The Wonders of Monasterboice

In our recent journeys around Ireland we both had opportunities to indulge our particular interests. Among them, Finola was able to take in some fine examples of stained glass and Romanesque architecture, while I concentrated on the beautiful medieval carving of a number of Irish High Crosses, to add to the examples I have written about recently.

For any Irish High Cross enthusiasts (I suspect that there are many of you out there), Monasterboice in County Louth has to be on the list of ‘must see’ places. It was founded in the 5th century by Saint Buithe, a follower of St Patrick – the Irish Mainistir Bhuithe means Monastery of Buithe – and was an active and important Christian settlement through to the 12th century, when its importance was eclipsed by Mellifont. I found out that St Buithe ascended into Heaven by climbing a ladder that was lowered down to him for the purpose.

Left – a photograph of the great cross at Monasterboice – known as  Muiredach’s Cross – taken in 1905 and, right – the same west face seen today. Finola is there to show its true scale: remarkably it is 5.5m tall

Muiredach mac Domhnaill, who died in 923, was an Abbot at Monasterboice. He is  credited with commissioning the great cross, shown above. It’s not quite the tallest high cross in Ireland, but it’s said to be the finest, probably because of its stature and remarkable state of preservation. The carved panels are all legible, and the biblical stories illustrated have all been identified. An inscription on the lower section of the cross shaft states: OR DU MUIREDACH LASNDERNAD IN CHROS – A prayer for Muiredach under whose auspices this cross was made. Confusingly there was also a king, Muiredach mac Cathail, who owned the lands on which the monastery was built. He died around 867, so it is possible that the cross was commissioned by him, or was made in commemoration of him, rather than by the Abbot.

The Office of Public Works has responsibility for overseeing the site at Monasterboice. The well produced information panel details the carvings on Muiredach’s Cross

A gallery of detailed carving work from Muiredach’s great cross: the subjects include Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel; Celtic knotwork; Moses striking the rock; the crucifixion and (header) nativity scene with the Magi. The lowest picture, above, shows the decorated base, which is shaped like a saint’s reliquary and the panel with two cats and the prayer for Muiredach

This wealth of medieval art is only part of the site’s wonders. There are two more complete High Crosses, fragments of other carvings and slabs, and a round tower. The Tall Cross or West Cross is the highest in Ireland, at nearly 7 metres. Because of its size it has the greatest number of carved panels of any Irish High Cross. However, these panels are suffering from weathering much more than Muiredach’s Cross, and their present state must raise concerns for all the carvings at Monasterboice. At other sites, crosses have been sheltered (Moone) or moved into buildings (Clonmacnoise, Durrow).

The Tall Cross (or West Cross) at Monasterboice; left – in context with the round tower beyond; right – an example of a badly weathered panel on the Tall Cross

Upper – the west face of the Tall Cross cross-wheel, which is in comparatively good condition, and lower – the east face. The number of scenes depicted on these panels alone is remarkable

Carved panels on the Tall Cross at Monasterboice and – lower – a study of Celtic knotwork found on Irish High Crosses, taken from MUIREDACH – Abbot of Monasterboice 890-923 AD by R A S McAlister MA FSA, Dublin 1914

There is a third High Cross at Monasterboice, known as the North Cross. It is less spectacular, perhaps, than the large ones, and the carvings are comparatively minimal. Nevertheless, its modesty gives it a somewhat more refined character. Close to the North Cross are some fragments, including part of a medieval sundial – reminiscent of the one we saw at Kilmalkedar, County Kerry, earlier this year.

Upper – the North Cross with the round tower in the background; lower left – North Cross east face and, lower right – nearby fragment of a medieval sundial

Monasterboice displays so many wonders. Yet, in some ways, it’s an uneasy site. It’s probably not helpful – but perhaps essential – that the parking area a little way off is rife with warnings about thieves, and broken glass is evident. There have also been reports of vandalism against the monuments themselves – emphasising their vulnerability. The place is of major importance: during the summer season the site is attended, and guides are available. We were there in early October, when no-one was around.

This site – and similar ones all across Ireland – are vitally important to the heritage of this country. The artefacts are irreplaceable, yet too little resource is given to protecting them – from weather and people. As we know from our forays into the world of Prehistoric Rock Art, stone carvings are fragile, and under-appreciated. There’s no obvious easy solution, apart from them being given higher status and priority by the empowered bodies such as the Office of Public Works. They, in turn, need to be given more support by the State, particularly in terms of funding: they do the best they can with very limited resources.

