Antiquarians Loved Glendalough

Researching a post on Romanesque architecture at Glendalough, I have come across so many depictions of Glendalough by tourists and antiquarians that I thought I would start by sharing some of these with you, by way of a general introduction to this outstanding heritage site. Situated in the heart of the Wicklow Mountains, the ecclesiastical settlement of Glendalough occupies one of the most beautiful valleys in Ireland and this combination of wild scenery and picturesque ruins made it a favourite of antiquarians, travellers and illustrators.

This illustration from Halls Tour of Ireland, Vol II, published in the early 1840s, concentrates less on architectural accuracy and more on an impression of romantic picturesqueness, although it does get the main features more or less right

Another view, this time by Lovett from his Irish Pictures of 1888

This is also a highly significant archaeological and historical site. I’ve been reading a most lucid and illuminating guide to it and I highly recommend it – Glendalough by Christiaan Corlett. Chris is an archaeologist with the National Monument Service and nobody knows this place better than he. Of the valley he says, Is there anywhere else in the Christian world that can boast so many churches and related buildings dating from before the year 1200 that have remained so intact?

I’ve started this post with the most recent image, done in 2008 by our friend Brian Lalor, but in the style of an antiquarian drawing and showing the full scope of structures at Glendalough – eight churches and three towers – as the valley would have been seen in the thirteenth century. The round tower is the most prominent feature on the landscape – and the image that most visitors take away with them. It was, of course, originally a bell tower (although it may have served other functions) since the call to prayer was an important part of the monastic day. In the drawing directly above, done by W H Bartlett (see last week’s post about this wonderful illustrator) about the same time as the Hall’s Tour sketch, you can see that the round tower is roofless. Although once again Bartlett is careful to create a wildly romantic scene he also shows the principal structures, including the Gatehouse, which is pictured below as it is today.

Note the projections of the wall on either side of the arch – these features are known as antae and were typical of early church construction in Ireland. See my post Irish Romanesque – an Introduction for more on this topic

Of the two other bell towers, only the one atop St Kevin’s Church still exists. The other was similarly situated on Trinity Church but has since collapsed. But we do have evidence of it – see the final illustration in this post! Here we see why antiquarian drawings are so important. The ravages of time have taken their toll on the buildings and carvings at Glendalough: some have simply disintegrated away while some carvings recorded by these early illustrators have disappeared, presumably stolen.

St Kevin’s Church, the vestiges of St Ciaran’s Church (foreground), the Round Tower, and the east wall of the Cathedral

There’s another consideration too – the well-meaning rebuilding efforts of the Victorian period. As a consequence of the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland which came into effect 150 years ago on Jan 1, 1871, responsibility for all the ancient ecclesiastical sites transferred from the Church of Ireland to the state, and from there to the Office of Public Works. An urgent need to conserve ruinous buildings combined with an enthusiastic approach to ‘reconstruction’ and improvement led to many monuments all over Ireland getting a make-over. As one of Ireland’s premier tourist destinations, then and now, Glendalough became the focus of such activity.

A Petrie engraving from 1827

Perhaps the most visible change was to the round tower, which was blessed with a brand new conical cap. The work was done carefully, using stones found at the site, and there is ample evidence that this was the original shape of the roof.

Some of the other reconstruction efforts may be less accurate, perhaps based more on conjecture than on evidence, but at least in the case of Glendalough the antiquarian drawings could provide some clues as to the condition of the monuments within the last 100 years, if not in their original state.

The Priests’ House (above) is a case in point. It had almost totally collapsed. As Corlett says, what can be seen today is a reconstruction carried out in the 1870s from the stones that survived among the rubble. This has presented a lot of problems for our attempts to understand the original nature of function of this building.

The Board of Works focused on the drawings of Gabriel Beranger from 1779 and rebuilt the elaborate romanesque arch as Beranger had depicted it. It remains somewhat controversial since it is highly unusual for such a feature to be on the outside of a building, although Corlett points out that its function may be related to the veneration of relics inside the chapel by pilgrims mounting the step to gaze through the small window.

