The Rock of Dunamase and Ireland’s Most Iconic Painting

The ruins on the Rock of Dunamase in County Laois date mainly from the 12th century, very shortly after the Norman Invasion of 1169. That invasion was led by Richard DeClare, Earl of Pembroke, known as Strongbow, and it was at the invitation of Diarmuid MacMurrough, King of Leinster. MacMurrough had been ousted from his kingdom by Tiarnan O’Rourke and his allies, partly because MacMurrough had abducted O’Rourke’s wife Devorgilla (although some accounts say she went willingly). His request for help to King Henry II was welcomed, as the King was hoping to provide distraction to some over-ambitious knights, including deClare.

One of MacMurrough’s incentives to Strongbow was the promise of his daughter, Aoife, in marriage. The marriage took place in Christ Church Cathedral in Waterford in 1170 and following the death of Diarmuid in 1171, Strongbow declared himself King of Leinster.

The summit of the Rock commands views of several counties

So where does the Rock of Dunamase come in? It was one of the MacMurrough strongholds, and accordingly was part of Aoife’s dowry when she married Strongbow. Thus, it is inextricably associated with the most turbulent events in Irish History. For some of the later (and indeed earlier) history of the Rock, I refer you to The Irish Aesthete’s excellent post A Rock and a Hard Place.

The Barbican Gate, with the curtain wall and corner tower above and behind

The fortifications and buildings at the Rock are in a ruinous state, of course, but enough remain to give you a good idea of what a strategic site this was and how the defences were designed. The first entrance was a barbican gate behind which was a small area known as the Inner Barbican. Once there, you were at the mercy of archers situated on top of the inner, or curtain wall, shooting down from their crenellated parapet.

From the OPW informational sign

The curtain wall ran around the entire top of the rock. For three quarters of its length it was impossible to attack or breach with the weapons of the time because the wall was built at the top of a steep slope.

The more gentle slope of the east side necessitated the additional defence of the barbican gate. From the inner barbican a massive gatehouse with two towers gave access to the bawn or ward, while two corner towers guarded the northerly and southerly extent of the wall.

Looking upwards towards the Great Hall from the massive Main Gatehouse

There are indications of other buildings inside the curtain wall, but all that is really significant today  is a large rectangular building known as the Great Hall. This was subject to reconstruction in the 1700s by the then owner (a grandfather of Charles Stewart Parnell) but the building project was never completed.

The main result of this reconstruction is to obscure and confuse original versus later parts of the fabric of the Hall. Everywhere you look what appears to be a gothic window embrasure is suddenly sporting red brick.

The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife is the title of an enormous painting by Daniel Maclise that hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland (see the final photograph for the complete painting). It is, in fact, the largest painting in the Gallery, and has been completely conserved in recent years – a series of videos recording this massive process is available on YouTube (just Google ‘Strongbow and Aoife conservation’). But start with this video, in which Dr Brendan Rooney talks about the painting itself.

According to Dr Rooney, the background to the painting is of the City of Waterford, the city on which the marriage took place. The use of this backdrop (rather than, say, the interior of a church)  is used to dramatise the conflict between the Normans and the Irish Chieftains and the consequences of the invasion. He points out a round corner tower that appears to be based on Reginald’s Tower in Waterford, and asserts that the arched gateway calls to mind ‘similar’ gateways in New Ross and Drogheda.

Even if the backdrop is intended to convey a picture of Waterford it seems obvious to me that it is inspired by and based heavily on the Rock of Dunamase. This makes perfect sense from both an historical and a visual point of view. First of all, Maclise was depicting a catastrophic moment in Irish history that is closely associated with the Rock, in that it was the seat of the MacMorroughs, transferred to Strongbow as part of Aoife’s dowry, and which allowed him to subsequently claim succession rights to the Kingship of Leinster.