Cats on the base of Muiredach’s Cross, recorded  by McAlister in 1914:

Circumnavigation

It’s a hop and a step from down here on the Mizen (Ireland’s most south-westerly point) up to the top of the island: people are doing it all the time, on foot, by bicycle, by boat… We thought we’d do it as a road trip – in fact, why wouldn’t we circumnavigate the whole of Ireland? We did – it took us three weeks.

Header – the Dark Hedges, Ballymoney, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Planted by the Stuart family in the eighteenth century to enhance their Georgian mansion of Gracehill, it is now much visited as it features in Game of Thrones. It’s good to know that traffic can no longer go through this avenue, as it has suffered damage in recent times. Above, one of the many byroads that we sought out on our journey around the island: this one is the loop road behind Ben Bulben in County Sligo

It was a most fascinating and educational trip, particularly for me: most of the places I had never visited before. Finola was more familiar with her own country, although for her it was a voyage of rediscovery. In many cases she saw how much had changed over years of boom and bust, while elsewhere her memories were reawakened.

A voyage of rediscovery: Finola’s Great Grandparents are buried here in Killough, County Down, Northern Ireland

This is but a short summary of our travels: a taster. Many of the places we visited will feature in future posts here. As you can imagine, Archaeology, Romanesque architecture, stained glass, saintly shrines, pilgrimage sites, holy wells, stunningly beautiful land- and sea-scapes, and social history were prominent in our must-see itinerary. But we found we were also following in the footsteps of Irish poets. And British eccentrics.

Craftworks: we visited the Belleek Pottery, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland – which has been operating continuously since 1884 (upper), and (lower) Glebe Mill, Kilcar, County Donegal – where we could watch traditional handweaving on enormous looms

I prefer to stay off the more heavily trafficked tourist spots, but we made exceptions for Europe’s highest sea cliffs at Slieve League, County Donegal (three times the height of the Cliffs of Moher! Beautiful and very wet) and for the Giant’s Causeway. After all, this features strongly in the stories of Finn McCool. I thought that the inevitable crowds were catered for very well and – if you are prepared to walk away from the main site – you can have the spectacular cliff paths largely to yourselves. In Northern Ireland I was very struck by what an asset the National Trust is, for it preserves and makes accessible so many properties and areas of outstanding beauty. If only the Republic had a similar well funded body…

Top – the cliffs at Slieve League. Lower – Giant’s Causeway on a stormy day, and souvenirs in the National Trust’s Causeway Visitor Centre

It would, perhaps, be unreasonable to pick out a ‘best’ destination that we visited, but I must say that I was probably most impressed by the medieval sites: we took in many. It’s amazing that right off the beaten track you can find stunning ancient carvings and artefacts tucked away and – sometimes – not even signposted.

Upper – the superb High Cross at Durrow has been protected and conserved, but it’s not signposted from the busy road that passes nearby. Centre – the beautiful shrine that holds the relic of the True Cross in St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, County Louth: the same church holds the head and remains of Saint Oliver Plunkett. Lower – 13th century font in St Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, County Clare

Our travels were punctuated with a whole variety of experiences, impossible to summarise in one short post. We took in Derry – the only completely walled city in Ireland and one of the finest examples in Europe: we walked the whole length of the early seventeenth century structure. Belfast was intriguing. We undertook the Titanic Experience, and were duly impressed with the building and the exhibitions. We also toured the whole city in the hop-on-hop-off bus: a full two hour tour of everything with a thoroughly enlightening commentary – a good way to keep out of the rain!

Upper – the Peace Bridge in Derry. Lower – the Titanic Experience, Belfast: the exhibition and the building. The external shot is taken from the enormous slipway which was used to launch the ship

We’ve only just got our breath back from all the travelling (although we always went at a leisurely pace with plenty of stops for investigation and coffee). Between us we took well over 5,000 photographs! You’ll see a good few of them in due course.

Often it’s the simple things that impress the most: just little vignettes of Irish life. We would thoroughly recommend a slow exploration of this land – ambling along the byroads and keeping a weather eye open for new experiences. Have a good time!

We are not averse to the odd selfie! Here we are on Carlingford Lough with the Mountains of Mourne behind us… Today it’s an invisible border between Northern Ireland and the Republic: what does the future hold?

Headstones or Folk Carvings?

This week we stumbled upon one of the finest collections of 18th century gravestones we have ever seen, in the ancient Kilcoole Church yard. We’ve been visiting friends in Wicklow and enjoying ourselves very much.

