There are two monastic sites in Ireland which are called Kells. One is in Co. Kilkenny (note to self, write about that one soon) and the other is in Co. Meath. The Co. Meath Kells has a round tower but as you’ll soon see, there is a lot more to the place than that.
The founding of the monastery here is attributed to St. Colmcille (a.k.a. St. Columba) around 554AD. Colmcille spent most of his life in Scotland and founded Iona Abbey in 563. The monastery at Kells was re-founded around 807AD, still with strong connections to Iona. This explains how the world-famous Book of Kells came to be in Kells. It isn’t clear when or where the book was written but it is generally believed that it came from Iona. It was likely moved to Kells for safekeeping because Iona, which is on an island, was frequently being raided by Vikings. The book went on to spend several centuries in Kells. It was moved to Dublin for safe keeping in 1654 and then given to Trinity College where it can still be seen. Most of what is to be found here now dates from after the monastery’s “reboot”.
The round tower stands in the corner of a churchyard and when viewed from the street, can be seen in its entirety. It has a plinth at its base, which isn’t often seen on these towers. Inside the churchyard, the ground is about 2m higher. And so, unlike many towers the doorway is now lower and can be seen without craning one’s neck 🙂
The tower no longer has its cap but is in good condition otherwise. Unusually, it has five windows on the top floor, rather than the usual four. It is thought that these were to symbolise or overlook the five ancient roads leading into Kells. Originally it had six floors but they are long gone, along with the ladders which brought people to the top.
What else is there?
The church for which the tower served as a belfry has long gone, replaced by a more modern building. Still, there are some 9th and 10 century high crosses in the churchyard. The South Cross stands near the round tower and is the oldest of these. It is somewhat worn but still fully intact.
The same can’t be said for the West Cross which is now just a shaft.
The North Cross
The East Cross was never finished. Still, it’s interesting to see how these crosses may have looked while they were being created
As for the North Cross…
Kells also has two other significant monuments, related to this monastery.
St Colmcille’s House is nearby. He never actually lived in it, being long dead before it was actually built. It is thought his remains were stored here for a while though. The Book of Kells was stored here too. You can see photos of the interior here
The Market Cross used to stand in a different location but was moved after one traffic collision too many. It now stands under a perspex roof near the old courthouse
The round tower and crosses are in the centre of Kells and are easy to find. St. Colmcille’s house is close to the churchyard. The market cross is a little further away but hopefully safe from being hit by marauding buses.
The high cross is an early medieval form of Christian sculpture, unique to the British Isles. From around the 6th century onwards, monastic settlements developed all around Ireland. It is thought that high crosses were a way of marking out the sacred areas in the larger monasteries. The first high crosses are believed to have been made of wood and metal. Of course, none of these have survived to the present day. From around the 9th century onwards, the crosses began to be carved from stone. Interestingly, the earliest crosses appear to be replicas of the original wood and metal crosses, though in time their style evolved. There are almost 300 high crosses in Ireland, in various states of repair. They have become one of the iconic symbols of Ireland, appearing on everything from jewelry to postage stamps.
Let’s get plastered
In the late 19th century/early 20th century, a greater interest and awareness of national identity and archaeology took hold around Europe. Seeing as trying to transport rather ancient, rather heavy stone crosses around was out of the question, they went for the next best option. Faithful copies.
At what turned out to be prohibitively expensive in the end, plaster casts of some of the better known high crosses were painstakingly created. From 1898 to 1910 these casts were made and shipped abroad to the UK, the USA and Australia.
Interestingly, in 2005 the replicas were exhibited in Aichi, Japan where they were seen by over 2 million people.
Completely by accident, in May 2011 I came across an exhibition of these replicas in the Museum of Decorative Arts & History in Dublin. And so, all I have to show for my visit are a couple of dodgy pre-smartphone mobile phone snaps and a nice booklet 🙂 It turned out to be a surprisingly compelling exhibition. I’ve seen loads of these high crosses over the years – it’s hard not to miss them- but I had never noticed how tall and imposing they were. In their normal setting, they’re out in the open air and somehow seem smaller. There’s nothing like standing in a darkened room with these crosses looming over you to concentrate the mind!
It was also a unique opportunity to see how these crosses evolved over time. The South Cross from Ahenny is a very basic cross which replicates its original wood and metal ancestors. The later Muireadach’s Cross is awash with scenes from scripture. Dysert O’Dea has a bishop on it and looks quite different to the others.
Interestingly, the Office of Public Works has gradually been making high-quality replicas of the better known high crosses around Ireland and moving the originals indoors. Following on, after a fashion, in the footsteps of the original plaster casters.
The crosses exhibited in this exhibition were:
The North & South Crosses, Ahenny, Co. Tipperary
These two 9th century crosses I’ve seen “in the wild”. These days, Ahenny is off the beaten track and I had to drive along some alarmingly narrow and twisty country roads to get to it. The two crosses are situated in a quiet cemetery that’s situated in a field close to the village of Ahenny. They’re all that remains of the monastery at Kilclispeen. The interesting thing about these two high crosses is that they appear to replicate the earlier wood/metal crosses and mostly have abstract art on them. There are some figures from scripture on the base of the North cross but they’re not so obvious on my photo. Both crosses are considered to be very fine examples of Hiberno-Saxon art and are just two of a number of high crosses in this style in the area.
Their plaster casts were made in 1906 by an Italian modeller named Sig. Orlandi. The cost of making the moulds for these two crosses ran to £151. The two casts were produced at a cost of £35.
These are two crosses I saw on a geography field trip when I was a student. So not only do I not have photos of them (I am rather ancient, after all) but I barely remember them. I mostly remember our lecturer helpfully pointing out how the ground level in the cemetery was rising because of all the dead people buried there and that even when we died, we’d still have a contribution to make. Anyway, enough of that. What about the crosses?
Muireadach’s Cross is considered to be the finest of the high crosses in Ireland. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that it was the first cross to be moulded, back in 1896. It dates to the 9th century and depicts many scenes from scripture. In recent years, concern has been expressed over the damage the weather is doing to the cross. The Tall Cross lives up to its name, being almost 7 metres in height. The process of making moulds of this cross proved to be tricky because of the condition of the base.
Drumcliffe High Cross, Drumcliffe, Co. Sligo
Now this cross, I have no idea if I’ve ever seen. When I was 14 my family took a holiday in the north-west of Ireland and we visited Drumcliffe. These days it’s mostly known for being the alleged final resting place of W.B. Yeats (there are serious question marks over who’s in that grave) . In olden times, there was a monastery here. There is still a partial round tower remaining. There’s also this cross which I may have seen but not taken any particular notice of. It was cast in 1907 and is from the 11th or 12th century. Along with biblical scenes, it also has animals which is unusual.
St Tola’s Cross, Dysert O’Dea, Co. Clare
This cross is unusual in that it has no ring. It also doesn’t look like most Irish high crosses. It is from the later Romanesque series of crosses and instead of having biblical scenes, has a bishop on the shaft. It was one of the last crosses to be copied, work taking place in 1908. It is thought that this cross may have had wooden additions but of course, these did not survive. In September 2020 I finally got to see this one in person.