Recording the Sheelas

The sheela-na-gig is one of Ireland’s most mysterious historical artefacts, and one that has fascinated professionals and amateurs alike since the antiquarian days. What is a sheela-na-gig? It’s a carving of a female figure (mostly – there are also male figures, or seán-na-gigs), often crudely executed, with the focus on the hands reaching down to display the vulva. The female is often described as aged, or a ‘hag’ and the carvings have certain features that are common to many, such as staring eyes, ribs, stylised hair and breasts.

This is a romanesque arch at the Nuns’ Chapel in Clonmacnoise. Can you make out the tiny exhibitionist figure carved into one of the lozenges?

The carving of Sheelas probably started in the 12th century, as part of the corpus of fanciful or grotesque carvings that were used to decorate romanesque churches. Some are still found in romanesque contexts, especially outside of Ireland. In Ireland, two possible romanesque examples I have seen are at Liathmore and at the Nuns’ Chapel at Clonmacnoise. However, most Irish sheelas appear to have been either separated from their original locations or carved later, possibly up to the late 1500s. They are found on medieval churches, 17th century castles, the sides of old barns, at holy wells, and indeed in museums. Sheelas have been stolen, lost or destroyed and many of the existing sheelas are damaged.

Does this help? This is just a screen capture of one of DH_Age’s 3D renderings – view it properly online here. This may be a very early sheela or simply one of the grotesque figures associated with romanesque carvings. The tiny figure is grinning and has its legs over its head, exposing the vulva and anus

There are multiple theories as to what a sheela represents and how they were ‘used’ on structures. Were they intended to attract and ward off the evil eye? To serve as a warning against lust? To invoke the sacred feminine through the powerful image of the vulva? The hag, or cailleach, is a vibrant motif in Irish mythology as a form taken on occasion by a goddess. Several sheelas are associate with saints, and believed to be representations of them.

At St Gobnait’s Church in Ballyvourney it is customary to rub the sheela as part of the rounds

We have visited many sheelas (and one seán) and noted that it is always difficult to photograph them well. They are invariably out in the open and very worn. The details are difficult to discern and often obscured by lichen. Even where they are indoors, they show the signs of of exposure to the elements, so it is impossible to view them in what would have been their freshly-carved state. And of course they are deteriorating with every passing decade.

From Jack Roberts’ resource map (see below) – a collection of southwestern sheelas

Fortunately, there’s this great project out there run by DH_Age, or Digital Heritage Age, to record all the sheela-na-gigs using the latest 3D imaging technology. Hats off to Gary Dempsey and Orla Power for undertaking this incredibly important initiative with the support of The Heritage Council. They are working away on visiting all the Sheelas in Ireland and already have a substantial body of images to view online.

The Aghadoe sheela is damaged (the feet are broken off) and covered in patches of lichen

Take a look at their collection of Cork sheelas to see how a good 3D image can reveal the true nature of a carving. The Aghadoe (Co Cork) example is particularly striking to me, because we visited it recently and I found it quite hard to photograph. The 3D image shows the breasts, the ribs, how one arm goes behind the legs to display the vulva while the other holds something aloft, and the curious bumps on the wrists that defy interpretation.

The DH_Age’s 3D rendering of the Aghadoe Sheela: the clarity of detail is impressive, but view it online for the full effect

The Aghadoe Sheela-na-Gig has a complicated history of being placed in different locations but it is currently on the side of a dovecote of indeterminate date and looking like at any moment it will be covered by the thick growth of ivy all around it. There was a tower house here at one point, and the sheela was reported as ‘probably from the castle’ and as ‘lying beside it.’ It’s a little tricky to track down now, so it’s a big thrill to find it and to see that, for the moment at least, it’s in the relatively protected position of being cemented into the dovecote wall.

Jack Roberts’ sketch of the Aghadoe Sheela

Our old friend Jack Roberts has written extensively about sheela-na-gigs and has published a marvellous resource – a one page fold-out map of the Sheela-na-Gigs of Ireland. You can order this from Jack’s site. His illustrations, as usual, are superb, and his artist’s eye managed to make out much of the detail that my camera couldn’t catch.

