Headfort House / Hall was designed in the early 1770s for Thomas Taylor, 1st Earl of Bective, by George Semple, and constructed from Ardbraccan limestone. Its magnificent exterior is matched by an equally impressive interior.
In 1800 the 2nd Earl was created Marquess of Headfort, and was one of the 28 original Irish Representative Peers in the British House of Lords. His son, who assumed the surname of Taylour, was created Baron Kenlis, of Kenlis in the County of Meath, in the Peerage of the United Kingdom, giving an automatic seat in the House of Lords until 1999. The 4th Marquess was a Senator of the Irish Free State. The titles are still extant. Despite the official spelling, the family prefer to use the alternative French rendering, Marquis of Headfort.
Headfort House remained the private residence of the Taylor family until 1949, when they leased the building to the newly formed Headfort School. The 1,000 acres (4.0 km2) estate was sold by the 6th Marquess in 1981. In 1996 ownership of the buildings was transferred to a building preservation trust, the Headfort Trust. This relationship has saved the interiors from the fate of many similar sized properties which have suffered from alteration and over-repair.
A suite of six state rooms designed by the renowned Scottish architect Robert Adam, whose distinctive style was immensely influential during and long after his lifetime, comprises the only major commission of his to survive intact in Ireland and thus holds a unique place in Ireland’s architectural heritage. The three principal rooms are the Front Hall, the Ballroom and the Green Drawing Room.
Much of the original furniture, which was also designed by Adam, is still in place. Some items are undergoing restoration in Kilkenny Castle, as part of an ongoing exhibition of Irish Furniture. Sadly the furnishings from the magnificent Chinese Drawing Room have long since gone.
Headfort School, a private English-style Prep (Preparatory / Primary / Junior) school, is non-denominational, co-educational, and caters for both boarders and day pupils. It uses the main house and one of the wings and, to this day, is still surrounded by spacious grounds.
Neil Jordan‘s 1997 film adaptation of Patrick McCabe‘s superb novel The Butcher Boy (1992) was partially filmed at Headfort House.
Kells (Co. Meath / Northwest)
Kells (Ceanannas, from Ceannanas Mór / Ceann Lios – “head fort”) (pop. 8000), historically aka Kenlis, has grown greatly in recent years, with many DUBLIN commuters settling locally. (Photo by Nemoi)
The ancient names “Ceann Lios” / “Ceannanas Mór” – meaning “head fort” or “great chief abode” respectively – indicate that an important and large(ish) fortification must once have stood here,
According to the Book of Lismore, the Dún / Fort of Kells was granted by king Diarmait / Dermot, Ard Rí / High King of Ireland, to Saint Colmcille / Columba in the C6th AD to establish a religious community.
An entry in the Annals of Ulster for the year 804 AD indicates that the monastic community from the monastery that Saint Colmcille / Columba had famously founded on the island of Iona transferred to Kells, probably fleeing from Viking raids.
Kells Abbey became the principal Irish Columban monastery. In 918 AD it was plundered and the church destroyed. In 1117, the Abbot and community were killed in a raid by Aedh Ua Ruairc.
The Synod of Kells in 1152 was one of the most important events in the history of Christianity in Ireland, bringing the long primarily monastic “Celtic” Church into line with Roman Catholicism and its diocesan structure. In fact the actual synod was transferred to Mellifont in County Louth, and as small consolation Kells became a diocese in its own right, but about 60 years later was reduced to parochial status within the Diocese of Meath.
King Henry II granted the whole of Meath to Hugh de Lacy; the Anglo-Normans sponsored Kells’ religious establishments, but also used the settlement as a military base.
Garrisoned as a border outpost of the English-controlled Pale region around Dublin, Kells saw several skirmishes and battles between Crown troops and the Gaelic tribes of neighbouring Bréifne; however, intermarriage between the two communities became increasingly common.
Kells was granted a Royal charter in 1560 and returned two Members of Parliament from then until the Act of Union came into effect in 1801.
The 1641 Rebellion saw the last native Gael attacks on the Pale, during which large parts of Kells were razed by the O’Reilly clan.
Thomas Taylor from Sussex came to Ireland c.1650 to oversee the fiscal expenditure of Oliver Cromwell‘s campaign on behalf of the English Parliament, and later worked as a cartographer on Sir William Petty‘s project to map Ireland. He was granted large tracts of land around Kells, which he and his descendants developed into a lucrative estate. His son, another Thomas Taylor, represented Kells in the Irish House of Commons and in 1704 was created a Baronet.
His grandson, the third Baronet, also sat for Kells in the Irish House of Commons. In 1760 he was raised to the Peerage of Ireland as Baron Headfort, of Headfort in the County of Meath. Two years later he was created Viscount Headfort, of Headfort, in the County of Meath and in 1766 he was made Earl of Bective, of Bective Castle, in the County of Meath.
Some five tears later he commissioned the construction of Headfort House, from which the family continued to dominate the region for over a century until forced to sell most of their property by the various Land Acts.
