Ireland is known as the “Land of Saints and Scholars” because of the vital role the island nation played in preserving the light of faith and learning in the midst of Europe’s dark age. 500 recognized saints from the Emerald Isle lived between the sixth and ninth centuries; during that time, many monasteries produced a flourishing of art and learning that missionaries took to a suffering European continent in the wake of the Roman Empire’s collapse.
The famed Book of Kells is the most iconic artifact of that golden age. This illuminated manuscript is a great cultural treasure and one of Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions, with over half a million visiting its exhibition each year at the library of Trinity College Dublin. For all that it signifies, James Joyce called it “the most purely Irish thing we have.”
It is often referred to as the “Book of Columba” because the story of its creation begins with this missionary saint and scholar whose feast is celebrated on June 9th. While St. Columba, or Colmcille in Irish, is revered as one of Ireland’s three patron saints, along with Patrick and Brigid, his impact on history extends far beyond his homeland.
Most of what we know of him comes from a biography written by St. Adamnan two decades after Columba’s death. He was born with the name Crimthann in 521 to noble parents in County Donegal in the northwest of Ireland. Columba’s mother Ethne was a descendent of Cathair Mor, the progenitor of the kings of Leinster. His father was Fedelmid mac Ferguso, a descendent of the great Uí Néill chieftains who dominated Ireland from the sixth to the tenth centuries primarily from the northern region of Ulster. “Uí Néill, O’Neil” means “descendants of Niall” in reference to Niall of the Nine Hostages who rose to the high kingship of all of Ireland at Tara. His name comes from his ability to subdue enemies by taking family members hostage and ransoming them in exchange for surrender.
Among the many hostages posited by some to have been taken in his raids along the coast of modern-day England and Scotland was a young Patrick. Another Uí Néill ancestor of Columba’s was Niall of the Nine Hostages’ son, Conall Gulban, who established his kingdom in modern-day County Donegal named “Tír Chonaill, Land of Conall.” He would be the first king baptized by Patrick which would open the way for the conversion of the rest of the ruling class of Ireland.
If grace builds on nature, then according to Raymond O’Flynn: “In the case of the Irish saints this procedure is even obvious. For in no other people has the fusion of blood and religion been so natural or so complete…Already in the lifetime of their National Apostle, ‘the sons and daughters of the Scots were becoming monks and virgins of Christ’ in numbers unprecedented…that ardent temperament—the perfervidum ingenium Scotorum, as it came to be called—speedily generated an army of intrepid apostles.”1
It was a custom, in this early Christian period of Ireland, for even the nobles to offer their firstborn son to the service of the Church. The young Crimthann was fostered by a priest named Cruithnechan.
Already in Patrick’s time, the Church in Ireland had developed a monastic spirit. Many of his young converts, including even sons and daughters of kings, were eager to dedicate their lives to God as monks and nuns. Over the course of the century after Patrick’s death, monasteries were established all over Ireland. Though intended as secluded places of prayer, they soon became objects of the patronage of kings and the wealthy; people were drawn to build settlements around them, and they became centers of economy and learning. These monastic city-states became hubs of civilization. Most important were the libraries and scriptoria where the wisdom of the ancient Greco-Roman world was preserved.
As he grew a little older, Crimthann was sent to study for the priesthood under St. Finnian at the monastery of Movilla in County Down. It was here that he probably gained the nickname “Dove of the Church,” from “columba,” which means “dove” in Latin, and was “Irishized” into “Colmcille”.
Columba continued his studies at the famed Abbey of Clonard in County Meath. This monastery was founded by a different St. Finnian, under whose tutelage some of the most significant names in the history of Irish Christianity studied, remembered today as the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland” (chief among them is Columba). After his ordination, Colmcille began founding monasteries of his own, one of them at Kells in County Meath.
While barbarian tribes were sacking Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, Irish monks took up the effort of preserving the wisdom of classical civilization by copying as much of Western literature as they could. They were often more than just works of scholarship but were also works of art. These scribal artisans would illuminate the manuscripts of Sacred Scripture with flourishes such as elaborate miniature illustrations within the borders surrounding the page and even the letters of the text. Those capable of producing such beauty held an honored place in Irish society.