The Aghadoe Sheela is currently cemented on to a dovecote

I will come back to sheela-na-gigs in a future post but for now, you can check out these resources, for Ireland and for Britain, to learn more.

Fading Treasures

For me, Ireland’s greatest treasures are those that are shy of publicity. There’s nothing more rewarding than turning off the beaten track and negotiating a narrow boreen with a lush growth of grass down the middle and brambles scratching your car on either side to find – often by chance – a stunning piece of medieval architecture, perhaps just the fragments of a ruin in a field, but revealing the beauty of a decorated doorway or an ornately carved corbel. Always these items are discernible but fading. Their splendour – and the exquisite craftsmanship that created them – are manifest. But there’s a melancholy in these finds: you see them, and wonder at them, yet you ask: how many more generations will be able to appreciate these works of ancient hands?

A classic case study would be the medieval high crosses. There are a remarkable number of these still intact on the island of Ireland, and many more fragmentary remains. We go out of our way to search for all these traces in our travels: some of those we have visited to date can be found through this link. It’s such a rich archive, and there are many more to be written up.

Above is St Cronan’s High Cross, Roscrea, Co Tipperary. As you can see, this example has been removed to an indoor location (Black Mills Heritage Centre), to protect it from further weather deterioration, although all the fine detail has been lost. In fact, this example has been assembled from sections of two different medieval crosses for purposes of display. I am an advocate of protecting these artefacts in this way, as acid rain and modern pollution seem to be accelerating the decay of the stone monuments. As in many cases with the protection measures, a high quality reproduction cross has been placed on the original site in the churchyard of St Cronan’s, just a few metres away. Have a look at my post on Monasterboice for a further discussion on the arguments for preservation of these monuments – and compare the condition of the as yet unprotected high crosses there with the wear and tear above.

While in Roscrea, you can take your own journey along a ‘secret track’ to find treasures. Visit Inis na mBeo (Island of the Living) at Monaincha, just a stone’s throw from the town: you are likely to be the only visitors there and can fully appreciate the solitude of the location while exploring a ruined Romanesque church and a reconstructed high cross (above). The monastic site was founded in the 6th century, and was then a true island, only accessible by boat; now you can walk to it. Not least of its attractions is the fact that you are immortal while you are there (so they say). Certainly, we came back alive, but I was concerned to read later that another tradition has it that when the now dry lough contained water, no woman or female animal could ever set foot in or cross it without dying instantly. (Below – looking along the remote trackway that takes you to the former Island of the Living at Monaincha).

Another ‘rescued’ high cross can be found quietly located in the far less remote (but still a little unsung) Cathedral of St Flannan in Killaloe, Co Clare. Megalithic Ireland has a good account of the history of this cross, which can be seen in the images below (while the header picture at the top of this post shows exquisitely carved detailing from a Romanesque doorway in the same Cathedral):

. . . The High Cross in St Flannan’s Cathedral was moved to Killaloe from Kilfenora in 1821. Originally the cross stood on the highest point south of Kilfenora Cathedral, and became known as the cross on the hill. Dr Richard Mant who was appointed Bishop of Killaloe and Kilfenora in 1820, was appalled by the condition and lack of respect shown for the antiquities in Kilfenora. The cross, which had fallen in 1820, was sent to the Bishop the following year. He had it erected on the grounds of his residence Clarisford Palace. The cross was moved at a later date by a Bishop Ludlow and moved back within the Palace grounds in 1850. In 1934 the cross fell again and this time broke into three pieces. It was re-erected inside the cathedral and fixed against the west gable. In 1998 the cross was repaired and erected as a free standing cross. It stands over four metres high and bears a figure of christ in the centre of the head . . .

The White Cross of St Tola (images below) may not be on everyone’s list of things to see at Dysert O’Dea in Co Clare (you are more likely to be channelled to Corofin), but it’s easy to visit from the better known Romanesque monastery ruins: the ecclesiastical centre was founded by the saint in the 8th century. Cromwell’s forces destroyed the monastery and demolished the cross, but the cross was repaired by Michael O’Dea in 1683. The Synge family restored the cross again in 1871, and in 1960 it was temporarily dismantled and shipped to Barcelona for an exhibition on Irish art.

