Irish Romanesque 3 – Monaincha, the Isle of the Living

There are places on this island that seep into your soul. You come away with a sense of having visited another world, of having passed through a portal and been lucky enough to come back to tell the tale. Such a place is Monaincha in Tipperary.

We made this trip because I was studying Irish Romanesque architecture and Monaincha is a fine example, but we had no real idea what to expect and it caught us off guard. An ancient signpost directed us down a rough track through the trees and then by foot across the fields. Our first glimpse was of what looked like an island in the middle of flat land.

We weren’t wrong – this had been an island, called Inchanambeo (Incha na mBeó) which translates as Island of the Living. Curious name, but of course, this being Ireland, there’s a story to it. Here it is from Dúchas, the School’s Folklore Collection, collected by a 12 year old in the 1930s:

On this lake were two islands; the Island of the living which was the smaller of the two was a place to where saints went who wanted to live alone – with God. It was called the Island of the Living because it was said that no one could die who went on this island. Of course this is not to say that their bodies could not die – it meant that their souls could not die, because Our Lord said “He that eateth of this bread shall live for ever”. No woman could go on the large island because she would die. This was often experimented, when men brought female animals on the island but they dropped dead the moment their feet touched the island.

Hmmm – as a woman, perhaps I did indeed go through some kind of portal, since I managed to live through the experience. That explains the Otherworldly feeling!

The top image and this one are from Ledwich’s Antiquities of Ireland, published in 1790. His map clearly shows that both islands were still there at that time, with a building still in place on the small island, while the first illustration shows the second building on the large island, no longer there

For this and more Duchas stories about Monaincha, go to this link on the Dúchas website. You will see that Cromwell sacked the monastery, that the woman who gave away the monks’ location was turned to stone along with her cake of bread, that the lake contains hidden treasure, that the water if used improperly would not boil, that many miracles were associated with the saints who lived on Monaincha, and that a white lady roamed the area until banished by a priest but not before she left her mark on him (read the story).

And here it is – the cake of bread that was turned to stone

One of those was St Canice, who came on retreat to this sacred spot:

He did not let anyone know where he was but he got letters and messages each day by means of the Garnawn Bawn. This was the White Horse which passed each day without a guide from Agherloe to Monahinche.

St Canice (second from right) in good company with Sts Patrick, Brigid and Eugene. He’s holding his cathedral. the window is in St Eugene’s church in Derry

But it was St Cronan who built the church:

St Cronan and his monks sought a place where they could build a residence. They proceeded to the parish of Bourney to a place called Bogawn  but looking towards Monahincha they saw the sun shining on it and so fixed the site of their future home on Monahincha. St Cronan lived for a long time in Monahincha and while he was there he prayed a great deal and performed many miracles.

For a more academic history of Monaincha we turn to the bible of all things Romanesque, the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture. From it we learn that:

Originally known as Inis Loch Cré, the name Mona Incha was only given to the site in the in later centuries. The earliest monastery here was founded by St Cainneach of Aghaboe in the 7thc as a hermitic settlement. Column Mac Fergus died on Inis CrÈ in 788 as did Elarius, anchorite and scribe, in 807. The latter was St Elair, or Hilary who was patron of the monastery in which the Culdees were instituted in around the 10thc. In 902 Flaithbertach, King of Cashel, came here on pilgrimage. An Augustinian community was established at Mona Incha during the mid-12thc.

In 1397 the monastery, containing a prior and eight canons, was taken under the Pope’s protection and released from paying Episcopal dues because of its extreme poverty. At about the same time the Book of Ballymote described Mona Incha as the 31st wonder of the world! In c.1485 the prior and convent finally moved to Holy Cross at Corbally, as the canons found the vapours from the marshes surrounding the island unhealthy. Following the Dissolution the church was used as a penal chapel. 

Much of this is based on the erudition and scholarship of Harold Leask, whose three volume book Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings has a section on Monaincha. He also authored, along with C MacNeil, an article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland which is a very comprehensive account of all that can be gleaned from annals and hagiographies of the history of Monaincha*.

Leask’s plan of the ruins at Monaincha

He cites Gerald Barry’s (better known as Giraldus Cambrensis) Topographia Hibernia (written in 1188), to show how ancient is the tradition of the Isle of the Living.

