Kells, A Historic Town

Quaint Town Known for High Crosses, a Round Tower and a “Lighthouse”

Kells - St. Columba's House on the left, the tower of St Columba's (Church of Ireland) on the right.
© Bernd Biege

Kells, the historic town in County Meath, was once known for its traffic jams as traffic from Dublin hit a bottleneck when passing through the quaint Irish town. When the M3 opened in 2010, most people in a hurry were glad to pay a toll to bypass the tiny Meath town. The town should, however, be on your list of places to visit in County Meath. It is steeped in history, was once home to famed Book of Kells, and has one of the most confusing follies in Ireland to boot.

Kells (or in Irish Ceanannas, the name used on many maps) is a sizeable town in County Meath, 40 miles from Dublin, and about half an hours drive from the Hill of Tara. This made Kells popular with Dublin commuters looking for a home “in the country”, the town population grew massively during the Celtic Tiger years when Ireland experienced an economic boom in the early 2000s. Around 6,000 people live in Kells today.

A Short History of Kells

Kells' name can be traced back to “Kenlis”, the anglicized version of the Irish “Ceann Lios”, which in turn is just a variety of “Ceannanas Mór” - meaning “head fort” or “a great chief's home” respectively. The meaning behind the name suggests that an important and large fortification must once have stood here.

The town's main claim to fame is, however, ecclesiastical: The monastery at Kells was founded around the year 800 by fugitive monks from Saint Colmcille's monastery on the Scottish island of Iona, who were forced to flee due to Viking invasions.

Those who follow the history of the Catholic Church have likely heard of Kells because it became the center of a part of the church reformation in Ireland. The Synod of Kells in 1152 was maybe the most significant event in the history of Irish Christianity between St. Patrick's mission and the Reformation, changing the church from its monastic structure in Ireland to one based on the stricter diocesan structure preferred by Rome. Unfortunately, the actual synod (which is a kind of church council) was transferred to Mellifont in County Louth (though the name Kells stuck), and as small consolation Kells became a diocese in its own right for some time.

The Anglo-Normans (starting with Hugh de Lacy, Lord of Meath from the late 12th century) sponsored Kells' religious establishments, but also put a far more worldly emphasis on the town. Soon an important border garrison of the “Pale” (the Anglo-Norman part of Ireland, radiating from Dublin where English rule was concentrated), Kells saw some battles and smaller skirmishes, during the rebellion of 1641 large parts of Kells were burnt to the ground by the O'Reilly clan.

During the Great Famine, the population of Kells dropped by two-fifths with both the workhouse and the hospital overflowing.

Places to Visit in Kells

Many places of interest in Kells are associated with the old monastery - the imposing round tower of Kells and no less than five high crosses can still be seen today. Four of Kells' high crosses and the round tower of Kells are in the churchyard of St Columba's Church, which built on the highest point in Kells. The church and surroundings are usually free to access during daylight hours and the church itself is also curious because it has a medieval tower that is detached from the building.

Near St. Columba's church visitors will also find a smaller oratory with a stone roof known as St. Colmcille's House. Dating from the 11th century, the small rectangular building is typical of a monastic church of the time. The oratory is not generally open to visitors, but access can be arranged (current details are found at the locked gate).

The fifth high cross can be found near the old courthouse next to the N3 – the courthouse also doubled as a museum and visitor's center until 2009, when funds ran out.

The famous Book of Kells is, however, kept at Trinity College Dublin – and the magnificent Kells Crozier can be found even further away, at the British Museum in London.

Just north of Kells (and accessible via the Oldcastle road) is the “People's Park”, a community area on the Hill of Lloyd. Here the “Tower of Lloyd” dominates the hilltop, it is a memorial and folly from the 18th century, in the shape of a huge Doric column topped by a glazed lantern. A lighthouse far inland erected to the memory of Thomas Taylor, 1st Earl of Bective.

If you are interested in the history of the Great Famine, nearby you'll also find the “Paupers' Grave”, a cemetery where an unknown number of workhouse inmates and famine victims are buried and a special mass is celebrated annually.

Modern Kells

Kells may not be as flashy as nearby Dublin but it still has some movie connections - “The Butcher Boy” was partially shot at Headfort House and the Oscar-nominated animated movie “The Secret of Kells” was inspired by Kells' ecclesiastical history. Finally, Dick Farrelly was born and raised in Kells - he composed the music to “The Isle of Innisfree”, a hit for Bing Crosby and theme of “The Quiet Man”.

On the roads to the west, the Kells Road Races are held regularly, where high-powered motorcycle races are held on otherwise quiet country roads.

Finally, don't miss the curious bronze sculpture doubling as a bench near the SuperValu supermarket on the N3 towards Virginia and Cavan. It is shaped in the form of an open book (The Book of Kells, maybe?)!

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