Kells's request for loan of its treasures strikes snags


When the plan was originally mooted to bring some of the world's greatest monastic treasures back home to Kells, Co Meath, the sceptics believed it would never succeed.

But with work continuing on the £1 million project to transform the former local courthouse into a suitable exhibition venue, Kells Urban District Council is increasingly optimistic that at least some of the town's treasures will temporarily return to their original home this summer.

The restoration work is on schedule to be completed by the end of May. The local authority is at present spending £1 million on the restoration of the former courthouse as a heritage centre, and work on this should be completed by the end of May.

The UDC hopes then to mount an exhibition there celebrating Kells's monastic history and featuring several items on temporary loan from British and Irish institutions.

Five key pieces have been requested for this exhibition. The best-known of them is the Book of Kells, the eighth-century gospel manuscript which has been owned by Trinity College, Dublin, for the past 340 years.

Three of the other items are also in Dublin, two of them owned by the Royal Irish Academy. These are the sixth-century Cathach, the oldest extant Irish manuscript, and its 11th-century metal shrine.

The latter is on exhibition at the National Museum, as is another example of Irish metalwork believed to have originated in Kells, the casket of the Miosach of St Cairneach which belongs to St Columba's College, Rathfarnham.

The fifth item which Kells UDC hopes to exhibit is a crozier which has been in the possession of the British Museum since the middle of the 19th century.

When the idea was first raised that any or all of these valuable works might be shown outside their usual homes, there seemed little possibility of it happening.

In mid-December last year, the secretary of the Irish Coach Drivers' Association proposed that the Book of Kells should be returned to its native town to relieve traffic congestion in central Dublin.

A month ago Kells UDC and Meath County Council began a public campaign to secure the book for a summer exhibition. But initially they met with a refusal by Trinity College.

More recently, however, the college's Provost, Dr Tom Mitchell, wrote to the local authority proposing that on his return at the end of this month from Australia - where a section of the book has just gone on display for two months - he and Trinity's librarian would meet a delegation from the UDC.

Last week the college issued a statement saying, "We feel that it would be inappropriate to comment on the situation until after this meeting has occurred." The statement added, "It is the policy of the college that the process of consultation between the college and the institution requesting the loan is carried out in confidence."

Kells UDC has also formally made requests to the British Museum, the Royal Irish Academy and St Columba's College for the loan of their respective items. At the British Museum Ms Susan Youngs, curator of medieval antiquities, said last week that while the institution was always keen to facilitate such requests, several important criteria had to be met. These included making sure the item in question was fit to travel and that security and other conditions at the venue were suitable.

For these reasons, the museum needed at least six months' notice before considering any application. Similar concerns were raised by the Royal Irish Academy, where a spokeswoman said no definite response had been made by its council because it wished to receive further information about the Kells exhibition from the UDC.

Over the past weeks support for the exhibition has come from both the Fine Gael leader, Mr John Bruton - whose Dail constituency includes Kells - and the Bishop of Meath, Dr Michael Smith.

In Kells the town clerk, Mr Bill Sweeney, and the chairman of the UDC, Mr Brian Reilly, were anxious to provide any reassurances felt necessary. They particularly wished to stress that the items they have requested would be on loan only to Kells and would be returned after a month at most.

"There would be no question of precedent," said Mr Sweeney, "and we won't be asking for them back again."

Both he and Mr Reilly said the UDC was happy to meet whatever demands were made by the lending institutions. "We can address all concerns very fast," the latter said. "We will have the same levels of security as they would."

On top of its £1 million budget for the heritage centre refurbishment, the UDC has set aside £70,000 for additional security in the event of the exhibition going ahead. But, said Mr Reilly, "if the figure exceeds that, we'll meet it. This is about more than money and expenditure. It's about highlighting the town as a treasury of heritage."

The centre, originally designed almost 200 years ago by Francis Johnston, will contain replicas of several of the pieces sought, such as the Kells crozier. But their originals would be preferred for the duration of the exhibition.

"The argument we're making," explained Mr Sweeney, "is that the best place to see the Book of Kells and the others is in Kells, in the context of the development of the town and the monastery."