There is, he says, a lake in North Munster containing two islands, a greater and a less. The greater has a church of an ancient religious order and the less has a chapel served by a few celibates whom they call Celicolae or Colidei [Culdees – an ancient hermetic order]. No woman or animal of the female sex could enter the greater island without dying immediately. This has been put to the proof many times by means of dogs, cats, and other animals of that sex, which have often been brought to it as a test, and have died at once. As regards the birds of the district, it is wonderful how, when the males settle at random on the bushes of the islands the hen birds fly past and leave the males there and avoid that island like a plague, as if well aware of its natural power.  No one ever died or could die in the smaller island, whence it is called the Isle of the Living; yet from time to time persons are afflicted with deadly ailments and suffer agonies to their last breath. When they feel there is no longer any hope of really living, and by the increase of their disease they are in the end so distressed that they would rather dies outright than continue in living death, they have themselves brought at last in a boat to the greater island, and they give up the ghost as soon as they touch the land.

Leask and MacNeill go on to state that the place had been the site of pilgrimage formerly and some stations were still visible in 1848, and that the proprietor of the place had drained the lake in the 1820s or so and forbade all access to the church either for burial or pilgrimage, destroyed tombstones and erected round the church a circular mound, composed, the people say, of the mortal remains of the hundred generations deposited in that favourite churchyard.

What was once the larger island (there is no sign now of a second one) is still, as Leask described in the 1920s, a circular raised platform, due to the draining of the surrounding land, but there is still very much a sense of travelling across an open expanse to get to it. Marooned in the middle of a large field, the island is visible as a group of very tall trees and it’s not until you get close to it that you begin to see the structures.

As with many such sites in Ireland, the graveyard surrounding the ruined church, despite what Leask asserts, appears to be still intact. This adds to the reverential feeling of the place, as do the enormous trees, which must be hundreds of years old. A partly reconstructed high cross stands at the entrance – Robert wrote about this one in his post Fading Treasures.

The church is a Romanesque gem. (For more about Irish Romanesque architecture, I have provided a list of previous posts at the bottom of this post.) Dating to the twelfth century, it is a nave and chancel church, fairly typical of the time. there is a later addition on the north side, referred to as a sacristy in Leask’s plan. The sacristy is shown in the Ledwich drawing (first image at top of post), which dates from the 1790s.  As could be seen also in Ledwich’s site map, there was much more to the whole site than there is now.

The main door has three (or four, depending on who’s counting) orders, each one carved in the Romanesque fashion with chevrons, zigzags, pellets, floral motifs within lozenges, and some scrollwork. Although weathered, most of the the carvings are still clear to see and very attractive. There are hints of animal heads but they are difficult to discern.

One of the pleasure of Leask’s accounts is his wonderful line drawings. In his plan of the door M stands for ‘modern’ – the doorway was repaired, probably by the Office of Public Works, at some time before his visit

The door is much plainer on the inside, with only one order and no visible carvings. This is normal in Romanesque buildings – the difference between the elaborate entrance and the unadorned exit is often quite startling.

Above the door is a narrow window that was modified in the 15th century by adding an ogee head to the top of the frame

Inside, the nave has some fine windows, although not all of them bear scrutiny as original to the 12th century period of construction.

Only the smallest window is recognisably Romanesque

But it is the chancel arch that dominates the space. It separates the small chancel – the area where the altar would have been and mass would have been celebrated – from the nave where the monks and the faithful would have gathered.

Photograph taken in 2017 and drawing done in 1790. In Ledwich’s drawing the entry to the vaulted sacristy (probably 15th century) is on the left

The arch is characteristic – three orders with carvings on both the arch and on the jambs, which are slightly inclined. The capitals are scalloped. The decoration is similar to that on the main door, indicating it was probably carved at the same time and maybe by the same hands.

The experts at the Corpus compare the carvings to the Nun’s Chapel at Clonmacnoise and say, The squared patrae on the outer order of the doorway find an almost identical parallel at Clonfert (Galway), although at Clonfert the floral decoration of the motif does not vary. The closest comparisons to the chevron ornament are found at Killaloe and Tuamgraney (Clare). These comparisons suggest a construction date of c.1180, perhaps to coincide with the establishment of the Augustinian canons at the site.

Another view of the chancel arch, this time from Archiseek

The ground floor of the sacristy is vaulted and contains tombs. This one memorialises A Sincere Friend and An Humble Christian and dates from 1832

The vaulted sacristy was added in the 15th century (Leask comments on the inferiority of its construction) and several other later modifications are visible to windows. There are  now no other buildings on the island, and of course no trace of the second island or of any other structures that one would associate with a 12th century monastic settlement, such as a round tower or an enclosing circular wall.

No matter – what is there is magical. We spent so long at Monaincha that the light was declining as we were leaving. It added to the atmospheric feeling of the place, and a sense that we were travelling back to ordinary life from the storied Isle of the Living.

