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Medieval Ireland, Book of Kells, and St. Patrick

Dublin, Ireland

In Dublin we see the cultural treasures of Ireland — the exquisite Book of Kells, a precious harp, Bronze Age gold — and then travel to the Hill of Tara with its St. Patrick lore and the ruined Monastery of Monasterboice.

Complete Video Script

For tourists, the big draw on campus is a museum containing the precious Book of Kells — a monk-made set of the four Gospels from about the year 800.

Before you view the original, a first-class exhibit prepares you by putting this 680-page illuminated manuscript in its historical and cultural context. Irish monks transcribed and illustrated precious manuscripts like the Book of Kells.

Studying this copy it’s clear this was painstaking work. Cover pages and chapter heads were a chance for the monks to show off their artistic creativity. They went to great lengths — using powders from crushed bugs and precious stones — to get the most vivid pigments. Medieval books were written on vellum — that’s calfskin scraped with a knife. It’s estimated that it took the skins of 185 darling little calves to make the Book of Kells.

To see the actual Book of Kells…you’ll have to come to Dublin. Cameras are not allowed.

Upstairs, Trinity’s Old Library is stacked to its towering ceiling with 200,000 of the library’s oldest books. Here you’ll find a rare original edition of the Proclamation of the independent Irish Republic. Starting the Easter Rising in 1916, a rebel leader read these stirring and inclusive words:

Various Readers: Irishmen and Irish women: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for freedom.

Each of the seven signatories were arrested and then executed in a nearby prison — now a national memorial that we’ll visit later.

The library holds another national icon — Ireland’s oldest surviving harp, from the 15th century.

This harp is featured on the back of the Irish Euro coin. While the Euro — adopted in 2002 — is the accepted currency throughout the countries of Euro land, each country customizes the flip side with its own national symbol.

For more treasures of Ireland from the Stone Age to the Middle Age, visit the National Museum. Its chalices, jewelry and brooches give glimpses into Ireland’s distant and mysterious past.

Ireland’s Bronze Age gold — from centuries before Christ — dazzles visitors, making it clear civilization in Ireland goes way back.

This delicate little boat — modeled after the skin-hulled boats used by people here 2,000 years ago — was an offering, placed into a lake in hopes of gaining blessings from the gods.

The collection’s superstar is the Tara Brooch embellished with gold, enamel, and amber. This early Christian ornamental brooch is 1,200 years old. It’s decorated with extremely delicate filigree and Celtic-style figures. The chain on the right is connected to the ring by a snake biting the brooch. The two almost microscopic faces — etched into glass beads — are a marvel.

While the museum pieces are impressive, the place to commune with the ancient soul of Ireland is in its lush countryside. The peaceful Boyne river valley, just an hour’s drive north of Dublin, offers a world-class concentration of historical and spiritual sites.

In one day you can see the capital of ancient Irish kings; some of Ireland’s finest high crosses; crawl through burial mounds older than the pyramids; and be back in Dublin in time for dinner and a pub-crawl. And that’s precisely our plan.

The Hill of Tara was the most important center of political and religious power in pre-Christian Ireland. It was seat of the High Kings of Celtic Ireland.

Jean: And this is the place where you will find the soul of Ireland. Here on this Hill of Tara.

Local guide Jean Thornton is giving us a sample of Tara’s pre-historic, medieval, and modern history.

Rick: So for 5,000 years people have come here?
Jean: People have come to Tara indeed you can see they are they are still coming today. We know the Stone Age people were here, we know the Bronze Age people were here, we know the Iron Age people were here. This area was a very sacred place where ceremony and ritual took place. Now you know St. Patrick is our patron saint and the shamrock is a symbol of Ireland. We are told it all began here, on this Hill of Tara. Now in AD 432, Ireland was a pagan country. Now he came here to this Hill of Tara to ask the pagan King’s permission to spread Christianity.

Now, this is what St. Patrick used to explain Christianity to the high king. He used this as a symbol. There are three leaves and one stem on this little piece of shamrock — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — and that is how he explained the Trinity, the concept of Christianity, to this pagan king.

The symbolic importance of Tara continued into Ireland’s modern history. In 1843 Daniel O’Connell, the great champion of Irish Liberty, gathered several hundred thousand people here. Peacefully they demanded Irish home rule.

This ruined monastery, Monasterboice, is notable for its round tower — a standard feature in Ireland’s early Christian churches — and its ornately carved high crosses. The Cross of Murdock — named after an abbot who ran this place around the year 900 — is considered the finest high cross in all Ireland. These crosses were illustrated with Bible stories carved into the sandstone. Originally, they were brightly painted.

Imagine a thousand years ago, priests used these as visual aids as they taught the people.