In 553 AD, St Columcille established a religious settlement here, having been granted the former royal residnce by his cousin, High King, Diarmuid MacCarroll.
After events involving a dispute over a copy of a book, Columcille elected to go into exile to Scotland, in his forty-second year, and accompanied by twelve disciples, he set sail for the small island of Iona, of which he obtained a grant, both from the king of the Picts and from his relative the king of the Scots.
Having established a monastery there, he set about the great work of his life – the conversion of the Pictish tribes beyond the Grampians. He and his disciples traversed the Pictish mainland, the Western Islands, and the Orkneys, from end to end, establishing monasteries there. The parent house of Iona exercised supremacy not only over these establishments, but also over the monasteries Columcille had established in Ireland, and those founded by his disciples in the northern provinces of England.
Columcille died in Iona in 597. It was back to Kells that Columban Monks of Iona moved in 804 to 806 with their monastic treasures to escape Viking raids on their island monastery in Iona. They rebuilt the “great stone church” of Columcille and Kells became the principal Columban monastery.
The monastery in Kells flourished and was hailed by Columban monks as the “Splendour of Ireland”. During this time many items that we now cherish were crafted in the monastery of Kells – the fabulous stone crosses, the Round Tower, “Columcille’s House” and the completion of the Book of Kells in the 9th century.
Traces of the ancient Columban monastery remains in the way in which the monastery’s inner and outer enclosures are reflected in today’s street plan. The Ordnance Survey Map shows how Cross Street, Castle Street and Carrick Street form part of the outer enclosure, while the inner enclosure is more or less represented by the line of the large churchyard wall.
An enjoyable way to experience Kells’ monastic past is by following the Kells Heritage Trail and retracing the path of the monks on their way to the former monastery’s physical and spirtual focal point.
In 1152, a synod was held in Kells to bring the Celtic Christian Church in line with Rome and the monastic church became a cathedral. The Synod of Kells was one of the most important events in the history of Christianity in Ireland, bringing the hitherto monastic church on the island in line with the Roman Catholic Church and its diocesan structure.