In this, I share the emotion with Harold Leask, whose love of this site shines out in his writing. In his book he states, Perhaps no other church ruin in Ireland is so attractive in site, interesting detail and appearance. . .  In the Architectural Notes that follow the JRSAI history he writes, I first saw it. . . upon the afternoon of a summer, its walls golden in the rays of the westering sun, the little green mound with its circling wall and groups of beech trees forming a perfect setting in the level bogland, bright with ragweed and and bordered in the distance by woods. The whole effect was very suggestive of a Petrie water-colour sketch, with just that delicacy and precision which is the great charm of his work.

Leask may have been thinking of this very sketch, which although it was done for Petrie was actually by our old friend George Victor Du Noyer. It is marked ‘unfinished’ and indeed the later sacristy is entirely missing

*McNeill, C., and Harold G. Leask. “Monaincha, Co. Tipperary. Historical Notes.” The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol. 10, no. 1, 1920, pp. 19–35. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25514550. Accessed 16 Feb. 2020

More about Irish Romanesque Architecture:

Irish Romanesque – an Introduction

Irish Romanesque 2 – Doorways

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

Cormac’s Chapel: The Jewel in the Crown (Part 2)

Off the M8 – Kilree Monastic Site

Off the M8: Ormond Castle – Fit for a Queen!

It will add an hour to your journey (plus whatever time you spend exploring) if you are on the M8 between Cork and Dublin. Well worth it to visit Ireland’s most splendid Tudor manor house. If you are coming from Cork, leave the M8 at Cahir and go straight across to Carrick-on-Suir. From there you can rejoin the motorway by going north to Urlingford. Vice-versa, of course, if your journey is in the other direction.

Thomas Butler, 10th Earl of Ormonde, 3rd Earl of Ossory, Viscount Thurles is the key player in our story. He grew up with Elizabeth, daughter of Ann Boleyn, whose paternal grandmother was of the Ormond dynasty in Ireland. It’s a bit confusing when researching Ormond history, as the ‘e’ on the end seems to have been added after 1628. Cousins Thomas and Elizabeth had a close friendship: some say that they were lovers. It’s certainly the case that In 1588 the Queen bestowed on Ormond what a poet described as áirdchéim Ridireacht Gáirtéir, ainm nár ghnáth é ar Éirionnach (“the high honour of the Knighthood of the Garter, a title unusual for an Irishman”). And Thomas built his new Tudor styled house on his estates at Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, as a gift for the Queen: a place for her to be royally entertained when she visited Ireland. (For more on the Butlers in Ireland, read this)

The evolution of a castle – 1. In 1328 the Ormond family stronghold was a fortified house and bawn accessed from the river via a watergate – seen in the foreground (and shown in the model, below, although from a later period). Note the walled garden and estate cottages, town walls and gate tower beyond.

The evolution of a castle – 2. By 1450 the castle has been extended with the addition of two large tower houses, the ruins of which are evident today (below).

The evolution of a castle – 3. This sketch shows more or less what you will see today: Thomas Butler’s 16th century Tudor mansion has been built in front of the tower houses, creating a courtyard behind. Fragments of the earlier structures remain on the river elevation (below).

The Tudor house was magnificent (and continues to be impressive in its partially restored state, maintained by the OPW). It was unlike anything else that had been seen in Ireland previously. Notable features include plaster ceilings and cornices, which are being faithfully restored over time. Because of the delicate nature of the fabric, photography is not permitted within the house at present. The view below is of the museum section, which contains some early features and artefacts.

These photographs (from the museum) show the house in its dilapidated condition prior to being taken over by the Office of Public Works in 1947. Full restoration is an ongoing ‘work in progress’. Although that progress might seem slow, it is being carried out to the highest standards, and the castle is a great historical asset for Ireland.

Another early archive photograph, showing the house prior to restoration

In fact the story behind Ormond Castle is a poignant one. Thomas Butler’s admiration for his childhood companion who became his Queen could well have been unrequited passion. Elizabeth planned to visit Thomas at Carrick-on-Suir on several occasions, but each time affairs of state detained her. She died in March 1603, having never visited Ireland, but leaving in her wake the dreadful effect of generations of martial law and embittered feelings which continued into modern times.

In the hallway of Ormond Castle the depictions of Thomas Ormond and Queen Elizabeth hang facing each other – what should we read into the symbolism of this? Perhaps the model in the museum (below) depicts the imagined meeting that Thomas had always hoped for?

Off the M8: Fethard Walled Town

Fethard is nestled snugly in Tipperary’s Golden Vale, famously rich agricultural land, and is nowadays well-known for raising legendary race horses. But it also happens to be the town in Ireland with the most intact set of medieval walls. The map above (taken from Fethard’s Conservation and Management Plan) shows how the town would have looked in the 1850s when George Victor du Noyer came through.