Secondly – look at it! While there may be echoes of Reginald’s Tower and other Irish medieval sites (such as a round tower) in the painting, it is clearly the Rock of Dunamase that is being depicted. Waterford is essentially flat: there are still stretches of its town walls extant, but they are on level ground. Maclise was known for meticulously researching his subject matter and it seems obvious to me that the marriage is being consecrated in front of the Barbican Gate, while above and behind are the ramparts of the curtain wall. There are a few Irish Norman castle sites that are built on a rocky prominence, but the most dramatic of them is the Rock of Dunamase.

Maclise’s The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife is one of our most iconic paintings and has been one of the most beloved because of the subject matter. At the same time, the Rock of Dunamase is central to the most critical juncture on our history. They belong together – don’t you agree?

Daniel Maclise (1806-1870), ‘The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife’, c.1854. © National Gallery of Ireland

James and Eleanor

During our recent visit to Ballyfin House, County Laois, we stayed in the ‘Butler Room’. This is named after James Butler, 12th Earl and 1st Duke of Ormond (1610 – 88) who stared out at us rather severely from his portrait hanging over the chimneypiece. This Butler was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland three times, and was famous for having led the Irish royalists during the civil war. But James was only one piece in the huge jigsaw of the Butler dynasty which first came to Ireland during the 12th century Norman invasion.

James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond, painted by William Wissing. The painting hangs in the Butler Room at Ballyfin

The name Butler was descriptive: in 1185,  Prince John – Lord of Ireland – landed at Waterford and around this time granted the hereditary office of Butler (or ‘Botteler’) of Ireland to Theobald Walter, whereby he and his successors were ‘ . . . to attend the Kings of England at their coronation, and on that day present them with their first cup of wine . . . ‘ Later, King Henry II of England granted him the ‘prisage of wines’, to enable him, and his heirs, ‘ . . . the better to support the dignity of that office . . . ‘ By this grant, he had the right to take two tuns (barrels) of wine out of every ship which discharged cargo in any trading port of Ireland, and was loaded with more than 20 tons of wine, or one barrel from a cargo of between 9 and 20 tons. Incidentally, the tradition of stocking and serving fine wines is being continued at Ballyfin, where we were shown around a magnificent purpose-built wine cellar!

The church at Gowran, Co Kilkenny, which has many links with the Butler family. Header picture – a drawing of the church

The medieval Butlers held lands in the Kingdom of Ireland encompassing large swathes of the modern counties of Tipperary, Kilkenny and Carlow. This week we encountered some of the early members of this family at Gowran in County Kilkenny, where Edmund Butler had founded a college of four priests in 1312 to pray for himself and his descendants in perpetuity.

The former Church of Ireland building in Gowran has been taken over by the Office of Public Works and now displays a spectacular collection of historic artefacts, many of which are related to the Butler family. We found it hard to tear ourselves away from the various carved stones which go all the way back to the fourth century (an Ogham stone with an added early Christian cross, below left), and include the effigy tombs of James le Butler (1304 – 1338), Chief Butler of Ireland and 1st Earl of Ormond, and Eleanor de Bohun (1310 – 1363), Countess of Ormond and grand-daughter of Edward I of England. These (drawing by Duchas, below right) are magnificent, beautifully carved with clear facial features and details of clothing and footwear. They are both standing on serpents – according to Matthew (Ch 10, v 16) the serpent is a symbol of wisdom:

. . . Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves . . .

It is recorded that James le Butler died at Gowran, so it is reasonable to assume that these large slabs marked the graves of James and Eleanor, although we don’t know where the tombs were originally located. The following photograph (courtesy Trinity College, Dublin) was taken in the mid 20th century by Edwin C Rae who was Professor of the History of Art at the University of Illinois. His Harvard PhD dissertation was on The Architecture of Medieval Ireland.

We are fortunate that all the monuments, plaques and tombs have been recorded in detail by local historians and are now in the guardianship of the State. There are also two wonderful windows in this church, one of which Finola is describing today. These little snippets were inspired by our unplanned visit, and we will be returning to Gowran in future posts.  We really appreciated the tour and all the information which we were given by Lisa and Gerard of the OPW who were on duty on the day we called in. The roofed part of the church – which contains the effigy tombs, the ogham stone and many fine cross slabs – is open from mid May to the end of August from Wednesdays to Sundays. Telephone before visiting to be sure: +353 56 772 6894.

