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An Leabhar Cheanannais.

The Four Evangelists, from The Book of Kells courtesy of Brian Keller

Music brought me to Doolin and County Clare, but it was a very different art form that first brought me to Dublin. Ireland’s most famous illuminated manuscript, The Book of Kells, or  An Leabhar Cheanannais, has enchanted me for many years. Having done a bit of calligraphy, as well as desktop publishing, I have had a long time interest and appreciation of lettering, fonts, and page layout, both with pen and ink and in the new digital forms. So it was with great anticipation that I made my way to Trinity College Dublin to finally lay my eyes on this medieval work of art and phenomenal technical feat. In an earlier post I told the story of my embarrassing incident outside the ‘ancient’ door at the side of the museum which houses The Book of Kells and the Old Library at TCD. But once I finally found the correct entrance, I was rewarded with a view of the treasure I had been in awe of for a very long time.

Considered Ireland’s finest National Treasure, The Book of Kells, which was created by Irish monks around the early 9th century, contains the four gospels written in Latin. The calligraphy and artwork was done on vellum (prepared calfskin) and decorated with magnificent designs of geometric patterns, celtic knots and swirls of bold and brightly colored inks and, if I remember correctly – gold leaf, in illustrations so intricate that you need a magnifying glass to appreciate them fully. Along with these beautiful and intricate designs, the real fun comes from the illustrations of human beings and animals which are worked into the text and even help form some of the letters. Some of these illustrations are so comical, and even a bit wicked, that you can’t look at them without feeling that you are getting a glimpse into the minds of some very talented monks having a bit of fun with their calling!

A great example of the human hands, and minds, behind such wonderful manuscripts comes, not from The Book of Kells, but in a copy of St. Paul’s Epistles, which was written in Irish, around the 8th century at Reichenau Monastary. In the margin of the text is found a poem, written and probably composed, by an Irish monk who was working on the manuscript. This charming poem is about his cat, Pangur Bán. Following are the first and last verses of the eight verse poem (translated from Irish):

Pangur Bán

I and Pangur Bán, my cat,

‘Tis a like task we are at;

Hunting mice is his delight,

Hunting words I sit all night.


Practice every day has made

Pangur perfect in his trade;

I get wisdom day and night,

Turning Darkness into light.

Life in medieval Ireland could not have been easy, especially for the poor, but even the wealthy had their challenges with so many bloody battles and skirmishes and the constant need to defend territory from both foreign invaders and even the clan on the next mountain who wanted a bit more power! And being a monk was not without its difficulties and risks. However to me, there could have been few occupations in that era as rewarding, both spiritually and artistically, as that of the monks who spent their lives creating these beautiful works of art for the eyes, mind and soul.

My son recently brought to my attention an animated film that is based upon these monks and The Book of Kells, and has been nominated for this year’s Oscars in the Best Animated Film category. “The Secret of Kells” is due to come out this March and I can’t help but think that an artistic treasure like The Book of Kells would attract animators with a great respect for its history and beauty. And considering the animated cat in the film has the name “Pangur Bán”, I think I am in for a treat! Meanwhile, here is the trailer for your enjoyment:

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Ennis, photo by Peter Choi

One of the things I learned during my first trip to Ireland, was that often it is the mistakes and mishaps that can turn a vacation into a bit of an adventure and lead to unexpected delights. Don’t get me wrong; sometimes a mistake is just a mistake. Like the Jury’s Hotel my travel agent booked me into for my first two nights in Dublin. I had requested a hotel that would put me within walking distance of the City Centre so that I could do all my Dublin sightseeing on foot. She assured me this was the case, however, the rather fatherly taxi driver who drove me from the airport to the hotel, immediately set me straight on this particular mistake when he warned me that the neighborhood north of the Liffey, where this hotel had recently been built, was not safe to walk around in at night and that I should also, never venture north of my hotel even during daylight! It didn’t take me long to find out that the taxi driver was right and I was forced to hire the taxis I had hoped to avoid hiring when I booked my room from the States.