Columba had a tremendous passion for this cause and was sure there were scriptoria in each of his monastic foundations. He is said to have copied with his own hand upwards to 300 manuscripts in his life.
According to an inveterate, but not necessarily reliable tradition, his passion for the cause would get him into serious trouble—a famous incident often cited as the first copyright infringement trial in history that would lead to a bloody battle and his exile from Ireland.
Columba borrowed a Psalter belonging to his old master Finian of Movilla and copied the manuscript without permission. Finian objected and demanded the copy be given over to him. A quarrel ensued and the matter was presented to the High King of Ireland, Diarmait mac Cerbaill, who ruled in favor of Finian famously saying, “To every cow belongs its calf; to every book its copy.”
Columba did not accept the ruling, objecting to the limitations placed on spreading God’s Word. He already had tensions with this High King. Previously, one of his relatives accidentally killed a man in a hurling match. Pursued by the authorities he claimed “sanctuary” in one of Columba’s monasteries which was violated by the king’s soldiers, who invaded the sacred space and killed the fugitive on the spot without trial. Angered by this and now the unfavorable ruling in the copyright case, Columba led his O’Neill clan in a revolt that resulted in what is called the Battle of the Book—Cúl Dreimhne.
Columba was victorious and was able to keep his copy of the Psalter at the cost of the lives of three thousand men. A synod of local bishops decreed his exile as a result of all the bloodshed and Columba willingly obliged.
Following the example of the Lord and His Apostles, he took twelve monks with him to make his exile a missionary expedition. He desired to be a pilgrim for Christ and convert as many souls as the number of Christians who died at Cúl Dreimhne.
Columba settled on the first island he came to where he could no longer sea the shores of his homeland. It was the island of Iona off the coast of western Scotland. He and his companions arrived there in 563 and established one of the most important monastic centers of the medieval world. Today, Iona is considered a holy isle as it is the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland and is a popular pilgrimage destination.
Raymond O’Flynn writes of the monastery:
It was a veritable hive of industry, for the Columban rule, with its Penitential Discipline, suffered no drones and, apart from the short hours of sleep, the time given to prayer was spent in a variety of manual industries and—a distinctive feature of Irish foundations—in the writing of books.
Unlike the homes of St. Benedict, an Irish monastery was never a mere asylum from the tumult of the world. Rather it was a citadel. A base of operations from which the “soldiers of Christ” (Adamnan’s expression) could conduct his campaign in the surrounding territory.2
It is easy to overlook that, after the fall of Rome, Christianity could have become extinct on the continent. Rome was a Christian empire that fell to pagan barbarians. Iona is where the process of restoring Christianity to the continent began.
From Iona came forth missionaries who preached the gospel first to the Picts of Scotland and later to the barbarian tribes settling in the ruins of the Roman provinces of northern Europe.
Columba and his monks sailed to other islands and went inland making converts and founding churches. One of Columba’s missionary adventures includes perhaps the first written account of the Loch Ness monster. One day Columba and his companions were traveling by the River Ness which connects Loch Ness with the sea. They came upon some of the Picts who were burying a man who had been killed by the monster. Columba’s prayers miraculously brought the man back to life.
Even more, Columba then directed one of his monks to swim across the loch to bring back a small boat which was moored on the opposite shore. When this monk was attacked by the same monster, Columba made the sign of the Cross and—in the Name of Lord—commanded the monster to depart from the man at once. The impressed Picts were converted by all they had witnessed and were baptized on the spot from the waters of the River Ness.
Malachy McCourt summarizes the significance of Columba’s life:
There was no lack of drama in Columcille’s life, having dotted Ireland with monasteries that became centers of Christianity and scholarship, and when he was forced to leave, he did the same in western Scotland. His disciples, caught up in his zeal and holiness, continued his work. It is no exaggeration to say that this influx of Irish missionaries on the European continent was a turning point in European history, a wave of learning washing into barbaric Europe.3
After Columba’s death on June 9th, 597, his spiritual sons at Iona would spread the gospel even further among the Angles. More monasteries were built in northern England, the most prominent being at the island of Lindisfarne in Northumberland, established by the Ionan monk St. Aiden in 635. Here the monks produced the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated gospel book of renown that can be seen at the British Library in London.
