Work on book was probably begun in monastery on Scottish island of Iona

 

The origins of the Book of Kells are unclear, and the work might not even have been created entirely in the town from which it takes its name.

The final leaves of the manuscript, which would probably have carried information as to who had written and illuminated the book, and where, have been missing for centuries.

The Latin text of the four gospels may have been begun on the island of Iona, where a monastery had been founded by St Columba. When this foundation was attacked by the Vikings in the early ninth century, its abbot and community fled to Ireland and established a new monastery at Kells.

This monastery had an extremely turbulent history, being regularly attacked and plundered over the ensuing 100 years. The Annals of Ulster, for example, record that in the year 1006-1007, "the great gospel of Colm-Cille" - presumed to be the Book of Kells - was stolen for its cover of gold inset with precious stones.

Several months later the book was found, without its valuable cover, buried under some sods of earth. Nothing remains of the monastery's principal buildings. In the graveyard of the Church of Ireland St Columba's Church stand a round tower and four high crosses in varying states of repair.

Not far away on a separate site is St Columcille's House, a 10th-century structure believed to have been constructed to house the relics of the saint. Kells's most famous monument, the ninth-century market cross, was damaged when it was struck by a bus in December 1996 and is currently being repaired in Trim; although its eventual location has yet to be decided, a replica is planned for the new heritage centre.

At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, the Book of Kells came into the hands of Gerald Plunket of Dublin, who wrote notes on some of its pages. By 1621 it was in the collection of the scholarly Bishop of Meath, James Ussher, who was vice-chancellor of Trinity College Dublin. Forty years later it was given by Henry Jones, his successor as Bishop of Meath, to the college's library, where it has remained since.