The church itself is very old, mostly 12th century. Although un-ornamented, the arches and windows are Romanesque in design, and the church originally had a stone roof, like the one we wrote about in Kilmalkedar. It’s kept locked but the key is easy to obtain, although it only opened the outer gate, so we were unable to see inside the church.

The graveyard, however, turned out to be a treasure trove! In West Cork we do see the occasional eighteenth century gravestone, but they are often heavily weather and lichened and impossible to read. However they manage it, these gravestones were as fresh and readable as the day they were carved.

This 1792 headstone for Felix Kavanagh has the IHS symbol surmounted by a cross and surrounded by a sunburst. On either side is a six-pointed star and a barred circle – we are unsure of the meaning of this motif

In our post Memento Mori we introduced you to the joys of graveyard headstones, and explained what symbols were common and what they represented. The crucifixion is a favourite, of course, and that was beautifully represented in Kilcoole by a gravestone for Robert McCormick by Dennis Cullen, dating from 1784.

Dennis Cullen is recognised as one of Ireland’s finest folk sculptors. There are 105 known Cullen headstones, most dating from 1765 to 1785, many in Glendalough, and most depicting passion scenes. He was born in Monaseed and his carving technique was accomplished. He often signed his work, unusual for the day. This is a good example of a Cullen crucifixion scene, except that it was altered later by the addition of two marble crosses.

Cullen executed his work in delicate and accurate detail. Christ on the cross is flanked by the Virgin with a crown and beads and St John with a bible. Cullen’s habit was to carve figures in the costume of the 18th century. The Virgin’s flowing hair is, in fact, a long lace veil – common mourning dress of the time. John is wearing a dress coat.

Several of the headstones feature a sunburst as well as sun, star and moon motifs. Powerful symbols of the soul and of immortality, as well as rebirth, these motifs were very popular in the eighteenth century. The IHS symbol (explained in Memento Mori) usually adorned the top of the headstone.

Angels – the soul’s guide to heaven – are found on several of the Kilcoole headstones and we were  delighted at the the variety of ways in which they were depicted.

Because the carvings are so visible and well-preserved in Kilcoole, it’s possible to see not only the detail of the lettering, but also the guidelines used to keep them straight.

Most of the lettering is deeply carved and exhibits, here and there, that idiosyncratic and random placement of letters where the carver may have run out of room, or perhaps was anxious to balance a line.

The lettering styles are fairly plain, although some fancier initial words crop up.

The graveyard has suffered damage both from vandals and from the ravages of time. We were intrigued by the number of fragmentary inscriptions and broken headstones dotting the place.

A local style seemed to be the use of a floral or vine pattern across the top of the stone. There were several examples of this – perhaps the hallmark of a particular carver.

There were some fine later nineteenth century headstone in the graveyard too. Although we recognised that they were beautifully executed, it’s harder to get excited by them: they lack the naive exuberance of the eighteenth century examples and the symbols used are more restrained and limited.

There are several graveyards in Wicklow with similar collections of headstones and we hope to visit more in the future. Meanwhile, to learn more, order a copy of Chistiaan Corlett’s excellent book Here Lyeth about the eighteenth century gravestone of Wicklow

Dividing the Day

We were on the trail of Saint Brendan, and the road took us deep into County Kerry. The spring days were blue, and the unparalleled scenery at its best for us. As we made our ways through the high hills and mountain passes we could see across to the coast:

20,000 years ago, ice shaped the Kerry landscape: a huge glacier flowed from here towards the sea. Looking down from An Chonair, the highest mountain pass on the Wild Atlantic Way; the peak in the centre is Mount Brandon, named for Saint Brendan. The header picture shows the burial ground and, beyond, the medieval “Brendan’s House’ at Kilmalkedar, seen through the burgeoning spring growth

Our first call was to the Cathedral in Ardfert, which was built in medieval times over a Christian monastic site founded by the Saint in the sixth century. There’s nothing left of that, but the later buildings, while ruined, are well looked after by the Office of Public Works, and an information centre is open through the summer months – certainly worth a visit.

Seen in Ardfert Cathedral, an image of a woodcut dating from 1479: it shows St Brendan and his monks on their epic voyage in search of Paradise. On the way, they discovered the American continent!

We could not miss a visit to the place of the Saint’s birth in 484 – Fenit, near Tralee – where a monumental bronze sculpture was installed in 2004. It was made by Tighe O Donoghue/Ross of Glenflesk.

