Thursday, September 8, 2011

Row Over The Book

The parish next door, Kells, is looking for its most famous possession back - the Book of Kells.  This is not the first time a campaign has started to have the ancient manuscript returned to the town, I seem to remember a number of efforts in the past. 

The story of the Book of Kells is fascinating.  It is an ancient book of the Gospels, illuminated in the traditional Celtic style - it is one of the most beautiful pieces of art in the world.  The book dates from the 9th century and was begun in the monastery of Iona and then brought to the Abbey in Kells, Co. Meath, where work on the illuminations was continued.  I believe the work is unfinished.   It comprises of four volumes of text and images. 

The book was preserved in the Abbey until the Abbey was dissolved in the 12th century and its church and buildings converted to a parish church; the book remained there in the possession of the parish.  In 1645 when Oliver Cromwell's armies were rampaging across Ireland, they arrived in Kells, the book was discovered and sent to Dublin "for safekeeping".  In 1661 the Protestant Bishop of Meath deposited it in Trinity College where it has remained to this day.  Now the people of Kells want it back, or at least one of the volumes.

The whole affair is interesting.  The question has been asked: who owns the Book of Kells?  I presume Trinity College claim ownership, and so it does not belong either to the state, the people of Ireland or even the people of Kells.   If you look at what the book is and its origins, you see that it belonged to the Catholic Church and was made as a sacred book for use in the Catholic liturgy.   It was, in effect, stolen from the Church.  Perhaps, then, it should be returned to the Catholic Church, I'm sure those who want the separation of Church and state would support that.  I think that is highly unlikely, though usually when treasures are stolen from the Church, few think of ever returning them, and certainly not the state or academic institutions.  If they were to give the book back, they would also have to return the Ardagh chalice and other sacred vessels made and used for Holy Mass but now in state ownership. 

This is interesting given the battle that is going on at the moment over the ownership of a painting by Winslow Homer, Children Under A Palm, the subject of a television programme a couple of months ago.  A gentleman found the painting in a rubbish dump in Cork, kept it for twenty years and then brought it onto the Antiques Roadshow where it was "discovered" to be a Homer, one of America's most iconic painters, and worth a fortune to boot.  People claiming to be its owners have now turned up and are demanding its return saying it was stolen, even though, strangely, they never missed it nor even knew it existed.  The law in Ireland has penalties for those found with stolen goods regardless of whether you knew the goods were stolen or not.  Trinity College knows the Book of Kells is stolen, so......

Back to the story: should the book be returned to Kells?  I'm sure the Parish Priest of Kells would be delighted to have it.  It could be used in the Extraordinary Form for the reading of the Gospel.   I think the people of Kells are correct and they are doing the country a service in drawing public attention to the issue.  I believe they do have an argument when they insist it should be returned and a proper museum established to preserve it and explore it.  We have few decent museums outside the capital, a little decentralisation might not be too bad at all. 

That said, I think we will have to wait until hell freezes over first.  When it comes to antiquities, governments tend to let things be for fear of opening a can of worms.  But it is interesting to see how many things which belonged to the Church have found their way into the hands of governments and institutions in a manner which could be described as illegal. 


  1. Excellent suggestion, perhaps we can get a few cathedrals back too. (It really is a scandal that the two Dublin cathedrals are still Anglican.)

  2. Shane, there was a rumour going around a few years ago that the C of I were willing to give Christ Church back to the "RCs", but they would have to ask for it, the "RCs" were not inclined to ask, but rather wanted it to be given back: the C of I, however, was not willing to offer it. So nothing happened, and I suppose, thank God: could you imagine what the Dublin liturgists would have done to Christ Church? Perhaps it is better off with the Anglicans, at least they respect the integrity of building (after they "purged" it of its Catholic beauty I'll admit).

  3. "But it is interesting to see how many things which belonged to the Church have found their way into the hands of governments and institutions in a manner which could be described as illegal."

    Enda?....Where is Enda? Get up there Enda in the Dail and decry the illegal actions of Trinity College in stealing the sacred and most holy objects of the Church. There might be a few votes in Kells for ye! Enda? Where are ye Enda? God, Enda, you're gone very quiet....again. The Roscommon people must be knocking at the door....He's probably under the bed!