of followers and many monasteries spread over Ireland, England and Scotland. As a poet and clairvoyiant he gained great notoriety and created many volumes of books printed on calf skin. One of the most famous is the richly decorated Book of Kells which tells the stories of the four Gospels. He had thousands of followers and is credited with pioneering the notion of monastic life.

St Colmcille is known in Protestant religion by his Roman name St Columba and many churches are named after him all over the world. Remains of his abbeys in the British Isles and Northern Ireland also shoe High Crosses similar to the ones in Kells as well as Round Towers and manuscripts attributed to himself and his monks. 

3 centuries after his death and the order of monks of St Colmcille returned to Kells to set up a monastery and an oratory for his relics. They set about carving the high crosses to show the way for pilgrimage and also built the round tower for protection against Viking attacks. 

This tower is over 30 metres high and had 6 levels each reached internally via rope ladders which could be pulled up for protection. The entrance door was originally many metres above ground level so the monks could use the tower for refuge when under attack.

Each floor has only one window but the top is unusual because; unlike most round towers which have only four; this tower has five windows that look out over the five ancient routes into town.

These monks had quite a large monastery here - the Abbey of Kells - which was a centre for scribing, education and monastic life for the next 700 years until the time of Cromwell.

The Book of Kells was also written during this period (possibly started in Iona and finished in Kells over several centuries). It was seized by Cromwell's troops who were stationed in Kells in 1650 and sent to Trinity College Dublin in 1661 for safe-keeping where it can still be viewed today. The richly embellished cover and many other valuables disappeared at this time.

From this churchyard it's a short walk to "Colmcille's house". This small stone hut with a steep roof has been altered over the centuries but part of the original house is still in evidence. Standing on the street outside the house we've a lovely view all over the surrounding countryside that makes it easy to see why this place was called "head fort" in the time of Colmcille - in Gaelic called Ceannanus Mor which is still the name on local traffic signposts today.

This is the highest point in Kells but a large Garda Station now sits there with a huge communications tower looming over this ancient site.

Locals remember that a large flat stone thought to have been Colmcille's bed was stolen from the house in the 1970s. Since he died in Iona 300 years before the house was constructed this could just be fallacy. There's a legend about the same flat rock that says an angel brought it to his mother from a nearby lake where it was magically floating and she gave birth to Colmcille on this rock at Glen Colmcille in Donegal.

From ancient writings its evident that Colmcille was a very influential and gifted leader with thousands of supporters who left a rich legacy in the form of books containing prophesies and religious works.

Relics (parts of the saint's body or blood) are thought to be buried in Northern Ireland (Downpatrick), Iona and were also said to have been housed in this little custom built house in Kells thus like Iona making it a place of pilgrimage for future generations of monks.

Our Summer evening stroll was both educationa and enjoyable and since the evening is now drawing to a close it's time to end our tour right back at the Headfort Arms with an Irish Coffee.
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