In Ireland, every day of the week, two pages of The Book of Kells are on public view in the library of Trinity College Dublin.
Copied by Irish monks in the eighth century, the lavishly illustrated volume is a collection of the gospels of the four Evangelists. You can go all the way to Dublin and barely see it—the crowds of tourists gathering around it in the darkened library at Trinity are that thick—or you can stay home in Tucson and have a private session with a facsimile, taking as much time as you want to look at every single one of its hundreds of pages.
It's a good way to kick off Tucson's Irish season. University of Arizona Special Collections owns a gorgeous reproduction, produced in Switzerland in 1990 under the supervision of Trinity curators.
"We purchased it in March 1990 for about $20,000," says Roger Myers, UA Special Collections associate librarian and archivist. "It's a limited edition, with only 1,480 copies worldwide."
The publisher, Faksimile Verlag Luzern, was so intent on making an exact copy that some pages have holes in them—just like the original—and the stitches on the aged, torn pages replicate those in the medieval volume. Best of all, the paintings appear in the glorious full color of the original.
Painted by monks with natural pigments in bright golds, blues, reds and greens, the book's Christian imagery blends imaginatively—and wittily—with Celtic motifs. Spirals and knots and animal heads dance around a Virgin and Child. A majestic portrait of John the Evangelist seated on a chair is surrounded by crosses filled with Celtic spirals.
"Somebody prepared the page; somebody did the illustrating; somebody did the lettering," Myers says. "The scribes who produced the book remained anonymous; it was all for their greater reward."
The monks copied out St. Jerome's Latin translation of the gospels in a tidy script called insular majuscule—typical of medieval Ireland and Scotland. Besides painting 10 full-page illustrations, the monks entertained themselves by ornamenting the pages of text with tiny paintings of birds and foxes cavorting in and out of the letters.
A painted gray animal foot, complete with toes, fills the space inside a capital letter U at the beginning of one sentence. Elsewhere, a monk's head is positioned above a capital M; his feet dangle below.
During most of the Middle Ages, the illuminated manuscript was housed in the chapel at a monastery at Kells in County Meath, north of contemporary Dublin. But it may have been begun by Irish monks on the island of Iona, off the Scottish coast, and carried to Ireland in 806 when the monks fled a Viking raid.
In subsequent years, "The book disappears a few times," Myers says. "The Vikings only wanted the jeweled casing. People would hide the book."
When Cromwell rampaged through Ireland in the 17th century, the Book of Kells was sent to Dublin for safekeeping. It's been at Trinity since 1661.
In Dublin, the book known in Irish as Leabhar Cheanannais is a major tourist attraction. And at the UA, "it's one of the most popular books here," Myers says. "People come from all over the state to see it."
The UA Library Special Collections, adjoining the Main Library, is free and open to the public, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the spring and fall semesters, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the summer. No appointment is necessary to view The Book of Kells, but you must present an ID; 621-6423; speccoll.library.arizona.edu.
A private viewing of the book is probably the quietist to way to celebrate the upcoming feast of St. Patrick's. In the coming weeks, you can find plenty of noisier activities: The Irish, of course, are known not only for their music, but for their prodigious conversational skills.
The most acclaimed Irish-influenced playwright alive has a play at the Beowulf Alley Theatre, 11 S. Sixth Ave. Born in London of Irish parents, the highly verbal Martin McDonagh spent summers with his grandparents in the West of Ireland, and his plays mix brilliant language with surreal renderings of Irish stereotypes. The Beauty Queen of Leenane is set in a real-life village in ruggedly beautiful Connemara, but its story is an over-the-top account of an epic struggle between a mother and daughter. Reviewer Nathan Christensen calls it a "violent Irish fairy tale." (See the review on Page 36.) Curtain is at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 13; $18 to $23; 882-0555; www.beowulfalley.org
Irish food usually gets a bad rap, but this Sunday, March 6, you can put that particular stereotype to the test. The annual Irish Cook-Off gets under way at 2 p.m. at Maynards Market and Kitchen, 400 N. Toole Ave. Competing chefs will produce corned beef, Irish stew, soda bread and desserts. Eaters can vote for the best, and listen to Irish music as they devour the goods. The $10 ticket benefits the Tucson St. Patrick's Day Parade and festival; 545-0577; www.maynardsmarket.com.
Stay downtown, and you can catch a concert of Irish traditional music by Scatter the Dust. Fiddler Sharon Goldwasser, of the now-defunct Round the House, is joined by Eric Wilson on uilleann pipes and Frank Daley on guitar, bodhrán and cittern. Guest artist Jamie O'Brien sings, and the Maguire Academy of Irish Dance provides traditional step-dancing; 7 p.m., Sunday, March 6, Beowulf Alley Theatre, 11 S. Sixth Ave.; $12 in advance; $15 at the door; 822-0555; www.beowulfalley.org.
Instead of its usual late-Sunday-morning slot, the 24th edition of the St. Patrick's Day Parade and Festival takes place late on Saturday, March 12, keying into downtown's Second Saturday. The festival starts at 3:30 p.m. at Armory Park, and the one-hour parade begins at 5:30 p.m. at 14th Street and Stone Avenue. The theme this year is Everyday Heroes, and Dr. Peter Rhee, University Medical Center's trauma chief, is the parade's grand marshal. Other first responders to the shootings of Jan. 8 will march, along with Tucson schoolteachers. The parade winds along Broadway Boulevard and Congress Street, returning to Armory Park via Sixth Ave. The festival continues with music, dance, kids' activities and Irish food.
Parade- and festival-goers are invited to contribute canned foods to the Community Food Bank in honor of the 1 million Irish who perished in the Great Hunger. A one-mile run precedes the parade. The cost for the run is $20 for ages 17 and younger; or $25 for 18 and older, plus one non-perishable food item; www.tucsonstpatricksday.com.
On St. Patrick's Day itself, Thursday, March 17, Irish music can be heard in multiple venues. Members of Scatter the Dust and Trim the Velvet join forces for what they're billing as the "sane" choice for the evening. Their no-green-beer concert of traditional Irish music goes from 7 to 9:30 p.m. at La Cocina at Old Town Artisans, 201 N Court Ave.; 622-0351. Scatter the Dust (minus Goldwasser) is up first, at 7 p.m. Trim the Velvet plays at 8 p.m.; no cover. The restaurant offers its regular food and bar service.
SLIDE-Ireland keeps the St. Patrick's celebration going, with a concert at 8 p.m., Saturday, March 19, at Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd. This young band from Ireland will make its first Arizona visit, delivering traditional music "with attitude," according to the Irish Times. Dancers from Tir Conaill Irish Dance Academy step lively. Advance tickets are $20 regular; $18 seniors; $3 more at the door; www.inconcerttucson.com.
Guitarist Christopher Dean wraps up Irish season with a concert billed as A Folk Music Journey—From Ireland to America. Dean's instrumentals on six- and 12-string guitars trace the Celtic routes of Appalachian folk music; $17; $19 at the door; 3 p.m., Sunday, March 20, at DesertView Performing Arts Center, 39900 Clubhouse Drive, SaddleBrooke, north of Tucson; 825-5318; saddlebrooketwo.com.