Home » Books » ‘The most purely Irish thing we have’ – The Book of Kells

‘The most purely Irish thing we have’ – The Book of Kells

The grey imposing Old Library stands calmly, awaiting its visitors. It’s morning on campus. A cool breeze blows gently and the sky betrays the rain to come. It’s June and the Irish weather still hasn’t decided what season it is in. Fellows Square is quiet but there are stirrings on its edges as staff, students and tourists begin their slow decent on Trinity’s iconic city centre campus.

The Old Library has welcomed guests to see its famous literature since the 19th century. It has stood in defiance of the passage of time, braving rebellions, treaties and the onslaught of women students (1901). During the summer it’s packed with tourists speaking all languages, all feasting on this wonder of the medieval world, this work of angels. Queues are sometimes all the way around Fellows Square, even in the rain.

It is one of my favourite buildings on campus. Grey brick upon brick, a Dublin symbol, it is speckled with age spots. Two floors of tall windows run from one end to the other. All are covered to stop the light from damaging the contents. In winter they are a row of light upstairs, a beacon to scholars to come and search its oak shelves.

For visitors who are not Trinity staff, tickets can be bought online or at the ticket desk inside the door. Inside, you are met with a darkened exhibition, illuminated panels and walls of information. Did you know about ogham? Or monastic life in the medieval period? Did you know where the Book came from? Or the recently digitized pocket gospels? The exhibition covers all of this and more.

The Book of Kells was completed around 800AD. Scholars still debate where that was. Some say the Scottish island of Iona; others hypothesize about Kells. Whatever the truth, the Book found its way to Kells around 802 AD and has been in Ireland since that time. It was gifted to Trinity in the 17th century.

It is a copy of the four gospels, written in Latin on vellum (calfskin) and covered in the most ornate designs imaginable. Its intricate spirals and tracery certainly invoke a divine inspiration.

The Book today sits in the Treasury, the small room at the end of the exhibition. Dimly lit but for the large illuminated panels recently installed, two volumes rest in a cabinet accompanied by two pocket gospels from an earlier period. Peer in and trace the words with your eyes. Take in the patterns and swirls that cascade from the open pages. Imagine the monk bent over his desk in a dark beehive cell adding sections to his pages by candlelight as the days fall away.

Leave the dark Treasury and follow the stairs to the first floor. Climb out at a red corridor, Tir na nOg red, and wait for the tourists in front of you to put their cameras down. They stop at the door to the Long Room and take it all in. ‘Wows’ are whispered, as if speaking will break the spell. Step inside and the first thing you’ll marvel at is the barrel vaulted ceiling, added in 1860 to allow for the upper gallery to be added. It was a necessary addition because the library is a legal deposit library (since 1801) and can claim a free copy of every book published in Ireland and the UK. As a consequence, Trinity’s Library has over 5 million books.


Your eyes follow the row of alcoves covered in books on either side. You map each face on the 42 marble busts, including Swift and Plato and Burke, running the length of the room. You watch as the visitors amble in awe. Books still have the power to amaze. And this many books, 200,000, certainly do.

A rhapsody of browns and beiges and blacks, leather aged with knowledge, some books are marked, covers peeling or picked off, frayed edges. Some titles are in Latin, others in English, a guidebook on Godwin or Burns’ Surgical Anatomy of the Head and Neck, registers and collections. The thick, dark oak wood shelves all have letters running down them. The 18th century catalogue system used to store these tomes is based on the Latin alphabet and so, the letter j is nowhere to be found.


But it is the smell that you will remember. The smell of books – old books. There is nothing more pleasing to the soul than the fragrance of a well-aged book. The paper may be yellowed and curling, the cover tied together with cotton strips, but the scent brings to mind scholars and philosophers arguing in the square.

The Old Library is still a working library, used by the academic staff and students of the university to conduct research. In fact, it is one of the great research libraries of the world. Ladders rest precariously on wheels at each station. Books lay haphazardly on their side on top of other books; the scholar not yet finished with her enquiries. Catalogue boxes contain the whereabouts of aged volumes for the PhD student whose next chapter on 19th century realist writers is due in any day now. The conservation assistant tasked with keeping the books begins the morning at the end of yesterday’s list.

You can’t take photos with a flash in the Long Room or use a tripod. But it is possible to get plenty of good quality photos nonetheless. Take your time here. Take a sit (there are benches in the middle of the room) and take in the silence, the calm. Centuries of study have taken place here, and many more years of research and scholarship will occur here. Questions lie among the volumes; their answers may also hide in its dark corners, or hang over the black spiral staircase.



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