The Isle of Iona is close to Ireland, and it has always mattered to me, a Scot with an Irish name, that our common literature begins in that fertile place. This summer I took Seamus Heaney and some other friends to visit Iona, and we agreed that the atmosphere on the island is unmistakable. Dr Johnson and James Boswell felt the same way when they stepped off the boat in the autumn of 1773 and spontaneously hugged one another. “It’s some place,” said Heaney as we walked through the renovated cloisters of the abbey by the sea. “Can you hear the wind?”
The Book of Kells symbolises, says Bernard Meehan, “the power of learning, the impact of Christianity on the life of the country, and the spirit of artistic imagination”.
Meehan’s book is for me the book of the year, a deeply beautiful and essential guide to what the great Celtic text is all about. An ancient sense of wonder can be found in the Book of Kells, and spores of the old illuminating art can still be felt in the air at Iona as you pass through the cells where Columba once presided and where folios of the famous book were made.
I grew up dreaming about the Book of Kells, its dashing hares, its serpents, its round-eyed monks beyond ecstasy and sleep, its golds and its greens, and a decade ago I got finally to slumber alongside it. I was a visiting fellow at Trinity and had rooms on Parliament Square. Drinks were had and poetry was discussed, pees were taken in foreign sinks. But half my mind was drunk on the Book of Kells. It was just over the way and told the story of our founding spirit.
Edna Longley, in her fine Introduction to Modern Irish and Scottish Poetry, a recent and rich book on the subject, calls Columba the patron saint of Irish/Scottish poetry. “Poetic contact between Ireland and Scotland begins with an island,” she writes, “Iona.”
For me, Columba was the skilled believer, the potent leader, the miracle worker, the magic realist that Scotland needed. We needed him before John Knox and we needed him after. Or maybe I just mean that I needed him. After belief was gone, I needed the lasting power of devotion, a deep source of exultation and fiction that would allow me to be more than just a poor audience to my own memory.
John McGahern once wrote a paragraph that captures that resplendent hope in the gravity of past faith. “I have nothing but gratitude for the spiritual remnants of that upbringing,” he wrote, “the sense of our origins beyond the bounds of sense, an awareness of mystery and wonderment, grace and sacrament, and the absolute equality of all men and women underneath the sun of heaven.” That is the Book of Kells for me. Some people turn to nationalism when God is dead. Some to drink. But I wanted the vital spark of the old illuminations, evidence of what faith and art can do together when the world is dark.
Iona was attacked by the Vikings and Colum Cille’s abbots ended up in Kells, according to the Annals of Ulster, in 804. This place was to be a refuge and a place where the work continued. The Book of Kells has a Columban provenance that I feel I recognise and love, for it marks an otherworldly collaboration between the kingdoms of Ireland and Scotland and a beautiful insight into our national mysteries. Not only those we enjoy individually but those we enjoy together, face to face, as nations across the water.
Uncertainty is part of the enjoyment. Was the book started at Iona and finished at Kells? Was the work begun by Columba himself and then spirited away by later loyal abbots in the face of the Viking raiders? The existing book in Dublin has evidence for a great deal and certainty about very little: areas of decoration are unfinished, suggesting the initial book was rescued in a hurry. The original scribes must have died during the raids or soon after the transition to Kells, or they would have finished what they started, no? I recently took Meehan’s wonderful book on a trip to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and compared a number of the plates he reproduces to stone carvings held in the collection.
The illustrations in the Book of Kells show the influence of the Mediterranean style that we can see in coins, jewellery and textiles. But the Pictish element has been underplayed somewhat: if you look at surviving stones and graves from the northeast of Scotland or from St Ninian’s early settlement at Whithorn, you see elements – three dots representing the Trinity, for example – that are everywhere in the Book of Kells.
The book is a terrific gathering place of style: you see darkest, unknown Scotland, the country before Macbeth, but also an Ireland establishing a sense of Christ and beauty that is different from the one carried in from Rome. The book is complex, but it also underscores the way simple foreign design codes were already present in Ireland and were newly manipulated by Kells’s scribes. Look at the business of the red dots. “Red dots highlighting the shape of a letter,” writes Meehan, “which are such a striking feature of the Book of Kells, form the major decorative device of a Gospel book known as Codex Usserianus Primus, conventionally regarded as dating from the early 7th century and so the earliest surviving Irish manuscript . . . Similar dots placed around letters for emphasis can be seen in an early 6th-century Greek manuscript from Constantinople.”
Patron saint of storytellers
St Columba commanded the fishes of the sea to rise out of the water and find their tongues. I think of him as a patron saint of storytellers and fiction-makers, an Irishman on the shore at Iona commanding the world into magic. The fish, the lions, the peacocks and hares, the cats, the panthers, the stags and the doves: the book is replete with gorgeous life, danger, faith and symbol. (And such freshness: on folio 84V, one page, there’s a thrilling drawing of a fat, blue-and-yellow-striped cat pursuing a white-faced rat that is running away with a communion host. At the bottom we run into a blue-legged greyhound that has just caught a hare clambering up the page. This is an ancient text, but these images are more alive than anything in Tate Modern.)
The book contains the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but I believe it is Colum Cille’s gospel of earthly plenitude and everyday natural sanctity we are looking at. For what we see in the Book of Kells is the insular world bursting into colour. It would be another millennium and a half before we heard that “the medium is the message”, but, oddly, we first see it with the Book of Kells. Essentially a showcase for the message of the evangelists, it becomes, by its strange stylistic pedigree, and by its amazing provenance as an Irish-Scots masterpiece, a work of western art that holds in itself the imagination’s first principles.
Of course, being a writer, I think of the scribes. Who were they and how did they come to make this? In a way, they must represent the perfect form of TS Eliot’s impersonal artists, not only unknown and uncredited but completely subsumed by the symbolic enormity of the work they undertook and by a division of labour. Yet each of the writers has his own style: Scribe A, sober and spare, no-nonsense, with a turgid N; Scribe B writes small and decorates largely in red and yellow and purple; Scribe C, perhaps more improvisational yet more hesitant; and Scribe D, more expansive than C and given to sudden brilliant decorative flights in his large hand, using darker inks. We don’t know who these men were, and each must have had a tale behind him. It was Nabokov, that later keeper of his own scriptorium, who said that the only biography of an artist that matters is the biography of his style.
And that is what we see in the Book of Kells, the proteins of many cultures going towards the DNA of Ireland.
The book now stands as a founding classic, as ripe to pagans as to people of faith, a locus of dark materials, a beautiful marker to people who read and a life force and progenitor to people who write. Sitting up late in my rooms at Trinity 10 years ago, I know my thoughts moved over the square to interlace with the patterns in that old book. My own people had travelled like the word itself, and God only knows what part of their vivid colours hadn’t drained into the grave. My guess is that Colum Cille has symbolic power for each of us, Irish and Scots alike, separated by that short and rowdy sea. The book is evidence of what we were like, trying to imagine our way into majesty in the face of something savage. And what is that if not the project of civilisation? We would have our reformations to face, and will again, but the Book of Kells reveals to us our origins beyond the bounds of sense.