The Book of Kells and the Old Library Exhibition

Above: Long room interior. Photo: Gillian Whelan

The first time I set foot in the Long Room at Trinity College Dublin - an early eighteenth-century library that perennially ranks among the most beautiful in the world according to popular guidebooks and travel websites - I was a tourist on my way through the Book of Kells and the Old Library Exhibition. Little did I know that three years later I would be walking under the soaring barrel-vaulted ceiling again as a PhD student on my way to the Irish University’s manuscript reading room. It’s for this reason that for this short article I’ve chosen to focus on the attraction which, before my current stint as a student, first drew me to Trinity. But more than any personal significance the site holds for me as an individual, I would advise the traveller to visit the exhibition and library for its own merit as the Long Room is one of those rare landmarks that surpasses all expectations.

The Book of Kells and the Old Library Exhibition is found in the heart of Trinity’s splendid and historic campus, which boasts a delightful mixture of architecture and is located in the midst of Dublin’s cultural city centre. The most convenient entry points to Trinity’s walled grounds are the Front Gate or the Nassau Street entrance. The short walk to the Old Library from either of these entrances will be made easily enough by following signs, but if direction is needed any student or staff will know the way.

There is almost guaranteed to be a line on arrival; a fact which hints at the quality of what is held within. Walking through the doors of the long and stately Old Library, the visitor is greeted at the front desk, and shortly after passes into the Book of Kells Exhibition on the ground floor. The exhibition begins with several rooms describing the context and creation of the Book of Kells. This magnificent illuminated manuscript of the Gospels, drawn primarily from the Latin Vulgate, is believed to have been crafted around 800AD. A masterwork of western calligraphy the book takes its name from the Abbey of Kells near Dublin where it was housed for some centuries.

A history of the book and the story of how it came to be displayed in Trinity College are joined by explanations of other aspects of its materiality, as well as descriptions of the process by which it was made. These rooms serve as a fitting introduction, but hardly prepare the viewer for the intricate nature of the object itself. Two of the four volumes of the Book of Kells are on display at any given time in the final room of the exhibit. Thought to be the work of at least three different scribes, the Book of Kells is a blaze of colour; replete with images as well as calligraphic text, it is known as one of the finest surviving examples of monastic medieval manuscripts.

Book of Kells MS 58-Folio IV
PHOTOGRAPH BY The Board of Trinity College Dublin

Having been transported back to the monasteries of medieval times by the swirling art of flowing script one might think their journey through time finished, but I would argue the most impressive element of this museum experience still awaits. Taking a wide wooden stairway to the second level of the Old Library the visitor enters not only a different atmosphere, but also a completely different time.

A few steps across the landing and over the threshold of the door and one emerges in Georgian Dublin as an eighteenth-century scholar. Following the towering oak shelves, the eye roams across countless rows of books and up the ladders until drawn to the great arch of the richly veined wooden ceiling. The scent of old books is thick in the room and when I first wandered by the marble busts and a great Irish harp, the phrase of Borges came readily to mind, ‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of Library.’ If so then it may be said that the Long Room nearly brings paradise to earth.

The books that rise to either side are part of a collection of over six million volumes held by Trinity College Libraries, and only recently a plan has been agreed for the renovation of the Old Library so that these most precious and ancient editions will remain preserved and protected against the effects of time. After traversing the sixty-five meter space and perusing the leather book bindings it’s difficult to leave, and perhaps easier to double back and discover it once more before descending the final stairwell into the gift shop.

At the time of writing in January 2021, The Book of Kells Exhibition is currently closed to all but virtual attendance, but I look forward to a day when it will open again along with so many other museums and heritage sights. When it does I hope this article will have been of some use, and the reader will be thankful for the advice given. Most of all I hope they will let themselves be carried away into the past by this museum experience and reminded of not only the importance of history, but also the collective story of humankind. A story that is told by museums and thus a story that speaks to the critical nature of their continued and flourishing existence.

Visitor Information

Website: www.tcd.ie

Location: Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin, College Green, Dublin 2, Ireland. Approx 5 min walk from the city centre.

Admission: adults (€16), children under 12 (free), student, concession, family and group rates available.

Opening hours: Monday to Saturday, 9:30am – 5pm all year. Sundays, 9:30am – 5pm during May to September, and 12pm – 4:30pm from October to April.

Covid-specific information: the exhibition may not be open during this time – check before you plan a visit. Information about opening times and safety measures is available on the exhibition website here.

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Joel Herman

Joel Herman is a PhD researcher at Trinity College Dublin and an early career fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Institute. His current research project, funded through a Trinity Provost Project Award, traces the revolutionary currents that flowed between Ireland, America, and Britain in the Age of Revolutions. He has previously published on the subjects of patriotism and imagined communities in Ireland and America during the American Revolutionary Period, and is particularly interested in the transnational dimensions of revolutionary conflicts in the late eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He resides in Dublin, Ireland with his wife, Ciara, and his six-month old son, James.