St. Columb’s House is located towards the top of a N-facing slope within the ecclesiastical enclosure of Kells. It is in a rectangular enclosure (dims c. 20-25m N-S; c. 17m E-W) defined by masonry walls, but there is no evidence of burials associated with it. This is a stone-roofed church with a second chamber in the steep pitch of the roof. The structure was conserved by OPW in the 1870s (Deane 1877-78, 77) but much of the ground around and within it had already been lowered, exposing deep foundations, and this complicates interpretations of the structure.
The ground floor is a rectangular chamber (int. dims c. 5.8m E-W; c. 4.7m N-S) with a barrel vault (present H c. 7m). The upper chamber (int. L c. 4.55m) is divided into three by buttresses that have crude arched openings (Wth c. 0.53m). A rectangular doorway towards the E end of the S wall is post-medieval and located almost entirely in the foundations of the building. The original doorway, now destroyed and with the opening blocked, was in the W wall. The only original features are gable-headed windows in the E wall and towards the E end of the S wall at the original ground floor. The ground floor was provided with a wooden ceiling, evidenced by the lack of plaster above the windows, and this served as the floor of an upper chamber or loft that was lit only by a small window in the W wall. An opening in the lower vault at the W end allows access to the upper vault that is lit only by a rectangular window in the E wall.
St. Columb’s House is one of the smallest of the stone-roofed churches in Ireland. Leask (1955, 33-4) accepted it as the church completed in AD 814, which was damaged in a Viking raid in 819. More recent research identifies St. Columb’s House as one of a group of double-vaulted churches built around AD 1100 as shrine chapels (Ó Carragáin 2010, 262-3). For Leask the upper vault was necessitated by the weight of stone that would otherwise have borne down on the arch below, thus creating a space that might not have been used. However, the upper vault is accessible, is provided with two internal buttresses and an E window and could be utilised. Ó Carragáin posits with considerable scholarship that the double-vaulted churches, being consistently of small design at subsidiary locations within larger monasteries served as reliquary churches designed to house enshrined relics, perhaps in the care of anchorites (ibid. 263-8).
In the context of Kells, a charter of 1073-87 recognises Dísert Coluim Cille – the hermitage of Colum Cille – as a community within the monastery. The Annals record that the relics of the saint were carried off in 1127 by Vikings, but were restored to his tigh or house within a month. This may be the earliest reference to the existing structure that could have been commissioned to replace an older chapel by the Uí Mael Seachnail sept of the southern Uí Neill, who were patrons of Kells. If so it was a forlorn attempt to bolster Kells as the recognised head of the familia, or family, of Columbine monasteries that it would lose to Derry by 1150, dashing any hopes of the Uí Mael Seachnail to retain a claim on the High Kingship. The Uí Mael Seachnail power in Meath was effectively broken in 1094, and a likely period for the construction of St. Columba’s House is 1080-86. This coincides with the period when Kells was recognised as a centre of excellence in the production of metalwork for shrines like the Cathach (ibid. 282-4). It is a National Monument (Harbison 1970, 187)
The above description is derived from the published 'Archaeological Inventory of County Meath' (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1987). In certain instances the entries have been revised and updated in the light of recent research.
See attached view from S.
Compiled by: Michael Moore
Date of revision: 15 July 2014
Description Source: National Monuments Service, Department of Arts, Heritage Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.