Clonmacnoise is likely to be on everyone’s list, and rightly so. It was one of Europe’s most important religious centres in medieval times. Ireland’s Ancient East website describes it thus:

. . . The whole of this early Christian site – including ruins of a cathedral, seven churches (10th–13th century), two round towers, high crosses and the largest collection of early Christian grave slabs in Western Europe – is a vast story in stone that keeps alive the spirit of Ireland as a Land of Saints and Scholars . . .

There are three conserved high crosses at Clonmacnoise – all are placed inside the visitor centre, while quality replicas are positioned on the original sites: this is a good exemplar of how to look after ancient stones and, while perhaps the seasonal crowds can be off-putting, I believe it’s the only answer for maintaining access to and displaying this valuable history. Ancient East mentions the important grave slab collection: after the high crosses (and, of course, Romanesque architecture) I feel these are the most beautiful representations of art and craftsmanship that connect us across the centuries to our remarkably focussed forebears.

These are just a few examples of the many grave slabs which are fortunately conserved at Clonmacnoise. But there are many more monuments that are less fortunate, albeit they may enjoy some sort of state care. There are just not enough resources to look after the huge historical heritage of Ireland: we can only hope that, in time, they will all be fully appreciated and that not too many treasures will fade away.

Robert’s Favourite Posts

We had an unexpected – and unsolicited – accolade in the Irish Examiner last weekend! Tommy Barker wrote, in an article about Rossbrin (pictured above): “…The wonderful literary and visually rich website, http://www.roaringwaterjournal.com, by Rossbrin residents Robert Harris and Finola Finlay is a treasure, a sort of 21st century Robert Lloyd Praeger, online…” Of course, we went straight to our bookshelves to dip into our copy of Praeger’s The Way That I Went – An Irishman In Ireland, first published in 1937. Here’s an extract:

…At the southern end of this land of great mountain promontories, in West Cork, you find yourself in a little-known and tourist-free region of much charm. You stay on Sherkin Island (Inis Oircín, little pig’s island) or Cape Clear Island, at Schull (Scoil, a school) or far out at Crookhaven: and you walk and boat and fish and lounge and bathe, and enjoy the glorious air and sea; towns and trams and telephones seem like bad dreams, or like fugitive glimpses of an earlier and inferior existence. A meandering railway penetrates to Schull, and roads are as good as you could expect them to be in so lonely a country. All is furzy heath and rocky knolls, little fields and white cottages and illimitable sea, foam-rimmed where it meets the land, its horizon broken only by the fantastic fragment of rock crowned by a tall lighthouse which is the famous Fastnet…

Yes – that’s our West Cork alright (above is a view of the Mizen taken from Mount Gabriel). We hope that, over five years of writing this journal, we have indeed given a good account of this wonderful place which we are privileged to call ‘home’. Certainly, there is nowhere we would rather be. But Roaringwater Journal has not just been about West Cork: we have covered a fair bit of Irish culture and history as well. Last week’s post set out the six most popular articles that we have written in terms of readership numbers; today we are both reviewing our own personal favourites (see Finola’s here) and there is lots to choose from: 466 posts to date! All of them are listed by category in the Navigation pages.

Foremost in my own mind in terms of personal satisfaction is the series I wrote last year: Green & Silver. There have been nine posts in all, starting with my review of a book which I first read in 1963, when I won it as an essay-writing prize at school. The book, Green & Silver, told the story of a journey around the Irish canal system in 1946 (the year I was born), undertaken by an English engineer and writer, L T C ‘Tom’ Rolt and his wife, Angela. When I wrote the review 70 years had passed since the Rolts made that journey. Finola and I conceived the idea of retracing the steps of the Rolts, although not by boat: we drove and walked. It was to be an exercise in tracking the passing of time. We would find the location of every photograph that Angela Rolt had taken in 1946, and take a new one, so that we could compare the changes that had occurred over seven decades. There were many: the canals themselves, which were then near-derelict in places have now been well restored, and the island of Ireland has today an amazing but probably under-appreciated asset: a cross-border system of navigable waterways which connects Waterford, Limerick, Dublin, Belfast and Coleraine.

