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Off the shelf — Alison Healy on the Book of Kells Experience

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It’s strictly forbidden to lay your hands on the Book of Kells, but I touched the illustrations and lived to tell the tale. How can you resist when the lavish and vivid artwork from the manuscript leaps across the walls and floors of the new immersive exhibition at Trinity College Dublin?

The Book of Kells Experience is a new way of bringing the 1,200-year-old book of gospels to life. An audio-visual display recreates the journey taken by the monks who saved it from Viking marauders in Iona by fleeing to Ireland in the early 800s. But first you can view the medieval book which sits safely under protective glass in a darkened room as hordes of visitors troop through.

It is, of course, a mandatory stop for every VIP visiting Ireland and, after almost 32 years at Trinity, Anne-Marie Diffley has met most of them. The visitor services manager has experienced every emotion except boredom in her job. Overwhelming joy, sheer terror, and mind-blowing excitement are all in a day’s work for the people protecting the Book of Kells.

She helped Joe Biden pick presents for grandchildren in the gift shop, she accompanied a “really charming” Bruce Springsteen and his daughter while they viewed the book, and she noticed how Hillary Clinton made a point of talking to all the serving staff when she visited.

And yes, the Obama children seemed to be a bit bored when they accompanied their mother to see the book, but not as bored as the president of a country that must remain nameless for diplomatic reasons. He was spectacularly uninterested in the whole thing, and when everyone was oohing and aahing at the entrance to the Long Room, he took a call on his mobile phone. “It’s not everyone’s cup of tea,” she says discreetly.

Indeed, you cannot please everyone. In the past, some tourists have given the Book of Kells a one-star review because it was behind glass, and they could only see two pages of the priceless tome. Did they want to flick through the pages as though it was a Smyth’s Toys catalogue? Perhaps they had hoped to borrow it, given that it was in a library?

But the book has contended with more than a few barbed words from tourists disappointed that they couldn’t post an Instagram of them looking pensive as they perused the gospels. You might have thought the Book of Kells was over the worst when it survived the perilous journey across the Irish Sea, but further disaster was to come when it was stolen in Kells in 1007. Two months and 20 nights later, it was recovered under a sod, minus its cover, according to the Annals of Ulster.

Eventually it ended up in Trinity College, safe at last. Or was it? Christopher de Hamel’s book, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, told how, in November 1874, the Provost decided to show the Book of Kells to some lady visitors. But his plan encountered one rather large snag – the book was nowhere to be found.

Newspapers at home and abroad quickly got wind of the disappearance of the national treasure and a spate of headlines whipped it into a crisis. The Provost was “astonished” that the book was missing, according to an Irish Times report at the time. The Birmingham Daily Post and Journal declared that the university was in despair. “One of its chief treasures is missing . . . the most perfect specimen of Irish art,” it wrote breathlessly.

And like the elusive book, the librarian John Adam Malet was nowhere to be found. A cloud of controversy already surrounded the librarian after some clashes with colleagues. And earlier that year, it had emerged that he had been an undischarged bankrupt when he was appointed to the post.

But, as Peter Fox’s history of Trinity College Library explains, the truth about the missing book had a simple explanation. In an impromptu bout of housekeeping, the librarian had taken the book to the British Museum for rebinding, without getting permission. Ructions ensued, although this being Trinity College, they were probably very refined ructions, involving some serious chin stroking and gentle tut-tutting.

Nevertheless, a reportedly furious college board demanded the book’s immediate return. But Mr Malet was in no rush. So unhurried was he that the board lost its patience and dispatched a Mr Nunn to London in the role of “confidential messenger” to retrieve the book. It was back in Dublin within a month, a Trinity College spokeswoman said when I asked about the incident. “These newspaper headlines were exaggerated for effect,” she said.

Newspapers were crafting exaggerated headlines for effect in 1874? I know, I can’t believe it either.

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