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.
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 the cursed bottleneck on the road from Dublin to the Northwest – until 2010, then the M3 opened and most people in a hurry are glad to bypass the Meath town (even though a road toll must be paid). The town should, however, be on your list of places to visit in County Meath. It is steeped in history and has one of the most confusing follies in Ireland to boot.

Kells in a Nutshell

Kells (or in Irish Ceanannas, the name used on many maps) is a sizeable town in County Meath, situated just off the M3 motorway around 65 kilometers 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. Around 6,000 people live in Kells today.

Lying at the junction of the old N3 and the N52 meant traffic chaos in the town – since 2010 this junction has been taken out of town with the opening of the M3 and the Kells Bypass. Much of the often alarming traffic jams have been taken out of Kells, though you still may encounter problems around the southern part of the town when schools open or close.

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.

Indicating that an important and large(ish) 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, on the move due to Viking invasions.

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 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), 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 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 crosses and the und tower of Kells are in the churchyard of St Columba's Church (usually free access to the grounds during daylight hours), marking the highest point in Kells. The church itself is also curious in that it has a medieval tower not attached to the building proper.

Near St. Columba's church visitors will also find a smaller oratory with a stone roof, centreknown 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 vicenter 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.

Nearby you'll also find the “Paupers' Grave”, a cemetery where an unknown number of workhouse inmates and famine victims are interred and a special mass is celebrated annually.

Kells Miscellany

Kells 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. And Dick Farrelly was a Kells man - 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 regurlarly - high-powered motorcycle racing on otherwise quiet country roads.

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