KELLS, an incorporated market and post-town, and a parish (formerly a parliamentary borough), in the barony of KELLS, county of MEATH, and province of LEINSTER, 8 miles (W. N. W.) from Navan, and 31 (N. W.) from Dublin, on the mail-coach road to Enniskillen; containing 6839 inhabitants, of which number, 4326 are in the town. This place, formerly called Kenlis, is of remote antiquity, and appears to have acquired, at a very early period, a considerable degree of importance. A monastery for Canons Regular was founded here, about the year 550, by St. Columb, on a site granted, it is said, by McKervaill, King of Ireland; and notwithstanding its repeated disasters by conflagration and the ravages of the Danes, it appears to have been the head of a small surrounding diocese, which subsequently merged into that of Meath. The monastery was restored, in 806, by Cellach, abbot of Iona, who had taken refuge here from the Norwegians; but it appears to have been never free from disasters of various kinds till after the arrival of the English. In 1152, the memorable synod of the Irish clergy, at which Cardinal Paparo distributed the four palls to the Archbishops, was assembled here; and in 1156, the whole town, with all its sacred edifices, was destroyed by fire. The monastery, after its restoration, was plundered in 1172, by Dermod Macmurrough, at the head of a party of English; but, in the year following, Hugh de Lacy bestowed on it such ample grants of land as to entitle him to be regarded as its second founder. In 1176, the town was plundered by some of the native septs, and about the same time a castle was erected for its defence against the O'Nials. Walter, son of Hugh de Lacy, in the reign of Richard I., founded a monastery for Crouched friars, and granted the inhabitants a charter confirming all their privileges, which he made equal to those of the men of Bristol. In addition to its castle, the town was strengthened with mural fortifications, rendered necessary from its situation on the frontier, and was considered one of the most important places in the county. Richard II., in 1388, confirmed the charter of the burgesses granted by Walter de Lacy, and from this period till the time of Henry VI. The town ranked with Trim and Athboy as one of the principal boroughs in Meath; but by repeated wars, and the subsequent dissolution of its richly endowed religious establishments, it materially declined in importance. It is pleasantly situated on the south-west bank of the river Blackwater, and in 1831 contained 734 houses, in general neatly built, though in some instances without much regularity. The approaches from Dublin and Drogheda are finely embellished with lofty trees, and the general appearance of the town is cheerful and prepossessing. A silk and cotton lace manufactory was established in 1824, and affords employment to about 100 females; the establishment has been patronised by her Majesty, Queen Adelaide, and three medals have been presented by the Dublin society to the proprietor; nearly the whole of the lace is sent to England. There are a brewery and a tannery in the town, and a considerable retail trade is carried on. The market is on Saturday, and is amply supplied with provisions of all kinds, oats, and meal, with yarn, coarse linens, and merchandise, and also with cattle, sheep, and hogs. Fairs are held under the charter on the Thursday before Shrove-Tuesday, the day before Ascension-day, Sept. 9th, and Oct. 16th, and two new fairs are held on July 16th and Nov. 17th. There is a chief constabulary police station. Under various charters, of which the last was granted by Jas. II., confirming all existing privileges, the corporation consists of a sovereign (who is a justice of the peace), two provosts, 24 burgesses, a recorder, prothonotary and town-clerk, two serjeants-at-mace, and other officers. The freedom is obtained only by favour. The borough sent members to the Irish parliament from the 2nd of Elizabeth till the Union, when it was disfranchised, and the £15,000 awarded as compensation was paid to Thomas, Earl of Bective. A court of record was held before the sovereign, with jurisdiction to the amount of 10 marks; but no proceedings have issued from it since 1819. The quarter sessions for the county are held here at Easter and Michaelmas, and petty sessions every week, at which the sovereign presides with the county magistrates in all cases arising within the borough. The sessions-house is a neat building, erected after a design by Mr. Johnston. The bridewell, or house of correction, for the county is a spacious and well-arranged building, adapted to the classification of prisoners.
The parish comprises 8124 statute acres, as applotted under the tithe act. The land is of very good quality; about three-fourths are meadow and pasture, and the remainder arable land in a good state of cultivation. About a mile from the town is Headfort, the noble mansion of the Marquess of Headfort, beautifully situated in a well-planted demesne of more than 1200 statute acres, intersected by the river Blackwater, which within the grounds expands into a fine lake. On the north side of the town is the handsome residence of the Archdeacon of Meath; and within the parish are Rockfield, the seat of R. Rothwell, Esq.; Drumbarrow, of H. Woodward, Esq.; and Cannonstown, of J. Rothwell, Esq. The living is a rectory, in the diocese of Meath, united from time immemorial to the chapelry of Duleen and the rectories of Rathboyne and Burry, constituting the union of Kells and the corps of the archdeaconry of Meath, in the alternate patronage of the Bishop and the Crown. The tithes of the parish amount to £553. 16. 6., and of the whole union to £1180. 16. 11. The glebe and other lands belonging to the archdeaconry comprise 2170¼ statute acres, let on lease and producing £464. 11. 1½., with renewal fines of £259. 7. 8½., making the gross revenue of the archdeaconry £1904. 15. 9. per annum, exclusively of the mensal lands, comprising 177½ acres occupied by him. The church, to the repairs of which the Ecclesiastical Commissioners have recently granted £104, is a spacious ancient structure, with a detached square tower on the north side, surmounted by a spire, and erected at the expense of Thomas, first Earl of Bective; on one of the faces of the tower are three busts sculptured in stone, representing a bishop and two other dignitaries, with an inscription recording the rebuilding of the church, in 1572, by Hugh Brady, Bishop of Meath: among others is a fine monument to Sir T. Taylor, first baronet of the Headfort family, and Anne, his wife. Near the church are the remains of an ancient round tower, about 90 feet high, unroofed, and having the entrance on the north; and in the churchyard is an ancient cross, richly decorated. In the R. C. divisions the parish is the head of a union or district, comprising also Girley and Burry, and containing two chapels, situated at Kells and Girley. The former is a spacious and handsome stone building, in the form of a T, with two towers, erected after a design by Mr. Johnston, in 1798, on ground given by the late Marquess of Headfort, who contributed liberally towards the building, and presented a painting of the Assumption, by Raphael, now over the altar. About 110 children are taught in the public schools of the parish, of which the parochial school for boys is supported by the Archdeacon of Meath, and that for girls by the Marquess of Headfort. A new national school upon a large scale is about to be built under the patronage of the Marquess; and there are eight private schools, in which are about 400 children, and a Sunday school. A savings' bank has been established, the deposits in which exceed £20,000. A bequest of £90 late currency was made by a member of the Garnett family, and £1000 by the late Mr. Dempsey, the former secured on land, and the latter invested in the funds; the produce is annually divided among the poor. Of the ancient abbey, scarcely any traces are now visible; and of the priory founded by Walter de Lacy, nothing but the cemetery remains. The castle occupied the area which was formerly the market-place; and in a contiguous street is a beautiful stone cross, elaborately enriched with sculptured figures and devices, and said to have been raised from the prostrate situation in which it was found by Dean Swift. There is a small stone-roofed cell, or chapel, called St. Columb Kill's house, of very great antiquity, near which is a very fine well named after that saint; and at Berford, a few miles distant, numerous fossil remains of the moose-deer were found within an artificial enclosure in a bog, and wholly beneath the surface. This place gives the inferior title of Baron Kenlis to the Marquess of Headfort.
For general information about Civil Registration (births, marriages and deaths) see the Civil Registration page.
Land and Property
The Return of Owners of Land in 1873 for Meath is available to browse.