We drive the M8 often and we’re always looking for ways to vary the journey, so this post is part of our ‘Off the M8’ series. Fethard is an easy detour: if you’re heading north, leave the M8 at Exit 10 just after Cahir and re-join it at Horse and Jockey or at Urlingford. You’ll be travelling along lovely quiet roads parallel to the motorway and depending on how much time you spend in Fethard, the whole detour should add a couple of hours (or maybe three) to your journey.

Fethard also happens to have some lovely old shop fronts. This one dates to 1770

We started off at the visitor centre in the old Tholsel, or Town Hall. It’s been nicely restored and features an excellent audio-visual presentation, and upstairs many colourful explanatory panels. The staff was friendly and very informative, with an obvious passion for their town and its history.

From the Tholsel Visitor Centre, you look down over Trinity Church and the walls

The town was founded around 1200, and walled soon after, when Edward I granted the right to raise money through what was known as ‘murage grants’. This continued over the next couple of centuries, in fact most of the walls were built (or rebuilt) in the 15th century. We tend to think of town walls as primarily for defensive purposes, and indeed the town was attacked on more than one occasions. But walls were also important demarcations of commerce. The market was held within the walls and according to Tadhg O’Keefe (in the Irish Historic Towns Atlas):

The walls were a barrier through which those wishing to trade in Fethard had to enter, so they articulated, especially with guarded gateways, the differences of privilege and opportunity between those who lived within and those who entered from without.

There is only one gate left, the North Gate, which we actually didn’t see. But when our old friend Du Noyer came through in the 1850s there was still a gate at the west end of the town (below). It guarded the entrance at the bridge known as Madam’s Bridge and had what O’Keefe describes as a rare type of Gate incorporating a three story fifteenth century tower house.

Despite the walls, the town was attacked and burned on several occasion – but not (unlike so many Irish towns) by Cromwell! In fact, the town surrendered, under terms, and was spared the violent destruction that the Parliamentary army visited on so many other Irish towns. This doesn’t exactly make Cromwell popular in Fethard, in fact there is still a tradition in the town that ‘people will not go out the way that Cromwell came in’ so that funerals, for example, take a circuitous route to the cemetery to avoid retracing his tracks.

Like Youghal, the other Irish town with a significant extent of wall, there were tower houses along the wall, and within the town there were fortified town houses. Some are obvious and some are hidden behind more modern facades. Court Castle is one of the obvious ones, but the house next to it, known as the Watergate House, has a base batter that marks it out as fifteenth century (both images, below).

Within the walls and behind the Tholsel is Trinity Church. Because there is so much going on in and around it, I will quote the Buildings of Ireland summary in full:

Like the Town Hall and the Augustinian Abbey, the medieval parish church is a multi-period building of outstanding architectural, archaeological and historical importance. The church stands at the heart of the medieval walled town and the focus for the extraordinary number of late medieval structures arranged around the sides of the graveyard with rear entrances allowing direct access to the graveyard. The size and design of the church reflect Fethard’s prosperity in the medieval and early modern periods, the different types of windows, from different eras, emphasise the continuity of use. The impressive tower, that is highly visible for a considerable distance, is a particularly important and dramatic example of fifteenth-century craftsmanship, and is especially evocative of the medieval era as it stands picturesquely and appropriately inside the almost entirely intact medieval town wall and close to a impressively rare grouping of late medieval houses and almshouses. The interior has a finely crafted timber screen to the vestibule, and at the east end a stained-glass window with Eucharistic motifs, both highly decorative, and showing care and attention in the design as well as the execution. The recently timber roof to the nave, recently dated to of c.1489, is of exceptional importance as it is one of a small number of medieval roofs surviving in Ireland and is almost entirely intact.

Trinity, the graveyard and medieval church remains on the left and the town walls on the right

Unfortunately, the church itself was closed when we were there. It’s still very much in use, though, and there was some tidying up taking place in the graveyard. I’d like to go back for another poke around sometime.

Down by the Watergate we came across one of Fethard’s two Sheela-na-gigs. (See this post for more about the Sheelas). This one is typical – a female figure displaying her genitalia, but unusual in her emaciated form with ribs clearly shown, staring eyes and a grimace. We didn’t have time to see the other one, which means a) you (yes, you, Dear Reader) have to, and let us know and b) we have to go back.

We also met Fethard’s famous geese down here too, along with their owner. They are pets, he told us, but don’t go too near the male as he is guarding the female carefully at the moment as she is just taking a little break from sitting on eggs.