Canal port: Richmond Harbour, Co Longford. Upper picture taken by Angela Rolt in 1946; lower picture, the same view taken 70 years on

I have always had an obsession with wildlife, and one of my favourite posts summarises what wonderful natural things we have all around us here: The Wild  Side. We have written about the birds – choughs, eagles, sparrowhawks – and the little ones that come to our feeder and keep us entertained.

We will never forget our good friend Ferdia, who arrived on our doorstep on the day we moved into Nead an Iolair, and was a regular visitor (usually daily) over several years. Sadly, foxes don’t live for long in the wild, and he has now passed away. He was a very fine dog-fox and was undoubtedly the head of a large family. We hoped that one of his offspring might have taken his place on our terrace, but I suppose he just could never be replaced.

Of course, the pasture and coastline that surrounds us has fine creatures of the domesticated variety, too! (left and right below).

I have family roots in Cornwall and, during my time living here, I have become aware of many links between that westernmost peninsula of Britain and West Cork. In fact, those links go back into prehistory: in the Bronze Age – three and a half thousand years ago – copper was mined on the slopes of Mount Gabriel – a stone’s throw from where we live – and was mixed with tin from Cornwall to make the all-important ‘supermetal’ of Bronze. Another link which I was so pleased to find was that Cornwall’s Patron Saint – St Piran – was actually born and brought up on Cape Clear – the island we look out to across Roaringwater Bay. Read all about it here.

The little church at Perranzabuloe in Cornwall (now inundated by sand) marks the spot where St Ciarán from Cape Clear landed to start his mission. Because of a difference in the Irish and Cornish languages, he became known as St Piran over there. He lived to the age of 208!

Stirring up those links led to my life being taken over in the summer of this year by organising (together with Ann Davoren and the team at the West Cork Arts Centre) an exhibition of the work of three contemporary Cornish artists which was held in Uillinn, Skibbereen’s amazing new gallery. The exhibition ran with the title of West meets West and heralds future collaborations and visits to Cornwall by West Cork artists. This link opens the series of posts that report on all this.

My time here in West Cork – and in Ireland – has heightened my interest in all things medieval, particularly architecture. Finola has written a highly researched and detailed series on the Irish Romanesque style, and our travels to carry out this research have been enjoyable and instructive. I have taken a liking to High Crosses, most of them probably over a thousand years old. They are always found in the context of fascinating early ecclesiastical sites. If you want to know more, have a look at the posts: so far we have explored Moone (above), Durrow (below), Monasterboice, and Castledermot. There are many more to add to this list – and to keep us busy over the next few years.

That’s quite enough for one post! It would be possible to write several on how we have been inspired by our explorations in search of material. Somehow, though, our hearts always come back to our very own piece of Irish soil: Nead an Iolair (Nest of the Eagles). Here it is, and here are the eagles flying over it! You’ll find more about them here.

Adare Manor

When studying architecture (fifty years ago!) I had little time for what was then generally termed the Victorian Gothic style. It seemed to me derivative, dark and fussy. Now, half a century on, I am suddenly a convert – and all because of a visit we made to Adare Manor: surely one of Ireland’s leading five star hotels, but also the finest embodiment of Neo Gothic attributes that I have come across in any building to date.

The settlement of Adare, in County Limerick, is a bit of a traffic bottleneck waiting to be sorted out – by a much yearned-for bypass which is likely to take a few years to complete. Once in the village, however, you will find a magical and slightly surreal place with its clusters of picturesque thatched cottages, pubs and restaurants, art galleries, antiques vendors and the greatest concentration of fashion shops and boutiques outside of any city in Ireland (probably). But when it comes to hospitality and architecture, then Adare Manor itself beats all contenders.

