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Designing ‘The Secret of Kells’

IMG_9697Designing the Secret of Kells, by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, with a foreword by Charles Solomon (Trinquétte Publishing, 2014)

For historians and curators, the imaginative recreation of the past presents particular, but frequently unacknowledged, difficulties. The skills needed to establish chronologies, or to tease out the causation behind historical events, or to make academic judgements about works of art, are quite different from those needed to convince an audience of the reality of the past. For this, works like Michael Crichton’s Timeline, or the movie of The Name of the Rose, allow us to glimpse a remote physical and intellectual past.IMG_9707 In the animated film The Secret of Kells, nominated for an Oscar award in 2009, the atmosphere of Ireland’s medieval monasteries and their famous artistic output is captured brilliantly by Cartoon Saloon of Kilkenny. Dwelling on the turbulence of the times, the film reveals a monastic world which is both open to visitors from abroad yet at risk from outside forces. In its inspired artistic asides, it mirrors the extraordinary qualities of the Book of Kells itself and seems to follow in a technical line from the work of the stained-glass artist Harry Clarke. When snow falls on the monastery, individual flakes take the form of crosses drawn in a myriad of designs. Such scenes call for repeated viewings and live long in the memory.IMG_9706 cropped

IMG_9704 croppedIn this new publication, Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart of Cartoon Saloon explain how they did it, and, of equal interest, they say who did what. We learn that Ross Stewart designed the scriptorium at Iona, that Tomm Moore devised the individual characters in the scriptorium, one of them a tribute to the actor Mick Lally, who played Brother Aidan and died in 2010, shortly after the release of the film, and that Adrien Merigeau was responsible for a different realisation of the scriptorium. Many a scholar of the Book of Kells would wish for such a guide.IMG_9712


Bernard Meehan

Summertime and the Library was … busy!

At the beginning of the new term we reflect on a hectic summer which kicked off with the visit of Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama on 17 June; a special exhibition on Obama family history was on display for the occasion. Also in June, Bernard Meehan, Keeper of Manuscripts spoke about the Book of Kells as part of the Derry/Londonderry City of Culture events and also delivered a lecture at the Hay Literary Festival held in Kells on 28 June.

M&ARL staff have worked on a number of temporary exhibitions timed to coincide with events within Trinity College Dublin over the summer. The Book of Kings: Middle Eastern Manuscripts in the Library exhibition accompanied the Middle East Library Committee (UK) meeting on 25 June. The Transmitting the Anglo-Saxon Past exhibition was displayed to coincide with The International Society of Anglo-Saxonists Conference from the 29 July to 2 August. The exhibition What Price the Children? The work of Dorothy Price among the Dublin Poor, staged to mark the centenary of the Dublin Lockout, is currently on view in the Long Room. These are also available as online exhibitions.

The Library has an on-going arrangement in relation to the annual Samuel Beckett Summer School run by the Department of Drama Film and Music. As well as curating an exhibition specifically to tie in with the School, M&ARL hosted one of the School’s teaching sessions to permit attendees to have access to original Beckett literary material.

Samuel Beckett Summer School 2013
Samuel Beckett Summer School 2013

Another regular event was the return of the annual Irish Harp Summer School. The Library is home to two early examples of the traditional Irish harp: the so-called ‘Brian Boru Harp’, which is on permanent display in the Long Room, and the less well-known Castle Otway Harp.

Irish Harp Summer School 2013
Irish Harp Summer School 2013 viewing the Castle Otway Harp

Further classes held during the summer included a talk for Trinity College Library colleagues on the surprising variety of objects within the M&ARL collection.

Jane Maxwell (M&ARL) with Daniel O’Connell’s top hat
IMG_3947 cropped
A bullet which penetrated the roof of the Old Library during the 1916 Easter Rising

We are always delighted to hear about publications using M&ARL collections. One such author, historian Gill Morris from Tasmania, visited the Library on 6 August to present us with a copy of her book on the Revd Dr William Henry Browne, A Trinity College graduate, who left Cork for Van Diemen’s Land, Tasmania in 1828.