It’s hard to do photographic justice to Tighe O Donoghue/Ross of Glenflesk’s sculpture of Saint Brendan in Fenit: he’s depicted as a ‘warrior saint’ (in the same vein as St Fanahan – or St Fionnchú – of Mitchelstown, Co Cork). Certainly he has a heroic character, necessary for someone who embarked on (and returned from) so many adventures

The culmination of our Brendan travels for this trip (there’s so much more yet to be explored) was the medieval site at Kilmalkedar, on the Dingle Peninsula. This monastic settlement is rich in history, and includes St Brendan’s House, and St Brendan’s Oratory. These alone are spectacular monuments, but there are further riches to delight the eye of Irish history enthusiasts. Finola’s post this week concentrates on the wonders of Irish Romanesque architecture, and the ancient stone-roofed church at Kilmalkedar is a prime example.

The wonderful Romanesque early Christian church at Kilmalkedar – right – with ‘Brendan’s House’ in the distance. The site is overflowing with medieval history. Below. the setting for the monastic site is stunningly beautiful. Note the large, very ancient cross and the holed ogham stone

A good while ago – in 1845, in fact – our excursion was foreshadowed by Mary Jane Fisher Leadbeater, who writes in her Letters from the Kingdom of Kerry:

…Our object to-day was not entirely to pay homage to Nature, though in the heart of her lovely works, but to visit the ruins of the wonderful church of Kilmelkedar, which we were solemnly assured “was built in one night by holy angels.” One evening, ever so many many ages ago, the sun, when he set in those wilds, saw no place dedicated to the worship of the Creator: he rose the following morning, and smiled upon a perfect chapel, with pillared niche and carved saint, and a holy fount, and massy cross! all ready for the purposes of prayer and sacrifice! A matin-call rang loud and clear over lofty mountain and lonely glen, to summon the devout and arouse the unthinking, where no vesper strain could sound the evening before; all gleamed proud and fair in the glad light, and the heart of man became purified, as the sacred bell called him to prayer! And this was the reward of the unceasing prayers of the holy Saint Brandon! Such is the legend…

St Brendan’s House – behind a locked and barbed gate!

We spent hours at the Kilmalkedar site and didn’t take everything in. We consider ourselves so privileged: we had it completely to ourselves, and the day was perfect. Saint Brendan treated us very kindly – except that his ‘House’ and an associated holy well were not accessible: although an OPW project which has recently undergone significant restoration, the enclosure around it is impenetrable with barbed wire and a firmly locked gate. However, in an adjacent field, a gate and path gave us free access to a large, flat stone which seemed to be covered in giant cup-marks. The National Monuments register describes it as a ‘Ballaun Stone’: it’s very fine, and I was delighted to find that Mary Jane Fisher Leadbeater had unearthed some folklore about it:

…This place contained a colony of monks; and well they knew what they were about when they fixed on this retirement; for, besides its real advantages, it commands a most lovely view of Smerwick Harbour, The Sisters, and Sybil Head. They need not want for fish in the refectory in the days of abstinence. It is situated in a sheltered recess of the mountains, fine springs around, and, another popular legend bearing witness, in the centre of what was once good grazing and tillage ground. A cow is the subject of this legend—a cow of size and breed suited to provide milk for the giant race of those days. We saw the milk vessels, and if she filled them morning and evening, she was indeed a marvellous cow. In a huge flat rock were these milk pans; six large round holes, regular in their distances from each other, and nearly of equal size; they could each contain some gallons of liquid. This said cow gave sufficient milk for one whole parish; and was the property of a widow—her only wealth. Another parish and another clan desired to be possessed of this prize; so a marauder, endued with superior strength and courage, drove her off one moonlight night. The widow followed wailing, and he jeered her and cursed her as he proceeded. The cow suddenly stopped; in vain the thief strove to drive her on; she could neither go on, nor yet return; she stuck fast. At length, aroused by the widow’s cries, her neighbours arrived, and the delinquent endeavoured to escape. In vain—for he too stuck fast in the opposite rock; he was taken and killed. The cow then returned to her own home, and continued to contribute her share towards making the parish like Canaan, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” The prints of her hoofs, where the bees made their nests, are still to be seen in one rock ; and those of the marauder’s foot and hand in another, where he was held fast by a stronger bond than that of conscience…

Kilmalkedar’s giant ballaun – the cups were filled every day by the widow’s marvellous cow, providing milk for St Brendan’s community of monks back in the day

One of the special features of the Kilmalkedar site harks back to its medieval monastic associations – a sundial. The ordered lives of the monks were regulated by divisions of the day (and night) – the Canonical Hours, also known as the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. These were the regular periods of prayer: seven daytime Offices of Lauds (at daybreak), Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline (at sunset) and a night Office of Vigils. This was the important work of the monastery, of course: constant and regular prayers. In between it the monks had to fit in all the requirements of daily life: sustenance, growing crops, brewing, beekeeping. And, on top of all that, Brendan and his companions undertook their peregrinatio all around the known world. No wonder a timepiece was necessary!