From the superbly landscaped gardens (top – there are 840 sweeping acres on the estate), through to elegant interiors (the drawing-room, centre, is a prime example), the mansion is on a grand scale and very much reflects, today, the spirit in which it was reincarnated in the 1830s (lower – the Great Hall) by the splendidly monikered incumbents of that time: Windham Wyndham-Quin, 2nd Earl of Dunraven and Mount-Earl and his wife Lady Caroline Wyndham, heiress of Dunraven Castle, Glamorgan, Gloucestershire.

The Manor House as remodelled by the Second Earl is a riot (Dunraven ravens, above). Known to have always actively pursued outdoor life, riding, hunting and sports, it is said that Windham was laid low by an acute attack of gout. Lady Caroline encouraged him to channel his frustrated energies into a building project: to modernise and enlarge their modest Georgian residence. The Earl rose to the challenge and embraced the exuberance of the fashionable Gothic Revival style of architecture.

Adare House in the 18th century (top) and its transformation by the 2nd Earl (lower – a 19th century engraving). Clearly funds were not a problem, as a stone plaque on the south elevation attests (one of many texts embedded in the refurbishment of the fabric):

…This goodly house was erected by Windham Henry Earl of Dunraven and Caroline his Countess without borrowing selling or leaving a debt AD MDCCCL…

Inspiration for the architectural elements came from an early 19th century romantic revival of interest in all things medieval: particular a perception of the trappings of chivalry: knights in armour, courtly love, stately homes, heraldry, jousting and country pursuits (you’ll see in Finola’s post that we indulged in some of those!). As the Victorian era progressed in the British Islands, these ideals evolved through art – the high point being the Pre-Raphaelite movement – and literature, as espoused in Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, for example, with its interpretation and embellishments by Tennyson and Beardsely:

In respect of architecture, the 2nd Earl was ahead of his time in pursuing medieval themes and must, surely, have been endowed with a good sense of humour. Lady Caroline always loyally stated that all the ideas in the remodelled house were Windham’s; however, we know that the ‘Gothic architects’ James and George Pain were involved, as were Philip Charles Hardwick and Augustus Pugin, in a project that spanned three decades.

You can see from this one small corner of the Manor the richness and quantity of detailing that was incorporated into the architecture, both inside and out. The 2nd Earl must have dreamed up or approved of all the themes which are well worth studying at length. Here are only a few of the gargoyles which attracted our eyes:

The 1897 photograph, above, shows the carriages of the Duke and Duchess of York at the entrance to Adare Manor. The Duke became George V in 1910. Everyone who comes to the Manor has to enter through a magnificent ‘Romanesque’ doorway (eat your heart out, Finola!) – whether royalty, like the party above, or mere mortals like us, who treated ourselves to a stay to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Have a look at the detailing on the architraves:

The craftsmen stonemasons of Adare were kept very busy – and fully employed – throughout the building period, which encompassed the worst years of the Great Famine. As were the woodcarvers. One room in the Manor – the Long Gallery – spans the whole width of the house: 40m long and 8m high. It’s now the ‘informal’ dining room. It has a magnificent array of carving, some – the choir seats – brought in from Flanders and dating from the 17th century (see the enigmatic example in the first photograph below), but most purpose-made locally for the new Manor. Each one tells a story. We need to go back again and spend more time there (please) just to even get a glimpse of all of them. By the way, if you want to see real medieval carving, have a look at this post of mine, from the West meets West series.

Lady Caroline was just as industrious as the Earl in contributing to the project and in creating employment through the famine. She established a School of Needlework to develop marketable skills and opportunities for local women: some of the work of the School graces the walls of the Manor. In fact, the work of local craftspeople is prominent throughout the interior of the building. Below left is the Long Gallery, showing off decorative work on the ceiling, tapestries and stained glass. On the right is a carved stone figure that looks down on guests in the Great Hall.

