Kells Priory: Unveiling the Ruins of Medieval Majesty




Kells Priory


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If you’re looking for a glimpse into early medieval Christian architecture in Ireland, Kells Priory is the perfect place to start.

One of the largest and most impressive monastic ruins in the country, Kells Priory is an example of the unique combination of religious and military architecture that became popular in the late medieval period.

Despite the fact that this monastic site has been in ruins for centuries, it still holds a significant place in Irish history. The site is a popular destination for tourists and history buffs alike, and it remains a testament to the ingenuity and creativity of the medieval Irish people.

Quick Summary

Outer WallsOne of the most striking features of Kells Priory is its well-preserved fortified outer walls. These walls, complete with tower houses at intervals, were built as a means of defense and offer a rare glimpse into the type of security measures used in medieval times.
Seven TowersThe seven stone towers within Kells Priory, standing at different heights, reflect the changing architectural styles over the centuries and the defensive needs of the community.
Priory ChurchThe Priory Church is a large cruciform structure, showcasing a mix of Romanesque and Gothic styles, signifying the religious purpose of the site and the influence of different periods.
Cloister and Domestic BuildingsThese structures, including the refectory, chapter house, and living quarters, offer insights into the daily life of the Augustinian monks who lived here. They exemplify the monastic lifestyle of isolation, contemplation, and communal living.
Burgess CourtThe Burgess Court, located to the north of the priory, is believed to have been the site of a medieval borough. It is an indication of the settlement that developed around the priory, showing the close relationship between religious establishments and urban development during the Middle Ages.
SundialThe sundial at Kells is considered an intricate artifact, representing the understanding of time and celestial bodies during the period. It is evidence of the advanced knowledge possessed by the monks in Kells, in a time when such science was usually limited to scholarly ecclesiastical communities.
East CrossThe East Cross, also known as the Market Cross, is one of the most famous High Crosses in Ireland. Adorned with biblical scenes in high relief, it represents the blend of art, religion, and storytelling during the period. These crosses served as focal points for religious ceremony, and also as visual aids for teaching scripture to a largely illiterate population.
Round TowerThe Round Tower, typical of Irish monastic sites, was used for multiple purposes, including as a bell tower, watchtower, and a refuge during attacks. Its presence underscores the need for security amidst the tumultuous times of Viking and Norman invasions.
Monastery RemainsThe remains of the monastery refounded at Kells are significant as they provide us with a glimpse into the monastic life of the time. The buildings’ ruins, including the scriptorium where the monks created illuminated manuscripts like the famous Book of Kells, show us the daily life, work, and dedication of the monks.

History of Kells Priory

The priory’s ruins encompass the church and domestic ranges that were constructed between the 13th and fifteenth century. The site’s intricate design includes two defensive enclosures from the 15th century: the monastic precinct, a common feature in such establishments, and the unique Prior’s vill, an adjoining enclosure.

The Prior’s vill is particularly noteworthy. This walled-off, fortified enclosure surrounding the priory is an outstanding example of incastellation, a defensive strategy prevalent during the late Middle Ages, but rarely seen in monastic settings.

It comprises tall, protective walls punctuated with imposing tower houses. Most monastic sites would have had a circular boundary wall called a vallum around them. This design would have served to protect the priory’s inhabitants and their possessions during times of turmoil, providing an additional layer of security against possible invasions.

Founding in 1193

Kells Priory was founded in 1193 by Geoffrey FitzRobert, brother-in-law to Strongbow. It succeeded an earlier church that was dedicated to St. Mary, the Blessed Virgin, and served as the parish church to nearby Kells village. The priory was one element of Geoffrey’s establishment of the medieval town of Kells.

Role of Geoffrey Fitzrobert

Geoffrey FitzRobert was a household knight and trusted companion of William Marshal. He was a key figure in the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland and was granted lands in Kilkenny by Strongbow. He founded Kells Priory as a center for Augustinian canons, who were known for their commitment to poverty and community life.