The Kilmalkedar sundial is a particularly elegant example – it’s probably my favourite item on this site: functional and beautiful, as all things wrought by the human hand should be. In such an evocative environment it certainly helps us to cast our minds back to the life and times of the travelling Saint. The antiquarian George Du Noyer visited the place back in the 1860s, and was also drawn to this particular artefact, accurately recording it for us in one of his exquisite watercolour sketches.

Off The M8 and into Medieval Ireland

Twomileborris Castle

The drive from Cork to Dublin used to take four hours; now it takes two and a half on a speedy motorway. As you drive along, tantalising glimpses are offered of castles, a round tower, those brown signs that point to ancient monuments. If you’re not in a mad hurry, why not do some exploring? This post is about one stretch of the old road, running parallel to the motorway, where you can have a medieval experience, great coffee and cake, and rejoin the motorway when you’ve sated your curiosity. You can take a few hours and do everything on this list on one day, or you can do one or two each time you travel.

Twomileborris Gravslab and Castle

The castle and old graveyard at Twomileborris offer lots of opportunities for exploration. Above, the castle looms over the graveyard, but note the white gravemarker with the head above a stylised fleur de lys – similar to many such markers set into the floor of St Canice’s Cathedral. It’s much earlier than anything around it

I am assuming you are coming from Cork and are dying for a coffee about the time you see that turn-off for Horse and Jockey. The busiest spot in all Ireland, nevertheless we always find a corner on a comfy couch and relax with a coffee and goody before we continue. But don’t go back to the motorway – The Horse and Jockey Hotel is right on the old Cork to Dublin Road, now called the R639, so head north on it and go exploring. I’ll provide directions but a good map will come in handy, as will stout shoes for some of the sites.

Two Mile Borris 1777 gravestone

A 1777 gravestone in the Twomileborris graveyard

First off – Twomileborris. You’ll see the sign just after Littleton and you’ll spot the castle as soon as you approach the village. Park just beyond the castle and take the path to the old graveyard – it affords good views of the castle, which is on private land. Head for the old part of the graveyard and have a good wander – you will find fine examples of gravestone that date back to the 18th century. As you leave, take a good look at the top of the castle and observe all the architectural features I’ve been telling you about in the Tower House posts. For this one, have a quick read of Tower House Tutorial Part 1.

Liathmore churches

The churches at Liathmore. The round feature is a modern wall built around the stump of the round tower

Proceed through the village and you will rejoin the R639. Turn left and less than a kilometre down the road look for the National Monuments brown sign to Liathmore Churches and follow the signs to the site. This a complex site with early and later churches. The first, right beside the track, is one of those early-medieval churches with the projecting antae that Robert wrote about in Molaga of the Bees. It probably dates to the same period as the round tower – unfortunately there’s not much of this left, just a stump that was found during excavations.

Liathmore Early Medieval Church

The Early Medieval church (8th to 11th century) at Liathmore

But as you head over to the later church look around the field at all the bumps and hollows and enclosures – you are looking at what was probably a medieval settlement, long deserted. The second church was built and modified and re-modified over several centuries. It has an intact vaulted chancel – the plaster work is extensive and still bears the marks of the wicker scaffolding that was used to build it. Here and there, inside and outside, carved pieces of stone have been inserted into doors, windows and walls. You can easily miss these so let your eye rest on each section of the building. The Sile na Gig is sideways in the door nearest the round tower.

At some time in the past, pieces of carved stone were inserted into walls and doorways. Here are two examples – the one on the left has a carved creature and the one on the right is a síle-na-gig. Below I have turned the photographs to facilitate viewing of the figures

Back on to the R639 now and continue north, though Urlingford and Johnstown and about a kilometre out of Johnstown take the left turn at the first crossroads. You’ll go across the M8, turn right and another kilometre or two will bring you to Grangefertagh Round Tower. It is clearly visible in the landscape so if you miss it just follow your nose until you get there.

Grangefertagh round tower and church

Grangefertagh site is visible from the M8 – haven’t you always wanted to stop off and find it? Take a look at the church – what’s that modern-looking wall doing on top of it?