The walls are extensive, with long stretches very much intact. Edmund’s Castle and a mural tower known as Fethard Castle punctuate the wall on the river side.

I was fascinated by the flowers growing all over the walls. I expected Ivy-leaved Toadflax and Wallflowers, but it was fun to see Fairy Foxglove also: it’s an alpine plant and so it likes high rocky places. The only other place I have seen it here is on the Martello Tower at Illnacullen/Garnish Island, off Glengarriff.

Upper: Fethard Tower, with Trinity Church bell tower behind the wall. Lower: Fairy Foxglove growing high on the wall

Because it also happens to be the end wall of people’s gardens, the wall is breached here and there by entries to residences – not something I was expecting to see, and probably not something that would be allowed nowadays.

The wall is part of a living town, so it has not always been considered untouchable

We rounded out our visit with an excellent lunch at Emily’s Tea Room before resuming our journey. Fethard was a surprise – an amazingly intact slice of medieval history!

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Inspired by Stone

One of the many archaeological excitements in Ireland last summer was the discovery of a hitherto unknown passage grave with significant carvings beside Dowth Hall in the Bru na Boinne area of County Meath. These carvings are likely to date from around 5,500 years ago. In the picture above (courtesy of agriland.ie) from left to right are Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan; agri-technology company Devenish’s lead archaeologist Dr Cliodhna Ni Lionain; Devenish’s executive chairman Owen Brennan; and Professor Alice Stanton.

As you know, we are Rock Art addicts, so this week went along to this year’s Stone Symposium in Durrus, West Cork, to hear Cliodhna, above, give a fascinating illustrated talk on the finds at Dowth. Have a look at this post on the inaugural Stone Symposium from 2017. It’s great that the event is thriving and attracting interest and participants from far and wide.

Our attendance at the Symposium set me thinking about the whole subject of stone. It’s the most basic of creative materials, as relevant today in construction and art as it was to our Neolithic ancestors. Proleek Dolmen in County Louth (above) is an example of the early use of stone to create a structure which made a huge impact on the landscape. It’s a portal tomb over 3 metres high, and the supporting stones are around 2 metres high: the capstone is estimated to weigh 35 tons. It’s probably a more visually impressive structure today – in its ‘naked’ state – than it was when completed, as it is likely to have been covered over with a mound of earth and / or stones. There is folklore attached to this monument: it is known locally as the Giant’s Load, having been  carried to Ireland by a Scottish giant named Parrah Boug McShagean, who is said to be buried in the tomb or nearby.

Here’s another portal tomb – the largest in Europe – which I discussed in this post from last year. It’s known as Brownshill Dolmen, and is in County Carlow. Finola is in the picture to give the scale. This capstone is said to weigh 103 tons. The portal tombs demonstrate the use of stone in its rawest and most spectacular state: they are examples of Ireland’s earliest architecture, and we don’t really know what they were for. Perhaps it’s to do with status, either of the builders or of the chiefs or priests who might have been buried in them. They certainly make mighty marks on the landscape…

…As do all the other stone monuments which celebrate their makers – although perhaps they remain enigmatic to us today. Bronze Age stone circles have always fascinated, and at least we know that they have orientations which must have been significant. Drombeg in West Cork (above) is much visited at the winter solstice, when the path of the setting sun falls over the recumbent stone when observed through the two portal stones at the east side of the circle.

While the earliest dwellings of the inhabitants of Ireland thousands of years ago were probably constructed from organic materials  – earth, sticks and furze – stone began to play a part in architectural construction in Christian times. The remarkable Gallarus Oratory (above) on the Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry, was long thought to have dated from around the 8th century, although an early commentator – antiquarian George Petrie, writing in 1845 – suggested:

I am strongly inclined to believe that it may be even more ancient than the period assigned for the conversion of the Irish generally by their great apostle Patrick . . .

It’s a fascinating discussion to follow – Peter Harbison sets it out in detail here, and concludes that the Oratory could have been built as late as the 12th century, even after the great Romanesque flowering which included the building of monastic settlements and round towers.

The 12th century cathedral and (possibly earlier) round tower at Ardmore, County Waterford (above), should be a Mecca for stone enthusiasts because of its monumental architecture and carvings: St Declan founded the site in the 5th century, and his monastic cell survives. The Romanesque period in Ireland has many other examples of stone craftsmanship to show, proving that working with stone had become a high art in those medieval times. The examples below are from Killaloe Cathedral in County Clare.

One of the finest Romanesque sites is the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary. Finola has written in detail on this architectural gem here and here. Suffice it for me to illustrate only one of its treasures – Cormac’s tomb, a sarcophagus beautifully carved in the ‘Urnes’ style – a Scandinavian tradition of intertwined animals.