Next time, I will concentrate on the architecture of Glendalough. It dates mostly from the 12th century and illustrates gloriously the persistence of traditional building designs from the early Irish church as well as the introduction of the Romanesque style with its arches and carvings. Some of the best examples are those that fewest people visit, so you may have a couple of surprises in store.

Beranger’s painting of Glendalough, done in the 1770s and showing the bell tower on Trinity Church, now gone

Imbolc – How Our Ancestors Welcomed Spring

February 1 – we celebrate it as St Brigid’s day now, and support the call for making it a national holiday. But we have celebrated it in Ireland forever as Imbolc, the calendar marker that heralds the arrival of spring.

St Brigid by Harry Clarke in St Barrahane’s Church, Castletownshend

What follows was originally a Joint Post by Finola and Robert, written way back in 2013. We have edited it to update the links and added some new photographs and are republishing it now.

Archaeologists have long been aware of the astronomical siting of some Irish megalithic sites, such as at Newgrange, and Loughcrew Passage Graves in Co Meath and Drombeg Stone Circle in West Cork.

Inside Cairn T at Loughcrew

We have become intrigued by the work of Michael Wilson, a talented amateur astronomer who is singlehandedly documenting the astronomical siting of many monuments in this area. Recently he has turned his attention to prehistoric rock art. Mike’s website contains an astonishing body of work, meticulously researched and rigorously recorded, along with explanatory notes.

Michael Wilson and his Whole Horizon Analytical Technique (WHAT)

Michael Wilson carries out his Whole Horizon Analytical Technique (WHAT)

His thesis, in a nutshell, is that the builders and carvers of Neolithic and Bronze Age times were keen observers of the day and night skies and were intimately familiar with their surroundings. They situated their megaliths and rock art in places where the contours of the horizon allowed them to mark significant solar and lunar events, such as solstices, equinoxes, lunar settings and risings, and intermediate points. Thus, the sun at the winter solstice might rise at the highest point on a nearby mountain, or set in a deep notch in the hills at the spring equinox.

At Drombeg Stone Circle people gather on the winter solstice to watch the sun set over the recumbent stone

The solar calendar has four quarter days (the solstices and the equinoxes), four cross-quarter days (the half way points between the solstices and the equinoxes) and a further finer division into points half-way between the quarters and cross-quarters: an ancient 16 month calendar.

A few days ago [in 2013], Michael posted this:

Imbolc, the spring cross-quarter, is almost upon us. It will be on Feb 1st by the Gregorian calendar, where it is commonly known as St Bridget’s Day or Candlemas, but this is not the correct day. By day-count, the times to celebrate will be sunset on the 3rd and sunrise on the 4th. Astronomically, the sun will be exactly half-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox at about 16:13 GMT on Feb 3rd, while Feb 2nd is the day to see the sun rise and set at the prehistoric positions for marking this festival.

We set out for our favourite rock art site, Ballybane West, before dawn on Feb 2nd, feeling incredibly lucky to have a clear sky. As the sky brightened, and the nearby hills started to receive the sun’s rays, the carvings on the rock surface became clearly visible.

The sun is already hitting the high ground across the valley

Then, the sun rose, exactly where Michael’s predictions said it would, at the highest point of a rounded hill on the horizon. As people had been doing 4000 years ago in this exact spot, we marked the cross-quarter day of Imbolc – a time when the land starts to warm up, the first spring flowers appear, and the ewes are visibly pregnant.

The carvings light up in the dawn rays

The slanting rays of the rising sun provide perfect lighting for seeing rock art, which is often difficult to observe at other times

If Michael is correct, we have to incorporate a new possibility into our thinking about rock art. There have been indications before that the location of the carved rocks was significant. For example, there is often a view of water or of a significant mountain, some theorists have posited that they are ancient boundary markers, and some rock art sites are inter-visible with each other.

