History of Kells

Kells, County Kilkenny

The village of Kells is situated in the South East of Ireland in County Kilkenny. On the banks of the Kings River, it boasts an ecletic mix of history from; medieval, to monastic, to milling. It was an important seat of power after the founding of the priory in 1193 and remained so for many years despite the priory being sacked and burned on a number of occassions.

Kells is mentioned in historical manuscripts as a large, thriving, market town. This led many historians to believe that the Burgess Court of Kells Priory (the large walled green area) was the site of the town as there are no other traces in the area. Recent discoveries made possible by aerial mapping/photography have shown this to be untrue.

We now know the location of this lost town and that it was much larger than Kells is today. Kells Priory would have been at the heart of medieval Kells and has remarkably survived up to this day substantially intact. It is one of the largest and most impressive monuments in Ireland yet on a given visit, you may have the entire priory all to yourself. The priory has been maintained by the OPW (Office of Public Works) and a large tower, the Prior’s Vill, has in recent times seen a great deal of restoration.

Kells Priory

Kells Priory is one of the most impressive Augustinian priories in Ireland. It is a unique example of a fortified monastery, combining elements of both religious architecture and late medieval military architecture. The priory was built in 1193 by Geoffrey Fitz Robert de Monte Morisco, Lord of the Cantred of Kenlis. Geoffrey brought four canons over from Bodim Priory in Cornwall to establish a community outside his borough of Kells. Perched on the slant of a hill, the entrance is well protected and originally had great, tall doors which would be closed against invaders by lookouts seated on the guarded walls above.

Initially the priory was half it’s current size but the Burgess Court was added on in the 15th and 16th Century. The Burgess Court is the only example of an upstanding late-medieval castellated enclosure at an Irish monastery and consists of high walls and a number of towers. It was added to ensure security for local villagers, livestock, other valuables and of course the priory itself. Amongst the ruins of the monastery, a tall structure stands out, The Prior’s Vill; a tall tower house which has undergone substantial restoration works.

The vastly battle-equipped towers and high, thick walls, would have been defended by a small scale army. The defences used in the Priory were strictly constructed for protection. They were neccessary defensive features due to rampant raiding of Leinster towns (including Callan, Kells and Kilkenny) by clans of Munster. These were raids rather than full out battles with the aim of stealing goods and valuables rather than taking over it’s territory. These raids would often leave a town crippled and without the neccessary resources to survive and trade with.

From archaeological investigations, we know that the Burgess Court evolved to be place thriving with trade. Among other things, there would have stood dairies, cowshed stables, workshops, a brewery, a mill, granaries and other farm-buildings. These no-longer stand except for the mill tower which is at the centre of the priory complex and beside where you pass from the Burgess Court to the monastery. The mill stream is unfortunately now dried up but it’s outline can be seen in the earth.

The priory would have remained a place of high importance until all abbeys were banned in the 15th Century. The priory ceased to be used as a religious sanctuary and instead took the use of a stables and byres (cowsheds).

St. Kieran’s Church

St Kieran’s is a small-scale church representing one of the oldest surviving structures in Kells and occupying one of the longest established sites in the village: historic records indicate that a pre-Norman Catholic church was built on the grounds prior to the establishment of Kells Priory in the 12th century. Following the dissolution of the priory by Henry VIII, in 1540, St. Kieran’s Church was re-adapted as a Church of Ireland place of worship until superseded in 1844. You can see a partial effigy in the wall at the front of St. Kieran’s.

Kilree Church & Round Tower

Kilree gets it’s name from Cill Rí or the church of the King. Legend has it that King Niall Caille (who drowned in the King’s River at Kells) is buried beneath the High Cross but we will never know for sure. The church of Kilree was built in 1050 AD. The church has an altar tomb which commerates two important members of the Comerforde Family of Danganmore. They lived close to an old church and graveyard there in a castle on what is now Forristals farm.

The inscription on the tomb translates as ‘Here lie Mr. Richard Comerford, formerly of Danganmore, and Johanna St. Ledger, his wife a matron pious, hospitable, and charitable to all, who died October 4, 1622’.

Motte & Bailey

To the rear of Delaneys Public house in Kells stands the ruins of a motte and bailey which was the original castle of Kells. A motte is a raised mound of earth with a bailey normally connected by a wooden bridge. The motte and bailey in Kells were carefully located on the flood plain of the Kings River which was an island at the time, helping to protect those who lived there and formed a natural moat around the building. It was probably built by Geoffrey FitzRobert an Anglo Norman in the 12th century around the same time as Kells Priory was founded. FitzRobert was a powerful lord who owned 40,000 acres at that time. In his charter to the burgess of Kells, William Fitz Geoffrey granted ‘common pasture of the small island which surrounds my castle at Kenlis (Kells) as far as the fosse of my castle’.

