St Columbas Church and Kells Monastic Site

St Columbas Church and Kells Monastic Site

St Columba's Church and grounds mark the original site of the monastery of Kells.

St Columbas Church and Kells Monastic Site

Kells derives from the Irish Ceanannas Mór, meaning ‘great residence`. Long before the coming of Christianity, Kells was a royal residence associated with the legendary Conn Céadchatach (Conn of the Hundred Battles) and Cormac mac Airt. In 550 St. Columba, also known as St. Colmcille, established a religious settlement at Kells. In 563 he went into self imposed exile of the Isle of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland and founded another settlement. The island was raided by Viking fleets in 795, 802 and again in 804 when sixty-eight people were killed. Shortly after, the community of St. Columba`s monastery on Iona were granted lands at Kells as a safe haven from invaders.

Generally, monastic settlements were surrounded by a circular boundary wall called a vallum, which acted as a frontier between the holy world within and the secular world outside. They often contained a church, graveyard, high crosses, monk`s cells and from the late 10th century round towers also became a feature.

The first church at Kells was completed by 814 and in 878 the relics of St. Columba were relocated from Iona, which was now prospering. However, Kells itself was raided by the Vikings in 919, 950 and 969, and many times throughout the 11th century, this time by the Irish. The most famous treasure created by the community of St. Columba is the Book of Kells, a highly ornate version of the four gospels in Latin. It was written around the year 800, though it remains unclear whether it was written in whole or part at Kells.

Book of Kells

Following the Synod of Kells in 1152, Kells was granted diocesan status and the old church was elevated to the status of a cathedral for the diocese. In the early 13th. century the Diocese of Kells was absorbed into the newly created Diocese of Meath. Following the Protestant Reformation the parish church was in ruins. It was rebuilt in 1578 on the instructions of Hugh Brady, Bishop of Meath, the Archdeacon of Meath, who also held the position of Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Sir Thomas Garvie also assisted in the task of rebuilding the church, as did Nicholas Daly, Sovereign of the Corporation of Kells.

Kells Monastic Site

The only remaining portion of the medieval church still standing is the bell tower. From surviving records we know that the old church was a large cruciform structure with a chancel and tower. Several medieval high crosses may be found in the graveyard.

The present church was built in 1778. The spire on the bell tower was erected by Thomas, 1st Earl of Bective, in 1783. It was designed by Thomas Cooley and the stone-cutter employed was John Walsh. The graveyard gate piers were also built for the Earl of Bective in 1783. The Church was altered in 1811, and again, in 1858, when the interior was re-ordered. In more recent times the Church roof was restored in 1965 and the interior re-decorated.