Kilkieran High Crosses – Medieval Gems

You will remember Saint Ciarán of Saigir, who was born on Cape Clear, perfectly framed in our view from Nead an Iolair? He was known as the ‘First Saint of Ireland’, preceding Saint Patrick by almost a century, and also as one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. A manuscript dating from 1629 and housed in the Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels, tells how the Twelve Apostles were educated together in Clonard, Co Meath – the most important monastic school in early Christian Ireland – under Saint Finian. It is said that ‘ . . . there were no fewer than 3,000 pupils getting instruction at one time in the school in the green fields of Clonard. The master excelled in exposition of the Sacred Scriptures, and to this fact must be mainly attributed the extraordinary popularity which his lectures enjoyed. Finnian’s gift for teaching and his absolute dedication to the ascetic ideal, inspired a whole generation . . . ‘ St Finian achieved the age of 140 years himself, while Ciarán – who went off to Cornwall where he is known as St Piran (you will also remember) – lived to be 206 before falling into a well on the way home from a wild party. There’s a lot to be said for being a saint in those days.

These are extracts from the OPW signboard located at the site

Why are we revisiting St Ciarán? Well, we’ve just past March 5th, which is his day, so we have to celebrate him. To do that we will go off to County Kilkenny, where there is a very important medieval site, noted for its high crosses but with plenty more to see: it’s a 45 minute drive north of Waterford city. The site, known as Kilkieran (Kieran is an alternative anglicised spelling, prefixed by ‘Kil’ which means ‘church of’) was once home to a monastery founded by St Ciarán, and the high crosses date from the 9th century.

The West Cross has animal motifs and some unusual interlacing carved on the various elements; below is the site plan included on the OPW signboard

To be able to see exquisite artistic medieval carved stone from 1200 years ago still standing where it was first placed is remarkable. In other discussions on high crosses and similar works of expertise we have asked whether these gems should be preserved out of the elements – as some are – to prevent the deterioration which is undoubtedly taking place. While I tend to favour that approach – and it seems to me to be particularly appropriate where they are replaced by high quality replicas ‘in the field’ – there is something very special about visiting intact sites like this one. The whole conservation process is full of dilemmas.

The enigmatic East Cross – unlike any other Irish High Cross

There were once four crosses at Kilkieran. Three are still complete and in reasonable condition, although much weathered, while the fourth is just the stump of a shaft. One –  the East Cross – is unusual: it is slender, largely undecorated, with minimal crosspieces and no roundel. There’s a nice little tale about it: the cross was attacked and destroyed by iconoclasts, but was painstakingly reconstructed in the mid-19th century by blind local stonemason Paddy Laurence, who had lost his sight while working on the construction of the Palace of Westminster in London: the old Palace had been ravaged by fire in 1834 and was rebuilt to its present design under the auspices of Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin.

The plain South Cross: the large, acorn-shaped capping is found on other crosses in the ‘Ossory Group’

The high crosses at Kilkieran are simpler and less decorated than many others, but have a great dignity, especially in the context of the burial ground which has grown up around them. We were fortunate to visit them on a really clear day, when the shadowed relief stood strongly out.

A still-visited Holy Well and bullaun stones are found on the old monastery site

You will want to go to Kilkieran yourself: when you do, don’t miss some fine ancient grave slabs and the nearby Holy Well. Then you should take yourself off to the other High Cross sites in what is known as the ‘Ossory Group’, beginning with nearby Ahenny. I’ll be writing about them all soon.

Below – an early carved grave slab on the site, carving on the West Cross shaft, and a detail of the West Cross ring

The Splendour of Cobh

My favourite sea voyage was on the (alas now defunct) Swansea to Cork Ferry. I travelled this route very many times while living in Devon and Cornwall, and most enjoyed the last leg of the journey to Ireland, when the ship entered the Lee estuary and made its way upriver to Ringaskiddy. In all weathers I was out on deck to watch the slowly changing scenery that welcomed my arrival in to Cork, knowing that it was surely the best place in all the world to be going!

