Nearly two an a half centuries were required to complete The Book of Kells, one of the finest examples of illuminated manuscripts in Western Europe. Intended to transform darkness into light, the skins of 150 calves were used to create its high quality vellum pages and the expert craftsmanship of monks dedicating entire lifetimes towards its completion. Of the four volumes two are on permanent display at Trinity College in Dublin. So ferocious is the security that only after seven years spent developing a new method utilizing suction techniques for copying the pages was the preeminent Swiss publishing house, Faksimile-Verlag Luzern, permitted access to the volumes. Much as a family guards the graves of its ancestors, The Book of Kells is likewise protected and venerated by the Irish.
Ripping off another piece of baguette I sat staring at fishing boats oozing into the dark mud of the shoreline. It was low tide and I had fortuitously discovered a little bench from which I could contemplate the horizon while eating my lunch. The bus had arrived at the small French fishing village behind schedule the day before and I was delayed in my journey to Ireland. That evening I was to board a ferry that would cross the gap between the two countries during the night.
As usual I opted for the cheapest possible fare and this landed me in a hard seat just above the engine room. The ferry was surprisingly large, housing a live concert hall several pubs and restaurants and long hallways lined with sofa chairs where one could sit and enjoy the view. While there was still a view to be seen, I sat in one such chair reading and listening to music. As night fell the chair grew rigid and I returned to the belly of the boat. I quickly discovered that most travelers were well aware of the horrible conditions presented by a room above the engine and I was nearly alone in the great dark expanse. I carefully arranged a few of my sturdiest items and stretched out on the vibrating floor down one of the empty rows. It was not my deepest night of sleep.
The next morning I woke early and watched silently as the ferry floated into the Irish port. After disembarking, I was quickly on a train to Dublin. Relaxing into the emerald-green velvet seats, I watched the landscape roll by my window and I strangely felt like I was returning home. Like nearly all citizens of the United States I can claim possibly a handful of generations of history in the country, before that the lineage of our ancestors are shadowy mixtures – part mythic, part lost and part hidden in the politics of their time. Because of this I found that the small fragments of history, off-hand comments made during my childhood and roughly stitched together using my imagination had become a deep part of my understanding of “my people”. My father always spoke proudly of his Irish roots and even though I had no direct experience of Ireland or of my Irish relatives, looking out over the rolling green and ash blue stone, it felt sweet to imagine them.
After a shower and some real sleep, I left the hostel to find a pint of Guinness. I love beer and was very much looking forward to an authentic experience of an Irish pub. As I was on my own and didn’t know anyone in Dublin, I decided on a mixed approach of travel book and serendipity. Dublin was a great city at night, the bridges gave the city a certain old world hue. A few hours later I walked through the doors of The Boar’s Head Pub on Capel St. Inside, a live trio was playing traditional Irish music for a moist crowd and I made my way to the bar. Over the course of ordering a pint I made friends with a few of the locals hanging out near the taps and when they discovered it was my very first pint of Guinness in Ireland, the pints began in earnest. It seemed like the whole of the pub was drinking together, the musicians finished but were instantly bought pints of their own. I went radiantly to bed that evening humming to myself.
I was mostly in Dublin for the pubs and a window into Irish urban life. But there was one specific visit I wanted to make and that was to Trinity College where The Book of Kells was publicly displayed. The curators have two volumes of the four on display, turning the page in each once a day. The unusual darkness of the room has the effect of making the yellow glow of the display even more brilliant, heavenly. When I finally peered over the display shoulder to shoulder with a crowd that seemed to represent every possible nationality, it was instantly clear why the room was silent. The book’s pages are so densely packed with artistic focus they are almost painful to study. Gorgeous, perfect lines follow and frame imagery inspired by the gospels and treat the very letters as if they were each a secret masterpiece.
Back on the train I was planning to spend a couple of days exploring south-western Ireland. The most popular way to explore the idyllic landscape is Killarney and touring the Ring of Kerry, but the moment I stepped off the train I realized I wanted to go the opposite direction as quickly as possible. Hundreds of people stuffed giant tour busses like fat sausages and then spilling themselves onto the pavement proceeded to herd like pack animals completely destroying any sense of mystic self-reflection that may have been possible in such intense surroundings. I caught a bus to the nearby Dingle Peninsula, more and more assured of my decision as I watched local after local board the bus and we left the chaos behind. The scenery that followed was metaphysical, the further into the wild we went the more I could perceive my ancestors and this sensation had the most electrifying effect on my perception of myself, as if I finally discovered proof of my very real place in the collective history.