Also, there are the awkward, embarrassing mistakes that can happen when traveling to an unfamiliar place on your own. This type of mistake happened to me at Trinity College Dublin when I went to see one of the main sights on my list, the Book of Kells. When I approached the building that the map I was carrying had led me to, sure enough there was a sign posted on the wall stating, “Book of Kells” with an arrow pointing me toward the right. I turned right and proceeded until I got to the far end of the building, where I came upon another sign stating, “Book of Kells”… except this sign pointed me back in the direction of the other sign. A bit flummoxed, I stood between the two signs facing an oversized, unmarked, ancient looking wooden door with an old brass doorknob at its center that looked as though it had not been opened since ‘Dracula’ writer, Bram Stoker, attended the institution. I shrugged my shoulders and decided to give it a try. First I jiggled the doorknob, but it would not budge. Then, beginning to feel foolish but not wanting to give up too easily, I knocked. Nothing. Finally, while I stood between those two signs knocking on that old, locked door, a student walked up to me and said, “That door doesn’t open. I’ve never seen it open.” I indicated the two signs and their arrows and the student just shrugged it off as though that was to be expected and proceeded to lead me around the the corner to the large, quite modern looking entrance to the museum. Red faced, I felt like I had just fallen for the “make the American look like a fool with the fake signs pointing to the useless relic of a door, gag.” This all happened before I learned to never completely trust an Irish sign!

However, some mistakes turn out to be what artists call “a happy accident”. That is when something unplanned and initially unwanted occurs, but ends with a positive result. I had a few such ‘happy accidents’ during that first Irish adventure, and the most memorable of these occurred on my last full day in Ireland during that first trip. I was spending the last day and night in the town of Ennis and, after checking in at the Queen’s Hotel (chosen because James Joyce in his book “Ulysses” referred to this particular hotel as “delightful”) I went out searching for a place to eat. At this point, although I had enjoyed a wonderful trip, I was tired and ready to go home. I missed my children, was tired of eating out, and more than a little bit worn out from the previous days spent immersed in and navigating a culture that was different from my own.  I just wanted a quiet table in a corner to sip some tea, have a bowl of soup with buttered, brown bread on the side and to read my book.

After a bit of a search, I finally came upon a little shop down a side lane that turned off what passed for a main street in this medieval town of cobblestone and footpaths so narrow that they forced one person to step down into the gutter when walking side by side with another. When I entered the little cafe it was the middle of a rush and packed with customers. By the time I received and paid for my food at the counter, there was not a free table in sight. At a point when I was beginning to become annoyed and to feel hassled, a waitress approached and asked me if I would mind sharing a table with another woman. I did mind. I didn’t feel up to one more conversation with a stranger. Shy by nature, the previous days had taken a great deal of pushing myself beyond my comfort zone, and though it was well worth it, I was drained and didn’t want to do it anymore, not on my last day.

But, lunch in hand I needed a place to sit, so I replied to the waitress, “I’d be happy to share” and proceeded to follow her around a corner into another room to a small table for two. Sitting across the table was a petite, and charming looking, Irish lady of an age hovering somewhere between 75 and 80. She introduced herself to me and held her hand out for me to shake. I can’t remember her name, but I remember her face and how pleasant looking it was. Her eyes were lively and her face was framed with shiny, gray hair pulled back into a small chignon at the back of her neck. She was dressed very neatly, in pale colors that flattered her complexion and, in general, had a glow about her. I remember that the first thing she said to me after introducing herself was, “I suppose you won’t be surprised to know that I am a widow.” Due to her age, I wasn’t. But when I responded that I was also a widow, she was surprised… after all I was only 41 years old at the time. She said, “Only yesterday I was telling my daughter that all I meet anymore are widows, and when a young person like yourself sat down at this table, I was sure I was finally meeting a woman who was not a widow!” All this was said in a very good-natured manner and led to probably one of the most pleasant conversations and most enjoyable company I had throughout my entire trip, coming at a point when I really needed it. She told me that she was originally from Galway but had married an Ennis man many years ago and had lived there ever since. She talked about the booming Celtic Tiger economy in Ireland, but remarked that with all the money floating around there were more people begging in the streets than she remembered ever seeing back when nobody had much money at all. Most of all, she expressed amazement at what she saw as my ‘courage’ for venturing out to a foreign country all by myself. She said it inspired her to listen to her daughter’s plea that she get out more and try new things. Finally, she said she had to leave to make it to mass on time, something she did every afternoon. When she said goodbye she told me, “I believe everything happens for a reason and that I was meant to meet you and talk with you today.” I’ll admit, I was somewhat surprised at this mystical statement coming from an elderly, Irish, Catholic woman. She wished me the best of luck and told me she would light a candle for me that day in church. What she didn’t know was that she had already brightened my day and left me with a wonderful memory on this, my last day in her country.

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