Gazing at the Book of Kells in Dublin, Ireland

Page from the Book of Kells (Image courtesy of Trinity College, Dublin)

I feel as if I’m in a long-lost world. In this overwhelmingly digital age, where all the information we need is at our fingertips, easily presented on a screen to our exact specifications, I’m queuing to look at a book. I’ve made my way through the traffic-mad summer streets of Dublin to the enclosed campus of Trinity College Dublin and I’m waiting to see one of the most famous books in the world, the Dark-Age calf-skin pages of the gospels which are the Book of Kells.

History of the Book of Kells

The queue shuffles forward and we make it into the first part of the exhibition, a display on the history of the book itself and other manuscripts. At this stage I’m not quite sure what to make of it, this exhibition that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year and is right at the top of Dublin’s must-see list. What am I about to see that’s so special? Books of this age and this quality aren’t unusual – I’ve seen the Lichfield Gospels, and many a European cathedral library offers the chance to peep at one or more such treasures to have survived the Reformation or a war or two.

Historians date the Book of Kells to the early ninth century, or possibly even slightly earlier, which makes the 300- year-old building in which it’s housed look positively modern – but it isn’t even the oldest of its kind. There’s controversy about its origin – such books were by no means uncommon – and it may not be Irish in origin though it certainly belongs to a Celtic Christian tradition which includes Ireland and the west of Scotland (it may have been wholly or partly written on the Scottish island of Iona).

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You want to remember what a real book looks like.
  • You want to get a sense of the Celtic Christian tradition of the medieval western British Isles.
  • Great for bibliophiles.

What is certain is that it found safety and security at the monastery at Kells, in County Meath, which is where it got its name. Quite how it survived through Ireland’s turbulent history, from the pillaging of the Vikings onward, isn’t clear. It found its way to Trinity College in the nineteenth century and since then visitors have shuffled along in line, just as I’m doing, waiting to marvel at it.

The Book of Kells Exhibition

At last I make it through to the centre of the exhibition. There are other manuscripts on display but it’s the Book of Kells we all want to see, pressing around its glass case, struggling to decipher the words but instead seduced by the exquisite colouring and workmanship.

Trinity College Library, home to the Book of Kells

What makes it special, I wonder as I try to hold my position among the press of visitors to gaze at it for just one second longer? The mind-boggling thought occurs to me as I step away that this may not be the best of its kind, just the best to have survived: I find myself thinking of mediaeval monastery scriptoria crammed with monks working painstakingly away on book after book after book, as good as or better than the jewel in front of me.

You don’t get a lot of time or space to stare when the exhibition is busy and we’re quickly directed out through the back. Why am I not satisfied? It’s because I have a problem with this book, and it isn’t just that the press of people and the necessarily dim light make it hard to see. I want to look at more than one page. No, that’s not quite accurate – I want to pick it up and touch it, rifle through its vellum pages and keep it on my coffee table to impress visitors. Not for what it says – you can get that anywhere – but because of what it is.

The Long Room at Trinity College Library (Image courtesy of Trinity College, Dublin)

I’m thinking of that as I leave the exhibition and follow the signs up a flight of stairs. Trinity College has one last surprise for me, a footnote to the exhibition, the next step in the evolution of the book. The route back to the gift shop takes visitors through the long room of the college library – a long, high panelled room with polished floors and shelves and shelves with thousands upon thousands of beautiful books.

I’ve heard it said that the advent of digital technology will change our way of reading for ever. But my visit to Trinity College has convinced me that the concept of the book as an item to covet, to treasure and to hold isn’t dead yet – and judging by the looks on the faces of those who’ve seen the Book of Kells, it never will be.

Practicalities

  • The Book of Kells is on display at Trinity College, right in the centre of Dublin. It’s easy to get to on foot or by public transport and the city bus tours stop right outside.
  • It’s open daily (check the website for opening hours) except over Christmas and the New Year: admission charge (adult admission for 2013 is €9, or about $12).

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