The excitement mounted when we steamed past the port town of Cobh, as the ferry terminal was then just around the corner. From afar I admired the way this settlement embraced the water with its long, colourful terraces lined up the steep hillside on which it was built, crowned atop by the magnificent Victorian edifice which I now know to be probably the finest architectural work of Edward Welby Pugin in Ireland: St Colman’s Cathedral.

I am almost ashamed to confess, then, that I had never called in on Cobh until last week – and the visit was a relevation. First, let me clear up some possible confusions: the name is pronounced ‘Cove’ – and the word in fact comes from the English, but has been Gaelicised to Cobh, (Irish An Cóbh), the location having allegedly been known since around 1750 as ‘The Cove of Cork’. The name was changed to ‘Queenstown’ after a visit from Queen Victoria in 1849, and was then changed back to Cobh after the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922. Or – have I just contributed to the confusion? One thing is for sure: the strategic waterside location in the great natural harbour of Cork is the raison d’être of this grand town.

Yes, it’s all about the water, and the fact that it is located beside the “second largest natural harbour in the world by navigational area” (a claim also made, incidentally, by Halifax Harbour in Canada and Poole Harbour in the UK – the undisputed nomination for largest harbour is Port Jackson, Sydney, Australia). Cobh faces the wonderfully named Haulbowline Island and Spike Island, both of which have been established as defensive fortifications, and the former as an important naval dockyard since before Napoleonic times. Today, Cobh has the only dedicated cruise ship berth in Ireland.

Do you remember my telling of the story of Cessair and the first human footsteps on Irish soil in our own Bantry Bay? The story is recounted in the 11th century Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Invasions of Ireland). The same book tells us about Neimheadh and his followers the Muintir Neimhidh  – People of Nemed – who arrived soon after Cessair around 2000 BC, but in Cork Harbour and settled the islands there: Neimheadh, like Cessair, shared his genealogy with Noah and is said to be buried in a mound on Great Island, overlooking present-day Cobh.

So why am I so impressed by Cobh? Perhaps it’s because – as an architect – I find the streetscapes so elegant, and quirky. For me it’s a cross between the horizontal graceful manners of Georgian Bath and the higgledy-piggledy uphill habitation of the steep lanes of Newlyn in Cornwall, where I lived for many years.

Above – Cobh yesterday and today, showing the elegance of the development of the town in the nineteenth century. Below – another side of Cobh: the steeply descending streets with some remarkable and picturesque terraces, crowned always by the glory of the Cathedral, which took half a century to build. Construction began in 1867.

Cobh is such an attractive town to walk around: it should be the jewel on County Cork’s tourist trail. This post is a fairly minimalist photographic essay of what caught my eye on the day we visited. There is a lot more to explore: we never made it to the Heritage Centre, nor to the Titanic Experience, which has brought particular fame to the place in recent times: it was the final embarkation point on the ship’s fateful maiden voyage. All for another day. But we did get up to Cobh’s Old Church Cemetery, high on the hill, where the victims of the Lusitania sinking were buried in mass graves in 1915: a poignant place.

But it was the architecture that had me absorbed: well proportioned and detailed buildings – often simple – that may be overlooked except for the way in which they come together into such a dignified whole. And – such an exploration of colour!

There’s much more to tell of the story of Cobh, and – certainly – so much more to see. I will follow up this post in the coming weeks; the magnificent Cathedral can justify an article on its own. Hopefully you will visit yourself if you have not already done so: your eyes will be opened . . . Look out for the small details!