The motte would have contained a wooden tower, this is now destroyed and wasn’t replaced by a stone building as was the case on other sites. The bailey (outer boundary wall) in Kells originally had seven sides and some believe at one time, housed a College of Culdees or seminary for a monastic group. 40m of the bailey wall is still visible and extends to 15ft high in places. The wall is approx. 3 feet thick and has arched recesses. Other parts of the castle wall were taken down for building the road through Kells and the Church in the 1860’s.

The current main road cuts through the eastern side of the original mound and part of it can still be seen to the right of the scouts den. Local tradition holds that a chamber exists in the motte and that it’s connected to the priory buildings through an underground tunnel.

Medieval Kells

In medieval times, Kells would have been much, much bigger. It was a large market town, and would have been heavily reliant on Kells Priory. Through the use of aerial photography, we can examine the earthworks and see the outlines of the medieval town of Kells. It is all but gone but it’s mark on the landscape is still there to be seen. In the picture above, the priory (right) and the lost town (left) can be seen. It is easy to see the outline of what would have been the main street and how the lines that spur off from it would have been gardens (as can be seen at Rothe House, Kilkenny City) and slip streets. We would expect that there is a lot of information still locked away in the ground and that an archaeological investigation would yield many great finds. Hopefully this will one day happen.

Mullins Mill

The milling history of Kells stretches right back to it’s origins and this can be represented best at Mullins Mill. There has been a mill on the current site since the foundation of Kells. The original mill would have supported the Castle (Motte and Bailey) and priory. It was probably established in the 12 or 13th century. The current building dates from 1782 and was in operation until the 1960’s when the last Mullins miller died after a family tradition of 200 years milling in Kells. The Mullins were French Hugenots who escaped religious persecution prior to the French Revolution in 1789 and moved to Ireland carrying their rich milling tradition with them. Their name comes from the French word for Mill ‘Moulin’.

Hutchinson's Mill

Hutchinsons Mill was built around 1800. It’s a 13-bay, 5-storey mill that was also used to grind corn. The impressive large-scale mill forms an important element of the industrial heritage of Kells having historically supported much of the agricultural economy of the locality and the hinterlands.


We would like to thank Historic Kells for their permission to reproduce the above content.

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  • Great day great fun. Well done too all who took part and big well done to all who organised and helped out on the day. All the additional entertainment up at the mill was excellent.

    Anita Kirwan
  • One of the best obstacle course race in the country.. really enjoyed it.. can’t wait for next year..

    Paul Molloy
  • Absolutely brilliant! Great course! Thanks to all those who were stewards on the day especially those that pushed and pulled us over the walls!

    Lena Bolger
  • Absolutely fantastic event, it was my first obstacle run and I’m raring to go on the next one. Very well run, so well done to everyone involved.

    Dave Burke
  • Brilliant definitely be back again. From start to finish every steward was kind and helpful. Well done to all involved.

    Chris Clancy Wilson
  • Such friendly people on the course, well organised event, loved every minute of it. I would definitely do it again next year. Well done to all involved

    Mary Ní Ríain
  • Absolutely fantastic event…don’t know where to start with the praise. From start to finish no stone was left unturned. Excellent. Thoroughly enjoyed and will be back!!

    Olivia Cuddihy
  • Fantastic event in kells today, so well organized and managed.. well done to everyone involved, all the hard work that went into it for months beforehand…congrats on a great day.. looking forward to nxt year already

    Margaret Mccarthy
  • Fantastic event very well organised well done to everyone involved can’t wait to complete it next year already , didn get that far this year got injury 15 mins into it so gutted that happened..

    Niamh Mccormack

- 1.2160281265855 year ago

RT @LoveKilkenny: Planning a trip out to Kells in the coming days/weeks? Firstly, you should, it's gorgeous out there and now you have anot…
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- 1.4432648718924 year ago

RT @danesfortrun: Check out our #FaceBook #Competition. A #collaboration with our #neighbours following our #win #RunningInIreland #2017Awa…
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- 1.4432699771689 year ago

RT @RunningnIreland: WINNERS: I'm delighted to announce the winners of the 2017 Race Awards. Nominated and Voted by you, these really are…
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