For centuries, stone has also been a ubiquitous utilitarian building material all over Ireland. ‘Castles’ or – more properly ‘Tower Houses’ – date from roughly 1400 to around 1650, and many remain in a ruined condition, particularly on the coastline of West Cork: we can see five of them from Nead an Iolair. Some have been restored in modern times, including Jeremy Irons’ Kilcoe Castle. The example below is from Conna, East Cork.

Ireland’s landscape is sculpted from stone. Drystone walling is an ancient tradition still practiced for dividing up land, and varies considerably in style regionally, reflecting the differing geology across the island. Two examples from the Beara Peninsula (below) show the essential geometry of field patterns which stone wall building has created over the centuries.

Stone has also long been a medium for communication. We have commemorated our ancestors for centuries with grave markers, often with elegantly carved lettering. Of the two examples below, the first is from Clonmacnoise, and is likely to be early medieval, while the second is an inscription from 1791.

This is just a brief history of our use of stone, dating over thousands of years: I have chosen many examples – almost at random – but hope that I have demonstrated how important it is to continue this ancient craft. The West Cork Stone Symposium is doing sterling work in promoting it today: long may this continue!

Patron Saint of Atheists?

This is the story of a man who became patron saint of two different places in Ireland – but is also considered the patron saint of atheists.

Wait – what? Atheists have a patron saint? Isn’t that like a complete oxymoron?

I think I’d better get on with the story. When we were in Lismore recently I visited the enormous and architecturally-interesting Catholic church called, (like the Church of Ireland Cathedral down the road) after St Carthage (AKA Mochuda or Mochua). In this church there is an impressive rose window, which I decided to feature on our Facebook page the other day. In doing so, I found I had to decipher the names of the saints, in an ancient script around their haloes. All of them were familiar to me except one – St Otteran. My quest to find out more about him led me to this story.

The Saints of Ireland, from top left, Patrick, Bridget, Declan, Dympna, Mochuda, Attracta, Otteran, Ita. I love that there is an equal number of male and female saints, even if the depiction is not very imaginative

Otteran is also spelled as Odhrán or Oran – I will use Oran for simplicity for the rest of this post. According to some accounts he was born in Britain, but his monastic career was first noted when he was an Abbot in Meath. However, he is revered in Tipperary where he established a monastic settlement and is honoured today as patron saint of the Silvermines Parish. There is a ruined church and a holy well dedicated to him in Latteragh, near Nenagh. See this lovely post about his church and holy well from our friend The Tipperary Antiquarian. He lived there for 40 years, therefore he must have been aged already when he went with St Columba (AKA Columcille) to Iona.

Photo courtesy of The Tipperary Antiquarian

St Columba voluntarily banished himself to Iona in 563 when he lost a judgement over a plagiarism incident. He took 12 disciples with him, Otteran being the oldest and therefore the first to die. 

Columba blesses Derry as he prepares to depart from Iona – from a large stained glass window in St Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry

Columba went to visit him on his sick bed and that night he had a dream of two warring angels – a good angel and a bad angel, fighting over Otteran’s soul. Sure enough, he died the next day, and was the first person to be buried on the island.

St Oran’s Cross, believed to be from the 8th century has recently been restored (story here)

A small church with a wonderful Romanesque doorway is dedicated to him, but more importantly, the graveyard that eventually grew up around it was called Reilig Oran.

This image, and the one below, has been borrowed  with thanks (I hope she doesn’t mind) from a lovely Blog called Flickering Lamps. This post is “Rèilig Odhrain, the ancient cemetery on the edge of the world”

Iona, located as it was on the extreme West coast of Scotland, was in those days a major stop along the marine highway. Irish, British, Scottish and Norse and Danish ships stopped. The Vikings did more than stop by – they sacked the monastery on two occasions, murdering the monks at a site afterwards called Martyr’s Bay.

Sráid nam Marbh is the Street of the Dead. It is a Medieval paved road (very rare) leading from the Bay of Martyrs (the Vikings did it) to the Reilig

As the fame of Columba and his monastic settlement grew, the Island acquired a mystical reputation as a preferred place to be buried. According to tradition, 48 kings are buried there, including MacBeth and Duncan –  kings of France, Scotland, Ireland and Norway.

This image, of grave slabs taken inside for safekeeping, is from the official Historic Environment Scotland page 

The Scots eventually surrendered the island to Magnus, King of Norway in 1098 and the Norse Vikings continued to transport their kings to Iona for burial at Reilig Odhráin from all over their territory.