Once again, this is a site with multiple periods of occupation. You can’t climb the round tower, as you can in Kildare and Kilkenny but it’s nice to be able to get up close to one. Robert has a post on round towers, High Drama!, so have a quick read on your phone if you don’t already know all about them. Two aspects of this site are especially intriguing. The first is that, at some point in the past, the medieval church was turned into a handball alley! Hard to fathom how this could have happened, but no doubt the handball players who did it had great bad luck and never won a tournament.

Grangefertagh church and handball alley

The interior wall of the church has been rendered and old gravestones have been used to create a flatter wall. Outdoor handball alleys were once common but most are now disused and crumbling

The second is the effigy tomb – these are relatively rare in Ireland this is a nice one, although the figures are weathered and lichen-covered. The tomb commemorates John Macgillapatrick, Brian his son and Honora, Brian’s wife and is dated to about 1537.

Grangefertagh effigy tomb

Right – we’re going to finish with a couple of castles, so turn right now and it will lead you back under the motorway to the R639 where you turn north again. After another kilometre or so you will see an imposing tower house on the right. You can drive up to the farm and observe this more closely. Since it’s on private property you must ask permission to go beyond the farm gate, but you’ll get a very good view from outside.

Glashare Tower House

Glashare Castle

It’s remarkably intact and from your browsing of the Tower House Tutorial Part 1 you will be able to admire the loops – unusual corner loops in this one, as well as cross shaped loops. This castle has render on the outside, but how old the render is, or what material, I have not been able to ascertain.

Glashare Tower House windows and arrow slits and render

An amazing variety of opes – windows and loops

The final stop of this tour is Cullahill Castle – turn right at the small village of Cullahill, which is 4 or 5 km beyond Glashare. This one you can wander around. It was reputedly destroyed by Cromwellian cannon, and so you get a wonderful cross-section view of the interior. Tower House Tutorial, Part 2, will tell you exactly what you are looking at, or have a read of Illustrating the Tower House to see how JG O’Donoghue shows us exactly how the interior of a tower house would have been constructed and used.  You can rejoin the M8 by proceeding to Durrow and following the signs from there.

Cullohill later fireplace

Cullahill Castle – a unique opportunity to look at a cross-section of a tower house

For those of us who travel the M8 regularly it’s great to know that we can take a break along the way and catch up on our history and archaeology at the same time. Let us know if you deviate from the M8 to visit any of these sites, or if you have your own favourites along the motorway. 

Grangefertagh 1741 graveslab

A gravestone from Grangefertagh

Clonfert, St Brendan – and the Ghost of British Fascism

yew walk 2016

Clonfert, Yew Walk

The yew walk at Clonfert  – ‘a great cathedral of natural growth’ – which Tom and Angela Rolt found so impressive on their visit to Clonfert, Co Galway, in 1946, during their travels around the waterways of Ireland. Their photograph is above; 70 years later we followed in their footsteps and took the picture at the top of the page

We were following the Rolt’s journey described in the book Green & Silver – this post is the sixth instalment of the Travel by Water series. We would certainly have included Clonfert in our own itinerary, as we could not have missed the incredible 12th century doorway of Clonfert Cathedral, a high point of Hiberno Romanesque architecture – that deserves a future post of its own. The Rolts walked to Clonfert from their mooring on the Grand Canal at Shannon Harbour, a round journey of over a dozen miles; we drove to Clonfert and managed to get thoroughly lost in the maze of tiny roads in that part of rural County Galway.

st brendan's grave inscription

The twelfth century doorway to Clonfert Cathedral – a medieval architectural masterpiece – and the grave of St Brendan which it faces

…Close behind the cathedral and sheltering with it among the fine trees which make Clonfert an oasis in the bogland, stands the Bishops Palace, now a lay residence. Having been courteously granted permission to explore the grounds, we found Clonfert’s celebrated yew walk which is reputed to date back to early medieval times. The yews have attained unusual stature, and their interlacing branches curve outward and then upward towards the light to form a series of those ogee curved arches beloved of the Gothic revivalists of the Strawberry Hill period. As the main walk runs from east to west with two short transepts radiating from a central crossing, the effect is truly remarkable and represents nothing so much as a great cathedral of natural growth. Moreover, the light within was appropriately dim and religious, the dark foliage excluding most of the light from the overcast sky. We found the silent twilight of this great nave of ancient trees strangely impressive, more so, in fact than the man-made cathedral close by. In spite of the difficulty involved we decide to make this the subject of our pictorial record of Clonfert rather than the often-photographed west doorway… (LTC Rolt, Green & Silver, George Allen and Unwin 1949).