Influence of James Butler

The priory was later patronized by James Butler, the 3rd Earl of Ormond. He was a prominent figure in Irish politics and fought against the English during the Wars of the Roses. Under his patronage, the priory grew in size and importance, and many of its buildings were renovated.

Destruction and Ruin

Despite its strategic location on the King’s River, Kells Priory was attacked and burned three times over the course of 150 years. The first attack occurred in 1261, when it was sacked by the O’Carroll clan. It was later burned by the English in 1316 and again by the Irish rebels in 1641. As a result of these attacks, the priory was fortified with walls and towers.

Dissolution of Kells Priory

The priory was dissolved in 1540 during the English Reformation. Its lands and buildings were seized by the crown and sold off to private individuals. Today, the ruins of Kells Priory are a popular tourist attraction and a reminder of Ireland’s rich religious and cultural heritage.

Architecture and Structure

Kells Priory is a fascinating piece of architecture that has stood the test of time. The site is divided into several sections, each with its own unique features and history. Here are some of the highlights:

The Seven Castles

One of the most striking features of Kells Priory is the seven castles that are spaced at intervals along and within the walls. These castles were used to defend the site against invaders and were also used as living quarters for the monks. Each castle has its own unique features and history, making them a must-see for anyone visiting the site.

Church and Chapel

The church and chapel at Kells Priory are both impressive structures that showcase the skill of the medieval builders. The early Irish church is a large, imposing building that was used for religious services, while the chapel is a smaller building that was used for private prayer and meditation. Both buildings are well-preserved and the Church grounds offer a glimpse into the religious practices of the time.

Monastic Precinct

The monastic precinct at Kells Priory is where the monks lived and worked. It includes a variety of buildings, such as the refectory, dormitory, and chapter house. These buildings were designed to be functional and efficient, while also providing a comfortable living space for the monks.

Domestic Buildings

The domestic buildings at Kells Priory were used for a variety of purposes, such as storage, cooking, and brewing. These buildings are smaller and less ornate than the other structures on the site, but they are just as important in understanding the daily life of the monks. The buildings are well-preserved and offer a fascinating glimpse into the practical side of monastic life.

Location and Surroundings

Kells Village

Nestled in the heart of Ireland, the quaint heritage town of Kells brims with extraordinary samples of early Christian architecture from the Middle Ages. The name Kells derives from the Irish Ceanannas Mór, translates to ‘royal residence’, signaling its storied past.

The historical significance of Kells predates the advent of Christianity. Originally, it was a royal dwelling linked with the mythical Conn Céadchatach, also known as Conn of the Hundred Battles, and Cormac mac Airt, key figures in Irish folklore.

Around 550 AD, a shift occurred when St. Columba, commonly referred to as St. Colmcille, founded a religious settlement in Kells, St Columba’s Church, he later went into exile off the west coast of Scotland. This established the town as a central hub for religious activity, marking a pivotal point in its rich history and is responsible for the famous Book of Kells.

The tower is encircled by an array of intricately carved high crosses, each narrating a tale of time in their unique stages of preservation. St. Columba’s House, a stone church dating back to the 9th century, possibly holds the title as the oldest extant structure in the town. With its steeply pointed stone roof, it stands as a quintessential representation of early Irish church architecture, offering a glimpse into the country’s religious heritage and architectural prowess of the period. The surrounding streets follow the round shape of the monastic site.

The iconic Kells Courthouse, a stunning example of 19th-century architecture, was the creative brainchild of Francis Johnson. This revered architect is also credited with designing the famed General Post Office on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. Today, the courthouse serves a new purpose, transformed into the Kells Courthouse Tourism and Cultural Hub, a beacon of cultural heritage and a must-see on any traveler’s itinerary.

Adding to the rich historical tapestry of the town is the 9th-century Market Cross of Kells, situated just outside the Courthouse. It beautifully portrays scenes from both the Old and New Testaments, serving as a timeless testament to the town’s religious past.

