Reflecting on the Book of Kells

Kells banner image June 2015 croppedA meeting around the Book of Kells, the world’s most famous medieval manuscript, was held in Trinity College Dublin on September 10th and 11th.

Bernard Meehan, M&ARL

Bernard Meehan, AMARC Chair

Entitled ‘The Book of Kells: Rethinking and Researching a Great National Treasure’, it featured leading manuscript, conservation and imaging experts who presented papers on research trends and techniques, and on the challenges faced in displaying great manuscript treasures.DSC_1512

The meeting, organised by the Association for Manuscripts and Archives in Research Collections, was hosted by the Library of Trinity College Dublin. It proved again that the study of the Book of Kells is a huge draw; attendees came from all over Ireland, from England, Scotland and Wales, and some travelled from France, the Netherlands and Iceland. After a warm welcome by the Librarian and College Archivist, Helen Shenton, talks focused on the background to research on the great manuscript, on its pigments, and on new approaches to the use of colour.

Tomm Moore, Cartoon Saloon

Tomm Moore, Cartoon Saloon

There were comparative talks on other great medieval documents, including Edward J. Cowan (University of Glasgow) on the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath in Scotland, which, in contrast to the Book of Kells, is seldom displayed; and Claire Breay (British Library) on the Magna Carta in the British Library, where a major exhibition to mark its 800th anniversary has just closed. A highlight was an entertaining talk by Tomm Moore, co-founder and creative director of Cartoon Saloon, Kilkenny, entitled ‘Bringing the Book of Kells to Hollywood’, in which he traced the process of getting the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells to the big screen.

Claire Breay, the British Library

Claire Breay, the British Library

Thanks go to everyone involved in the organisation of the day: Dr Suzanne Paul, of Cambridge University Library, Meetings Secretary of AMARC; staff in M&ARL, the Long Room Hub and Conservation, especially Clodagh Neligan. Thanks also go to Raghnall Ó Floinn, Director of the National Museum of Ireland and Elizabethann Boran, Librarian of the Worth Library, who provided private tours.

Bernard Meehan

Book of Kells Conference

Kells banner image June 2015 croppedThe Association for Manuscripts and Archives in Research Collections (AMARC) is delighted to open the booking for the forthcoming conference to be held at Trinity College Dublin on 10-11 September 2015.


This conference will focus on the Book of Kells, the world’s most famous medieval manuscript, with presentations on recent research trends and techniques, and on the challenges faced in displaying great manuscript treasures.

Rachel Moss, ‘Celtic Tiger Tales: Recent Developments in Insular Art Research’
Bernard Meehan, ‘Researching the Book of Kells’
Denis Casey, ‘Cows, cumala and Kells: the medieval Irish economy and the production of a masterpiece’
Heather Pulliam, ‘Material Matters: The Role of Colour in the Book of Kells’
Susie Bioletti, ‘Pinning down the pigments and techniques on the Book of Kells’
Christina Duffy, ‘How to improve medieval manuscripts using colour space analysis and other techniques’
Michael Brennan, ‘Taking apart a page in the Book of Kells: the eight-circle cross’
John Gillis, ‘The Faddan More Psalter: conservation, research and display’
Sally McInnes, ‘New access to Welsh national treasures’
Claire Breay, ‘Celebrating an 800-year-old document: the case of Magna Carta’
Edward J. Cowan, ‘The Declaration of Arbroath and its display’
Peter Yeoman, ‘Prowling lions and slippery serpents: re-presenting Columba’s Iona to the world’

In addition to these speakers, announced previously, Tomm Moore has agreed to talk on the subject of ‘Bringing the Book of Kells to Hollywood’. Tomm is co-founder and creative director of Cartoon Saloon, Kilkenny. His feature film The Secret of Kells (Best Animated Feature Nominee: Academy Awards ®, 2010) has been followed by The Song of the Sea, again an Oscar nominee in 2014.

Sessions will run from 10:30-17:00 on Thursday 10th September and from 09:30-16:00 on Friday 11th September. On Thursday evening there will be a special after-hours visit to the National Museum of Ireland and a reception at TCD Library including a private visit to the Book of Kells. On Friday afternoon there will be a private visit to the Worth Library. The detailed programme will be published shortly.

