Even though a damp, gray drizzle fell from the sky, the line to see Trinity College's famous Book of Kells stretched out the door and onto the slick pavement. Luckily, the line moved quickly. I was soon inside the library of Dublin, Ireland's famed college. Although I'd only recently learned about the Book of Kells, I couldn't wait to see it.
Most likely produced in the early ninth century by the monks of Iona, an island off Scotland's west coast, the Book of Kells is a brilliantly illuminated copy of the four Gospels, written in Latin. During this point in history — about A.D. 800 — Irish monks were playing an important role in Catholic evangelization by spreading the good news to Britain and the continent via traveling Gospel books. The painstakingly created books took years to produce, and the scribes and artists who labored over them were highly regarded.
The Book of Kells is linked to St. Colum Cille (c. 521-597), who founded his main monastery on the island of Iona; the monks moved to Kells, County Meath, after 806, so the book was most likely crafted in Iona, Kells or both locales.
Scholars believe the 680-page book was probably created for use as an altar decoration rather than daily reading, due to its extraordinary ornateness and textual errors; the latter would have been corrected if the book was intended for regular use. Nevertheless, Irish annals described it as "the most precious object of the Western world."
The book was stolen in 1007. Recovered three months later, it had been stripped of its gold and was covered in sod. The Church of Kells was regularly plundered over the next 600 years, with the Book of Kells always in jeopardy. So, in 1653, it was decided the precious tome was best sent to Dublin for safekeeping. A few years later, it was donated to Trinity College — along with the similar but less spectacular Book of Durrow by Henry Jones, bishop of Meath.
The line inched into the book's two-room exhibit space, which is quite well done. Although the first room is rather dark, it's brightened by colorful displays explaining the rich history of the Irish monks and their evangelization via illuminated Gospels. Videos show exactly how the traveling Gospels were produced, from carefully cutting the wooden book covers and hand stitching the bindings to meticulously writing and decorating the text.
The exhibit's second room, the Treasury, contains the book itself, open to one set of decorated pages and one set of text. (The book's original binding didn't survive, so its pages were separated and paired up accordingly.) Additional pages from the Books of Durrow, Armagh, Dimma and Mullins were also on display the day I toured.
Not surprisingly, the pages were magnificent to behold. The colors were extraordinary — some say they were derived from things like shellfish, beetles' wings and crushed pearls — and the designs stunning in their intricacy. The pages' physical beauty was further enhanced by the beauty of their creators' souls — people who cared enough about the importance of God's word to painstakingly create such a magnificent work of art and testament of faith.
The Dublin area's other major treasure is Glendalough, an Irish monastery tucked into a beautiful glacial valley featuring two sparkling lakes. ("Glendalough" means "valley of two lakes.") St. Kevin, whose memorial is observed June 3, settled here in the sixth century in hope of living a life of solitude. His patience was so immense, it's said birds could breed in his outstretched hands. Over time, he was joined by others, and soon a thriving monastery emerged.
The site's early structures were crafted from wood, which Viking raiders repeatedly burned. By the 1100s, the monastery's buildings were all crafted from stone to show the monks' determination to stay and snub their noses at the Vikings. The monastery was active until the 16th century. Even after it closed, Mass was still said here until about 1850.
I started my tour in the visitors' center, where a 17-minute movie, "Ireland of the Monasteries," gave me a good background on both the site and Irish monastic life. Then it was out in the drizzle to scramble up and down the lush, hilly site, where I saw its famed round tower, plus St. Kevin's Kitchen (a church), cathedral ruins and a cemetery, among other jewels. No luck gazing at St. Kevin's gravesite; it's long been hidden so relic raiders can't plunder it.
Like the Book of Kells, Glendalough is a poignant reminder of the great lengths to which our ancestors went to give glory to God.
Melanie Radzicki McManus
from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
Planning Your Visit
The Book of Kells resides in Trinity College Library's Old Library Building on College Street in downtown Dublin and is open seven days a week. For more information, call +353 1 896 1661.
Glendalough is about 30 minutes south of Dublin in County Wicklow and is open daily. Allot 60 to 90 minutes for a tour. A hotel is on site for pilgrims' convenience. For more information, call +353 404 45325/45352