All of the above is just a taster for the wealth of architectural delights that awaits future visitors to this hotel. We were among the first: the Manor re-opened after a full two-year refurbishment and extension the week before we took our stay there. We can confirm that the standard of this establishment is among the highest that we have come across in all our travels in Ireland. Every detail has been thought out: rooms are spacious and warm; beds are large and comfortable; all mod cons are incorporated – right down to a switch beside the bed which opens or closes the curtains! The food excels – and we have yet to sample the full restaurant facilities. Above all, the service is faultless, welcoming, attentive and personal. Amongst the new features is a ballroom, which would make the ultimate wedding venue, built in a style which fully compliments the character of the original architecture:

Flamboyant, exuberant, playful, grand… I will run out of epithets, and superlatives. I was just – delighted – by Adare Manor, and we feel privileged that we can still appreciate the aesthetic  wit which the Earl and Lady Caroline brought to the house, and which has been extended by subsequent generations: the last Wyndham-Quin to inhabit the property – the 7th Earl of Dunraven and Mount-Earl – moved out in 1982. Lady Caroline should have the last word: she wrote this in her 1856 book Memorials of Adare Manor

This charming spot was my home of unclouded happiness for forty years: may Heaven’s choicest blessings be poured with equal abundance on its present and future possessors!

Cormac’s Chapel: The Jewel in the Crown (Part 1)

Cormac’s Chapel on the hill of Cashel is the jewel in the crown of Irish Romanesque architecture. It also allows us to trace the influences and development of the Irish Romanesque style both to other examples inside Ireland and to models outside of Ireland. Now that the church has been cured of its chronic leakage problems and the scaffolding has been taken down, we can finally look at this wonderful building in its entirety. In doing so I rely heavily on the work of Prof Tadhg O’Keefe.*

On a walking tour of Bavaria a couple of years ago we visited this church, which turns out to have been connected with Cormac’s Chapel in a surprising way. This incredible portal is completely enclosed by a glass frame to protect it from the weather

We know from historical records exactly when Cormac’s Chapel was started (1127) and when it was consecrated (1134). This means that it was not the high point (that is, the latest and most elaborate development) of Irish Romanesque, but in fact quite early in the sequence of buildings that constitute the corpus of Irish Romanesque architecture. We can look back to the early churches we examined in Irish Romanesque – an Introduction for antecedents, but in many ways this is not a ‘typical’ Irish Romanesque structure. It is, in fact, more reliant for its influences on Anglo-Norman churches in England and Wales, and on the important ecclesiastical links between Cashel and modern-day Germany. O’Keefe puts it this way:

This is the one building of that era in Ireland which must surely belong in the European canon of great Romanesque architectural essays; with a floor area less than the size of a tennis court it is also one of the smallest.

With the scaffolding finally removed, we can see the full extent of the chapel

Who was Cormac? Cormac Mac Cárrthaig (McCarthy) was King of Munster from 1123 to 1127, when he was deposed and retired to be a monk in Lismore with St Malachy (the man credited with reforming Irish monasticism and inviting in the Cistercians). His throne was restored to him within a few months and in gratitude he commissioned a new chapel to be built on the Rock. While the Rock of Cashel had been gifted to the church previously, the chapel was probably intended to serve the purpose of a royal inauguration site, thus enhancing and securing Cormac’s power. It took some time to build – it was consecrated seven years later.

In this photograph, note particularly the high pitched roof and the tiny windows that are the only means of letting light in to the rooms above the chancel and above the nave. Note also how the later gothic cathedral impinges on the much smaller chapel

Let’s start on the outside. This is a nave and chancel church, with opposing doors on the north and south sides, twin square towers, steeply pitched stone roof, projecting altar bay, and extensive string coursing and blind arcading on the exterior walls. The pitched stone roof appears to be a typically Irish feature – similar examples have survived intact in St Kevin’s Kitchen in Glendalough, St Flannan’s Oratory in Killaloe, and in St Colmcille’s House in Kells (see Robert’s post A Medieval Feast), while we saw vestiges in Kilmalkedar a few months ago. In fact, the roof accommodates a second story, accessed via a stairway within the church. You can see the tiny round-headed windows that give light to this space on the wall above the chancel, and there are also rectangular windows right at the bottom on the roof where it meets the wall of the nave. It must have been an uncomfortable room, dark and damp, and it is hard to imagine it being used for daily activities (such as a Scriptorium, as the Kells room was traditionally thought to have been) so it has been suggested that it was a sacristy.

