It escaped the Vikings, but not tourism battle

Kells, in Ireland, seeks the return of the Book of Kells, a rare 9th century illuminated manuscript and popular tourist draw.

If you build it, they will come. At least, that's the theory of Kells, in County Meath in the northeast of Ireland, which has spent $1.5 million transforming its former courthouse into a modern heritage center. An exhibition detailing the town's history as a center of monastic learning is due to open next month. But something important is missing: the centerpiece.

Kells owes its renown to the Book of Kells, a 9th-century text considered to be one of the finest examples of an illuminated manuscript - handwritten works with often fancifully decorated letters. The priceless Latin manuscript is bound into four volumes, each representing one of the four gospels of the New Testament. It's believed the final page, which may have contained information on the scribes, disappeared when the book was stolen in 1006. The book was recovered months later, minus its wooden and metalwork covers.

For the past four centuries, the book has been the property of Trinity College in Dublin, where it has been a major tourist draw. More than 1 million people viewed the manuscript in 1999. New York has the Empire State Building, Paris the Eiffel Tower, and Dublin has the Book of Kells.

But echoing the sentiments of fellow residents, town clerk Bill Sweeney says, "The best place to see the Book of Kells ... is in Kells." Putting even one volume of the book on display would allow the town to tap into the lucrative tourism market - one of Ireland's top foreign-income earners, employing some 126,000 people in related jobs. But the campaign has a wider goal, according to Brian Reilly, chairman of the urban district council. "This is about more than money and expenditure," he says. "It is about highlighting the town as a treasury of heritage." Kells also has been lobbying institutions such as the Dublin-based Royal Irish Academy to loan works including a 6th-century manuscript and an 11th-century metal shrine. But everything hinges on Trinity College.

Community leaders are inspired by other disputes over heritage artifacts. In 1996, Britain returned to Scotland the Stone of Scone (Destiny) - on which Scottish kings were crowned until 1296. British monarch Edward I had placed it beneath the seat of his throne as a symbol of domination, and there it remained for centuries.

Greece has made repeated, if less successful, attempts to get the British Museum to hand over the Elgin marbles, sculptures taken from the Parthenon, the 5th-century temple of Athena in Athens.

Experts believe that the Kells manuscript first originated on the island of Iona off the coast of Scotland, where a monastery had been established by St. Columba. When the area was invaded by the Vikings in the 9th century, the community fled to Kells. On dissolution of the monastery in the 16th century, the Bishop of Meath donated the manuscript to the college.

An initial request for the work met with flat rejection. But the campaign has attracted heavyweight supporters, including former Prime Minister John Bruton and the current environment minister, Noel Dempsey. Both are residents of Meath. To ease concerns about turning over the rare book to a town of 4,000 people, Mr. Bruton has promised that, "the existing security system at Trinity College will be replicated in its entirety." Authorities in Kells say they have money to install a high-tech alarm system, protective display case, and a strongroom for after-hours storage. Under pressure, Trinity's provost promised to examine the proposal "in detail." A decision is expected soon.

While the book has only left the college four times, one of those was earlier this year, when the Gospel of St. Mark was part of an international exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. The decision provoked Bruton to comment, "Surely if a section of the Book of Kells can be sent 12,000 miles to Australia, then there is no logical reason why it cannot be sent 40 miles down the road to Kells."

Complicating the situation, the manuscript suffered minor damage during transit. Trinity College librarian Bill Simpson described the damage as a "slight pigment loss," but said it would result in a reexamination of college lending policy.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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