Kells Historic Trail

Kells Historic Trail

Kells, one of the most important monastic sites in early medieval Ireland.

Kells Roundtower and High Cross

Kells, or Ceanannas Mór, meaning Great Fort, was known to be a royal residence before St. Colmcille (also known as St. Columba) established a religious settlement in Kells in 550AD, and later became one of the most important monastic sites in early medieval Ireland.

Established in the sixth century, the monastery at Kells grew even greater in importance in the in the late eighth century when the Columban monks of Iona came to Kells, fleeing Viking raids. In the ninth century, Kells was known as ‘Áinius Érenn’ or ‘The splendour of Ireland’, and was one of the most important monastic sites in early medieval Ireland.

Kells will be forever associated with the beautiful illuminated gospels that were produced here over 1200 years ago, possibly having been begun at the monastery on Iona.

Today, the streetscape still echoes the boundaries of Colmcille’s long-gone monastery. And with a direct link to the past all around, spending an hour or more exploring the landmarks of this unique town is a wonderfully inspiring way to reach back over the centuries.

Uniquely, Kells, a living town over one thousand years old, has its ancient and medieval remains everywhere in evidence.  A walk through the town will lead visitors to realise that its physical treasures are the monastic layout of the town, the Monastic enclosure with the High Crosses, Round Tower, St. Colmcille’s House and the famous Scriptural Market Cross.

Download Kells Historic Trail Map

Monastic Site

The West, South and East High Crosses are located in the graveyard.  The West and South Crosses date to the 8th century AD, while the East Cross dates to the 12th century.  Many other pieces of worked stone including cross slabs survive in the graveyard. 

In the year C. 560AD Diarmuid MacCarroll, High King of Tara, granted the Dun of Ceannanus to Columcille to establish a Monastery. In 804 AD the Columban community on the Island of Iona, transferred to Kells to escape Norse raiding parties. The existing church stands on the site of the original Columban Monastery.  It became the head house of the Columban Monastic Community in Ireland housing many of the relics of Colmcille and the World Famous Book of Kells.

The Church was in ruin in 1655 and used as horse barracks by Cromwell’s army, and repaired again in 1682. The present church was built in 1778 by Thomas Taylor, First Earl of Bective. Both Church and Spire were designed by Thomas Cooley, who also designed the City Hall in Dublin. The Church houses a Facsimile of The Book of Kells and an exhibition of the history of the site.

Monastic Site - Churchyard Wall

This tenth century tower is ninety feet high from the original (street) level, without its conical roof. It has six floors and access to which was gained by ladders, being without an internal staircase. Each floor has one window. The raised doorway strengthened the structure and made the tower more difficult to attack. Such towers were referred to in the literature as a Cloigteach (bell tower). They were used as lookout towers, and as places of refuge during attack by Vikings. This tower has five top windows instead of the usual four. These overlook the five ancient roads leading into the town and the corresponding five medieval town gates, Canon, Carrick, Maudlin, Dublin and Farrell Gates. Normally, the doorway would face east, in line with the west door of the associated church. However in Kells the great stone church built after the disastrous Norse raid of 920 AD had a porch. In this porch were kept the sacred vessels, and the Book of Kells, and from here the book was stolen in 1007 AD. Murdach Mac Flann Mac Maelseachlinn unwisely claimed the high kingship of Tara and was murdered in the tower in 1076.

Kells Courthouse

The Courthouse, built in 1801, was designed by Francis Johnston, who also designed the General Post Office, Nelsons Pillar and Townley Hall where Dublin Gate, one of the five gates in the medieval town walls now stands. When first built the downstairs was used as a courthouse and upstairs for entertaining local residents. In more recent years it was a local library and is now a Tourism and Cultural Hub.

The Market Cross

Dating from the ninth century, this is a one of the four surviving High Crosses of Kells. It was originally located at Cross Street, and known as the “Cross of the Gate” of the monastery. It is a Termon Cross, meaning that once inside the boundary of the monastic area, a fugitive could claim Sanctuary. The crosses were used primarily for religious instruction.  Carved on the faces of the crosses are scenes from the Old and New Testaments. These scenes may originally have been coloured. The damage to the cross is attributed to the seventeenth century army of Oliver Cromwell. The base bears an inscription “This cross was erected at the charge of Robert Balfe of Callierstown, being sovereign of the corporation of Kells, anno domini 1688”. Local tradition has it that it was used for hanging Croppies after the 1798 rebellion.

Headfort Bridge

Situated on the edge of the Pale (the region under English control in the medieval period), Kells has always been an important defensive stronghold. The dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII was a big blow to the town and almost destroyed the once important ecclesiastical settlement. In 1654, as part of the Cromwellian re-distribution of land, the town of Kells was given to Colonel Richard Stephens.  Like many who benefited from grants of land, he decided to sell up and return to England.  Thomas Taylor, a surveyor from Sussex came to Ireland with Sir William Petty as his assistant in drawing up the Down Survey.  He seized the opportunity and purchased the unwanted lands. 

The Taylor family was now an established landed family and quickly moved up the social spectrum.  The family was elevated to the peerage in 1704 when Thomas Taylor took the title of Lord Headfort, an anglicised version of Ceanannus Mór, the Celtic name for Kells. Elevation through the peerage was rapid, ensuring that the Headfort family would be a dominant force in the locality for the next two centuries. 

Enjoy your tour of Kells!