 

Vinegar Hill

Recent travels took us to County Wexford, and we immediately immersed ourselves in the locality. For years I have played the tune usually known as Boolavogue, without fully understanding the significance of the piece – and its place – in Irish history. Firstly, here’s a masterful rendering of this most heartrending of airs  by Davy Spillane and Aly Bain (from the Transatlantic Sessions) – enjoy the beauty:

That’s the instrumental but, according to the history books, the tune was originally called Eochaill (Youghal Harbour), used as the melody for a song written in 1898 by Patrick Joseph McCall to commemorate the centenary of the Irish Rebellion: the song was known as Fr Murphy of the County Wexford, and became ‘Boolavogue’ in more recent times. Here is Eochaill beautifully played by Paul Davies who I met on my first visit to Ireland back in the 1970s: he took me on a musical trail around County Clare where I met and heard some of the then ‘greats’ of Irish Traditional Music, including concertina player Paddy Murphy. Sadly, both Paddy and Paul have passed away now, but it’s good to keep their memories alive.

It may not be immediately obvious that Eochaill and what we now know as Boolavogue are the same melody, but comparison of the tunes is a good exercise in the study of evolution in musical traditions. What’s more important to our subject is the words of the song, and the reasons for the writing of it.

At Boolavogue as the sun was setting
O’er the bright May meadows of Shelmalier
A rebel hand set the heather blazing
and brought the neighbours from far and near
Then Father Murphy from old Kilcormack
Spurred up the rock with a warning cry:
“Arm! Arm!” he cried, “For I’ve come to lead you
for Ireland’s freedom we’ll fight or die!”

The header picture is a view from the top of Vinegar Hill, just outside the town of Enniscorthy, Co Wexford. Above is a view of the summit of the hill: it’s peaceful in the wintry sunlight. In 1798, however, it was a scene of carnage, as the United Irishmen, led by Father John Murphy, gathered to meet the British forces. George Cruikshank, the British caricaturist, produced illustrations for a history of the Irish Rebellion written by William Maxwell in 1845: he was not kind to the Irish cause but his drawings are probably accurate in their depiction of mayhem, slaughter and atrocities which were reportedly committed by both sides.

Cruikshank’s first drawing shows the Irish encampment on the summit of Vinegar Hill: women and children are evident. The windmill, which became the rebel command centre, dates from the 1600s and can still be seen on the hill today (shown in the photograph above). Disused probably since the time of the Rebellion, it fell into serious disrepair in the 1960s and a notice was affixed to it:

“Vinegar Hill, scene of glorious battle in 1798 between Insurgents and British Crown Forces. Carefully maintained by British Government from 1803 to 1922. Abandoned by the Irish Office of Public Works when freedom obtained. Only historic monument in the care of Irish Government in Enniscorthy area. Thank God for it.”

In our travels we chanced upon the ruins of another old windmill not too far away from Enniscorthy – in Tagoat. Today it’s in poor shape (but surely worthy of conservation) – we were unable to get close to it, but Finola managed to take this view:

Cruikshank’s imagining of the Battle of Vinegar Hill (above) could be a fair depiction. The engagement took place on Midsummer’s Day in 1798 and saw a rebel army of up to 20,000 – mainly armed with pikes – pitched against military forces of 13,000. Further military forces attacked nearby Enniscorthy.

He lead us on against the coming soldiers
And the cowardly Yeomen we put to flight
‘Twas at the Harrow the boys of Wexford
Showed Bookey’s regiment how men could fight

Look out for hirelings, King George of England
Search every kingdom where breathes a slave
For Father Murphy of County Wexford
Sweeps o’er the land like a mighty wave

Father Murphy is remembered everywhere in Wexford. He has a fine memorial in Ferns (above), and a centre dedicated to him at his former home near Boolavogue. No lives were spared by the British at Vinegar Hill; rebels who escaped marched to the midlands but dissipated after failing to garner enough support to continue the uprising. Father Murphy and a companion were captured but not recognised. Even when mercilessly tortured neither man revealed their identity. Both were hanged in the market square in Tullow. The yeomen cut off Father Murphy’s head, put it on display on a spike and burned his body in a barrel of pitch.