Image courtesy of A Tribute to Alexander Ritchie 

And their territory was vast, and included several settlements in Ireland – Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick all started off as Viking sea-ports. In Waterford, honouring the burial place of their ancestors, the Vikings chose St Oran as the patron of their city. Thus, an Irish man who had never set foot in Waterford became one of its revered icons. Later, he also become patron of the diocese, along with Carthage of Lismore and of course St Declan of Ardmore. And don’t forget, he was already the Patron Saint of the Silvermines area in Tipperary.

Waterford celebrates its Viking and Norman heritage

But I said he is also the Patron Saint of Atheists – how could that have happened? Well, mainly it’s because there are two different stories about how he died on Iona, and it’s the second one that’s part of true Hebridean lore.

Image courtesy of A Tribute to Alexander Ritchie 

When Columba arrived he set about building a church. But the builders became very frustrated because every morning when they arrived on site what they had built the day before had been knocked down. Columba prayed a mighty prayer and the answer came to him – what was required was a ‘foundation sacrifice’ – that means a human had to be buried alive under the church. According to some accounts, Oran was in fact Columba’s son, and Columba felt, therefore, he would be the most powerful sacrifice. According to others, Oran actually stepped forward and offered himself, in the assurance that this guaranteed his place in heaven.

Image courtesy of St Barnabas Orthodox Mission Kenya

He was buried and the church walls stayed up. However, three days later, while the monks were at prayer in the church, he arose, poked his head up and announced that he had seen what was on the other side. God is not as we imagine him, he said, There is no hell, and, while he was at it, nothing like heaven either. St Columba was horrified and ordered that earth be heaped on him to keep him down. There is even a Hebridean saying Uir, Uir, air suil Odhrain! mun labhair e tuille comhraidh, which translates as Earth, earth on Oran’s eyes, lest he further blab. More succinctly, an old Irish saying, apparently, is to say Throw mud in the mouth of St. Oran, when somebody is uttering uncomfortable truths.

St Columba as a monk (right) along with Patrick and Bridget, from St Mary’s Catholic church in Ballinrobe. Columba is usually shown with a book, since he is so strongly associated with the story of the copied manuscript. This window is by the Harry Clarke Studios

St Oran’s body, according to tradition, is still under the foundations. Or maybe not – another version has it that Columba had him reburied in consecrated ground and that once that was done he troubled them no more with his blabbing of the secrets of the next world. That consecrated ground became St Oran’s Graveyard – this ensuring his immortality in Waterford at least, if not in heaven.

Images from the Kickstarter Page (this one and the final GIF) for the movie The Grave of St Oran by Jim Blatt, based on Neil Gaiman’s poem

It turns out I am far from the only one who finds this tale, and its various nuances fascinating. None other than Neil Gaiman has written a poem, In Reilig Oran.

Neil Gaiman’s poem – a signed print is available here

And now that poem has been made into a stop-motion animation by Jim Batt, called The Grave of St Oran. The kickstarter campaign page will give you an idea what it will be like – and apparently it’s finished but I can find out nothing more about it. So look out for it coming at some point to a screen near you. This GIF is offered as a teaser on their project page (see link above). It depicts St Oran gazing out to sea – perhaps he is contemplating the decision he is about to make.

There are so many layers in this story, so many familiar tropes of mythology, heroic tales and biblical stories, but I don’t believe I have ever heard one quite like this before. Pointing out that none of this story made it into the Life of St Columba by Adamnán, The Blogger Nihil Obstat puts it this way in his post The Silencing of St OranThe moral of this story is the same 15 centuries later. If even the most devoted follower of the faith reveals a revelation not in support of the preached version they are quickly silenced. And saints have their ugly or suspect  actions edited out of their official biographies.

A high status individual is buried in St Oran’s Graveyard

Among the many feelings it’s left me with, though, is a strong desire to visit Iona. Future post!

Cormac’s Chapel: The Jewel in the Crown (Part 2)

I said I’d be back in a week and it’s been a year! I’ve been working my way through a series of posts on Irish Romanesque architecture (see the bottom of this post for the list so far) and last October I wrote the first of a two part post on Cormac’s Chapel, the Romanesque jewel on the Hill of Cashel in Co Tipperary. Since this is part 2 (unless you’ve read it before and have an amazing memory) go back there now and read up on the Chapel and its history, as well as my detailed description of the exterior.

Illustration by W H Bartlett from The Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland by Joseph Coyne and Nathaniel Willis

Right, done that? Great, then come on inside. I was fortunate to visit Cashel last year, when the Chapel was open and I could spend as long as I liked taking photographs inside. This followed many years when it was closed – a conservation measure necessary to address the dampness which plagues stone-roofed buildings. During this open period it was noted that the number of visitors, all emitting carbon dioxide, was having a detrimental effect on the interior, so now it is only accessible during a guided tour and for a limited stay inside. Hopefully, this post will help you see things that you might miss during a short visit, or even items that those excellent guides might not cover.

