The Castles of Ivaha

Ivaha was the name for the West Cork peninsula that was the traditional territory of the O’Mahonys. The modern name for the peninsular – the Mizen – appeared on maps as early as the 17th century but it is unclear how the name change came about. Ivaha (sometimes Ivahagh or Ivagha) is a corruption of Uibh Eachach Múmhan (pronounced Iv Ahok Moo-en), the Clan Eochy of Munster. Eochy Mac Erc was one of the mythical High Kings of Ireland, from whom the clan claimed descent, acquiring the name O’Mahony from Mahon, son of Cian, an eleventh century chieftain.

Ardintenant Castle was built on/within an existing ringfort

This expansive territory with its complex coastline was defended and controlled by a series of raths (earthen ring-forts), cashels (stone ring forts), cliff-edge and promontory forts until the 15th century, when wealthy chieftains and high-status individuals (such as bards and brehons) adopted the new style of stone fortification which we now call tower houses, or simply castles.

Rossbrin Castle. The arrow points to the location of the remaining wall of the tower house on Castle Island

And the O’Mahonys were certainly wealthy. Control of maritime resources was ensured by castles commanding all harbours and with sight-lines out to sea and to other castles, as well as by fleets of ships. The waters around Ivaha teemed with herring and pilchards, one of the staples of the Medieval European diet, once salted and processed in ‘palaces’ owned by the chieftains. Fishing dues were a lucrative source of income, as were exports of fur and wool and control of vast herds of swine which fed on the mast in the all-surrounding forests.

Several of the castles deserve an individual post (all in good time, although Robert has certainly written often about Rossbrin, see for example here and here) but for this introduction I want to lay out exactly how many O’Mahony Castles there were and how many we can see in the landscape now. Let’s start with the total number, each one underlined in red.

As you can see, there are fourteen locations indicated on the map*. Some of these may be familiar to you from previous posts we have written about the history and archaeology of West Cork, and some of them may look strange.  Dough? I hear you say – Never heard of it! Not to mention Knockeen, or Meighan.

The castles underlined in blue are certainly in O’Mahony territory, but may not have been built, or owned or occupied by O’Mahonys. There is some suggestion, and some local belief, that the tower on Castle Island may have been owned by the O’Driscolls, built for the purpose of keeping an eye on their neighbours. However, on the whole this seems highly implausible, since it is so deep within O’Mahony lands  and indeed within sight and easy reach of both Ardintenant, where the clan chieftain, (or Taoiseach) resided and Rossbrin, where the next-in-line to the chieftaincy, (known as the Táiniste) had his stronghold. 

This is the site of the graveyard and ancient church at Lissagriffin – the castle would have a short distance to the west but with the same commanding view

Lissagriffin, Castlemehigan and Doagh Castle may have been built for or by the Mehigans, the traditional bards to the O’Mahonys. According to John O’Mahony,** A well-endowed hereditary family of Bards was considered to be an indispensable appendage of every considerable Chieftain’s establishment. Canon O’Mahony goes on to say

In process of time, if not from the beginning of the new chieftaincy, the western O’Mahony employed another Bardic family, that of O’Mehigan, and endowed them with some three hundred acres of land in Kilmoe (as appears from the Inquisition of Dermod O’Mehigan taken in 1623), and with the wardership of a castle―Castle Mehigan―built by the Chieftain, as, of course, it could not have been built from their own limited resources.

Other authorities posit that the O’Mehigans had not one but three castles of their own. The arrow below indicates the approximate location of Castle Mehigan.

Finally, there is Dunkelly. This one is traditionally associated with the pirate, Canty, and you can read all about him and his exploits in Robert’s post, Canty.

The view from where Dunkelly Castle was sited, looking up Dunmanus Bay

Some of these castles may be unfamiliar to those of you who already know most of these sites. That’s because there is nothing left of them. Besides the O’Mehigan and Canty castles, which have totally disappeared, there is now no longer any trace of the O’Mahony castes at Knockeen, Ballydivlin and Crookhaven. Knockeen, across the bay from Dunmanus Castle, may never have been completed. According to ‘Finnerty’ writing in the Southern Star in 1935, a ‘wise stranger’ came along as the castle was being built and warned that it would fall into the sea – so all operations were moved across the bay to the current location of Dunmanus Castle.

