What faith and art can do when the world is dark
THE BOOK OF KELLS:In the contemporary world the illuminated manuscript on display at Trinity College Dublin now stands as a founding classic, as ripe to nonreligious readers as it is to people of faith.
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.