By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — The County Meath town of Kells has lost the first round of a battle to have a volume of the famous Book of Kells on show at a millennium exhibition later this year.
The board of Trinity College in Dublin has refused to lend it the priceless document.
The national treasure has been to the U.S., Britain and Australia, but it will not be crossing the county border to Kells for security and environmental reasons, the board decided.
The Book of Kells was to have been the centerpiece of an exhibition of local historical treasures to launch a £1 million heritage center in the town courthouse. Kells is now expected to step up the pressure on the university.
With the backing of the bishops of the two main faiths in the area and the local politicians, the campaign to get the book back is to be intensified.
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The local authorities in Kells, where the richly illuminated four Gospels were worked on 1,200 years ago when the town was a major monastic center, are appealing to Arts and Heritage Minister Sile de Valera to intervene and are questioning Trinity’s ownership of it.
The university has maintained there is no doubt about its ownership, saying a bishop of Meath, Henry Jones, gave it to the college in perpetuity in the 17th Century.
The richly illustrated text of what is regarded as one of the most beautiful books in the world, is Ireland’s top tourist attraction.
About 500,000 people visit it every year and the admission charges are a major source of funds for the college library.
Head librarian Bill Simpson said Trinity regretted having to decline the Kells request, but did so for security and environmental reasons.
"It was done for the best of motives," he said. "We had grave concerns as to whether the levels of security that such an important manuscript needs could be met at Kells."
In April, Simpson revealed the Gospel lent to the National Gallery in Canberra had suffered minor damage involving fragments of pigment measuring only millimeters.
Kells Urban District Council chairman Brian Reilly said he was disappointed because the town had addressed every concern and problem that Trinity had initially raised. It had also promised to meet any environmental demands that were necessary.
Reilly said Meath was well known for its fighting spirit and that it intends to see the matter out "to the bitter end."
Calling on the de Valera to back the Kells campaign, he said: "The whole question of the ownership of the book now must be raised. We feel that the book rightly belongs in Kells."