St. Colmcille House

2021 is the 1500th anniversary of St. Colmcille’s birth and Kells is gearing up for the celebrations. According to tradition St. Colmcille founded a monastery at Kells about 554 AD. St. Columba is the name given to the saint by the Anglicans while the Catholics call him Colmcille. Colmcille means the dove of the church. Colmcille founded monasteries throughout Ireland including Derry, Swords, Raphoe and Durrow. While studying at a monastery in Moville Colmcille was reading the beautifully illuminated book of psalms which belonged to his teacher, St. Finian.  Colmcille asked for permission to copy the book and when it was refused he copied the book secretly. When this was discovered Finian appealed to the king and King Diarmuid had to decided who owned the copy. Diarmuid made the first copyright decision in the world and decreed: ‘To every cow its calf and to every book its copy.’ Colmcille was dismayed at the decision and a war broke out over the controversy. A large number of people were killed and Colmcille, blaming himself for the loss of life, decided his penance was to leave Ireland and never come back. He left for Scotland where he founded a monastery on the island of Iona.

The monastery at Kells was located on the highest point of the hill where the Church of Ireland church and churchyard are located. The site may have previously been a royal residence and the curved streets of the town follow the line of the enclosure. There may have been an inner enclosure centred on the church. The place name derives from Ceannnas Mór or Ceann Lios, and the name is sometimes interpreted as head fort which survives as a name of a house, some streets and an hereditary title. Following our independence many old Irish names were restored to place names.  In 1929, Ceannanus Mór was made the town’s official name and the Irish form of the name survived until 1993 when the popularly used Kells was restored.

In 793 the monastery at Iona heard the alarming news that the monastery at Lindisfarne in north-east England had been viciously attacked by raiders from across the sea. This first recorded assault by the Vikings sent a feeling of fear into the hearts of the monks and two years later Iona was attacked and destroyed. The abbot and monks decided to move back to Ireland for safety and re-established the monastery at Kells. And in a few short years the Vikings were raiding Ireland and Kells.

Situated on Church Lane on the outside of the north wall is a stone oratory, St. Colmcille’s House. This church building was strategically positioned at one of the highest points in the town until the modern police station was constructed on a higher location.  Dating from the eleventh century, the building is accessible to visitors. Access arrangements are on display on the gate. The building may have once housed the relics of St. Colmcille. The roof is barrel vaulted with three small chambers in the roof space, reached by a long ladder. This space held Colmcille’s Bed, a large stone slab, two metres long and a third of a metre thick. In the 1980s the lock on the entrance was broken and the Bed disappeared. The entrance is modern, the original door was at the west end and about two metres off the ground, the present ground floor being the basement of the building. In the 1830s a poor family were living there and were accused of sheep stealing. The discovery of sheep carcasses in the roof croft confirmed their guilt. Locals believe that a tunnel existed from St. Colmcille’s House to St. Columba’s Church.

St. Colmcille’s well is located just off the road to Oldcastle, north of the town of Kells. A narrow walkway leads down to the well. In the early part of the twentieth century large crowds assembled on the eve of St. Colmcille’s day and recited the Holy Rosary in honour of the saint. Townspeople assembled there and decorated the well with flowers and candles. People visited the well to pray and brought home water to drink. During the evening the local band played popular tunes. According to local tradition five fish appeared in the well on the eve of St. Colmcille’s day. The annual pattern day is now celebrated on the ninth of June, the anniversary of Columcille’s death in 597 AD.

Kells Lighting 2021