The interior, looking towards the chancel

This was a royal chapel, used for high ceremonies and built to enhance the prestige of King Cormac. When we think of such edifices, our mind probably pictures a cathedral, but large churches were still in the future in Ireland in the first half of the twelfth century and Cormac’s chapel, although small by European standards, was not outside the normal dimensions of Irish churches of the period. What was important was not its size, but the extraordinary attention to detail and decoration that went into its construction. Moreover, it had a second storey, under the steeply pitched roof. Although we are not completely sure what the functions were of that upper level, it effectively doubled the space available to its users.

The north wall – note the blind arcading and barrel vaulted celing with parallel ribs, and the ornate door that leads to the second storey

Inside, the chapel is a nave and chancel structure, common among Romanesque churches, the only difference being the altar projection at the end of the chancel. The upstairs is accessed through the two square towers (see Part 1) and an ornate door in the north wall opens to a spiral staircase leading up to that floor (not accessible to the public). The size of this door and its elaborately carved orders speaks to its importance in some ceremonial way – O’Keefe says it tempts us to imagine the enactment inside Cormac’s Chapel of some ritual of procession involving relics.* In contrast, the north and south doors, the main entries to the nave, which are ornate on the outside, are relatively plain on the inside.

The nave is barrel vaulted, with parallel ribs running across the ceiling. The walls have blind arcades up to half their height, topped by a string course and a series of columns to support the ribbing. The blind arcade arches are carved with chevrons (above) while the columns between the arcades have irregular checkerboards of chevrons, lozenges and petals (below). The west wall has three windows on its upper stage, although only the middle one admits light now.

Beneath those three windows is a fragment of a large stone box, often described as a sarcophagus, wonderfully carved in the ‘Urnes’ style – a Scandinavian tradition of intertwined animals. Tradition has it that this is the tomb of Cormac himself, and certainly this carving style, although very different from what is found in the rest of the chapel, is probably contemporaneous with it. It was moved to the chapel from the later, Gothic, cathedral, where it was found. Whatever its use, it is a magnificent artefact, the work of a master craftsman.

At the east end of the nave is the chancel arch with four orders. The archivolts of the first order mainly consist of carved heads, each individual and striking. Some are more time-worn than others, but the features can be clearly discerned in many.

The chancel is also rib-vaulted, like the nave, but this time the ribs intersect at a central point, rather than being parallel. Like the nave, the walls have blind arcading above which are further arches and window-openings. Capitals are decorated with scrolls and scallops.

A final arch spans the projection which held an altar. The arcading in this final section is quite elaborate, and two deeply splayed windows provide light to this area.

Once in the chancel area, which has been well lit, you can start to appreciate the vestiges of paintings that would have enlivened the interior of Cormac’s chapel. A conjectural reconstruction of the artwork is provided in an explanatory panel – the chapel must have looked magnificent and colourful indeed. Preserving these precious fragments has been a tremendous effort.

Finally, stand in the nave and take a careful look around – you will see that the chancel is offset to one side of the nave. While some authors have suggested this as a decision to change dimensions midway through the building process (Dermot Bannon’s nightmare) and others have ruminated about mistakes, O’Keefe demurs. It makes a lot more sense, he says, to interpret Cormac’s Chapel as built to plan, and to suggest that the nave widens on the north side to reflect and accommodate the visual spectacles of procession involving both north-side doorways.

Sketch by Richard Lovett, from his Irish Pictures. The ‘offset chancel is clearly seen in this illustration

There you have it – the glorious high point of Irish Romanesque architecture inside and out. If you haven’t been to Cashel yet, there’s a treat in store. And if you have, well, go again, and make sure to sign up for the guided tour that includes Cormac’s chapel.

The interior of Cormac’s Chapel sketched by George Victor duNoyer for George Petrie**

Previous posts on Irish Romanesque architecture

Irish Romanesque – an Introduction

Irish Romanesque 2 – Doorways

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

*Once again, I relied heavily on Prof Tadhg O’Keefe’s manuscriptRomanesque Ireland: Architecture and Ideology in the Twelfth Century, which he has generously uploaded to Academia.

**George Victor Du Noyer, “Cormac’s Chapel Cashel. Original sketch for Petrie’s engraving in his book on the Round Towers. Geo V Du Noyer. Delt Nov 1840,” Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, accessed October 21, 2018, http://rsai.locloudhosting.net/items/show/22213