St Flannan’s Oratory in Killaloe, Co Clare. As in Cormac’s Chapel, the steeply pitched gable accommodated a room above the chancel, in this case lit by a single window in the end wall

But that pitched roof is where the older Irish influences stop – for the rest of the building we must look elsewhere.

Intriguing carvings on the portal of the Regensburg church

The two square towers are particularly interesting and have few parallels in Ireland. In fact, they are based on a church we happen to have visited two years ago in Regensburg (previously called Ratisbon) in Bavaria. Upon his restoration as King of Munster, Cormac received a visit from two Ratisbon monks, Isaac and Gervasius, accompanied by a carpenter (Conrad) and one other man.

Detail from the St Albert of Cashel window by Harry Clarke in the Honan Chapel, at University College, Cork: Albert preaching to the (red-haired) people of Ratisbon

The first evangelising monk from Cashel to establish links with Ratisbon had been St Albert, way back in the 700s and there had been strong connections ever since. The church, St James, in Regensburg, is called the Scots Church or Schottenkirche (Schotte was the term used for Irish) and while it has been altered over the centuries, the Romanesque core remains, along with the two flanking towers and a magnificent doorway in the north wall.

Conrad the Carpenter and his sidekick may well have put to use the knowledge they acquired building the Schottenkirche St Jakob in designing the two square towers at Cormac’s Chapel.

This photograph illustrates the altar projection on the east end of the chancel, as well as the two towers. Note the conical cap on the north tower, as in the Regensburg example

Opposing doors in the north and south walls are almost  unknown from older Irish contexts, as it  was customary to enter through the west end (opposite end to the altar). We saw opposing doors in Liathmore but O’Keefe feels they may be a bi-product of later reconstruction. There are reports of a  two-door church of St Brigid in Kildare, and such designs…

were presumably designed to accommodate different types of procession, sometimes simultaneously: royal and episcopal parties certainly entered through the large portal on the north side, while clerical concelebrants and choristers presumably entered through the smaller portal in the south wall.

And wonderful doors they are! (Look back at Irish Romanesque 2 – Doorways for more about doors in general.) The south door is now the main entrance for visitors but in fact is relatively modest with only two orders and a timpanum depicting a animal, probably a lion. The archivolts are chevroned but weathering has damaged much of the other carvings.

The cathedral wall cuts off part of this doorway, damaging the door and making photography difficult. This is a small open triangular space between the cathedral wall and the north door

The north door is larger and more elaborate, although it is incomplete, as the later gothic cathedral was built up against this section of the chapel. Above the door is a triangular pediment, decorated with vertical and horizontal chevroned lines and with rosettes.

From Irish Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil, Richard Lovett 1888

The tympanum has a curious decoration – it’s a centaur, of all things, shown hunting a large lion with a bow and arrow. This is not unknown in Romanesque carvings, which often feature animals from the medieval bestiary, but unusual enough.

As for the rest of the chapel, Prof O’Keefe points to the most likely influence being the Anglo-Norman churches of England and Wales, which provide exact parallels for many of the features, external and internal, that can be observed at Cormac’s Chapel. One feature he points to, for example, is the shallow projection, lit by lateral windows, at the far east end of the church – functioning as an extension of the chancel to contain the altar. Indeed, muses O’Keefe, as he ponders the particular mixture of Irish and non-Irish features visible in this building;

Walking around Cormac’s Chapel, outside and inside, one instantly recognizes that it has affinities in Britain. The blind arcading and the chevrons can be paralleled effortlessly in literally hundreds of English Romanesque contexts, from south Wales to East Anglia, and from Exeter to Dundee (Fig. 78). Moreover, their execution speaks not of Gaelic-Irish craftsmen who have learned these forms and how to carve them but of actual English Romanesque craftsmen in Cashel in the late 1120s and early 1130s. We cannot prove this, of course, but later Romanesque work in Ireland looks sufficiently different for us to be very confident that Anglo-Norman hands recreating an English Romanesque repertoire shaped large parts of Cormac’s Chapel.

