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The Old Library and the Book of Kells

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Trinity’s most compelling tourist attraction is the Book of Kells, kept in the eighteenth-century Old Library on Fellows’ Square. On the library’s ground floor, beautiful pages are displayed not just from the Book of Kells (around 800 AD), but from other works such as the Book of Armagh (early ninth century) and the Book of Mulling (late eighth century). The books themselves are preceded by a fascinating exhibition, Turning Darkness into Light, which sets Irish illuminated manuscripts in context – ranging from ogham (the earlier, Celtic writing system of lines carved on standing stones) to Ethiopian books of devotions.

Pre-eminent for the scale, variety and colour of its decoration, the Book of Kells probably originated at the monastery on Iona off the west coast of Scotland, which had been founded around 561 by the great Irish scholar, bard and ruler St Colmcille (St Columba in English). After a Viking raid in 806 the Columbines moved to the monastery of Kells in County Meath, which in its turn was raided four times between 920 and 1019. Although they looted the book’s cumdach or metal shrine cover, the pagan Norsemen did not value the book itself, however, and despite spending some time buried underground and losing thirty folios, it survived at Kells up to the seventeenth century when it was taken to Dublin for safekeeping during the Cromwellian Wars. The 340 calfskin folios of the Book of Kells contain the four New Testament gospels along with preliminary texts, all in Latin. It’s thought that three artists created the book’s lavish decoration, which shows Pictish, Germanic and Mediterranean, as well as Celtic influences. Not only are there full-page illustrations of Christ and the Virgin and Child, but an elaborate decorative scheme of animals and spiral, roundel and interlace patterns is employed throughout the text, on the initials at the beginning of each Gospel and on full-length “carpet pages”.

Upstairs is the library’s magnificent Long Room, built by Thomas Burgh between 1712 and 1732 and enlarged, with a barrel-vaulted ceiling, in 1860. As a copyright library, Trinity has had the right to claim a free copy of all British and Irish publications since 1801; of its current stock of four million titles, 200,000 of the oldest are stored in the Long Room’s oak bookcases. Besides interesting temporary exhibitions of books and prints from the library’s collection, the Long Room also displays a gnarled fifteenth-century harp, the oldest to survive from Ireland, and a rare original printing of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, made on Easter Sunday in Dublin’s Liberty Hall.

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