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Hail the Ancient Book of Kells in Dublin

Published by Bill Lehane, Writer

Country: Ireland

The Experience

One of the world's oldest and most beautiful books, The Book of Kells has become a must-see for any visitor to Dublin. The Book of Kells is on display in Ireland's oldest and most picturesque university Trinity College, whose campus represents for many Dubliners the very centre of the Irish capital.

This remarkable book contains the four Gospels of the New Testament in Latin written on vellum (treated calfskin), and was meticulously illustrated by Irish monks around the year 800 BC. The history of The Book of Kells is almost as remarkable as the precision craftsmanship it contains. The Book of Kells' first home was the Abbey of Kells in nearby County Meath, where a long-running campaign to get the famous book back continues to this day. However, its roots lie deeper still in Saint Columcille, also of Meath, who moved to the now Scottish island of Iona (then part of Ireland) around the time the book was made and established a scriptorium for the creation of holy books. Attacked by Vikings in AD 806, Columcille and his fellow Columban monks fled back to Kells, where the Book of Kells was either created from scratch or completed after being started in Iona (nobody knows for sure). The Book of Kells remained in the town after it was created until 1654, when it was taken to Trinity College for safekeeping amid English leader Oliver Cromwell's political and religious campaign in Ireland. It has remained there ever since.

As for the inside of the book, prepare for a feast for the eyes. The Book of Kells is more lavishly decorated than you would ever think possible for a 1,200-year-old book painted by monks using ink, with only daylight and candlelight to guide them. Every single page is richly illustrated, with tiny animal or human figures drawn into ornate capital letters that grace the beginning of each principal section. And even though each page was roughly the size of a modern A4 sheet of paper, more drawings were added to anywhere else on the manuscript that they could be fitted.

Any visit to the Book of Kells would not be complete without a walk around the Old Library where it is housed in Trinity College. The library's 19th-Century Long Room is famous in its own right as one of the world's prettiest bookrooms. Here you will find many of the oldest books in Ireland, as well as busts of famous Celtic writers. The harp of Brian Boru, a historical king of Ireland, is also kept here, as well as an original copy of the 1916 Proclamation of Independence.

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When to Go to Book Of Kells

The best time of year to visit Dublin is the summer, because it offers the best chance of reasonably clement weather and perhaps even some sunshine! Although as recently as summer 2007 it rained for 40 days in a row, so be prepared to get wet!

Seventy-eight different airlines from around the world fly to Dublin Airport, the country's main airport hub. So expect it to be crowded. Check online booking engines for the cheapest deals. Getting to the city from the airport is straightforward, with dedicated Aircoach buses offering direct transfers to the city and principal hotels for US$18 return.

While summer is high season for tourists, you should be able to get around easily because many locals will be on holiday. Accommodation should be booked in advance however. Getting around the city centre itself is most easily done by a combination of light rail, bus, train and on foot depending on your destination. You won’t need to rent a car to see the Book of Kells – almost all Dublin Bus routes terminate within minutes of Trinity College.

Odds n' Ends

Split into four volumes in more recent times, only two parts of the Book of Kells is on display at any one time. One will be open on a page showing the Celtic calligraphy used to write the Gospel, while another is open on a major illustration page. These are rotated regularly. Be aware that depending on the time of your visit, there may be a crowd around the glass cases that you will have to navigate around to get a closer view.

Opening hours are Monday through Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday (Oct–May) 12 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday (June–Sept) 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and a short closure over Christmas. Ticket prices are approximately US$10.

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