St. Colum Cille – Colum of the church - also known as Columba, is one of the best known and best documented of Irish saints. He was descended through his father, Feidhlimidh, from the Ceinéal Conaill, the ruling dynasty of Donegal. His mother, Eithne’s, connections are less secure, some associating her with the Uí Bhairrche of Carlow and Wexford or, more probably, with the Corbraighe of Fánaid, in north Donegal. Since the 12th century he is associated with Patrick and Bridget as one of Ireland’s national saints, and his cult has spread throughout Ireland, Scotland and further afield. His biography by Adhamhnán, written c. AD 700, is one of the earliest examples of Irish hagiography, but like all such works should be read with caution.
Colum was educated by Finnnian of Movilla, Co. Down, where he is said to have surreptitiously copied his teacher’s Gospels. Although it is a later legend this is said to have resulted in a judgement against him, the battle of Cúil Dreimhne, and his subsequent self-exile to Scotland where he founded his most famous monastery at Iona between AD 558 and 574. After his death in 597 Iona became a springboard for the evangelisation of northern Britain (Ó Riain 2011, 211-4). Prior to leaving Ireland he is said to have founded many monasteries, but Kells was not one of them, although Cogan (1862-70 vol. 1, 39), following Archdall, records abbots in the 7th century. The foundation of Kells (Ceanannus) arose from Viking raids on Iona after AD 802, when some of the community moved to Kells with many relics and treasures, possibly including the Cathach and the Book of Kells. All the features at Kells date from after this removal, and in 807 it is recorded that the church of Columba at Kells (Ceanannus) was destroyed. St. Colum’s feast is celebrated on 9 June.
St. Columba’s house (ME017-044011-) was built after the removal to Kells, but this is likely to have occured in the late 11th century (Ó Carragain 2010, 282-85). In 903 Kells was plundered by Maelseachnaill, and in 918 it was sacked by Vikings for the first time. In 949 the Vikings made Kells a centre for their extensive raids on monasteries in the vicinity. Over the next 200 years almost 20 raids against Kells or burnings of the monastery are recorded in the annals, including one by Dermot Mac Murrough in 1170. In 1005 a great book, possibly the Book of Kells, was stolen but was recovered soon afterwards, minus its gold cover. (Cogan 1862-70, 1, 38-42)
At a Church synod held at Kells in 1152 the primacy of Armagh was re-iterated and the provinces of the archbishops and the territories of the dioceses, which they essentially hold down to the present, were settled. The dioceses reflected the political realities of the time, and the Meath diocese, centred first at Clonard and later at Trim, encompassed the kingdom of Meath at probably its greatest extent. Kells is listed as the centre of what was to become Kilmore diocese, which was not otherwise named, but this reflected the growing importance of the O’ Rourke kingdom of Breiffne in counties Cavan and Leitrim. However Kells had lost its diocesan status by 1211 when it was absorbed into the Meath diocese. (Gwynn and Hadcock 1970, 82)
Thereafter the church at the centre of Kells became parochial (ME017-044031-), although Cogan (1862-70, vol. 1, 200-4) conflates it with St. Mary’s Augustinian abbey (ME017-044039-). A church undoubtedly existed where the present Church of Ireland church of St. Columba is located from the inception of the monastery, and this may be the daimhliag burnt by Vikings in AD 918 (ibid, 1, 39), but no evidence of a structure remains. However, the round tower and four high crosses in the rectangular St. Columba’s graveyard (dims c. 95m E-W; c. 65-70m N-S), which is defined by masonry walls, are ample evidence of an early church here. The graveyard is within an ecclesiastical enclosure (diam. c. 300-350m) now fossilised in the curving street system outlined by Carrick, Castle, Cross, and Farrell Streets, the Fair Green at the W, and the line of the medieval town wall on the S and SW. It is possible that this enclosure was an ancient and abandoned Royal pagan site before it enclosed the monastery.
The monastery and its enclosure are located on the N and E-facing slopes of a broad hill. After it lost its status as a diocesan centre in the early 13th century, the old monastic centre became a parish church but little documentation relates to it. According to an inscription on the tower the church underwent major repairs in 1579, and Dopping records (1682-5) that the church and chancel were derelict since 1641 but were then being repaired. At that time it had chapels dedicated to St. Mary and St. Nicholas, and a steeple, by which he probably meant the tower (Ellison 1973, 7).
The tower (ext. dims 9m E-W; 8m N-S) is just N of the present church and has three surviving floors. It has corner buttresses and good quoins, one at the NW angle with the Plunkett coat of arms. There are string courses at the first and second floors. There are two external niches with hood mouldings rising from the first floor string-course on the W wall. The crease of a pitched roof is visible at first floor level on the S side over a filled-in arch, indicating that the church was to the S of the tower. The ground floor has an E-W barrel vault with a hole for bell-pulls. There is a blocked twin-light ogee-headed window in the E wall and a pointed chamfered doorway internally at the SW angle accesses the newel stairs to the upper floors, which were entered through lintelled doorways. The second floor or belfry stage has a twin-light transomed, ogee-headed window with quatrefoil above on each face. The original parapet was removed when a steeple was added in 1783. (Bradley and King 1985, 77-8)
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.
Compiled by: Michael Moore
Date of upload/revision: 2 July 2014Description Source: National Monuments Service, Department of Arts, Heritage Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.