The period of the Great Famine saw the population of Kells drop by two fifths (38%) over ten years. The Workhouse and the Fever Hospital were described as full to overflowing.
The town’s official toponym was Ceanannas Mór from 1922 until the late C20th, when the community reverted to the more widely known English name and dropped Mór from the Irish version.
Kells’ commercial centre stood on the increasingly busy junctionof the N52 and the N3 roads, a notorious traffic bottleneck until June 2010, when the intersection was taken out of town with the opening of the M3 Motorway and the Kells Bypass.
Kells is a pleasant town with several good pubs and eateries, but would receive few visitors if it were not for its main claim to fame.
The Book of Kells
The Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels in Latin, is widely regarded as Ireland’s finest national treasure, a masterwork of Western calligraphy and the pinnacle of Insular style decoration.
Although there are several competing theories as to the manuscript’s place and date of origin, it is certain that the Book of Kells was produced by Columban monks closely associated with the religious community at Iona founded by Saint Colmcille / Columba (d. 597 AD). The most widely accepted view is that it was begun at Iona, possibly to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the saint’s death, and when Viking raids on the island c.800 AD forced the monks to disperse, continued at Kells. The work is in fact unfinished.
Kells Abbey was plundered and pillaged many times, and how the manuscript survived there is not known. The earliest historical reference to the book, and indeed to the book’s presence at Kells, can be found in a 1007 entry in the Annals of Ulster, which records that “the great Gospel of Columkille, the chief relic of the Western World, was wickedly stolen during the night from the western sacristy of the great stone church at Cenannas on account of its wrought shrine“. The manuscript was recovered a few months later—minus its golden and bejewelled cover—”under a sod“.
The Book of Kells was preserved locally until 1654, when Cromwellian cavalry were quartered in the church at Kells, and the governor of the town sent it to Dublin for safekeeping. Henry Jones, who became bishop of Meath after the Restoration, presented the manuscript in 1661 to Trinity College in Dublin, where it has remained ever since.
The manuscript was rebound into four volumes in 1953. Trinity College Library nowadays exhibits two volumes at a time, one opened at a major decorated page, and one opened to show two text pages with smaller decorations.
The Kells Crozier, another impressive artefact associated with the Abbey of Kells, appeared without explanation in a London solicitor’s office in 1850, and has been on exhibition at the British Museum since 1859.
The oldest structures still visible in Kells are monastic remains dating from the C9th – C12th, notably five large High Crosses, a Round Tower and a roughly rectangular stone building.
St Columba’s church & grounds
St Columba’s church (CoI) stands on the original site of Kells Abbey church.
The churchyard wall, which marks the boundary of the original monastery, was restored in the early C18th and again in the 1990s.
The four C9th High Crosses in the churchyard are in varying states of preservation:
- All that is left of the North Cross is its rounded base stone.
- The unfinished East Cross bears a Crucifixion panel.
- The Cross of Patrick & Columba is carved with a semi-legible inscription and pictures of the Fall of Adam & Eve, Daniel in the Lions’ Den and a hunting scene.
- The shaft of the West Cross illustrates the Fall, Noah’s Ark, the Judgment of Solomon, the Baptism of Jesus and the Marriage Feast at Cana. Removed by Cromwellian soldiers in a C17th act of vandalism, the head of the cross lay in fragments around the churchyard for many years.
The Round Tower located in the church grounds was probably built in the late C10th / early C11th. Long roofless and cracked from top to bottom, it is currently 26m high. It is recorded that in 1076 the titular Ard Rí / High King of Ireland, Muircheartach Maelsechnaill, was murdered in a chamber within this edifice.
Following the Reformation the erstwhile cathedral was in ruins. The church was rebuilt in 1578 on the instructions of Hugh Brady, Bishop of Meath. Sir Thomas Garvie assisted in the task, as did Nicholas Daly, Sovereign of the Corporation of Kells.
The present edifice was built in 1778. The church was altered in 1811, and again in 1858, when the interior was re-ordered. The roof was restored and the interior re-decorated in 1965.
The bell tower, the only portion of the medieval church still standing, is an impressive structure, separated from the church by a lane. It was topped by a spire designed by Thomas Cooley and financed by Thomas, 1st Earl of Bective, in 1783.
In 1965, the old church Gallery was converted into an exhibition space with display panels recording the history of the monastic site and a facsimile of the Book of Kells.
St Colmcille’s House is the name long but erroneously given to the stone building near the graveyard of St Columba’s church. Probably dating from the C10th or C11th, it has often been called an Oratory, but is nowadays thought more likely to have been a scriptorium. The original entrance was over 2m above ground level. Access to the steeply roofed attic room is by a very long ladder. Positioned at one of the highest points in the town, this oddly proportioned edifice is kept locked, but visitor access can be arranged.
