Kells’ roots can be traced back to Viking raids on the Hebridean island of Iona in 802. The raids caused some of Iona’s monks to flee a monastery founded by St Colmcille, and they founded a new base at Kells shortly afterwards, the shape of which is still traced by the modern town.
There are two options on the heritage trail.
Route I, measuring 4.5km in length and taking 70 minutes to complete, takes in the main sites in the town - including the monastic area where you’ll find the famous Round Tower. Dating from 1076, it’s one of the finest structures of its kind in Ireland.
Route II stretches for 5.3km and takes in St. Colmcille’s Well, the People’s Park and the Ringfort as it follows the Oldcastle Road. It begins at the Town Hall and Tourist Information point.
Back in Kells town centre, the churchyard also contains three ornate stone crosses dating from the 9th Century. The eight-foot cross in Market Square may have marked the boundaries of the monastery, and is decorated with 30 panels of carved illustrations (including the Sacrifice of Isaac and the Crucifixion). Such illustrations were generally used for religious instruction, though this high cross found other uses in Kells – the damage around its base may be due to English soldiers sharpening their swords.
Elsewhere along the trail is St. Colmcille’s House, a 12th-century oratory similar to the one seen at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow. There are facsimiles on display in St. Columba's Church and the Town Hall.