The Book Owl Podcast / 24. The Lucky Book of Kells

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Episode notes

 

It’s a few days early for St. Patrick’s Day, but The Book Owl just couldn’t wait to share with you the luck of the Irish…or rather, the luck of one of Ireland’s most famous books and how its story weaves together with the history of Trinity College’s Old Library (aka “The Long Room”). It’s a tale of Viking marauding, roofs collapsing…and cow banning.

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The (Rough) Transcript

Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore. 

Setting the Mood

It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s windy, and you’re in a tiny boat after fleeing from your peaceful island home that’s just been invaded by one of the most feared groups of the ages. There’s no cover, and you can only hope your boat doesn’t capsize.

And worst of all, you’re in charge of making sure a precious book makes it safely to where it needs to go. A book in which one page alone would have taken weeks to produce.

No pressure or anything.

Intro

Boats? Books? Icky weather? Clearly, we’re preparing to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on the podcast.

Okay, so your St. Patty’s Day festivities may be more beer oriented than book oriented, but I figured the day that celebrates Ireland’s most famous saint, would also be the perfect day to tell you all about Ireland’s most famous library and the most famous book within that library.

And yes, with St Patricks Day still 6 days away, I’m a little early with this but that’s just the way things worked out. And hey, you can always listen to it again on the 17th.

Thank You and Sales Pitch

But before we step through the doors of Trinity College Library to get a peek at the Book of Kells, I just want to offer one quick thank you to everyone who purchased my darkly humorous paranormal mystery tale, The Undead Mr. Tenpenny, since it launched a couple weeks ago. You put a big smile on my face and gave me a nice boost in the Amazon ranking system….for a few days.

And of course, if you didn’t get your copy yet, it’s never too late to pop into that link in the show notes. Oh, and if you did get a copy and you have read it, be sure to leave a review on Bookbub, Goodreads, or wherever you bought it…thanks!

Plans Changed

I initially had planned to make this a two part celebration with one episode dedicated to Trinity College Library and another dedicated to the Book Of Kells, but there just wasn’t a whole lot of information on the library, which I found really odd. So what I’m going to do instead is blend the two histories of these two topics until they come together in a nice little bookish mesh.

Well, that’s the plan, anyway.

Oh, and one more thing before we start, I know, long intro, sorry. Over on Instagram, I’m not only celebrating all things Irish, but also coping with being unable to travel by sharing a picture from my trips to Ireland every day in March. So, if you’re on instagram be sure to follow along! 

Okay can we start this damn episode, already?

A Little Explanation

Now for those of you who don’t know, The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript. And no that doesn’t mean it comes with a nightlight. “Illuminated” in this case means decorated with drawings or dolled up with fancy capitals. These were typically religious texts and would have been created on calf vellum by scribes literally working their fingers to the bone.

And for the numbers people out there, The Book of Kells itself measures 33 cm tall by 25 cm wide, or 13 inches by 10 inches. And inside there’s currently 680 pages of illustrations that include some Christian iconography, but also curious Celtic animals and knots, and elaborate interlaced borders. Oh yeah, and there’s text too, which consists of the four gospels as well as some other religious essays. 

Research has figured out that the Book of Kells was created sometime in the late 800s to early 900s. Based on the handwriting and the style of the images has shown that the book was likely filled in by three artists and four scribes.

And that research also shows they used pigments such as red and yellow ochre, oak gall for black, and woad for purple. But they were also using lead and arsenic, so probably not a long-term career being a scribe.

But onto the history, and for that we have to go back even further to the 500s. 

St. Colmcille Hates Cows

So in 521 common era a guy is born to the royal Niall family of Ireland. A few years later, he’s grown into a bit of troublemaker so he takes a copy of the gospels. The church asks for it back, he refuses, and a big old battle ensues. Now, the Niall family didn’t gain power by being friendly and altruistic. They were warriors. As such, they won the battle and loads of people died.

The guy feels bad for so many people dying for his foolishness so he undergoes a form of self-penance and leaves Ireland. He eventually ends up on the island of Iona off the coast of Scotland where he founds an abbey. And this guy becomes known as St. Colmcille, or St. Columba if you want to Anglicize things.

And for as tiny as this island is, it’s barely 3 miles long by a mile wide, it becomes a huge religious center, St. Colmcille becomes super important, and Iona becomes a site of pilgrimage as well as the burial place of 60 kings from Scotland, ireland, and Norway.

And just as a funny side note, Colmcille had some strange convictions. See, at the time, there were mied religious houses, so nuns and monks would share the same residence, and if I remember right, they might even marry. Well, Colmcille was having none of it and wouldn’t even allow the wives of the men building his monastery to stay on the island. He also banned cows. Why cows and women? Because he said wherever there are cows there are women, and wherever there are women, there is mischief. Which is true.

Of course he also banned frogs and snakes from the island, but it’s an island in northern Scotland so I’m wondering how many there were to begin with.

Anyway, back to the story. St. Colmcille dies in 597, and it’s thought the Book of Kells might have been started in honor of the 200th anniversary of his death. And it was started on Iona.

Notice I said it was started there.

The Vikings Arrive

Because right around this time there were these pesky mustachioed fellows roaming the seas, popping onto shore and raping and pillaging treasure.

The monks of Iona either got some warning the Vikings were coming, or managed a lucky escape before the Vikings got to their treasure, because they sent a handful of their brothers in a small boat with the relics of St. Colmcille and the illuminated manuscript they’d begun.

A few relics were lost, but the boat and the book eventually make it to the abbey at Kells in Ireland.