nuns walk sign

Tom Rolt, the navigator of canals, devotes several passages in his book to Saint Brendan ‘the navigator’ and his many voyages all over the world until …having completed ninety three years… Brendan set out fearfully and alone upon his last voyage while his body was brought home to Clonfert for burial… (Green & Silver): …There is much evidence to support the belief that Brendan reached America nearly a thousand years before Columbus, that Newfoundland was his first landfall, and that he sailed from thence down the coast to the Bahamas and the everglades of Florida… Rolt goes on to admire the conjectured boat which Brendan and his small party of monks would have used: …The hull of this vessel of AD 551 bears a remarkable resemblance to that of an ice-breaker boat which I saw re-timbered at the yard of an English canal company in AD 1943. She was massively built of oak, iron fastened to the ribs, with a high prow and a whaleboat stern equipped with a steering paddle (the rudder had not then been invented). She was decked fore and aft, while the mast stepped in the well amidships bore a single lug sail. Her timbers were possibly skin-covered as the wooden curraghs of Inishbofin are today covered with canvas. She had considerable freeboard, and she shipped no oars but depended on sail alone. In this small but stoutly built craft, of which the Galway Pookawn of to-day is probably the direct lineal descendant, Brendan set forth to sail into the sunset…

Fascinating and curious juxtapositions in the offerings left at St Brendan’s Tree in Clonfert

The Rolts did not mention St Brendan’s Tree, which we encountered on our way to the yew walk. We don’t know how ancient or how recent this manifestation might be. It’s a horse chestnut and it is festooned with all the offerings one would find at a holy well – and more! In addition to statues, rosaries, cards, coins and ribbons there were toys, musical intruments, shoes – and underwear. We were guided to the yew walk by a forester working nearby: we expressed curiosity at the tree, wanting to know its history and efficacy but his response was pragmatic: “I’m Church of Ireland myself and wouldn’t be knowing anything about this sort of goings-on”.

Brendan made several voyages. Rolt continues the story: …It was upon Brendan’s return from his second voyage that he founded his monastery and college at Clonfert – Cluain Fearta Breannain or the meadow of Brendan’s Virtus. This was destined to become a great European University of three thousand students rivalled only by the similar institutions of Clonard and Bangor. Clear thinking was the liberal aim of education at this period… Fifteen years elapsed before Brendan once more set sail to Scotland, and Wales, visiting the great Welsh scholars Gildas the Wise and Cadoc of Llancarvan, and from thence to Brittany and the Cornwall of King Arthur… Where Brendan voyaged after this is uncertain, but rumour and legend associate the name of this indefatigable traveller with the Canary Islands, Teneriffe, Egypt, Palestine and the Isles of Greece. Yet the patron saint of seafarers returned to Ireland to die in the convent of his sister Brigh at Annaghduin…

Bishops Palace

Palace Interior

We found the Bishop’s Palace, which Rolt mentioned as being a ‘lay residence’ – presumably in good order – in 1946. 70 years later it is ruinous. We were intrigued and I determined to seek out its recent history. In doing so I chanced upon a whole section of Irish and British relationships which startled me, and seemed somehow to make entirely poignant the time span of 70 years which I have been observing in this series.

Discarded robin

A poignant moment – discarded robin and broken statue in Clonfert graveyard

I quote from an article in The Dublin Review, issue No 26, Spring 2007. This is an excellently written and comprehensive account of matters well beyond the remit of this little post, but I commend anyone who is interested in history – and the state of the world today – to read it. This extract continues the story of the Palace at Clonfert:

…In 1951, John Arthur Burdett Trench – obsessive huntsman since the age of eight, polo player and, in his mid sixties, possessor of a memory of having ridden home the winner of the Grand National at Fairyhouse at a time when English officers could still relax in the grandstand – sold Clonfert Palace near Eyrecourt in Co. Galway to an English family not long arrived in Ireland. The house had belonged to the Trenches for generations and had once been the residence of Church of Ireland bishops. It stood on the flood plain of the Shannon, a short walk from Clonfert Cathedral, hidden away behind its famous avenue of yew trees, an inconspicuous island of Ascendancy civility on the frontier of the vast bog. Like many other ancient mansions, its comforts and refinements had not survived the privations of the twentieth century and it was badly in need of restoration. Every day for months the new lady of the house would drive across the bogland roads from her temporary accommodation in Tipperary to supervise the installation of bathrooms, electricity and central heating, an Aga in the kitchen. Word spread that Clonfert Palace was being returned to its former glory and that there was work to be had from the new owners. They turned the ballroom into a drawing room and brought a carpenter from Banagher to build bookshelves that covered an entire wall. They filled the once-dilapidated rooms with fine furniture, replaced the broken sash cords on the windows, draped curtains made to measure in Dublin and hung paintings of their ancestors on the wall. They recruited a gardener, a housekeeper and a cook. Occasionally the lady’s husband would arrive in a large, exotic Buick driven by a French chauffeur.