King’s River

The King’s River flows past Kells Priory, adding to its picturesque setting. This river is a popular spot for fishing and boating, and it is also a great place to take a leisurely stroll. As you walk along the riverbank, you can enjoy the peaceful sound of the water and take in the beautiful scenery.

County Kilkenny

Kells Priory is located in County Kilkenny, which is known for its rich history and stunning landscapes. This county is home to a number of other historic sites, including Kilkenny Castle, St. Canice’s Cathedral, and Jerpoint Abbey. In addition to its historic sites, County Kilkenny is also known for its beautiful countryside, which is dotted with rolling hills, verdant valleys, and picturesque villages.

Significance and Legacy

National Monument Status

Kells Priory is a National Monument of Ireland, which means it is a site of significant historical and cultural importance. The designation of National Monument status is given to sites that are considered to be of national importance, and it provides legal protection for the site.

Excavations and Discoveries

Excavations at Kells Priory have revealed a wealth of information about the site and its history. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of the priory’s layout, including the location of the church, cloister, and domestic buildings. They have also found artifacts such as pottery, coins, and jewelry, which provide insight into the daily lives of the people who lived at the priory.

One of the most significant discoveries at Kells Priory was a set of medieval wall paintings, which were found in the church. The paintings depict scenes from the Bible and are considered to be some of the best-preserved examples of medieval wall paintings in Ireland.

Kells Priory and Medieval Ireland

Kells Priory is a fascinating historical site located in County Kilkenny, Ireland. It is regarded as one of the most impressive medieval monuments in Ireland and provides a glimpse into the rich history of the region. In this section, we will explore the Anglo-Norman influence on Kells Priory, the role of witchcraft and heresy during medieval times, and the development of the medieval city of Kilkenny.

Anglo-Norman Influence

Kells Priory owes its foundation to the Anglo-Norman consolidation of Leinster. Founded by Geoffrey FitzRobert, a household knight and trusted companion of William Marshal, the priory was one element of Geoffrey’s establishment of the medieval town of Kells. The Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in the late 12th century brought significant changes to the country. The Normans brought with them a new culture, language, and way of life, which had a lasting impact on Ireland.

Witchcraft and Heresy

During the medieval period, witchcraft and heresy were considered serious crimes. In 1324, the Bishop of Ossory, Richard de Ledrede, accused Alice Kyteler of witchcraft. Alice was a wealthy businesswoman who had been married four times and was accused of using her wealth to practice witchcraft. The trial was a sensational event and attracted attention throughout Ireland and England. Alice was found guilty and fled to England, but her maid, Petronella de Meath, was burned at the stake in Kilkenny.

The Medieval City of Kilkenny

Kilkenny was a significant medieval town that grew up around Kells Priory. The town was founded by William Marshal, who was one of the most powerful men in Ireland during the late 12th century. The town grew rapidly and became a center of trade and commerce. Kilkenny was also known for its impressive architecture, including Kilkenny Castle, St. Canice’s Cathedral, and the Black Abbey. Today, Kilkenny is a popular tourist destination and attracts visitors from all over the world.

FAQS on Kells

What was Kells Priory used for?

Kells Priory was a religious center, used by Augustinian canons who followed the Rule of St. Augustine. They lived a communal life under the leadership of a prior, providing spiritual services to the local community, offering sanctuary and hospitality, and educating those in the local vicinity.

How old is Kells Priory?

Kells Priory was founded in the 12th century, specifically around the year 1193, by Geoffrey FitzRobert, brother-in-law of the famous Strongbow.

Who built Kells Priory?

Kells Priory was founded by Geoffrey FitzRobert, a prominent Anglo-Norman knight and baron, in 1193. The structures that still stand today were largely constructed in the 13th to 15th centuries.

What is Kells famous for?

Kells is famous for its rich historical and architectural heritage, particularly the Kells Priory, one of the largest and most impressive medieval monastic sites in Ireland. Additionally, Kells is renowned for the Book of Kells, an intricately decorated manuscript of the Four Gospels of the New Testament, created by Celtic monks around 800 AD, although this relic is now housed in Trinity College Dublin.

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