Kells in County Meath used to be an important monastic settlement during the middle ages and even today a number of surviving traces of this magnificent past can be found. None though is more obvious than the round tower of Kells, still claiming dominance, but from many angles obscured by more modern buildings.
Where to Find the Round Tower of Kells
The tower is situated in the churchyard of St Columba's Church at the highest point of the heritage town of Kells – wedged between busy roads and not easily found. If you are coming into Kells from Oldcastle, you'll be driving straight towards the round tower. If you are coming from any other direction the easiest would be to secure a parking space near SuperValu (next to the N3 heading out towards Virginia) and make your way past the Garda Station to St Columba's Church. Note that the churchyard has two gates – the one next to the round tower is often locked, whereas the main entrance is just around the corner off a small lane.
Please note that there is no access to the inside of the tower.
Size Isn't Everything, But Still ...
First of all, do try to take in both views of the tower – from the churchyard and then from the roadside. The latter view may not be as picturesque, but will show you the foundations. The difference in height here is no less than two metres!
As it stands today, the tower still is around 26 metres high – to this the missing conical cap would have to be added, bringing it up to “Irish Round Tower Standard”. The diameter at the base is 4.50 metres. The door would have been roughly 3.60 metres from the ground, but these days seems lower (the churchyard has “risen” over time).
Looking at the Round Tower of Kells
What more can be said about Kells' round tower than that it displays the “classic” measurements and lines of a round tower and thus is a prime example of this specific Irish building style? Even without its cap it dwarves everything around it, only its slenderness saving it from being oppressive. Together with the high crosses in the churchyard and St Colmcille's House, the oratory nearby, it represents the prototypical monastic settlement.
The workmanship is very high, not only in the almost perfect batter of the tower, getting slimmer in a near perfect pattern (or as perfect as the building material would allow). The stones themselves are worked to a high quality and the overall impression compares favourably with much more modern buildings. This is medieval Irish craftsmanship at its best.
Historians of architecture date the tower as being “from the 11th century”. This is supported by a mention of the round tower of Kells in some annals, with a date of 1076.
What Makes the Kells Round Tower Special?
Having said that it is no less than typical, at least one detail makes it far from “normal” - this round tower actually has five bell windows (four are the norm) on the uppermost floor! As this does seem to have been an original feature it is somehow puzzling, as the windows are commonly connected to the four compass directions. Slightly fanciful interpretations might suggest that County Meath (plus Westmeath) once was the “Fifth Province” of Ireland and the fifth window might have been a conscious nod to this ...
The other special feature of the Kells tower are the door jambs. They are decorated with two carvings, both very weathered. One can just about be identified to be a human head, the other seems to be nothing more than a pimple today. Similar carvings can be found on the door jambs of nearby Donaghmore. This similarity also suggests that the slightly projecting keystone above the door may have been installed with a view of carving a crucifix in it.
While visiting the round tower, take your time to inspect the much younger church tower in the churchyard – it is actually free-standing and only at a distance seems to be an integral part of St Columba's Church.