Kells is well known because of the beautifully illustrated eighth to ninth century gospel book known as the Book of Kells, at the back of which are charters written in Irish that record the names of officials who helped them to administer the monastic school and the guest-house, and of the tenants on monastic land.
They also mention the margad Cenanndsa, the market of Kells, where cattle were sold. We can even pinpoint where the market was likely to have been held, as until recently the “Market Cross” was located at the bottom of Market Street.
On particular saints’ days pilgrims would come and exchange goods at this site. The first Anglo-Norman lord to take possession of Kells was Hugh de Lacy, who built a castle, most likely a motte and bailey castle, in present day Castle Street. By the time the first Ordnance Survey map was drawn in 1836 the castle had been demolished.
In c. 1200 either Hugh de Lacy himself or his son granted Kells a town charter. In the Continental tradition the town wall became the physical expression of this charter, indicating that those living inside the town enjoyed different privileges from those living on manors outside. There were 5 street gates coming into the town.
Street names are a good indicator of life in medieval Kells. John Street, which leads into town from the Dublin Road, is named after the hospital of the Crutched Friars of St. John the Baptist in Headfort Place.
At the western end of the town we are in Canon St – which has no military associations but rather reminds us that not far from Canon Gate stood the Augustinian abbey of canons regular of St. Mary, which had already taken over from the Columban monastery before the arrival of the Anglo-Normans. The street leading out of Kells northwards towards the Blackwater is called Maudlin Street. During the medieval period a leper hospital was located
just outside Maudlin Gate.
The prevailing trade in medieval Kells was in grain, salt, livestock, woollen cloth and linen. The markets were held in Market Street. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, Kells suffered because of its location on the boundary between the colony’s ‘land of peace’ and the ‘wild Irish’. Many of the Anglo Irish left Kells at that time and the Gaelic Irish moved in.