And it’s in Kells where the book is finished, and is why it’s known as the Book of Kells.

Losing It

So fast forward another couple hundred-ish years and for the first time the book is mentioned in the Annals of Ulster. It’s the 11th century and the reason its noted down is because it got stolen. Yeah, you know someone got in trouble for that one.

Why would someone steal a book? Especially in a time when so many people were illiterate? Because these illuminated manuscripts weren’t sitting around for people to thumb through. There were part of religious ceremonies and often kept in fancy cases in or near the high altar. And the Book of Kells’s case was made of gold.

That’s what the thieves were after. Which is a lucky thing, because it appears they took the case, then discarded the book, which was found (I don’t know exalt how long after) buried in the dirt with its case missing. This did do some damage to the book, including losing several pages, but for the thing to have survived at all is crazy lucky.

Quick Jump Through History

Okay big history jump again. This time to 1592 when Queen Elizabeth decides to build a university in Dublin. Then Lizzie dies, we go through a few kings, and then Oliver Cromwell goes right through the neck of Charles I. Crowell then brings his forces to Ireland. And I won’t go into all the history, but this guy had some serious anger issues.

He ends up in Kells in 1653/54, destroys most of the abbey the Book of Kells was kept in, and turns the church into a stable for his horses. Luckily, again this is a very lucky book, the church folks had gotten the Book of Kells out of there before his arrival and to the safety of Dublin Castle. And in 1661 Henry Jones, who then becomes Bishop of Meath once Crowell is taken care of and King Charles II is in power, presents the Book of Kells to Trinity College where it’s found a happy home ever since.

The Library

So in 1712, the library of Trinity College was begun. It would take 20 years before what is known as the Old Library or the Long Room would open. And it’s not because they were being careful architects that this took so long. They actually ran out of money soon into the project. In the end it ended up costing 20,000 pounds, which is about 1.4 million pounds today, or around $2million. And the library opened with 25,000 books to fill its shelves.

In 1801 Trinity College Library was made a legal deposit, which means it receives one copy of every book published in Ireland and the UK. And if that sounds familiar, The British Library, which I talked about way back in Episode 7, is also a legal deposit. 

So, this is great, right? It establishes the library really is legit. Well, the problem was the library wasn’t built for all the books that were now flooding in. See, the original library was built with a flat-ish roof and with book cases all along its length and walls. Well the weight of all those books started pushing the walls of the library outward and the ceiling by was about to collapse.

Thankfully, smarty pants came in and by 1861 had redesigned the Old Library to have an upper gallery and a weight bearing vaulted ceiling, making it look like, as some people say, a cathedral of books. On the shelves are 200,000 of the library’s oldest books, there’s also marble busts of famous authors and other literary sorts, a Celtic harp that was supposed to have belonged to Brian Boru (it didn’t), and one of the few realigning copies of the 1916 Easter Proclamation that insisted on Ireland’s independence form the UK and was read in front of the General Post Office. 

And again, for you numbers lovers, the Long Room is 65 meters long, and that’s 215 feet for the non-metric folks out there. And it’s this Long Room that you’ll likely see if you look up Trinity College Library, but the library itself is still a working library where people can go to do research and make use of the collection of texts.

On Display

It’s also right about the time the Old Library was redesigned that the Book of Kells goes on display to the public. 

And as a personal note, I have visited the Trinity Library and the Book of Kells…and unfortunately, the page it was turned to on the day I was there was almost all text and not very impressive. The manuscripts at the Chester Beatty Museum, which I talked about in episode 11, were far more ooh and ahh inspiring. 

Now, I can’t complain too much because I did get in for free (because I know people), but If I had to pay the 15 euro or whatever it is to get in, I’d have been annoyingly disappointed. However, the Long Room was even better than I expected, so I guess that balances it out a bit.

Still, if we’re ever allowed to travel again and you do get to Dublin, and you want to see gorgeous illuminated manuscripts, I’d say to try the Chester Beatty first, then do Trinity College Library if you have the time and money….unless you know people. There’s also another way to get in for free, which I also did, but it’s not exactly legal, so I won’t tell you.

Wrapping Up

I think that’s all I have for Trinity College Library and the Book of Kells. If you want to see some pages from the book and some images of the library, I’ll put a link in the show notes for Trinity College Library. They also have a couple virtual exhibitions on there that are a great way to procrastinate for a bit.

Updates

And now it’s the time for updates. The podcast is plugging along. The show is nearly a year old, which means I need to start making some decisions. The website and domain name will expire in one more year, so as 2021 progress, I’ll need to ponder over whether to keep the show running, or to turn off the mic on this little project. This show does take a long time to put together and I’m not sure what exactly I’m getting from it, other than some interesting research, so…

As for writing, I’m done with The Uncanny Raven Winston Book Two of The Cassie Black Trilogy. Hoorah! It is on pre-order and comes out on 13 April and I’ll be sending it to my review team soon to see what they think. 

And I have to say, this was such a fun book to write because much of it takes place in London, and so it was a great way to travel to one of my favorite cities during lockdown. And Book Three, The Untangled Cassie Black just needs a couple more read throughs. That one is also on pre-order and comes out 18 May, and it’s going to feel a little weird to have this trilogy done and dusted.

Outro

Okay my book loving friends, that is it. If you enjoyed the show, you can either show your support by purchasing one of my books (links in the show notes) or by simply telling one other person about the show. And with that I will hoot at you next time.

Credits

The book owl podcast is a production of daisy dog media, copyright 2021, all rights reserved. The theme music was composed by Kevin Macleod. Audio processing by Auphonic.com. Video creation by Headliner.app