At Vinegar Hill, O’er the pleasant Slaney
Our heroes vainly stood back to back
and the Yeos at Tullow took Father Murphy
and burnt his body upon a rack

God grant you glory, brave Father Murphy
And open Heaven to all your men
the cause that called you may call tomorrow
in another fight for the Green again

There’s a 1798 Centre in Enniscorthy, but it was closed on the day we visited. We also looked for the Father Murphy Centre at Boolavogue, but the fine iron gates leading down to it were locked up for the winter. This Irish Rebellion deserves more exposure in this Journal – something we will address in the not-too-distant future. But I am pleased to have gained a greater insight into one of my favourite Irish airs: Boolavogue. Here’s an interesting rendering of P J McCall’s version, by ‘Flying Column’ dating from 1972: it’s preceded by Seamus Heaney’s sonnet Requiem for the Croppies, inspired by these same events.

 

Viking Traces

If you want to find some remote Irish history which is a long way off the beaten track, try the city of Dublin! Just a few minutes’ drive from the edge of this bustling metropolis (and down a long, rough and muddy farm track) is a collection of carved stones which have their roots in the time of the Vikings.

Here, in the barony of Rathdown, the remains of a small ruined church date from the twelfth century, but a monastic settlement was set up long before that by St Comgall of Bangor, who lived from 520 to about 600 AD. There is the stump of a round tower here, known locally as the Skull Hole, as bones from the surrounding graveyard were thrown in here. Some say, also, that it is actually the entrance to an underground tunnel going down to the coast: furthermore, a piper was once seen to enter the tunnel playing his pipes – but was never seen again!

There is another piping tale connected with a nearby site: Puck’s Castle. A fairy piper is often seen jumping from rock to rock while also playing his pipes. We watched and listened, but in vain . . . Here are some of the noteworthy ‘modern’ gravestones in the cemetery at Rathmichael:

But the real treasure of the place are the carved stones which date from Viking times, and which are probably early Christian grave markers. They are generally known as The Rathdown Slabs. Some of these we would classify as ‘Cross Slabs’, even though, on some, the cup marks and concentric circles make us think of Prehistoric Rock Art. Well worn by time and weather we can still make out the various motifs – and we are fortunate to have good drawn records of these stones dating from a study carried out by Pádraig Ó hÉailidhe, a member of the Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, and published in volume 87 of the Journal of that Society in 1957.

Rathdown Slabs (top to bottom): 1 and 2; 8 and 9; 3 and 4 – as classified by P Ó hÉailidhe in his 1957 study

From around 850 AD we find mention of Norse names: Amláib (Olaf the White) arrived in Dublin in 853 and ruled jointly with Ímar (Norse Ívarr inn beinlausi – ‘Ivar the Boneless’). Amhláib was a Norwegian but Ímar may have been a Dane. Ímar is mentioned as ‘king of all the foreigners in Ireland’ at his death in 873. The grave slabs at Rathmichael probably date from the time when Viking settlements were established in the Dublin area, and – although we tend to think of the Vikings as plunderers of monasteries – it seems that they began to follow Christian practices once they settled in Ireland. 

Top – Rathmichael Church with its round tower and Viking graves was established on an ancient Rath or fort, in fact one of the largest in the locality: you can see the probable circular outline of the fort in this extract from the National Monuments Service Archaeological Survey Database; middle – ruins of the medieval church at Rathmichael and, lower – fragments of Bullaun Stones at the church site

Other – probably related – inscribed slabs from the wider area are recorded by Pádraig Ó hÉailidhe (below): Dalkey Castle Heritage Centre displays one of the finest of them all (left), while the Tully Slab (right) is assumed to have come from another remote church ruin close by – however I cannot find any record of its current whereabouts. If anyone can throw light on this, please let us know.

Dalkey and Tully grave slabs – drawn by Pádraig Ó hÉailidhe, 1950s

I have used the drawings by Ó hÉailidhe because they are so clear: we visited the Rathmichael site this week and were struck by how faded much of the inscription seems to be. It could be that we were not seeing the carvings in a good, clear light. Worryingly, it may also be that the stones are suffering from accelerated weathering (much as our unprotected medieval high crosses appear to be) due to acid rain and pollution. You can see for yourselves by comparing the drawings above with our own photographs, a selection of which form the tailpiece of this post.