But this way of looking at rock art elevates the actual siting of the rock as most important, and allows us to view the carvings themselves as a way to indicate the purpose of the site – a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The motifs, though, will probably remain as enigmatic as ever.

 

Looking at Rossbrin

Last week we talked a little about the history of Rossbrin’s medieval castle, and the importance of this natural inlet as a historical centre of fishery, scholarship and European culture. Rossbrin Cove stills serves as an anchorage and refuge for sailing boats on the edge of Roaringwater Bay, but is now a peaceful haven, with only the sounds of the shore birds and slapping masts to lightly disturb an overriding tranquility that gives the place a very particular atmosphere. Our photograph (above) is taken on the boreen going to the castle; on the skyline in the centre is a wind turbine, and just below that is Nead an Iolair (Irish for Eagle’s Nest). The picture below shows the eagles wheeling over our house, with Rossbrin Castle and our view to the Cove beyond.

I have been exploring images of the Cove and its castle – some historic photographs and a few artists’ impressions. As it’s right on our doorstep, we have taken many pictures of Rossbrin during our years here. I am also sifting through a few of these.

Ten years ago, the west of Ireland experienced an exceptional snowfall, and above is a photograph taken by our near neighbour, Julian van Hasselt, before we arrived. Mostly, our weather is relatively mild due to the effects of the gulf stream on the south-western coast. The castle can clearly be seen here, beyond the fields of Castle Farm. This view of our house (below) was also taken in 2010 by our neighbours Dietrich and Hildegard Eckardt:

I showed a couple of early photographs of the castle last week. Here are two more taken before a substantial part of the ruined structure was toppled by a storm in the 1970s:

It’s good to see a bit of context, so here is another winter view of the castle on its rock with Castle Island behind. That island was also part of the O’Mahony territory. It is farmed by its present owner but no-one lives there now. You can make out the ruined castle on the island by the shore, just to the right of centre; it’s one of many that can be seen on, or close to, the shores of the Bay.

Let’s have a look at some of the art works that feature the Cove and the Castle. Jacqueline Stanley was one of many artists who was attracted to the beauty of West Cork. Now in her nineties, she moved from England to Ireland in the mid 1970s and purchased the old School House at Rossbrin as a country retreat: it has only recently changed hands.Here are two of her works, depicting Rossbrin. You can find more on her website.

I particularly like this view (above) which was painted by Jackie from the vantage point above the high road going down to the Cove, close to the remains of the copper mine at Ballycumisk. Last week I showed a painting by Geraldine van Hasselt, Julian’s mother, also from the 1970s. Every painting or photo is a historical document – and important to retain, in view of the fragile nature of the structure today.

Our friend Peter Mabey is an architect and artist. He has lived in West Cork for a long time: he and I were at college together in Kingston, Surrey, and were surprised to meet each other by chance in Skibbereen market a good few years ago now. Above is one of his attractive watercolours looking down towards the Cove. The vantage point looks remarkably like the one chosen by Jackie Stanley. Below is a drawing of Rossbrin from the monumental work The Castles of County Cork by the late James N Healy, published in 1988 by Mercier:

The ruin is a romantic reminder of past times, enhanced by the changing weather moods of Roaringwater Bay. This photograph, by Finola, emphasises the character of the place:

I can’t resist finishing this little two-part foray into the medieval remnants of our historically significant ‘centre of culture and learning’, which now languish on the edge of the waters below us with an artist whose work we admire: Peter Clarke, who writes and illustrates the Hikelines blog. His watercolour sketches are exquisite and always atmospheric. He has kindly allowed me to use his portrayal of Rossbrin Castle as my tailpiece. Thank you, Peter – and thank you to all the other artists who have been inspired by this remote and beautiful part of Ireland.

Experimental Archaeology – Oliver’s Cupmark

As a student of rock art I am often asked whether a cupmark, the central motif of all Irish rock art, could be just idle ‘doodling’. In response I have usually asserted that making a cupmark is quite a lot of work and therefore unlikely to be the result of simply whiling away time. But I must admit I based that answer on my own guesswork about of the time and difficulty involved, rather than on solid evidence. Well, no more! The scientific evidence is in – read on to see what we found.