Pilgrims who visit Iona today can see the ruins of Columba’s “Tòrr an Aba, Hill of the Abbot” where Columba is said to have had his writing hut. Up until the very end of his life on the eve of his death, Columba was busying himself with copying texts in his hut.
It was long believed that the famed Book of Kells was begun by his own hand, but scholars now place its completion around 800, much later than the saint’s death in 597. Most believe the masterwork was begun at Iona, but its composition was interrupted by one of the many Viking raids that befell many monasteries of the period, effectively bringing Ireland’s golden age of creativity and influence to a close. In 806, a raid at Iona left 68 of the community dead. Survivors fled to back to Ireland to the Abbey of Kells founded by Columba in County Meath where work on the manuscript was completed.
The Book of Kells consists of the four Gospels, mostly drawn from St. Jerome’s Vulgate, although several passages from earlier translations are found within the text. It uses the insular script system which was begun in Irish monasteries and spread to Anglo-Saxon England and continental Europe from the late sixth through early ninth centuries. This form of writing was influential in the development of Carolingian miniscule at Charlemagne’s court, providing a calligraphic standard in medieval Europe which is a direct ancestor of modern-day scripts and typefaces.
The Book Kells is considered the pinnacle of the era’s calligraphy. It is a total work of art, more lavishly decorated than any other surviving insular gospel book with Celtic knots, interlace and spirals and figures of humans, animals and mythical beasts presented within the borders of the page and letters of the text. The text and numerous full-page illustrations are written in a broad range of colors. Of particular note are the ornamentation given to the opening words of each gospel and the illustration of the Virgin and Child which is the oldest extant image of the Virgin Mary in a Western manuscript.
The most iconic image of the whole manuscript is known as the Chi-Rho, or Incarnation page, as it illuminates the words of St. Matthew’s gospel which switches from detailing Jesus’ ancestry to His birth with the words: “XRI autem generatio, this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.” The intricate swirling patterns that make up the abbreviation for the word Christ with Greek letters X-P-I (pronounced Chi-Rho-Iota), dominate the page. The ornamentation of the letters seem to move on the page with small circles spinning inside the larger ones, dazzling readers throughout the centuries.
The earliest historical reference to the Book of Kells comes from the 1007 Annals of Ulster that refers to it as “The great Gospel of Columcille, the chief relic of the Western World.” This same text tells of how it was stolen from the monastery at Kells only to be found some months later under a sod with its golden and bejeweled cover stolen. 60 pages are missing from the original, most likely lost during this episode.
Though the Abbey of Kells was dissolved in the ecclesiastical reforms of the 12th century, the Book remained at the abbey church, which began to then serve as a parish.
Later that same century, Gerald of Wales left a description of a book believed to be the one at Kells, where he details its fine craftsmanship. He writes:
Look more keenly at it and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and subtle, so exact and compact, so full of knots and links, with colors so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this was the work of an angel, and not of a man.
It remained at Kells until around 1653, when Cromwell’s calvary began using the church at Kells for quarters. As a result, it was sent by the local governor to Dublin for safekeeping. In 1661 it was presented to Trinity College Dublin by Henry Jones, the school’s vice-chancellor and the Anglican Bishop of Meath (the diocese in which Kells is located) where it is on display today.
In 1953 the manuscript of 680 pages was rebound in four volumes. Two of the volumes are on permanent display for visitors to Trinity’s Old Library. Two different pages are exhibited each day: one that shows a major decoration and the other that shows text with smaller decorations.
The Book of Kells is significant for more than its beauty. It is a visible sign serving as a reminder to our current and future generations of how the faith of a saint helped bring Europe from darkness into light.
1 Raymond O’Flynn, “Saint Columcille,” in Saints are Not Sad: Short biographies of Joyful Saints, ed. Frank J. Sheed (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 82.
2 O’Flynn, 87.
3 Malachy McCourt, Malachy McCourt’s History of Ireland (New York: Running Press, 2004), 45.
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