Trinity College announced at the end of October that The Book of Kells is to be taken away from public view for four months, due to conservation works required on the famous manuscript’s display area, meaning that the 9th century manuscript is going to be away from public display from November 4th of this year until the start of March 2020. But why is this incredible work in the hands of a private institution instead of being on display with the rest of Ireland’s most important historical artefacts, in either the National Archaeology Museum, in the National Museum of Decorative Arts & History in Collins’ Barracks, or in Kells itself?
The Book of Kells seldom comes to view in the historical record. The Annals of Ulster, describing it as “the chief treasure of the western world”, recorded that it was stolen from wherever it was created in 1006 for an ornamental shrine. It found its way eventually to Kells, and it remained at Kells throughout the Middle Ages, venerated as the great gospel book of St Columcille, a relic of the saint, as indicated by a poem added in the 15th century. Following the Cromwellian Rebellion of 1641, the church at Kells lay in ruins, and around 1653 the book was sent to Dublin by the governor of Kells, Charles Lambert, Earl of Cavan, in the interests of its safety. A few years later it reached Trinity College, through the agency of Henry Jones, a former scoutmaster general to Cromwell’s army in Ireland and Vice-Chancellor of the University, when he became Bishop of Meath in 1661. It has since been on display in the Old Library at Trinity College from the mid-19th century.
So that explains how it came to be in Trinity College, but why is it still there? Surely such an important Irish historical artefact should be, at this stage, owned by the Irish Government. Further to this, even if Trinity College own the Book, why is it that they’re allowed to profit off of it? The National Museums of Ireland don’t charge a penny for entry to see incredible pieces from throughout this small island’s giant history, like the Ardagh Chalice, the Tara Brooch, and the flag that flew over the GPO during the 1916 Rising, yet Trinity College charges €14 per adult, and €11 per Student to view The Book of Kells. With over 1,000,000 people coming to visit this majestic piece of Art in 2018 alone, with the number expected to rise this year, this means that Trinity College makes about €12.5 million per year off of the exhibition of this important piece.
This kind of money is badly needed by towns with historical significance throughout the country that have been left out to dry by the Irish Government and the Office of Public Works over the last decade. Towns like Drogheda in County Louth, the largest town in Ireland, which is a vital pathway into Ireland’s Ancient East outside of Dublin, and is home to incredible moments of major historical importance in Ireland, like the siege of Cromwell, the Battle of the Boyne, and has major sights like the largest, most scenic Martello Tower in the country, and the oldest Barbican in all of Europe, yet despite all this, gets barely any funding from the government for the maintenance of these sites.
Yet, Trinity College continues to massively profit off of an artefact they received as a gift from a Cromwellian soldier with no claim of ownership to the artefact. And they have the gall to still raise the cost of their student accommodation to exorbitant heights, try to charge students ridiculously high fees for repeats, and continue with their horrendously high fees for students entering education in the college, despite Trinity being a shell of its former self in terms of academic quality, as evidenced by its continual dropping in lists of the best Universities in the world. There is no good reason for Trinity College to own and profit so highly off of this artefact.
To loosely quote Indiana Jones, it belongs in a museum. In an official, National Museum, alongside the rest of Ireland’s great artefacts. You could even say that access to it should be free, but I would point to a previous point I made, that arguably the money currently being made by Trinity College could be put to much better use on smaller, but equally notable sites throughout the country. Trinity College have no truly rightful claim to the ownership of the Book of Kells, it rightfully belongs to every person on this island, and therefore should be brought under the ownership of the Irish Government. You could even argue that that isn’t good enough. Perhaps it should be brought back to its home in Kells. We’ve already had enough businesses and industries taken from the countryside and brought into the big centralised city. Perhaps it would be a better idea to coax the tourists out of the city for once and out into the neglected parts of our country. The only downside would be having to build a new museum near the site of the Old Kells Abbey, but the benefits to Kells would far outweigh this one downside.
I am not on any boards for planning and development, so maybe these ideas aren’t possible, but there is one thing that’s for certain, there’s no way that Trinity College should continue to profit off of a piece of this island’s history.