Before he started – Oliver chose a piece of local sandstone and a variety of water-rolled cobbles as picks

First of all, let’s recap what a cupmark actually is. It’s a semi-hemispherical indentation on a rock surface which has been made by a human in the past. In Ireland it’s the most common motif found in prehistoric rock art, often on its own, and also associated with one or more concentric rings, lines extending from the cupmark through the rings, and other lines and grids. It’s usually circular in outline, sometimes perfectly so and sometimes rough and approximate. For a thorough discussion of Irish cupmarked stones, take a look at our post The Complex Cupmark, which has lots of illustrations of cupmarks, both on their own and with cup-and-ring marks. It’s a good introduction to what we are talking about and where they are sited in the Irish landscape.

Oliver found that the first part was the hardest – almost, he said, as if there was a skin you had to break through

Grand so – now you know all about cupmarks except for how, really, they were made. Our friend Oliver Nares became interested in this topic having read our blog posts, and decided that this question should be answered once and for all. In doing so, he has provided a real service to science.

Once through the ‘skin’ things went a little faster and the hammering action raised lots of dust. In some ethnographic studies of cultures that carve cupmarks it appeared that the dust was one of the desired outcomes and played a part in whatever rituals were involved

Believing that he should replicate as closely as possible local conditions, Oliver selected a piece of local sandstone as his base. The technique used to carve is often described as ‘picking’ – that is, repeated taps on the surface of the rock by a stone ‘pick’. No metal was used: the cupmark tradition, although it persisted in time well into the Bronze Age, started in the Neolithic before the invention of metal tools. Copper or bronze would not have been strong enough anyway.

Oliver started with a quartz pick, reasoning that, as one of the hardest local minerals, this would be the ideal stone. However, he soon realised that the quartz stones he could find were not large enough to make a serious impact on the sandstone surface.

He gathered a variety of water-rolled cobbles from a local beach and worked away until they became too chipped, or until they broke. In this way he went through at least a dozen cobbles, perhaps as many as twenty.

On one visit to watch progress I took a turn. What I found hard was maintaining the round shape – as you can see my hammering was turning Oliver’s lovely circle into an egg-shape

A pick is generally a pointed tool – a bit like a hammer but with a pointed tip that allows a geologist, say, to split rock to take samples. Modern picks are made of very hard steel. In practice, it is almost impossible to find a stone that will mirror the pointy-ness and the hardness of a steel pick. Oliver found that hammering or bashing with a cobble was actually the only way he could make headway on carving out the cupmark. Perhaps picking, in fact, is not quite the right was to describe the technique. 

Once the cupmark was as deep and round as he wished, his next step was to smoothen the inside. We have noted this as a feature of cupmarks – when you run your fingers around the inside they do feel more smooth than rough. In fact, a rough surface is often an indication that the ‘cupmark’ is actually a naturally occurring geological anomaly or solution pitting rather than the product of human labour.

At first Oliver used only water to grind away at the surface (above), but soon added beach sand (below) and saw an immediate improvement. His finished product – a cupmark 12cm across and 3.5 com deep – was nice and smooth inside. In terms of size, this cupmark falls well within the normal range of variation in the cupmarks we have seen. 

So, how much time did this actually take, and how much work was it? Oliver estimates that he put between 20 and 25 hours into making this cupmark. Despite being tall and strong, he couldn’t work on it for too long at a stretch because, as is obvious in the videos, repetitive strain and muscle damage was a real hazard.

The other thing that smoothing did was bring out the dark colour of the rock under the surface

What Oliver has shown is that nobody would carve a cupmark unless they were deeply motivated to do so. It must have been an important activity associated with some aspect of the culture that required the kind of labour involved. Perhaps long practice enabled prehistoric carvers to make a cupmark in less than the time that Oliver took but there’s no denying that even for an expert this is a significant undertaking.

