intro - history - tour 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 - plans - photos - links - news    



The church is slightly shorter than the churches of most similarly sized Irish monasteries, but it appears long because the nave and presbytery are also slightly narrower than usual. The nave and presbytery together reach just under 50m and the transepts reach (
Figure 8). Many of the walls still stand close to their original height and only the aisle walls have been reduced to their foundations. None of Belfry Tower stands above 3.5m now and one side of the tower over the Crossing has collapsed. In partial compensation, recent excavations have revealed the foundations of the smaller thirteenth century church (Figure 8).
Some imagination is required to envisage the church in its former glory. No original windows survive but these would have been glazed and leaded, and some had stained glass in them. Walls were plastered and white-washed and decorated with brightly painted murals. The floors were surfaced in brightly coloured and patterned tiles. Plain wooden pews and choir stalls in the nave would have obscured the low walls built across the bays of the nave arcade.
The nave was separated from the crossing by the rood screen, a large partition with a door in the centre and a large crucifix over it. Altars in the nave on either side of the door in the rood screen served the parish of Kells. A second screen between the crossing and the presbytery, the pulpitum, isolated the east end for the canons. At its western end, the presbytery would have contained choir stalls and the high altar stood beneath the east window. The Lady Chapel was of course dominated by a statue of the Virgin.

The South Transept (40)

The short south transept was never enlarged during the later building phases. It extends slightly east of the central crossing as a shallow side chapel (
Figure 8). The chapel was entered through a broad arch (springers on the north side only remaining) rising from half-columns on either side (a modern wall partially fills the archway). Part of a window recess also survives in the chapel's east wall. The base of the night-stairs from the dorter is preserved against the south wall, descending eastwards. The crease of a pitched roof is, like those of the presbytery and the north transept, preserved on the face of the crossing tower above. The original opening into the crossing was built-up at some stage, leaving only a small door at the east end.

The Presbytery (41)

A low foundation wall about 5m into the presbytery (afso known as the chancef or the choir/quire) marks the original east end of the church (Figure 8). Today the greatly extended presbytery measures over 18m. Its walls rise to almost their full height, including part of a corbelled parapet above the Lady Chapel. The east end is externally supported at the corners by shallow stepped buttresses rising to a height of about 6m. Between them, part of the frame of an east window nearly 5m across survives in place and numerous fragments of the frame were recovered during excavations in 1973-4. The window is quite different from the early west windows in the nave and may be a later medieval insertion.
Five openings for windows are set high in the side walls of the presbytery, two in the north wall and three in the south wall. Where they are preserved in their entirety, west of Prior's Tower, they are 2.1m wide and 5m high, and they have segmental arches. The westernmost opening in the south wall has been built-up, but it retains part of its masonry frame as well as one of two mullions which once divided it into three lights.1 The segmental arch above the openings probably does not reflect the shape of the window. The simplicity of the frame and the remaining mullion suggest a simple grouping of three lancets, the centre lancet probably taller than those on either side.
The two tall lancets which now are only preserved as sandstone frames in the wall of Prior's Tower, are probably the original windows of the extended presbytery. Their presence indicates that the triple-lancets are later insertions. That the lancets survived until Prior's Tower was built suggests that the triple-lancets were only inserted at the time of tower building, in the fifteenth century. Though the triple-lancet is a style of window more commonly associated with an earlier period, its continued use in fifteenth century Ireland is well documented.
There are no features inside the presbytery except for three arched recesses which were niches for tombs
(42). Each once had slender decorative columns at both ends. Perhaps Hugh le Rous, second prior and first Anglo-Norman bishop of Ossory, was later re-interred in one of these tombs and another might have received the bones of Peter Barret, Bishop of Ferns and a former canon. A number of graves with stone linings were also found inserted beneath the presbytery floor during the 1973 excavation.
Fragments of original wall plaster with red and blue decorative colouring were discovered at the turn of the century and again
during the 1973 excavation. Many tile fragments, including those from the fifteenth century altar pavement, were also found in 1973-4.

(c) Daniel Tietzsch-Tyler