The cost of the conference is £50 (€60) for members and students and £60 (€75) for non-members which includes Thursday lunch, teas and coffees, and the reception.

This is sure to be a popular conference and places are limited. To book, please complete the online form on the AMARC website.

Limited bursaries are available from AMARC for students who are – or would like to become – members, covering travel by the most reasonable means of transport. Bursary application forms are available from the treasurer via email (

If you have any questions about the conference, please contact: Dr Suzanne Paul (

Bernard Meehan

Designing ‘The Secret of Kells’

IMG_9697Designing the Secret of Kells, by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, with a foreword by Charles Solomon (Trinquétte Publishing, 2014)

For historians and curators, the imaginative recreation of the past presents particular, but frequently unacknowledged, difficulties. The skills needed to establish chronologies, or to tease out the causation behind historical events, or to make academic judgements about works of art, are quite different from those needed to convince an audience of the reality of the past. For this, works like Michael Crichton’s Timeline, or the movie of The Name of the Rose, allow us to glimpse a remote physical and intellectual past.IMG_9707 In the animated film The Secret of Kells, nominated for an Oscar award in 2009, the atmosphere of Ireland’s medieval monasteries and their famous artistic output is captured brilliantly by Cartoon Saloon of Kilkenny. Dwelling on the turbulence of the times, the film reveals a monastic world which is both open to visitors from abroad yet at risk from outside forces. In its inspired artistic asides, it mirrors the extraordinary qualities of the Book of Kells itself and seems to follow in a technical line from the work of the stained-glass artist Harry Clarke. When snow falls on the monastery, individual flakes take the form of crosses drawn in a myriad of designs. Such scenes call for repeated viewings and live long in the memory.IMG_9706 cropped

IMG_9704 croppedIn this new publication, Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart of Cartoon Saloon explain how they did it, and, of equal interest, they say who did what. We learn that Ross Stewart designed the scriptorium at Iona, that Tomm Moore devised the individual characters in the scriptorium, one of them a tribute to the actor Mick Lally, who played Brother Aidan and died in 2010, shortly after the release of the film, and that Adrien Merigeau was responsible for a different realisation of the scriptorium. Many a scholar of the Book of Kells would wish for such a guide.IMG_9712


Bernard Meehan

Summertime and the Library was … busy!

FIRST LADY TRINITY COLLEGE DUBLIN MX-11At the beginning of the new term we reflect on a hectic summer which kicked off with the visit of Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama on 17 June; a special exhibition on Obama family history was on display for the occasion. Also in June, Bernard Meehan, Keeper of Manuscripts spoke about the Book of Kells as part of the Derry/Londonderry City of Culture events and also delivered a lecture at the Hay Literary Festival held in Kells on 28 June.

M&ARL staff have worked on a number of temporary exhibitions timed to coincide with events within Trinity College Dublin over the summer. The Book of Kings: Middle Eastern Manuscripts in the Library exhibition accompanied the Middle East Library Committee (UK) meeting on 25 June. The Transmitting the Anglo-Saxon Past exhibition was displayed to coincide with The International Society of Anglo-Saxonists Conference from the 29 July to 2 August. The exhibition What Price the Children? The work of Dorothy Price among the Dublin Poor, staged to mark the centenary of the Dublin Lockout, is currently on view in the Long Room. These are also available as online exhibitions.

The Library has an on-going arrangement in relation to the annual Samuel Beckett Summer School run by the Department of Drama Film and Music. As well as curating an exhibition specifically to tie in with the School, M&ARL hosted one of the School’s teaching sessions to permit attendees to have access to original Beckett literary material.

Samuel Beckett Summer School 2013

Samuel Beckett Summer School 2013

Another regular event was the return of the annual Irish Harp Summer School. The Library is home to two early examples of the traditional Irish harp: the so-called ‘Brian Boru Harp’, which is on permanent display in the Long Room, and the less well-known Castle Otway Harp.

