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|The cloister garth at the centre with its ambulatories (surrounding
covered alleys) occupy the angle between the nave and the south transept of the church. They were the preserve
of the canons, devoted to quiet study and prayer between periods of worship and work. Totally enclosed by the church
and the three claustral ranges, the cloister would have been a genuinely tranquil place.
The life of the priory was organized around the Office, a daily liturgical cycle also known as the Hours. The timetable of the Office varied with the varying length of the day throughout the year.
The day began at two o'clock with assembly in church for Vigils (or Nocturns) followed by Matins (shortened following the introduction of daily Eucharistic Mass). At dawn they reassembled for Lauds followed immediately, or at six o'clock if dawn was much earlier, by Prime (dropped after daily mass was introduced). Terce was at about nine o'clock. Noon Sext was followed by Eucharistic Mass and None (or Nones). At about half past four in the afternoon they came together again for Vespers. The Office concluded at about six o'clock with Compline after which they retired for the night. Most orders spent around four hours daily at worship but the Austin Rule allowed a less protracted daily Office.
The day included only one substantial meal, either before or after Vespers. The remainder of the day was divided between administrative duties, physical work (the only time most orders permitted monks to leave the cloister), study and prayer. The small numbers at Kells must have led to the canons spending more time than was usual on administrative and parochial duties. In the second half of the fifteenth century they also became so deeply embroiled in priory and diocesan politics that even worship suffered.
Cloister arcade and ambulatories (26)
The cloister garth is square with broad ambulatories around its four sides. Only the base of the walls separating garth and ambulatories survives today, with buttresses at the centre of each wall and in the four corners. The garth served as a vegetable or herb garden in some monasteries and as a cemetery in others and was probably not simply grassed over as in Figure 4.
A row of stone corbels preserved high on the walls of church and ranges where they rise to their original height supported a penthouse roof covering the ambulatories. A thin flagstone course above them marks the roof-line. The lower of two rows of square holes below the corbels was probably for roof-supporting beams. Both the west and north ambulatories have built-in stone benches along the length of their inside walls, where the canons could sit and study. Two niches for tombs are recessed into the church wall at the northeast corner of the cloister (42).
Recent excavations recovered many fragments of the arcade which separated the ambulatories from the cloister garth. Unlike most Irish cloister arcades it does not have 'dumb-bell' colonettes (two colonettes in one piece, joined by a narrow neck, like those in nearby Jerpoint). 'Dumb-bell' colonettes became the norm after 1390 so the arcade at Kells dates from earlier in the fourteenth century. Kells arcade had slender twin colonettes which supported trefoil (three-lobed) arches. The colonette bases and capitals were carved from limestone and had foliage and dogtooth ornament (rows of small pyramids of four petals). The arches were decorated with bowtell moulding, slender nearly cylindrical ribs around the edges.
Excavation in the ambulatories during 1972 identified a variable original surface, made up of hard lime-mortar in some places and of pebble cobbling in others.
The claustral ranges are a little better preserved than those around
the outer court, only the west range being reduced to its foundations. Each had two floors and both the east and
south ranges still rise to their full height in places, giving a good idea of their original appearance.
The East Range
The east range extends from the south transept of the church to the
reredorter. The ground floor was divided into a series of chambers whereas the dorter (dormitory) occupied the
whole 23m length of the upper floor.
Day-stairs and a warming room
The narrow chamber immediately south of the chapter house is most
likely the site of the day-stairs (29) which provided access to the dorter above. Besides this, it serves as a vestibule
for the room to the south.
(c) Daniel Tietzsch-Tyler