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Report From Ireland

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January 7, 2011 by wcobserver

By Dr. Steve Worden

It all starts with waiting for the Bus Éireann, standing on the wrong side of the road, shoes sliding on the melting ice.  You hand the driver a handful of Euros and stumble to a seat in the back.

The bus rumbles along on the left side of the Dublin Road and you try not to flinch as trucks suddenly appear and roar past you on your right, careening in apparently the wrong direction.  You survey your fellow passengers, weary commuters and yawning college students, and settle back to study the passing fields and shops as you head into Dublin on a wintry, gloomy morning in Ireland.

If, when someone mentions Ireland, images come to mind of sprightly Irish Spring soap commercials, an insanely grinning derby-wearing, cereal-hawking leprechaun dancing about in a bright forest, or the sun-dappled pastures of Darby O’Gill and The Little People, you might be surprised to learn that Ireland is roughly as far north on the globe as is Edmonton, Alberta.

It’s probably the long, depressing, damp winters, only slightly moderated by ocean air currents, that drive its inhabitants to huddle around small coal fireplaces or to retreat to local pubs to warm themselves with “a few jars,” and console themselves in a somewhat determined effort at convivial social support. Those that have not left to go to “the States,” South Africa, or Australia, that is.

Anyway, you get off the bus on Dublin’s O’Connor Street, pull your coat a little more tightly about yourself, and walk across the River Liffey (River of Life) to where you can see the spire of Trinity College.  As you pass through the ancient wooden doors of the gate, you see a small sign directing you to the “The Book of Kells.”  You hurry through the broad quadrangle full of young students, all bundled up in knitted scarves, on their way to class.

You run up the steps of the Trinity College Library, buy a ticket in the gift store, and make your way through the gallery and into the Strong House.  There they lie, guarded by alert security people and spread out in a lamp-lit, temperature-controlled case in all their sumptuous glory.  You peer down at two volumes of what has been called “the masterpiece of Western Civilization” and “Ireland’s national treasure”: an illuminated manuscript containing the first four books of the New Testament.

What is staring back up at you from the case are two hand-lettered books ornamented with brilliantly exotic hand-painted panels and decorations created over 1200 years ago.

It was old when the Chinese invented gunpowder.  It was very old when Columbus discovered the New World.  It was ancient when the Great Hunger of the 1840s caused Ireland to lose 25% of its population.  Its gorgeously detailed, intricately designed, vividly painted creatures swirling around important letters survived Viking plundering, Norman invading, and Cromwell’s pillaging.

Monks living on Scottish Iona began the book before 800 AD.  They completed it after Vikings drove them inland to Kells, in Central Ireland. Hence, its name:  the Book of Kells.  The monks believed that one of the highest acts of worship was to glorify God by creating works of beauty, sometimes in architecture, or in this case, a book.  Although pillagers destroyed the monastery at Kells, leaving only a tall, round stone tower that still keeps lonely lookout for Vikings, the Book of Kells continues to inspire us.

Historians now believe that, in between Viking raids, teams of younger monks copied much of the manuscript in the monastery’s scriptorium.

After all, younger monks had the steady hands and good eyesight.  More gifted artists painstakingly created the brilliant red, green, and gold illuminations adorning remarkably vivid illustrations.

Much of the work must have been tedious at times.  Some of the younger monks’ comments to each other that were later painted over can still be made out in the margins:  “I’m hungry.” “I’m tired.” And, of course, “I’m cold.”

Is it not oddly appropriate that the ancient Book of Kells now resides in a setting of intermittently earnest, cold, tired, and yes, even bored, college students?

Although not threatened by Vikings, the students probably look out over a hostile terrain of high unemployment, competitive world labor markets, and declining natural resources, with much the same anxiety as earlier young monks looked out their round towers scanning for the Danes.

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