Irish Harp Summer School 2013

Irish Harp Summer School 2013 viewing the Castle Otway Harp

Further classes held during the summer included a talk for Trinity College Library colleagues on the surprising variety of objects within the M&ARL collection.


Jane Maxwell (M&ARL) with Daniel O’Connell’s top hat

IMG_3947 cropped

A bullet which penetrated the roof of the Old Library during the 1916 Easter Rising

We are always delighted to hear about publications using M&ARL collections. One such author, historian Gill Morris from Tasmania, visited the Library on 6 August to present us with a copy of her book on the Revd Dr William Henry Browne, A Trinity College graduate, who left Cork for Van Diemen’s Land, Tasmania in 1828.

Gill Morris and Aisling Lockhart (M&ARL)

Gill Morris and Aisling Lockhart (M&ARL)

It is also not unusual to see M&ARL manuscripts featured on TV and earlier this summer the BBC filmed the 1641 depositions for inclusion in The Stuarts which should air at the end of this year.

All of this outreach activity continued smoothly despite the fact that the summertime tends to be the busiest time for M&ARL. Add to that a major refurbishment of the Reading Room during July and August and it all made for a hectic summer.

Estelle Gittins

The Book of Kells: Symbols of the Four Evangelists

The Book of Kells TCD MS 58 f27v

The Book of Kells TCD MS 58 f27v

The Book of Kells folio 27v is among the most frequently reproduced pages from that famous manuscript. Its main images depict the symbols of the four Evangelists: Matthew is represented by the Man, Mark by the Lion, Luke by the Calf, and John by the Eagle. The symbols have haloes and wings, a double set in the case of the Calf. The symbol of Matthew holds a flabellum, an instrument used in the early church to protect the Eucharist and its vessels from impurities. The Eagle perches on a footstool. The symbols are in framed panels around a cross, with another, stepped cross at its centre. Interlaced snakes writhe in four T-shaped panels at each extremity of the cross. In the corner pieces at the top right and lower left of the frame, a Eucharistic chalice sprouts vine tendrils which are bitten by perching peacocks. Interlaced human figures are compressed within the corresponding corner-pieces at the top left and lower right of the frame. In the box lower right, four figures stand within the confines of their frame, their necks unnaturally elongated and their heads hanging down in what may be intended to recall the Crucifixion. In the box at the top left of the page are four men with red triangles on their cheeks; with knees bent, they pull each other’s beards.

Bernard Meehan

[Adapted from Bernard Meehan, The Book of Kells (London, Thames & Hudson, 2012) Further details from the Book of Kells are described by Bernard Meehan in]

Reviews of ‘The Book of Kells’

The Book of Kells TCD MS 58 f309r detail

The Book of Kells TCD MS 58 f309r detail

It is Fintan O’Toole’s Stocking Filler and one of Colm Tóibín’s Books of the Year. The Book of Kells by Bernard Meehan is getting rave reviews in print and over the airwaves:

John Banville in the Financial Times

Andrew O’Hagan in the Irish Times

Michael Ryan in the Irish Times

Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times

Colm Tóibín in the New Statesman

Interview with Harriet Gilbert, The Strand, BBC World Service, 6 November

Interview with Pat Kenny, Today with Pat Kenny, RTE One, 6 November (mp3 download)

Estelle Gittins

The Book of Kells

Last night a crowded Long Room hosted the launch of The Book of Kells, by Dr Bernard Meehan, Head of Research Collections and Keeper of Manuscripts.

The book was formally launched by Roger Stalley, Emeritus Professor of Art History Trinity College Dublin, and the guests were addressed by the Librarian, by Julian Honer,  Editorial Director at Thames & Hudson, and by the author himself.

Published by Thames & Hudson The Book of Kells is a sumptuous production which explores the Book of Kells in terms of its historical and artistic context, with consideration of technical aspects, illuminated by recent scientific research. The rich illustrations feature more than fifty full-size reproductions of complete pages of the manuscript and enlarged details that shed light on elements barely visible to the naked eye.

It is an essential text for anyone who has either a general or specialist interest in Ireland’s greatest artistic treasure.

Estelle Gittins