The two red dots on the north side of Dunmanus Harbour mark the site of Knockeen Castle, which was built (or started) on an existing cliff-edge fort. The red dot on the south side is Dunmanus Castle

Ballydivlin, sometimes called Ballydesmond,  was still standing, according to Healy, until the middle of the nineteenth century when it was demolished and its stones used for road making. Likewise, Bishop Dive Downes, visiting Crookhaven in 1700 described the walls of an old castle in the middle of what is now the village. Both Crookhaven and Ballydivlin (the photograph below shows where it was) followed the pattern of strategic siting to dominate the entrances to harbours.

Of those we have left, Dunbeacon and Castle Island are vestigial – only parts of one or two walls remain. Dunbeacon is my lead photograph – you can see not only how little is left, but also how strategically sited it was, with views right down Dunmanus Bay.

Rossbrin is in a perilous state, having been battered by storms over the years and with cracks and holes in its walls (above). And so we are left with seven of the original fourteen castles – the ones underlined in green, below.

But the final four castles of Ivaha – Ardintenant (White Castle), Dunmanus, Leamcon (Black Castle) and Dunlough (Three Castle Head) are all relatively intact, and Leamcon (below) has been stabilised and preserved by its dedicated owner. 

Future posts will describe the defining characteristics of the Castle of Ivaha and explore what we can learn from those that can still yield information.

Three Castle Head

*map, and information where noted, based on James N Healy’s The Castles of County Cork, Mercier Press, 1988

**A History of the O’Mahony Septs of Kinelmeky and Ivagha, Rev Canon John O’Mahony, Glenville, Crookstown, Journal of the Cork Archaeological and Historical Society, various issues, 1906-10

Kerry Leftovers

We spent a couple of days in Kerry a week before midsummer, and gave you some account of our discoveries on Church Island, Lough Currane, and up in the hills at Caherlehillan – both memorable Early Christian sites. Our adventures did not end there: we managed to take in, also, some other ancient treasures, a couple of Kerry characters, and some stunning scenery – hard to match – as we travelled back to West Cork along the Ring of Kerry road (above).

Firstly, here are Charlie Chaplin and Michael Collins (above), both familiar figures in Waterville. The Hollywood star spent his summer holidays in the coastal town for many years with his family and is commemorated by a bronze statue, while Michael can be found on most days in this much photographed location, always ready to entertain with Kerry polkas and slides on his accordion.

Here’s a much earlier Kerry musician: he’s known as ‘The Fiddler’, and is an unusual medieval representation of an instrumentalist found in the romanesque ruin on Church Island, Lough Currane. I was pleased to find this photograph in the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Notes from 1908 by P J Lynch as it shows the carving as it was found by the OPW when they took over the site. Now the original, which had suffered accelerated weathering, is kept protected in a museum while a well-worn replica is in place on the site. I believe the carving is a good representation of a medieval bowed lyre, an instrument with six strings which survives today in some cultures, although Lynch gave the following commentary:

. . . The interest in this stone centres in the musical instrument. The examples of ancient carving in Ireland representing stringed instruments are few, and confined to harpers. The photograph illustrates this instrument very clearly. It is the ancient cruit or fidil, said to be the parent of the violin. There are six strings indicated by sunken lines in the stone. The figure appears to wear a kind of tight-fitting tunic. Dr O’Sullivan states that the word fidil being a teutonic version of the original name vièle, it may be concluded that the original instrument was introduced through the Anglo-Saxons, and not through the Normans. He adds that up to the eleventh century it consisted of a conical body, and after that it became oval. If this be a portion of the twelfth-century instrument, the older pattern must have survived. The Kerry people were probably as unwilling to change in those days as they are at present . . .

P J Lynch – Some notes on church island – RSAI 1908

Our trip out to Church Island (above) was accompanied by moody weather, but we were fortunate with other expeditions which included the discovery of ancient sites in the townland of Srugreana (Srúbh Gréine in Irish, which is translated variously as sunny stream, gravelly stream or – my favourite – snout of the sun: Kerry certainly offers some tricky pronunciations for those unfamiliar with the area, or the language!).

This extract from the 6″ OS map, dating from the mid-1800s, shows one area we explored on our Kerry day. It throws up some enigmas: Killinane Church (the church of Saint Lonan or Lonáin) is often referred to as Srugreana Abbey, but this is a separate site indicated further to the north-west on the early plan.