Thank you, Oliver, for all that effort! And thank you too for the cupmarked stone itself, now occupying a space outside our door. it looks great – but more than that it is a constant reminder of both your generous donation of your time in the cause of science and the age-old tradition of cupmark carving and the mysteries that lie at its heart.

Ireland’s Santa Claus!

You may remember my excitement when – a few years ago now – I found out that the real St Valentine is interred in the Carmelite Church in Dublin. But here’s a palpable marvel: at Jerpoint, Co Kilkenny,  the bones of St Nicholas are reputed to be buried.  Yes – the Santa Claus St Nicholas! Tradition has it that a band of Irish Norman knights from Kilkenny went to the Holy Land to take part in the Crusades. As they headed home to Ireland, they ‘seized’ St Nicholas’ remains, bringing them back to Jerpoint, where the bones were buried – some say – under the floor of the Abbey (others say they repose nearby at the old church of St Nicholas).

We first visited Jerpoint back in 2015, on a trip that took us to County Meath where we explored the monastic city of Kells (the famed book was written and illustrated there) and also where we found the medieval image of Santa’s reindeer in the header of this post! It is carved on to the base of the town’s Market Cross. We also visited Kells Augustinian Priory – a different Kells but in County Kilkenny  – and Jerpoint Abbey itself, a Cistercian monastery rife with carved figures, some up to 900 years old. Look at the ‘Weepers’, above, carved by members of the O’Tunney family – sculptors from Callan who worked in the 15th and 16th centuries. These four represent saints and show how they were martyred: St Thomas with a lance (left), St Simon with a saw, St Bartholomew holding a skin (he was flayed to death) and St Paul with a sword.

The Book of Kells is worth more than a passing mention, especially as some commentators have likened the medieval carvings at Jerpoint and other contemporary monastic foundations in Ireland to ‘illuminated manuscripts cast in stone’, because of the richness of the characters, the decoration and the detail. The Book (that’s just one example of the incredibly detailed capitals on a single page, above) probably dates from the 8th or 9th centuries and may either have been written in its entirety in Kells, or started by St Columba’s community in Iona and completed in the Scriptorium in Kells. That building still exists! In fact it (or something very like it) is illustrated in the book. It’s known as St Colmcille’s House – we went to have a look at it, and were fortunate to have a tour by its guardian.

Here is the ancient stone roofed oratory of St Colmcille’s House (above), supposedly the place where the Book of Kells was written – or, perhaps, completed. The upper floor of the building has a small window oriented to focus sunlight on the writing table. St Colmcille’s bed was also kept here – a large and heavy stone slab – until it was stolen in the 1950s! A few hundred years earlier (in 1007)  the Book itself was stolen from Kells and eventually found in a nearby bog. It stayed in Kells until 1654, when it was sent to Dublin for safekeeping: it is now on permanent display in Trinity College.

(Above) another page from the Book of Kells, which may be an illustration of the Scriptorium at Kells, and – perhaps – a self-portrait of the writer: see him sitting in the doorway to the house working away with his quill pens. Back to the medieval feast at Jerpoint: the trio below, from Jerpoint, are St Catherine – with her wheel, Michael the Archangel and St Margaret of Antioch – who is conquering a Dragon.

At Jerpoint it’s not just the tombs and the Weepers which fascinate: there is a 15th century cloister which, in its heyday, displayed a riot of carvings both saintly and secular. Some of these are in situ; some are partially destroyed and others have been recovered during archaeological excavations, and placed on display in a little museum. Among them we identified knights, ladies, animals fantastic and real, and ‘ordinary folk’ – including a man with stomach ache!

‘The Bones of Santa Claus’ (Author Bill Watkins)

Where lie the bones of Santa Claus, to what holy spot each pilgrim draws
Which crypt conceals his pious remains, safe from the wild wind, snows and rains?

It’s not in Rome his body lies, or under Egypt’s azure skies
Constantinople or Madrid, his reliquary and bones are hid.

That saint protector of the child, whose relics pure lie undefiled
His casket safe within its shrine, where the shamrocks grow and rose entwine.