Soon, it became known that the family bringing Clonfert Palace back to life was Sir Oswald and Lady Diana Mosley and their two sons. On the fifteenth of February 1952, the Westmeath Independent carried a short item entitled ‘Distinguished Residents’, disclosing that the previous Friday the Mosley family had ‘moved into occupation’ of the palace. ‘Sir Oswald and Lady Mosley, who have a large staff, are charmed with Ireland, its people, the tempo of its life and its scenery,’ the paper related, dutifully informing readers in a final sentence that ‘Sir Oswald was the former leader of a political movement in England’…

Frightening reminders of a world in chaos – less than a lifetime ago. Left – a poster from 1939 (Oswald Mosley led the British Union of Fascists) and – right – Mussolini and Mosley meet in Italy in 1936 (image from http://www.panorama.it/)

After the war, the Mosleys were virtually outcasts from Britain. Neutral Ireland seemed to offer them a retreat and a measure of civility. The Dublin Review continues:

…Sir Oswald would take his breakfast in bed. The Irish Times and Financial Times would be delivered from Eyrecourt. Lady Mosley would give her orders for the day to Mrs Swan, the cook. When Sir Oswald surfaced he might go for a long walk along the Shannon, passing the barges hauling cargoes of porter, coal or flour. On return he would set to work in his study. Nicholas Mosley has written about his father’s attachment to ‘the hierarchical … classless patterns of life … in the semi-feudal grandeur’ of the estate where he grew up in Staffordshire; in Clonfert Mosley seems to have replicated this idyll. Just as his grandfather had produced wholemeal bread, Sir Oswald supervised the growing of vegetables and ploughed the paddock to plant lucerne, a clover-like plant used for fodder…

bishops palace from neswpaper

This newspaper photograph of the Bishop’s Palace at Clonfert could have been taken around the time of the Rolt’s visit (1946) or after restoration by the Mosleys

The ‘idyll’ did not last too long. The Dublin Review again:

…One foggy night a few weeks before Christmas 1954, while Diana was visiting London, the Mosleys’ neighbours the Blake-Kellys were woken just before two o’clock by the whinnying of a pony in their stables. From their window they could see flames and smoke billowing from the Palace next door. Mrs Blake-Kelly sent her son to bang on the Mosleys’ front door and within minutes Sir Oswald, Alexander and their servants were standing on the lawn watching the flames consume their house. A French maid, Mademoiselle Cerrecoundo, rushed back into the house to fetch some clothes and was trapped at an upstairs window. Sir Oswald, Alexander and the chauffeur, Monsieur Thevenon, held a blanket under the window and she leaped to safety, hurting her back and her hand. Monsieur Thevenon drove to the Garda station in Eyrecourt and from there fire brigades were summoned from Ballinasloe and Birr. It took an hour and a half for the engines to arrive and by then more than half the house was lost to the blaze. The firemen cut through the roof with their axes to create a barrier to the advancing flames…

The story does not quite end there: as if some sort of retribution of biblical proportions were needed, even the land was punished. The Dublin Review concludes:

…By morning, when the firemen had finished their work and stood gazing at the hole rent through the roof of the house, cold westerly winds were gathering strength. It was the beginning of the worst storm in the midlands for a hundred years. Rain, sleet and snow poured down on the smouldering ruins of Clonfert and the winds reached hurricane force, knocking trees across the roads and felling the electricity wires that had been strung only in the last few years. Within a few days thousands of acres of land by the Shannon were flooded. The army came to evacuate farmhouses which were under three or four feet of water and drive cattle to high ground. Stone outhouses were washed away, corn stooks submerged and the swollen bodies of cows and pigs that could not be saved were left bobbing in the water…

protect

I was born in 1946, just when Tom and Angela Rolt were planning their exploration of Ireland’s waterways, but also directly after the turbulence of an awful global war which caused the deaths of over seventy million people. One of the elements which led to that war was the rise of fascism in Europe. In my lifetime to date I have seen fascism largely invalidated and the creation of a European Union whose members have worked towards common and positive aims. For seventy years there has been ‘peace in Europe’. Now – in 2016 – I have reason to worry about our children’s future; some things which should have been buried forever in the pages of history seem to be stirring. I desperately hope my foreboding is misplaced.

brendan stamp