The Book of Kells – Ireland

Situated at Trinity College in Dublin’s city center, you will find the attraction The Book of Kells, which is an ancient Biblical manuscript written in the medieval times. What makes the book special, is that it’s survived a few mishaps, it’s 12 centuries old, in great preserved condition considering it’s age, and it contains exceptionally detailed art and calligraphy.

Pre-pandemic times I was always slightly discouraged to visit by hearing about, and seeing the sheer volume of people coming to visit, and the long queuing times. So, 4 years into arriving to Ireland in the midst of a pandemic when museums opened up, I decided to book a visit to see the Book of Kells and the Old Library.

During the pandemic, I had to book in advance for a specific time slot to visit the museum. Naturally during the pandemic, crowd control and social distancing is enforced, I knew this would be my more comfortable visit to a museum where I could have my space.

The visit itself is reasonably quick, even if you take your time reading through the displays it takes anywhere from 30 to 40 minutes. For a standard ticket, you are looking at €16 pp (at the time of writing this). https://www.tcd.ie/visitors/book-of-kells/tickets/

Important to note when you visit, don’t use flash photography when you are in the display area and the Old Library. No photography of the actual Book of Kells is permitted at all. There is a copy of the Book of Kells you can take a picture of in the Old Library.

ogham

At the museum you will learn that before the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, an ancient system of writing called Ogham was used. It is a reasonably limited but ancient system of writing to communicate the Irish Language. It was used mostly for short inscriptions. It’s hard to know how old Ogham is, but it is known to have been discovered on a 5th century manuscript. It has also been found on commemorative Ogham stones dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries, though it’s been seen as recently as the 19th century. Ogham was largely replaced by the introduction of the Roman Alphabet.

about the book of kells

When Christianity was introduced to Ireland in the early 5th century, monks would have brought along handwritten manuscripts (which are word for word copies of the scriptures). The museum will introduce you to other ancient manuscripts from the Early Christian Period, which are housed at Trinity College, with the Book of Kells being one of the most famous manuscripts.

The Book of Kells is estimated to have been created around 800AD, with it’s origin in Scotland’s monastery of Iona. Following a Viking raids, the monks left with the Book of Kells to the monastery of Kells in Co. Meath, in Ireland. Besides Viking raids, the book has also been recovered after being stolen, along with the shrine on which it was kept. It survived the Middle Ages and was given to Trinity College for safe keeping in 1661.

It is believed that the book of Kells was used primarily for special occasions such as Easter and not everyday use.

The Book of Kells is made up of the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John of the New Testament, also containing any commentary or supporting texts that the monks decided to add. The Book was written in Latin, with the Monks trained in writing in calligraphy, the writing is quite intricate, along with the illustrations contained within the text and on full pages.

The Book would have taken a phenomenal amount of time and attention to make. Not only did the monks need to spend time creating each page from vellum (prepared calf skin), spending time on the binding, creating the inks and quills to write with, they would have also spend a lot of time on the tidy writing on the pages and on the illustrations. It is believed that along with the scribes required to write the script, there were three other artists responsible for the artwork in the manuscript.

One would think that writing a book or creating the book’s artwork would not be a dangerous profession. This is not the case with the early materials used during the Medieval times. The pigments for the ink were created out of naturally occurring materials such as plants and minerals.

Take a look below at some of the materials they would have used:

(Excerpt taken from https://www.tcd.ie/visitors/assets/bok/education/book-of-kells-primary-teachers-guide_updated-07-09-20.pdf)

Take a look at that! Lead and Orpiment (an Arsenic trisulfide). The writers of the Book of Kells were unlikely to have reached an old age, due to the toxicity of the materials they used.

Old Library

The Old Library in Trinity College was built in the 1800’s, which houses the Book of Kells. The Long Room, as pictured below, holds up around 200,000 of the University’s oldest books.

Here are some facts about the Old Library:

  • The Old Room Library was constructed in 1712, and measures 12 meters wide/ 64 meters long (hence the “Long Room”)
  • The alphabet marking the shelves misses a few letters (J and U which did not feature in the Roman Alphabet)
  • Gold lettering over each shelf was added in the early 1700’s.
  • There are lots of marble busts of men along the shelves in the library, depicting classical figures, famous Irish writers, scholars and benefactors. The two I recognised are Shakespear and Plato (though if you are a literary student, I’m sure you’ll recognise more!)
  • On your visit, you’ll notice that there are many books that have a ribbon around them. These prevent the books from falling apart until they are re-sewn and re-binded.
  • There are also special shades on the windows to protect the delicate books from damage.
  • When the library was originally constructed, it contained the ground story only, and was further extended vertically where the roof was raised higher to accommodate the 2nd story, and the numerous other books housed in the library.
  • The bookshelves themselves are made of a special oak, with reputable craftsmen from one family over many generations.

Also contained in the Library, you’ll find Brian Boru’s Harp, which is the oldest surviving harp in Ireland. Brian Boru was King of Ireland, who died in 1014. The Harp is made from oak and has 29 brass strings. It also has a silver neck-mount, elaborate designs and an embedded crystal. We can expect that a Harp musician to the high King of Ireland, to play on a Harp this magnificent, would have been a master of his skill. It was given to Trinity College in the 1700’s.

Final thoughts

For a relatively short tour, it was jam packed with information and interesting artifacts. I would definitely recommend a visit if you plan to go, along with taking your time to learn more.

References

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