When I was in undergrad I took a course entitled “Irish Mythology and Literature.” Admittedly, it was a little arcane, but I enjoyed it and at the time I had no idea that it would prepare me twenty years later for a remarkable visit to one of Ireland’s most important historical towns, Kells. Today, Kells is easy to miss. Not a large place, driving through the downtown takes just a few minutes en route to somewhere else around the Boyne Valley. The area is, after all, part of Ireland’s Ancient East and is rich in impressive sights famous for both their inherent beauty as well as their importance in Irish history. Kells is all of that and more and given my own personal interest in the town’s history, I couldn’t wait to spend some time exploring it.
Saints and Sinners
So much more than a simple geographical designation, the Boyne Valley has played a pivotal role not only in the history of Ireland, but of European civilization in general and that’s especially true in Kells. I love history and for some reason even though I’m not pious, religious history has always fascinated me. That’s one reason why, when I was 22 years old, I found myself on the tiny Scottish island of Iona, tracking down the life and times of St. Columba, the Irish priest who helped spread Christianity outside of Ireland. As it turns out, Kells and St. Columba are also inextricably linked and thankfully it’s still easy to follow in his footsteps today, more than 1,400 years later.
Kells was founded by Columbine monks and even today its shape retains the general outline that they fashioned. This was an important religious center for a very long time, but most of us know it thanks to its most notable treasure, the Book of Kells. Created sometime in the 9th century, the Book of Kells is an illuminated text containing the four Gospels of the New Testament. It’s also a masterpiece of art and calligraphy and many consider it to be Ireland’s finest treasure. Although it was protected in Kells for centuries, today visitors can see the original in Dublin’s Trinity College, but Kells certainly also honors the text. From the Abbey of Kells itself, to the small stone house said to be Columba’s, it’s easy to fall under the spell of history here.
But it’s not just religious history for which Kells is so well known, nearby the legendary Tailteann Games also once took place. This ancient event most likely started nearly 4,000 years ago and played an important role in early Irish life. The games were a sporting event, much like the Olympics, but they also brought people together from around the country. It was a time to proclaim new laws, honor the dead, enjoy festivities and arrange marriages. For centuries it was the cornerstone of Irish life and it all took place just a few miles from Kells itself.
While Kells pays respect to its past, it’s also a modern town with a lot to offer visitors from casual tourists to people spending the night along the beautiful high street.
While most visitors stop in Kells for its incredible past, there’s plenty to see and do to keep them there. Ideally situated in the Boyne Valley, Kells is a perfect homebase to explore other notable sights and towns. Newgrange, Trim Castle and the Hill of Tara are literally the stuff of legends but one of my favorite spots may not be as famous, but it’s certainly worth a visit – Loughcrew Cairns. The adventure starts with a visit to the nearby Loughcrew Megalithic Centre, where you can enjoy some coffee and a snack before enlisting the help of a guide to share the best of the Neolithic site. Walking up the grassy, sheep-covered hill to the burial mounds is well worth the jaunt. The views from on top of the hills of the surrounding valley are amongst the best you’ll find. Stretching out seemingly forever, it gave me a better idea of not just how large the area is, but how incredibly green and picturesque it all is. Naturally though, the centerpiece is the burial mound itself and, if you have a guide, you can even go inside to see the ancient petroglyphs still easily admired today. 5,000 years is a long time and the fact that we still have these remnants of people long gone from the earth amazes me, making this not only a fun stop, but an important one as well.
Back in Kells, the ideal place to not only spend the night but to enjoy some incredible food is the Headfort Arms Hotel. Perfectly located in the middle of town, this comfortable hotel is warm and welcoming, but the food really is at the center of the hospitality experience. Embracing the importance of locally sourced and produced ingredients, dishes are inspired by local tradition but served with a modern edge. It’s a delicious way to immerse yourself in the long and tasty food history of the region.
While Kells may not be large or as famous as some of the neighboring attractions in the Boyne Valley, it quickly won me over. Maybe it was the finely kept homes lining the high street or the ancient Celtic crosses standing guard as you enter town but, whatever the reason I quickly became enamored with Kells, a phenomenon I’m sure common to anyone lucky enough to spend some time in this ancient and classically beautiful Irish town.