Tim O’Neill is widely regarded as one of Ireland’s finest calligraphers. His artwork ranges from designs for British Airways planes in Celtic style, to designs for Irish postage stamps. A research fellow here at Trinity College, he’s also an authority on the Irish scribal tradition. Let’s imagine we are back in early Ireland, and you are a student learning to write in the scriptorium. Now, we don’t know for certain how they did this, but here’s a possibility. That they broke the alphabet down into its basic forms. And the first thing you learned to make was the key letter of the alphabet – you could call it the father of the alphabet – would be the letter I.
It was made very simply, across like this, and then down. And then you come to the mother letter of the alphabet, which is the letter O. It’s made in two parts, starting at the top and coming down like this, going back up, and coming down the other side. Always made in two parts. So with the I and the O, if you can master those, you have about one third of the letters of the alphabet. Because the rest of them, it’s almost like playing with LEGO. You’re putting little bits together.
For example, if you want to make a letter C, you start off exactly like O, and then you go back up and you come down the other side, and then you stop. And that becomes – start again like a C, and then you go out like this and it becomes an E. So then you get three letters at the one time. Similarly with the I. And then if you want to make a J, you just come a little bit below the line like this. And so that’s the way they learn the elements of putting them together. For us, nowadays, in about an hour or two, you can learn the whole 26 letters.
In the Book of Kells, and in all the early Irish manuscripts, you’ll find that there are basically two design elements. One is based on spirals, and the other is based on interlace. The spiral is a very old motif in the Irish tradition, goes back to the Neolithic, even. And it’s really a circular form, which goes around like the shell of a snail. So that’s a basic spiral. And then the next thing you can do with it is make it like in the shape of an S, or then possibly in the shape of a C. Now, the only other thing you can do with these spirals is link them up.
So if you’re trying to link them up – do your S like this – and you just make sure there’s enough room to come out, like this, and then down into the next one here. And then it comes out like this, and so on. Very, very simple shape and form. Now, when we come to the other, the interlace, there’s two ways of doing it. The simplest and most basic would be look at what is the simplest knot you can make. And it’s this one. Like this, like this, and then you link up those two. And you go double it up into a ribbon. Follow around the same way.
And then you go and you do over and under, like you can imagine you go along. Say it goes over this one, and then it gets to go under the next one, and then under this one, and then over here, again. And it always works out as over and under, like so. And these would’ve been used basically as a space filler. So if you can imagine the middle of a letter A, capital A here, into the space, they would put one of these interlaced patterns. And it could be very, very tiny. That’s a very, very absolute basic way. Now, the more complicated designs – apparently they used a grid, where they use dots.
And they went using the dots as guides. They were able to construct very, very elaborate patterns. The secret being that you never join the dots. You keep away from the dots, but you used them as guides. But if you join the dots, you can’t get it right, it won’t work out. But if you keep away from the dots, and use them to go around them, and use it as a basic pattern you can create very, very elaborate designs. And then, of course, what you’re working with is a ribbon. And within the ribbon itself, you can put a border on the ribbon, which makes it even – looks more complicated, but actually it’s very, very simple.
It’s just a multiplication of detail. It’s the secret of the decoration in Kells.