Devout wayfarer, cease your search, for in Kilkenny’s ancient church
Saint Nicholas’ sepulchre is found, enshrined in Ireland’s holy ground.

So traveller rest and pray a while, to the patron saint of orphaned child
Whose bones were brought to Ireland’s shore, safe from the Vandal, Hun and Moor.

Here lie the bones of Santa Claus, secure beneath these marble floors
So gentle pilgrim, hear the call, and may Saint Nicholas bless you all!

I hope this topical little foray into some of our archives demonstrates once more how easy it is to find history (and legend) wherever you go in this special land. In fact, it’s very difficult to travel far here without tripping over the past. It’s often fairly low-key. Most sites are protected as scheduled monuments; some are in the good care of the Office of Public Works and have guides and visitor centres. Many are remote, open to the wind, rain and sunshine and free for us all to visit: very often you will have the history all to yourself.

The Enigmatic Bullaun

Bullaun Stones abound in Ireland. They are usually found nowadays at sites with ecclesiastical connections, as in the example above at Maulinward, an ancient West Cork burial ground. This association does not reduce or affect their traditional uses – according to folk convention – to cure or to curse. The Irish word Bullán means ‘bowl’ – a water container. At pilgrimage sites, such as St Gobnait‘s, Ballyvourney (below), the bullaun stones often hold quartz fragments or smooth, rounded pebbles – perhaps incised with a cross – which are turned around each time a pattern or procession is completed.

The Maulinward example on the header picture shows how the tradition of making offerings at some of these locations continues to this day. At other sites, such as the one below, the hollowed-out stone filled with rainwater takes on the properties of a holy well, and is visited for cures or simply good fortune.

This example, outside the door of the church at Cill Lachtáin, Co Cork seems to have been mounted to perform as a holy water stoup: the plaque reads ” . . . This blessed font of Cill Lachtáin was standing in Cloch Aidhneach from 600AD to 1600AD . . . “ Others resemble fonts and are similarly associated with places of worship. Look at this striking stone from Timoleague Friary, whose purpose – according to tradition – is clearly stated:

In the sixth century, the Council of Tours ordered its ministers ” . . . to expel from the Church all those whom they may see performing before certain stones things which have no relation with the ceremonies of the Church . . . ”  Such an order doesn’t seem to have prevented folk customs of curing continuing into the twenty-first century.

The ongoing use of bullauns as fonts, stoops or holy wells does not explain their original purpose (which is probably pre-Christian: here’s an interesting conjectural world view of the phemomenon), and it’s quite likely that we will never fathom for sure what they were for. The example above, at Kilmalkedar, Co Kerry is as enigmatic as they will get, with its multiple ‘basins’ carved into a large earth-fast boulder isolated in the middle of a field, although not far from a remarkably complex ecclesiastical site. But the one I find the most fascinating can be found along the Priest’s Leap road, a mere few steps away from our own home in West Cork . . .

This rock outcrop – known locally as The Rolls of Butter – is large (I’m there to give it scale!) with seven scooped-out bullaun like basins and a somewhat phallic central upright stone. The basins each contain a large, smoothed pebble. Some folk traditions in Ireland identify such pebbles as ‘cursing stones’: “. . . if you wanted to put a curse on someone, you turned the stones anti-clockwise in the morning . . . ” However, the curse had to be ‘just’ otherwise it came back to curse you in the evening! The illustration below – of ‘cursing stones’ at Killinagh, Co Cavan was made by antiquarian W F Wakeman in 1875. He also noted the similar local folk traditions of these examples.

Many bullaun stones or stone groups around Ireland have been included in the National Monuments records, and number in the hundreds. Functional, magical, sinister? Who knows . . . Your guess is as good as anyone else’s. But one thing is certain – they are intriguing and mysterious. Keep a look out for them – as we do – in your travels around this land.

Note: this is a re-run of a post I published five years ago – but it’s been augmented, updated and – hopefully – improved!