The Kells Priory of the Knights Hospitaller of St John (a military Order founded in Italy in 1113 to protect pilgrims and Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem) was established in 1199 by Walter DeLacy (son of Hugh DeLacy). One rule of membership was “No Knight shall be professed unless he be of English blood”. The last Prior was forced to surrender the premises to the commissioners of King Henry VIII in 1539, and the ruins are now enclosed within St John’s Cemetery (RC) in Headfort Place. ·”The Abbess” is the local name for a grave slab depicting either a lady with a wimple and a tau stick or a knight with a helmet and sword. A number of medieval carvings of Celtic crosses have also been found, but the earliest dated headstone is from 1720.
Kells Courthouse, designed by the renowned Irish architect Francis Johnston, was built in 1801. Beautifully restored, the building nowadays houses the Kells Heritage Centre, featuring a multi-media exhibition, a replica of the Market Cross outside (!) and a facsimile of the Book of Kells. Tourist Information available includes a Heritage Trail leaflet and an useful booklet called The High Crosses of Kells.
Kells Market Cross in front of the Kells Heritage Centre.
The Market Cross is an early C10th sandstone High Cross (3.35m), thought to have been carved by the sculptor responsible for comparable masterpieces at Clonmacnois, Durrow and Monasterboice. Richly decorated panels depict the Fall of Man, the Sacrifice of Isaac, the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, and the Crucifixion. Originally located at the gate of Kells Abbey, it stood for many years on central Cross St, where it was allegedly placed by Dean Jonathan Swift, and was used as a double gallows to hang insurgents during the 1798 Rebellion. It was finally knocked over by a careless school bus driver in 1996. Plans to preserve the restored cross inside the Heritage Centre met with strong local opposition, so it was finally erected in its present position in front of the building.
Kells Town Hall, originally designed in 1853 by William Caldebeck as a bank, became the Town Hall in 1974.
The Hill of Lloyd
The Hill of Lloyd, just outside the town of Kells on the road to Oldcastle, is named after Thomas Lloyd of Enniskillen, who camped a large Williamite army here during the wars of 1688-91 against the Jacobites. Nowadays much of the hill is given over to a recreational amenity area called The People’s Park.
The Tower / Spire of Lloyd, a 30m / 100ft high Doric column crowned by glazed lantern, was designed by Henry Baker and erected in 1791 by Thomas Taylor, 1st Earl of Bective, in memory of his father. The folly, often called an inland lighthouse due to its appearance, was used to view and the local hunt and horse racing in the C19th. On a clear day the panoramic views from the top cover at least five counties and extend as far as the Mourne mountains.
The Paupers’ Grave cemetery is a grim reminder of of the extreme poverty engendered by changes in farming practices in the C19th, the Great Famine and the Workhouse. Mass is still celebrated here annually.
St Colmcille’s church (RC) was opened in 1960 to replace an older church founded in 1798.
Two primary schools established in 1840 with a bequest from Catherine Dempsey were soon taken over by religious Orders, but retain their plaques.
Kells Community School also has a facsimile of The Book of Kells.
Kells railway station, servicing a line between Oldcastle and Drogheda via Navan, opened in July 1853, closed for passenger traffic in April 1958 and finally closed to all traffic on 1st April 1963. A lobby group called Meath on Track is campaigning for reinstatement of the Navan railway link; it is estimated that a Kells – Dublin rail service would take approximately one hour.
Kells Band, founded in 1843, entertains the public on special occasions – Christmas time, St Patrick’s Day, Festival Week, Cemetery Sunday etc.
The Secret of Kells (2010), a critically acclaimed animated film nominated for an Oscar, was set locally.
The Headfort Arms hotel is well regarded, and also has a facsimile of the Book of Kells. The Vanilla Pod restaurant on the same premises is highly rated.
Williamstown House, built to Palladian design c.1770, was originally home to a branch of the Cuffe family. The mansion was altered and extended c.1830. Unoccupied since the 1960s, it is now semi-derelict and distinctly eerie. See photo.
Kells Waterworks on the Virginia Road has had its Victorian/Edwardian pumping machinery restored to full working order by a small group of dedicated enthusiasts.
Carnaross (Co. Meath / Northwest)
Carnaross is a rural community mainly of interest for its former Anglican church, unusually made of tin. Known as “the iron church”, it has been used since the 1980s as an Independent Evangelical / Baptist place of worship.
Castlekieran was the location of a hermitage founded in the C8th AD beside the River Blackwater by one Saint Ciarán; despite being plundered by the Danes at least once, in 961 AD, a monastery is known to have survived here until 1170, when it was burned by Dermot McMurrough, king of Leinster, and “the foreigners” (Normans). The site is now a peaceful overgrown burial ground, noted for the Crosses of Castlekeeran, three (originally five) plainly carved early C9th AD Termon / High Crosses (one standing in the river), plus a ruined church, a curiously inscribed Ogham Stone and some early grave slabs. A wishing / rag tree stands near a Holy Well reputed to cure ailments ranging from warts to foot, back and throat problems. A Pattern that used to take place here annually became notorious and is no longer held.
Lennoxbrook Country House is a delightful C18th farmhouse in an idyllic setting, run by the fifth resident generation of the Mullan family as an exceptionally good Guesthouse with B&B facilities.