The monastery at Kells, was founded in 807 by Columbian monks fleeing Viking attacks on their Island home at Iona. When you stand atop the hill upon which the famous monastery is situated, it is easy to why the monks chose the site. On a clear day, you can see across the fertile plains of County Meath to the other sacred hills on the landscape. Tara, the seat of the High Kings, to the south. To the east, the River Boyne meanders to Bru Na Boinne and The Hill of Slane, where in 433 Saint Patrick lit the pascal fire. To the north, you can see the pagan hills of Uisneach, Lough Crew, The Hill of Ward and Sliebh Gullion in the distance. It is easy to imagine this elevated site as the center of an ancient and sacred land.

Kells Celtic Cross and Tower
Kells Celtic Cross and Tower in the background

The celebrated Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript detailing the book of gospels, was made about the time the Iona community came to Ireland. In 1007 the Book of Kells was stolen from the church at Kells, but was recovered two months later, unfortunately lacking its richly decorated cover. The manuscript is now on permanent display in the library at Trinity College in Dublin, and is rightly regarded at one of the great treasures from that era.

Beautiful detail from The Book of Kells.
Beautiful detail from The Book of Kells.

The original church at Kells has not survived, however outside the churchyard is St Columba’s House, a small stone-roofed church. Inside the church grounds stands an impressive round tower which once stood eight stories tall. The round tower was mentioned in 1076 when Murdach, who had been king of Tara, was murdered inside it.

The Five Celtic Crosses at Kells

There were at least five high crosses in Kells. The oldest stands beside the round tower. It has an inscription, PATRICH ET COLUMBE (the cross of Patrick and Columba) and was probably erected soon after the monastery was founded. Also in the churchyard is the shaft of another tall cross, an unfinished cross and a cross base. Outside the graveyard is the Market Cross, said to have been re-erected by Dean Swift after it had lain broken for any years having been destroyed in the 17th Century by Cromwell’s Army. In 1798, the cross had been used as a gallows to hang the rebels from Wexford who had been making their way to Tara. The detail of the Cross of Saint Patrick and Columba is faithfully recreated as a Celtic cross pendant and is presented as part of our Replica Cross Collection.

The cultural heritage of Kells is not limited to physical artifacts, as Hollywood legend Maureen O’Hara, also hails from the village.