Located on the summit of and on the N, E and S-facing slopes of a low hill on the E side of the Hill of Lloyd. Numerous prehistoric artefacts have been found within the town and it may have been an important prehistoric centre before it became a Christian one (Bradley and King 1985, 70). It was reputed to be a stronghold of Diarmait Mac Cerbhill, King of the southern Uí Néill who died in AD 565, and it was known as Cenannas na Rí defended by a múr or wall in Old and Middle Irish tales. Ceanannas means ‘white-headed’ or pale (Simms and Simms 1990, 1), and a rath (ME017-044028-) at least was probably present before the Columban monastery was established (ME017-044012-).
When the monastic community of Iona left St Columba’s original monastery after some of the earliest Viking raids recorded in Britain or Ireland c. 800 AD they set up at Ceanannas. The templum or principal church was built by 814, and the relics of the saint were brought here ultimately, although they might also have spent time at Screen (ME032-047003-). Its most precious relic was the richly illuminated Book of Kells, which was probably produced in Iona c. 800 but during the later middle ages it was kept on the altar of the parish church (ME017-044031-) until 1653 when it made its way to Dublin and ultimately to the Royal Irish Academy (Simington 1960, 241-2). In addition to the original Gospels it records some pre-Anglo-Norman charters for parcels of the monastery’s lands. The size and prosperity of the new foundation is illustrated by its history as the head of the Columban familia until c. 1150, and the extent of its ecclesiastical enclosure (dims c. 280m x c. 350m). Furthermore, it was a renowned metal-working centre and the shrines of the Cathac and the Misach were made at Kells (Ó Floinn 1995, 120, 126). The monastery was attacked frequently by Viking and Irish war-bands in the tenth to twelfth centuries, one of the last being led by Dermot McMurrough in AD 1170. Kells became a diocesan centre and the locus of an important reforming Church synod in 1152, by which time it was under the sway of O’Rourke of Breifne.
The monastery may have functioned as a town, and Hugh de Lacy made it the caput or centre of a manor before 1176 when he discontinued building a castle at the approach of an Irish army. Hugh’s son Walter conferred a charter on Kells sometime after 1194 (MacNiochaill 1964, vol. 1, 124-5). The town was burned in 1203 and by 1211 it had lost its episcopal status to Trim and the Columban monastery became a parish church (ME017-044031-). In 1315 Edward Bruce put to flight an army under Roger de Mortimer outside the town (Orpen 1911-20, vol. 3, 173), but the location and significance of this encounter (ME017-052----) is uncertain. The earliest murage grant was made after this in 1326 (Simms and Simms 1990, 2). Kells was always a frontier town and a section of the Pale ditch (ME016-010----) survives c. 3km NW of it. In the fifteenth century it was under pressure from the O’Reillys of Cavan and the burgeses complained of the high level of murage required for the upkeep of its defences.
Nevertheless, Kells was a fairly prosperous urban centre and in 1598 it was listed as one of the four walled towns of Meath (Hogan 1878, 91). In 1642 a synod of the Catholic bishops of the Armagh archdiocese met at Kells and in 1647 the town was captured by Confederate Catholic forces. The town walls were described as ruined in the Civil Survey (1654) when 24 proprietors of 1640 are listed, 18 of whom are described as papists. A castle, a church with a steeple, a tuck mill and two corn mills are listed together with ‘divers houses and cabins, a stone quarry, a watch tower (the round tower), a fishing weir and two waste mills’ (Simington 1940, 279). A valuation of 1663 lists 32 proprietors of 1640 and 150 tenements in 1663 (Simington 1960, 233-4). In this survey about a third of the plots are described as ‘waste’, but the extant houses are usually of three or four rooms, the walls are of clay and stone, and the roofs are most frequently of thatch. The gardens can be quite long, frequently over 100 feet (c. 30m) in length. The named streets are: Shaffolk (Suffolk), Connaught (Canon), Carrick, Cross, St. John’s or Navan, and Maudlin.
The terrier or commentary of the Down Survey (1655-8) barony map describes Kells as ‘a walled town where a market is held every Thursday. There are five gates, a castle, a church, a high watch tower (the round tower), the house called St Colmcille’s cell with several houses and cabins in repair and two abbeys – one without Canon Gate called Lady’s Abbey and the other without Dublin Gate called St John’s Abbey.’ An area S of the ecclesiastical enclosure was known as Siofic in pre-Anglo-Norman sources (AFM 1156) and this suburb is probably the root of the name Suffolk St. The extent of the Anglo-Norman town based on the 1663 valuation and the burgage plots recorded in the 1836 edition of the OS 6-inch map encloses a large area of about 20 ha (c. 52 acres).
Apart from one mural tower there are no upstanding remains of the medieval defences, although its line can be deduced from the Down Survey maps and the valuation of 1663. The line ran from the mural tower S of Canon St westwards along the back of properties on the S side of that street to Canon Gate where it turned N along the E side of the Fair Green to Carrick Gate. It followed the back of properties on the N side of Carrick Street to Maudlin Gate on the eponymous street. From this point it ran to the E of properties on the E side of Castle Street and continued to the Dublin Gate at the W end of what is now Headfort Place. From here the wall followed a line at the back of properties on the S side of Kenlis Place and Farrell Street, crossed the N end of Bective Street at Trim Gate and ran by the back of properties on the W side of Suffolk Street to the mural tower.
Archaeological monitoring (E004375) of street trenches by Melanie McQuade within the town has produced evidence of habitation at the E end of Canon St., in Suffolk St., at the N end of Farrell St., in Market St., John St. and at the S end of Maudlin St. for which see: https://excavations.ie/report/2011/Meath/0022769/ The most extensive deposits were in Church St. (ibid.) where the potential had already been identified by testing (10E0405) (Walsh and Bailey (2013). The surviving remains consist of St Columba’s House (ME017-044011-) and the site of the parish church (ME017-044012-) at the core of the early monastery with the round tower and three high crosses and other remains in the graveyard. The site of St John’s friary (ME017-044026-) is in a graveyard on the Navan Road where there are some medieval graveslabs. The market cross has been moved to a new position (ME017-044043-) also on the Navan Road beside the old Court House that is now a heritage centre, for which see this web-page accessed on 05/04/2019: http://www.visitingkells.ie/the-old-courthouse.html
Compiled by: Michael Moore
Date of upload: 16 April 2019Description Source: National Monuments Service, Department of Arts, Heritage Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.