VANCOUVER—A rare copy of a world-famous medieval tome has resurfaced and is now on public display.
The Book of Kells, an elaborate 9th-century book of the Gospels written on calfskin by monks in Ireland, is considered that country’s greatest cultural treasure. The historic piece of art is displayed at Trinity College Dublin, but in 1989, 1,480 facsimiles were made and sent around the world.
One of the rare copies landed at the University of British Columbia. Another, to the private home of Vancouver resident Liam O’Loughlin.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said O’Loughlin. He had decided to buy a facsimile of the Book of Kells after two Irish friends told him about the opportunity in 1988 and intended to also buy a copy.
“As it turned out, I’m the only one who did! They chickened out,” laughed O’Loughlin, now 84. But his interest in the historical artifact, copied down to every hole and wrinkle, came from a much deeper place than the fleeting ideas of his friends.
“I felt very strongly about it, as I do with anything to do with Ireland,” he said during an interview at his home in Vancouver’s West Point Gray neighbourhood.
O’Loughlin’s parents were born in Ireland, but they actually met, married, and raised their three children in the late 1920s and the 1930s in Australia. O’Loughlin grew up in Sydney, but with a strong connection to the land of his parents.
“My dad was involved in the trouble time in Ireland in 1919-23,” the Irish War of Independence, he said. “He used to tell me about all that stuff.”
O’Loughlin remembers going on family drives in Sydney on Sunday afternoons. When the ride was over, his mother, Mary, and sisters would go inside the home, but O’Loughlin’s father, Patrick, would stay in the vehicle in the back lane and tell his son stories of Ireland.
“I’m probably more Irish than Australian,” he mused.
The first time his parents returned to their country was in 1961. Mary’s visit lasted until the bitter Irish winter kicked in, but Patrick insisted on staying a bit longer. Two weeks before his flight home, O’Loughlin’s father was on Dublin’s famous Grafton Street when he suffered a major stroke and died three days later.
“He always said he wanted to die in Ireland. I’m not sure he wanted to go at that point in time because he was only 59.” Patrick was buried two miles away from the place he was born, and the events only deepened O’Loughlin’s connection to the country.
“He was very staunchly Irish,” said O’Loughlin. “I’m sure if my dad had the opportunity, he probably would have” bought a copy of the Book of Kells.
Mary died in 1975. When the chance to order a facsimile of the Irish treasure, printed by fine art publishers in Switzerland, came up 13 years later, O’Loughlin jumped at the chance. He dedicated his copy to his parents.
“It’s amazing what they do. The artistry! It’s magnificent,” said O’Loughlin, who received copy #708 and stored it as a prized possession at home, to the joy of his wife, Joya.
“She wasn’t an artist or anything like that, she just had a love of anything that was antique. She was almost as Irish as I was!”
Joya purchased a suitable display table for the book and would turn one page every day, so they could savour all of the ancient illuminations from start to finish. She died of cancer four years ago, and O’Loughlin still keeps her photos and other items on display all around their home.
But in 2017, he decided it was time for his rare copy of the Book of Kells to be enjoyed by a wider audience. Just after Christmas, he donated it to the Archdiocese of Vancouver.
“In my understanding, there’s only one other copy in B.C., and that’s at the University of British Columbia. They used to have it on display,” but now anyone who wants to see it has to make an appointment.
O’Loughlin, a firm believer that this piece of art should be more widely viewed, gave it to the hub of Catholic operations in Vancouver: the John Paul II Pastoral Centre, where it is displayed in the front lobby.
“I wanted it to go somewhere where people would have an opportunity to see it and to be able to appreciate exactly what it is. You’re looking back 1,200 years! The mind boggles when you think about it.”