Gill Morris and Aisling Lockhart (M&ARL)
Gill Morris and Aisling Lockhart (M&ARL)

It is also not unusual to see M&ARL manuscripts featured on TV and earlier this summer the BBC filmed the 1641 depositions for inclusion in The Stuarts which should air at the end of this year.

All of this outreach activity continued smoothly despite the fact that the summertime tends to be the busiest time for M&ARL. Add to that a major refurbishment of the Reading Room during July and August and it all made for a hectic summer.

Estelle Gittins

Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama visit The Old Library

The staff in Early Printed Books, M&ARL and Preservation & Conservation are well used to being called on to curate once-off exhibitions to welcome special visitors and the visitors on Monday 17 June certainly were special. The arrival of the Obama family, which shut down the city centre, was marked in the Long Room with a small but perfectly-formed display of carefully chosen items.


First of all Mrs Obama and her daughters Sasha and Malia had the opportunity to see the Preservation & Conservation Department assistants working on the Pollard Collection of children’s books, one of the Library’s great resources, the bequest of a former Keeper.

Then they examined the specially-curated exhibition which was made possible by theobama1 generous co-operation of two of the Library’s sister institutions. The Representative Church Body Library (with the agreement of the National Archives) lent some parish registers recording the birth, marriage and death of various members of the Kearney family (one of whom was named Triphenia) who are believed to have been Barack Obama’s Irish antecedents; and the National Library lent a map of the lands in Co Offaly from which the Kearneys sprang. The other items in the display were hand-coloured prints from EPB’s own collection, and a portrait of John Kearney, Provost from 1799-1806, from the College art collection.’

It was a very enjoyable inter-departmental and inter-institutional collaboration which did the Library proud. Thanks to for the images capturing the historic visit.  – Shane Mawe & Jane Maxwell

The Book of Kells: Symbols of the Four Evangelists

The Book of Kells TCD MS 58 f27v
The Book of Kells TCD MS 58 f27v

The Book of Kells folio 27v is among the most frequently reproduced pages from that famous manuscript. Its main images depict the symbols of the four Evangelists: Matthew is represented by the Man, Mark by the Lion, Luke by the Calf, and John by the Eagle. The symbols have haloes and wings, a double set in the case of the Calf. The symbol of Matthew holds a flabellum, an instrument used in the early church to protect the Eucharist and its vessels from impurities. The Eagle perches on a footstool. The symbols are in framed panels around a cross, with another, stepped cross at its centre. Interlaced snakes writhe in four T-shaped panels at each extremity of the cross. In the corner pieces at the top right and lower left of the frame, a Eucharistic chalice sprouts vine tendrils which are bitten by perching peacocks. Interlaced human figures are compressed within the corresponding corner-pieces at the top left and lower right of the frame. In the box lower right, four figures stand within the confines of their frame, their necks unnaturally elongated and their heads hanging down in what may be intended to recall the Crucifixion. In the box at the top left of the page are four men with red triangles on their cheeks; with knees bent, they pull each other’s beards.

Bernard Meehan

[Adapted from Bernard Meehan, The Book of Kells (London, Thames & Hudson, 2012) Further details from the Book of Kells are described by Bernard Meehan in]

Visit the Book of Kells Exhibition.

Reviews of ‘The Book of Kells’

The Book of Kells TCD MS 58 f309r detail
The Book of Kells TCD MS 58 f309r detail

It is Fintan O’Toole’s Stocking Filler and one of Colm Tóibín’s Books of the Year. The Book of Kells by Bernard Meehan is getting rave reviews in print and over the airwaves:

John Banville in the Financial Times

Andrew O’Hagan in the Irish Times

Michael Ryan in the Irish Times

Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times

Colm Tóibín in the New Statesman

Interview with Harriet Gilbert, The Strand, BBC World Service, 6 November

Interview with Pat Kenny, Today with Pat Kenny, RTE One, 6 November (mp3 download)

Visit the Book of Kells Exhibition.

Estelle Gittins