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Friday, 25 February, 2000, 17:47 GMT
Unholy row over ancient book

Illuminated page from the eighth century Book Of Kells,  owned by Trinity College, Dublin
Hot property: The Book of Kells

By Dublin correspondent Kevin Connolly

Rural Ireland is a place of monks and mystics where history is not just a thing of the past - just ask anyone in Kells. The angry people of the town are campaigning for the return of the beautiful 8th century illuminated gospels which bear its name.

The book has been in the hands of Trinity College, Dublin, since the 17th century and now attracts half a million paying tourists a year.


Detail of an animal from the Book of Kells Chequered history: The book was once stolen
The anger in Kells has reached new heights this year since Trinity announced that it was prepared to lend the book to an exhibition in Australia - but not to Kells. It is a decision Robin Adams of Trinity insists is perfectly logical.

"We have a lot of requests to borrow the manuscript most of which we turn down because of the over-riding importance of the safety and care of the manuscript.

"We said yes to Canberra because it's a millennial year and the Irish community in Australia is the largest in the world outside North America."

Trinity should make part of the book available for exhibition. If they can send it abroad, then they can send it down the road to the town where it was kept for 800 years

Dr Michael Smith, Bishop of Meath
The conversion of the old courthouse in Kells into a historical centre should be completed in time for the summer tourist season.

But although no-one will quite admit it, the absence of the town's best known historical artefact is bound to strike tourists as odd.

Malachi Jenkins, area manager for Meath County Council is diplomatic, but there is no disguising that feelings in the town have been hurt.

"Every schoolchild in Ireland has heard about Kells and its monastic past and particularly people here feel very strong about that," he said. The Book of Kells is a huge symbol of that period."

Important relic

So it seems the book will be far away in Australia when the town's heritage centre opens. But the bishop of Meath, Dr Michael Smith, who sees the manuscript as an important relic in the broader history of christianity, has not entirely given up hope that some sort of compromise can be reached.

Detail from the eighth century Book of Kells The book was created by Iona monks
"Trinity should make part of the book available for exhibition in the summer. If they can send to Australia, the United States and Europe then they can send it down the road to the town where it was kept for 800 years," he said.

The Book of Kells has enjoyed a chequered history since it was written by the monks of Iona more than 1,000 years ago.

The people of the town believe that if they keep up the pressure they might just produce another twist in the story that will see it finally come home.
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