The church site at Srugreana is remarkable in many ways. A 2012 survey commissioned by Kerry County Council Heritage Office found there are at least 1,290 unhewn, uninscribed gravemarkers around the medieval church, and a significant number of ‘house type’ tombs, some of which are ‘two-storey’, like the one above. The concentration of graves – many of which cannot be dated – suggests how populous this now remote area was at one time.

The main purpose of our visit to Srugreana was to search out a holy well dedicated to Saint Gobnait (above). The expedition was led by Amanda, who runs the Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry website. You need to read her comprehensive article on this particular saint here. Interestingly, while we were visiting the well we met the new owner of the land on which it sits. She had no idea that there was a holy well here, and also was unaware of its apparently recent renovation! Note the crosses carved on the stones by visiting pilgrims, above.

From the above accounts, and our two previous posts, you can tell that we had a most productive time exploring just one small area in the ‘Kingdom’ of Kerry. I am rounding off this entry with some more photographs of our journey back along the coast. The weather gave of its best for this county which is our neighbour, and we will continue to explore it and look for more archaeological gems. Keep reading!

Caherlehillan

The Iveragh is the largest of the Atlantic peninsulas of Ireland: it is, perhaps, also the most romantically named. In Irish it is Uíbh Ráthach – ‘descendants of Ráthach‘. But we don’t know who Ráthach might have been: a Gaelic chieftain, a notable family – ancient inhabitants lost even to legend? Certainly this terrain is amongst the wildest and most beautiful in this green island. Today we are focussing on just one Kerry townland which encompasses a deep vein of history stretching back to prehistoric times.

The townland of Caherlehillan is defined by mountains. To the north is Knocknadobar (header and above), to the east Mullaghnarakill, and to the south Caunoge. The Fertha River flows down from Coomacarrea and creates a long, fertile valley floor which opens to Valencia Harbour at Cahersiveen.

It would be reasonable to assume that the river valley would have supported communities in ancient times, and the recorded archaeology of the area confirms this. The earliest antiquities include a Bronze Age stone row and – possibly Neolithic – Rock Art, explored and recorded by Finola fifty years ago: an eager student travelling alone through the wildernesses on a borrowed Honda 50!

Upper picture – stone row in Caherlehillan townland; lower – Finola’s drawing of Rock Art made in 1973 for her UCC thesis. Note the cruciform motif at the southern end of this large sandstone boulder: it is probable that this carving dates from a later period, and may have indicated its use as a Mass Rock in penal times. However, the ‘Patriarchal Cross’ format is unusual in this context, and warrants further study. Since Finola travelled those boreens, many more examples of Rock Art have been revealed in the area and are now identified on the Sites and Monuments records. On our visit to Caherlehillan we searched the hillsides in vain for some of these more recently discovered panels (below).

This further representation of Rock Art (above), also recorded by Finola, lies on the borders of the townlands of Caherlehillan and Gortnagulla: the motifs are quite unusual.

The central feature of Caherlehillan is the Caher (above), which gives the townland its name. The suffix ‘lehillan’ is probably from the Irish Leith-Uilleann, meaning half-angle, or elbow. There is a sharp bend in the Fertha River below the settlement, and it is most likely that this natural feature gave rise to the nomenclature. A Caher (Irish Cathair) is a stone fort, and is distinguished from a typical earthen rath, or ring-fort, by its size and construction. Forts, whether stone or earthen, were the dwelling places and shelters of people who lived in the first millennium in Ireland. Generally, stone-built forts were larger than earthen examples and are likely to have been inhabited by higher status families or communities. They would have been impressive structures and good views over the surrounding landscape was a requisite. Interestingly, the word Cathair is also given the meaning ‘city’ – ‘monastic city and settlement’ – and ‘Paradise’ (Teannglann). All of these could be relevant, as close to this Caher is an early ecclesiastical settlement.

This picture shows the spectacular setting of the Caher; the previous views show the extent of the enclosing stonework. Today it is a desolate place: many of the walls have been partially dismantled for use elsewhere, and the only close habitation is a single farm dwelling just below the fort. In this remote yet beautiful site it is hard to imagine the activity that was focussed here a thousand years ago.

Just to the west of the lone farmhouse is a small enclosure, bounded by stone walls. It would be easy to overlook this, but for one feature which stands out (above). It catches the eye because it is so unusual: a square box structure with stone sides and corner posts, and two upright engraved cross-slabs facing down the valley. Quartz rocks form a raised bed within the square. