LIFE ON THE FRINGE - 20: Kells, Kings, Knights and Chronicles

The Book of Kells, manuscript illumination at its peak

The Book of Kells, along with the Lindisfarne Gospels and a small number of others amongst the finest examples of manuscript illumination - the work was begun on Iona in the Inner Hebrides
The Book of Kells, along with the Lindisfarne Gospels and a small number of others amongst the finest examples of manuscript illumination - the work was begun on Iona in the Inner Hebrides | Source
Animal illustration - detail from Kells. The artwork is possibly influenced by Norse mythology. Jormungand, the World Serpent is wrapped around Midgard, the world of men
Animal illustration - detail from Kells. The artwork is possibly influenced by Norse mythology. Jormungand, the World Serpent is wrapped around Midgard, the world of men | Source

Celtic or Western Christianity is intrinsically linked with artistically well-crafted illuminated gospels created by monks in abbey scriptoria, usually a room with sloped desks where they sat hunched with their sharpened quill points, coloured pigment in lidded jars or pots on a level plane at the head of the slope and 'pigeon holes' to store rolled manuscripts, drawers to store scribed vellum prepared for manuscript wor. inks were poisonous, sources being plants tagged as harmful to humans (ever see the film 'The Name of the Rose' with Sean Connery as a British friar 'detective' in a mediaeval northern Italian monastery, where several of the monks died after licking their nibs to prolong the flow?).

Two of the best known works from the British Isles directly linked with this branch of the Church are the Lindisfarne Gospels. When not on tour in ecclesiastical or exhibition centres around the country, these are kept at the British Library close to St Pancras Station in North London. When I visited with my wife recently - 12th October, 2013 - they were away, on show at Durham Cathedral, where St Cuthbert is entombed. The Book of Kells is usually to be seen at Trinity College Dublin.

The Book of Kells stems from an early monastic house in County Meath, southern Ireland and was presented to the college for safekeeping at the time Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protector. Traditionally the work was begun on Iona and taken to Kells for safekeeping with the onset of Viking raids. The first written mention of the book is in the Annals of Ulster, dated AD 1006, and states that the work was stolen from the abbey on Iona, to be found again not long afterward with its gold adornments removed, possibly by the the Vikings who raided the isle.

The work itself dates from the late 8th Century, in the same decade as the Vikings also landed on Lindisfarne, and is well decorated with symbolism not only of Gaelic (knotwork) but of Pictish and early Anglian influence. There is even traceable Byzantine influence in the artwork.

As with other illuminated work, the Book of Kells has been drawn with highly coloured, natural pigment namely blue, green, yellow and red-ochre. The manuscript work is well regarded as one of the finest examples of the Celtic Church's legacy.

Celtic knighthood

Celtic knight illustration - contrary to Angevin propaganda, by the time Henry II invaded Ireland it was a Christian island, if fragmented.  Gaelic military achievement was not up to rebutting the Normans
Celtic knight illustration - contrary to Angevin propaganda, by the time Henry II invaded Ireland it was a Christian island, if fragmented. Gaelic military achievement was not up to rebutting the Normans | Source

KNIGHTS, elite bands of warriors roaming the land, acting to the general good of the populace at large, saving maidens from distress was part of Irish Celtic myth before the days of King Arthur at Camelot with his knights of the Round Table.

The Fianna were such an elite bodyguard who stood behind the high kings of Ireland, maintaining order in the kingdoms and supporting the high king in keeping his sub-kings in check. This order of knights or mounted warriors was established ca AD 300 by the high king Fiachadh.

There was also a military elite in Ulster known as the 'Red Branch'. The greatest champion of the 'Red Branch' was Cuchulainn (cf) or Coghlan, and they were brought about by Ross 'the Red' of Ulster.

Down the centuries legend has outgrown the facts about these men of whom little is known, except what the poets have chosen to remember and later writers have set down as recalled from oral tradition.

King Arthur, or a Celtic warlord of wide repute in south-western mainland Britain, assembled a group of knights around him from around the Celtic regions of Western Europe, from Caledonia (Scotland came about in the years subsequent to the Scots migrating eastward across the narrow sea from Ulster in the 6th/7th Centuries), from Brittany and from the western regions of mainland Britain where large clans of the Celts had settled after migrating across the River Severn. His reign coincided with Saxon warlords pushing west from the Solent, and according to legend ended with the Battle of Mount Badon.


By tradition, and according to Malory's account, the 'Morte d' Arthur', the king's ennobled warriors were sent around Britain to locate the Grail Cup, Galahad, Perceval and Bors being notable in the legend. Accent was laid on the purity of spirit of the knights, an ideal pursued by later mediaeval literature but largely proved to be an ideal rather than the norm.

Labraidh Loingsech

Labraidh Loingsech from a carving in Armagh Cathedral, Northern Ireland
Labraidh Loingsech from a carving in Armagh Cathedral, Northern Ireland | Source

A king of Leinster on the eastern side of Ireland, by legend Labraidh Loingsech reigned around 268 BC. Originally known as 'maon or 'moen', meaning dumb, he was driven into exile by Cobthach Coel, who also forced him to eat part of his father's and grandfather's hearts. He was made to eat a mouse and her litter live. It was at that time he was considered to have lost his powers of speech.

In exile in Gaul he drew men - the disaffected and dispossessed usually - around him, and helped by the men of Munster under Scoriath he claimed back his kingship. Making out that he was going to talk peace with his enemies he asked Cobthach Coel and his followers to his court as guests. Accommodated in - unbeknown to them - an iron chamber they were roasted alive when a fire was lit under them.

Labraidh Loingsech had his speech restored by listening to the sound of Craftiny's magic harp. In this, as with other legends there are variants and some will have it that the love of Moriath - Scoriath's daughter - gave him back his voice and she subsequently became his wife.

Another story about Labraidh Loingsech centred on a secret about his ears. He is said to have had horse's ears but this was only known to the man who cut his hair once every year. A druid told the barber that if he was bursting to tell someone of the secret he should pour out his feelings to a tree, by which means even though he had voiced the revelation, his secret would not be shared further.

As it was the tree was chopped down and a harp made from one of the boughs. The first time the harp was played at court by Craftiny it was he who blurted out the truth about the king's ears. Labraidh Loingsech owned up about his ears, rather than punish his bard.


Ireland has many legends that reach back into the mists of time. Settle down with a glass of something strong and let your mind wander as you soak up the history and mythology of the Gaels

Legends, Charms and Superstitions of Ireland

Laoghaire meets St Patrick
Laoghaire meets St Patrick | Source

Laoghaire and St Patrick

A name shared by several noteworthies, one of whom was a king of Ireland when St Patrick set foot on their shore as a missionary - he had been taken from Wales originally by Irish pirates and sold into slavery before escaping and returning to his homeland. On his return to Wales Patrick had entered the priesthood and rose through the ranks of the church hierarchy. At the time he set foot on Irish soil again, he was a bishop and had chosen to go as a missionary.

Laoghaire and his followers were pagan Celts. By the 6th Century the Celts in Ireland were the last in the British Isles to be converted. When Patrick was brought before him the Welshman set the king a test, to see whose god was stronger. He told the incredulous king to set alight a pair of storage huts, in one was a druid wearing St Patrick's cloak and in the other a Christian convert wearing the robe of one of Laoghaire's court sorcerers or druids. When the fires had burnt themselves out they found in one hut the youth cowering naked, the robe a smoking, charred rag on the floor. In the other hut St Patrick's robe was found intact but its wearer was burnt to a crisp.

Ptolemy's map of Ireland, the regional names in Latin Roman script
Ptolemy's map of Ireland, the regional names in Latin Roman script | Source

Leabhar Gabhala Eireann

A book about the divers legendary and historical invasions of the land and as such a mythical history of Ireland also known as the Book of Invasions. It lasted down through the centuries in a number of ancient forms, mainly in the Book of Leinster that dates from the 12th Century AD. A version of the book was gathered from numerous old manuscripts that are no longer extant by Michael O'Cleirigh (c1575-1645). When referring to the Book of Invasions it is this translation that is referred to.

The invasions touched on include the pre-Deluge journey of Cesair. It also touches on the invasion by Partholan, who with his followers defeated the Fomorii. There was also also the invasion by Nemedh, on whose death the Fomorii returned. The next invasion mentioned is that of the Fir Bholg, accompanied by the Gailioin and the Fir Dhomhnamm - all three peoples being descendants of the Nemedh.

The fifth invasion mentioned is that of the Tuatha De Danann, who were also the offspring of the Nemedh. Yet another, the sixth invasion was launched by the Milesians, or sons of Mil Espaine (supposedly from the Iberian peninsula) who beat the Tuatha De Danann. Finally the two sides agreed on sharing out the land - by which the Milesians intended for them to rule the surface territory and the Tuatha De Danann would be the occupants of the netherworld regions.

Next: Last but not least - 21: Gods and Heroes, the Finale

Early Celtic warrior leaders - men like these would have led their number onto Irish shores
Early Celtic warrior leaders - men like these would have led their number onto Irish shores | Source
An aerial view of the site of Tara where the high kings of Ireland held court
An aerial view of the site of Tara where the high kings of Ireland held court | Source

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3 comments

Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

This was fascinating alan, I had forgotten about the book of kells, it has always intrigued me, and you certainly know all your history! lol! great read, and voted up!


billybuc profile image

billybuc 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

Okay, Alan, the first thing I find amazing is that there are no comments here. Maybe if you included a Celtic recipe you could lure the readers in. :) I love this stuff, but realistically, it's like writing poetry. You better love it and feed off of your passion, because trying to add a little knowledge and awareness to the public is a thankless job. Well done my friend; great read.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello Nell and Bill. Kells and Lindisfarne are all well documented, it's just a business of assembling notes and adding pictures in a way that might draw a few visitors and redirect them to more specialist sources (the images give you a new avenue of exploration if you click on the links).

As for the kings and heroes they've never really died, just dozed off in their mountain fastnesses until someone comes along and rouses them.

Me messenger, word on cleft stick.

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