Christian Built Heritage

The Early Christian Built Heritage of Kells

Kells is a living town over a thousand years old 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.

Monasteries were typically a complex of buildings comprising the domestic quarters and workplaces of monastics and generally a place reserved for prayer which may be a chapel, church and may also serve as an oratory.  A monastery complex typically comprises a number of buildings which include a church, dormitory, cloister, refectory, library, balneary and infirmary. Many monasteries would also have a "grange" - a large tract of farmland outside which catered for the food needs of the monks and visitors.  Within there would typically be bee-keeping (for mead and healing wounds) and a fishpond.

When Columcille's order returned from Iona to Ireland, they rebuilt the monastery in Kells (either 802 or 807 A.D.) from when we date the High Crosses, Round Tower and the oratory known as Columcille's House.

Kells had High Crosses (or "termon" crosses, entrance points) which stood at the 5 entrances to the monastery - see map below which shows medieval Kells, which roughly corresponds with monastic Kells.  The entrance points were at Carrick Gate, Maudlin Gate, Canon Gate, Farrell (Trim) Gate and Dublin Gate.

During the Cromwellian Wars of the late 17th century, the crosses were knocked over and damaged, and after their restoration were placed within the inner sanctum of the Monastery where they all still are, except the Market Cross which stands outside the Old Courthouse.
The base of a fifth high cross can be found to the side of the medieval tower.
The West Cross or the Broken Cross, is also composed of sandstone and although only the shaft remains, it stands 3.5 meters high and is again rich with carving on all four sides.

The east face centres around events in Christ’s life while the west face depicts early scenes from the Bible.

The north and south (narrow) faces feature ornamental designs.
The famous 9th century Market Cross, the “Cross of the Gate” was originally located at the Eastern Gate of the monastery.
It signified that a fugitive could claim sanctuary once inside the boundary of the monastic area.

It currently stands outside the old Courthouse. Damage to the cross is attributed to the 17th century army of Oliver Cromwell.

Local belief has it that the cross was also used for hanging Croppies after the 1798 rebellion. (The Irish rebels of 1798 were referred to as Croppies, or Croppie Boys, because of their agrarian roots, or for their fashion of cutting or cropping their hair short in the then new revolutionary French fashion).
The South Cross, or the Cross of St. Patrick & St. Columba, closest to the round tower seems to be the earliest of the Kells crosses, dating to the very earliest 9th century.

Standing 3.3 meters high, it is carved from a single block of sandstone. The cross is covered in figure carving and ornamentation.

An inscription on the base (upper part of the east face) reads: PATRICII ET COLUMBE CR (cross of Patrick and Columba – this inscription has weathered to be presently unreadable).
Virtually all of the figure carving has some biblical reference and is interspersed in panels with a variety of interlace patterns.
Built in the 10th century, this cloighteach (bell tower), was used as a lookout tower and place of refuge during attacks, as well as a protection for the Book of Kells and other sacred treasures.

The tower is 90 feet high from the original street level. Access to the upper floors was by way of ladders. Each floor has one window.

The round tower has 5 top windows instead of the usual 4.

These overlook the five ancient roads leading into Kells and correspond to the five medieval town gates.
The Unfinished Cross, towers approximately 4.75 meters high over the surrounding graveyard on the south side of the present church.

It has been blocked out for carving, but little more work was done to the massive cross beyond a crucifixion scene on its east face.

Only the lower part of the ring survives.
Dating from the 10th century, and said to have been built to house the relics of St. Columcille.

The roof is barrel vaulted with 3 small chambers in the roof space. Access is by a (modern) ladder. There is no mortar in the house, it is stacked and angled stones, an amazing feat of early architecture.

The existence of an underground passage from St. Columcille’s House to St. Columba’s church is mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters and in the 17th century Down Survey. Local tradition supports the existence of such a passage.

Columba’s House is the place where the world-famous “Book of Kells” was probably finished and kept before being removed to the porticus of Columba’s church on the monastic site.
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