Abbey of Kells

Abbey of Kells

The Abbey of Kells ("Mainistir Cheanannais" in Irish) is a former monastery located on Kells, County Meath, Ireland, 40 miles north of Dublin. It was founded in the early ninth century AD and the Book of Kells was kept there during the later medieval period and the early modern period finally leaving the Abbey in the 1650s. Much of the Book of Kells may have been created there but historians cannot be certain of the exact date and circumstances of its creation.


The Abbey of Kells was first founded by St. Columba probably in 554. What some historians term a refounding happened in the early ninth century by Columban monks fleeing from Iona which was repeatedly raided by the Vikings. The site was a former Irish hill fort. In 814AD, Cellach, Abbot of Iona, retired to Kells. After further Viking raids, the shrine of St Columba was transferred to the Abbey of Kells. Historians now believe that the Book of Kells may have been either started in Iona and finished in Kells or written entirely in Kells by successive generation of monks.

The Vikings continually raided the Abbey during the tenth century and it was repeatedly sacked and pillaged. Despite the constant raids, the monks managed to keep the Book of Kells intact until 1006 when it was stolen from the shrine. A reference in the "Annals of Ulster" is generally believed to refer the theft of the Book of Kells and it relates that the manuscript was returned after two months without its cover. The force of the removal of the cover probably explains the missing illustrations at the beginning and end of the book.

The book was stored in the Abbey for the remainder of the Middle Ages. In the twelfth century, details of land charters for the abbey were copied onto blank pages of the Book of Kells as was common practice for the period. This is the earliest confirmed reference to its presence at the Abbey. In the 12th century, the monastery was dissolved with the abbey becoming a parish church and the Book of Kells continued to be kept there. Catholic landowners acquired the land.

The Book of Kells remained at Kells until the 1650s when Cromwell's troops were stationed in the town with it being sent to Dublin for safekeeping. In 1661, the Book of Kells ended up in Trinity College where it has stayed ever since.


*Sir Edward Sullivan, "The Book of Kells" Bracken 1988 (reprint of 1920 edition) ISBN 1-85170-196-6
*Carol Farr, "The Book of Kells: Its Function and Audience", British Library 1997 ISBN 0-7123-0499-1
*George Henderson, "From Durham to Kells: The Insular Gospel Books 650-800" Thames and Hudson 1987 ISBN 0-500-23474-4

External links

* [ Long Island University site on the Book of Kells]
* [ History, Construction and Knotwork of the Book of Kells]
* [ School of Kells] - Article from the Catholic Encyclopedia

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