Trinity College opens exciting new chapter on the Book of Kells

Your humble scribe is ashamed to admit that he had never been to see the Book of Kells in Trinity College. Even though the university is in the heart of Dublin city, and easily accessible, it was never a priority. Maybe it's a south Meath thing!

So when an invite arrived from a London-based PR company to visit the new Book of Kells Experience at Trinity, it was the ideal opportunity to see the famed treasure associated with the eponymous north Meath town. I say associated because the book is believed to have originated on the island of Iona off the coast of Scotland. I know they won't be happy with me in Kells for saying that, as there has been a campaign to have it returned there.

The Book of Kells had, for many years, been on display in a glass case in the Long Room of the Old Library at Trinity College. Around the turn of the millennium, it was moved downstairs to create an exhibition in a room called the Collonades, where the current tour starts.

The work is a book of the gospels, written by hand around 800 AD, and illustrated with colourful artwork, created by monks in a monastery. St Columba, who founded monasteries in Ireland, at Durrow, near Tullamore, and near Lough Foyle in Derry, decided to go into exile in Iona in AD 563. Here, he is said to have created a monastery and worked on the book of the gospels, copying the scriptures, and teaching others how to make copies.

The Book of Kells is bound in four parts, in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, depicted on picture pages near the beginning of the book, each one framed with decorations, patterns, and fantastic designs all round the edges. The gospel symbols of the evangelists are featured - the man, lion, calf and eagle, all with wings. There are full page scenes from the life of Christ, carefully painted spirals, patterns, and scriptwriting. Some of the monks might even have drawn pictures of themselves into the designs.

Some 200 years after the death of Columba, the island of Iona was invaded by Norsemen who came from Norway to rob the monasteries and destroy buildings. The abbot at Iona escaped to Kells, bringing the book with him. The rulers of Kells gave the monks some land, and a monastery was built between 807 and 814, by Ceallach. Kells became known as 'the splendour of Ireland', according to Archbishop George Otto Simms, and for some 200 years was head of all the Columban monasteries in Ireland, until Derry became the chief monastery in 1150.

EDITORIAL USE ONLYThe Book of Kells Experience, a new immersive digital exhibition that focuses on the 9th century manuscript and the collections of the Old Library, which opens today at Trinity College Dublin. Picture date: Wednesday January 3, 2023. PA Photo. The exhibition uses 360-degree projections, stage sets, animations, audio storytelling, and digital mapping to explore the legacy, creation, and stories behind the medieval work. Photo credit should read: Damien Eagers/PA Wire Photo by Damien Eagers

Around the year 1007, the book, described as 'the chief treasure of the western world' was stolen from the western sacristy of 'the great stone church of Cenannus'. It had a golden cover which has never been recovered, but the book was found two months later. After the monastery ended in the 12th century, the book was in the possession of the local church. In 1661, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Meath, Henry Jones, gave it to Trinity College for safekeeping, and it has been in their Old Library ever since.

This Old Library's precious collections, spanning millennia, have been in situ for over 400 years. The library now faces conservation challenges with pollution and dust accumulation taking their toll, and an urgent need to improve fire protection and environmental controls.

The Old Library Redevelopment Project is drawing on 21st century design and technology to safeguard the 18th century building and conserve its ancient collections for future generations. Some 200,000 early printed books have been decanted from the shelves. One by one, each book is being cleaned with a specialised vacuum, measured, electronically tagged and linked to a catalogue record, before being safely relocated to a climate-controlled storage facility.

Of course, all of this costs money, and this is where the Book of Kells Experience comes in – it has been devised as a means of raising funds while maintaining the Book as a tourist attraction.

Described as “a new world-class immersive exhibition that digitally transports visitors into the illuminated pages of the ninth century manuscript and the globally renowned collections of the magnificent Old Library, the Experience is set within a new specially constructed pavilion in the historic grounds of Trinity, Ireland’s oldest university, marking the first opening of its kind for the city.”

(This red metal construction in the centre of the period buildings and cobbled squares is a strange one – but apparently as it is not a permanent building, but has planning for just five years, it's allowed).

The tour starts in the old library building, with a downloadable audio guide bringing you through the story of Ogham stones, the Books of Mulling and Dimma, the Symbols of the Four Evangelists, pigments and calf skin vellum, the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells. It touches on the amount of times Kells was destroyed - it was burned by fire in 1016, 1040, 1060, 1095, 1099, 1111, 1135, 1143, 1144, 1150 and 1156!

It tells the fscinating story of how these books were produced, before you take a few steps up to a special chamber where the Kells volume stands in splendid isolation in a glass case, appropriately opened on the page showing the scribe John when we we visited.

Then, having visited the Long Room upstairs, currently depleted of many of its volumes, we crossed the square to the new pavilion (as opposed to the Pav bar!), for a “360° immersive journey filled with stories, sights, and sounds inspired by the ancient manuscript and the Old Library’s precious collections, including a spectacularly innovative digital reconstruction of the Long Room.”

The Book of Kells Experience also explores and showcases several of the books and manuscripts from the Old Library’s historically significant collections. Visitors will travel to 1916 to hear the Proclamation of the Irish Republic; interact with spirited sculptures including Ada Lovelace, Jonathan Swift, Rosalind Franklin and William Shakespeare; and witness the architectural evolution of the Long Room reimagined from 1732 to today.

Afterwards, there is the obligatory gift and merchandising shop at the end of the tour. When the cashier asked which country I was from, I answered “Kells”. It was a conversation stopper! The training mustn't have actually dealt with domestic visitors. While Kells will never see the return of the volume, it would be nice if there was actually something promoting visits to the heritage town in that gift shop, as hundreds of tourists are passing through it every day.

The tour is certainly worth the €21.50 admission, and there are concessions available. A tour time of 90 minutes is suggested by the promoters, and two tips from me - bring your ear pods for the audio tour on your phone, and use a toilet beforehand – there is no bathroom access until you get into that gift shop at the end, unless you go across to the basement of the Arts Building/Lecky Building off Nassau Street.

Meanwhile, I will be making a return trip in leisure time.