Blind arcading, string courses, and carved roof corbels (see below) enliven the outside of the chapel. The two small windows in the roof allow light to the room above the nave

Next week we will go inside Cormac’s Chapel and discover yet more treasures from the 12th century. See you back here then.

*Prof O’Keefe’s book  is now out of print although second-hand copies can be found. I relied heavily on his manuscript, Romanesque Ireland: Architecture and Ideology in the Twelfth Century, which he has generously uploaded to Academia.

Irish Romanesque 2 – Doorways

In April I introduced you to the form of architecture known as Irish Romanesque – the dominant form of church architecture in Ireland in the 12th century. If you haven’t read that post already a quick glance over it will get you ready for this one. To continue the series, I’m going to look at one of the glories of the form – the elaborate doorways, often highly decorated, such as the one at Clonfert, above.

Our friends Brendan and Kathie are visiting at the moment and I pressed Brendan, an artist, into service, drawing the Killeshin doorway for me, so I could use his drawing to illustrate the main features of these doorways, and cover some basic vocabulary. (Thank you, Brendan!) Take a look at our joint effort – it will help as I talk about the doorways.*

This simple door is at Ardfert in Co Kerry. It only has one order and no decoration apart from a string of bosses above the arch. The romanesque elements at Ardfert are mixed with later gothic elements – fragments only of the 12th century buildings that once occupied the site. The doorway below is yet another example, built into the wall of the later cathedral building. The stone is soft and much weathered but the columns were once carved, and the door is flanked by blind arcading.

This doorway (below) at Ardmore in Waterford is no longer complete – while the jambs are there, the columns have disappeared, leaving only their capitals behind.

Killeshin in Co Laois, our model for the drawing, is a beautiful site. The early church retains antae on one side, and there are windows and vestiges of a stone roof reminiscent of the early medieval site we described at Kilmalkedar in Kerry.

The doorways has three orders and a pediment above. Many of the voussoirs are carved with intricate designs and the keystone features a carved head.

Not only do the Killeshin carvings include intricate geometric patterns and heads on the capitals, but there is writing memorialising the builder and the donor.

Not far from Killeshin is Freshford (Co Kilkenny) where a church still in use has incorporated a romanesque doorway from a 12th century church into a later building. Much modification has taken place – the round widow in the neo-romanesque style is an 18th century addition and the cross at the top of the pediment is also recent.

Note the inclined jambs – meaning the doorway tapers towards the top. The stone is soft and badly weathered, but some carvings are still discernible on the capitals. Interestingly, the jambs originally had niches for statuary, one example of which, two figures, remains,

Two of my personal favourites come now. The first in in Clare, at Dysert O’Dea, a fascinating multi-period site. The romanesque doorway is distinguished by its multiple carved heads on the voussoirs of the outermost archivolt of the arch.

The columns, capitals and inner archivolts are also highly decorated, but it’s those carved heads that never fail to capture the imagination. Not all are human, but of the ones that are I can’t help wondering who the models were – bishops? warriors? saints? kings? Or perhaps the carvers themselves?

Finally, the greatest doorway of all, widely considerered to be the masterpiece of romanesque architecture on Ireland – the great door of Clonfert cathedral in Co Galway. It’s the photograph I led off with, showing the whole doorway. Let’s take a look at some of the details.

The pediment is unusual in that it is filled with triangular reliefs, each having a carved head. Below that are blind arcades with yet more heads. Although weathered, each head has its own distinct character.

All seven orders of columns and capitals are decorated, as are the archivolts. In fact, it’s hard to find an inch on this doorway that isn’t intricately carved. There are fantastical creatures, animals, geometric and interlaced designs, and on the innermost jamb, two carved figures that are mostly likely 15th century additions, but no less compelling for that.

Romanesque carvings deserve a post to themselves one of these days, as does the iconic building of the period – and this time not just doorways but a complete building – Cormac’s Chapel at the Rock of Cashel. Look out for those posts in the future. Meanwhile, one last glimpse of some of columns and capitals from Clonfert…

*For a truly erudite treatment of Irish Romanesque, see the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland – its the Romanesque Encyclopaedia!