I received the most wonderful and unexpected belated Christmas gift today, Bernard Meehan’s recent book on The Book of Kells. Meehan, as Keeper of Manuscripts at Trinity College Library, Dublin, is well positioned to write such an epic account of one of the greatest treasures of medieval Europe.

I have long been drawn to The Book of Kells, the ‘great Gospel of Colum Cille’, my namesake. Colum Cille (my father’s name), which means ‘the Dove of the Church’, is known to the Latin speaking world as Columba (my name).

I like the fact that Columba means dove in Latin, without, as a devout atheist, the church association…

But even as an atheist, the history of The Book of Kells, apart from the sublime beauty of the book itself, is fascinating.

Colum Cille was born in 521 or 522, into the ruling dynasty of present-day Donegal. Around 561 he travelled to Scotland with 12 companions, as pilgrims of Christ, and settled on Iona off Western Scotland in 563. Colum Cille died in 597.

Meehan describes Colum Cille as a charismatic leader (much information is available from Adomnan’s biography. Adomnan was Abbott of Iona in the 600s or so). He, and his companions, led a monastic life. Colum Cille was described as follows in a poem from the 7th-century:

‘He crucified his body…he chose learning, embraced stone slabs, gave up bedding.’ (p.20)

After his death, Colum Cille’s influence lived on in his successors, both on Iona and further afield.

The late 700s brought Viking attacks to Iona, and in 807 a section of the community found refuge in Kells, Co. Meath, Ireland, a ‘new foundation of Colum Cille’.

Meehan refers to Colum Cille’s influence on his followers:

‘…in life Colum Cille was often to be seen in the company of angels; in death, he took on a quasi-angelic status for his community.’ (p.20)

The first reference to The Book of Kells as the ‘great Gospel of Colum Cille’ appeared in 1007. It seems that the book originated from around 800, but this is controversial, as is its place of origin, whether Kells or Iona.

I am in awe of this book. Wondrous.

I have two ambitions for this year, to see The Book of Kells itself in Trinity College Dublin, and to visit Iona.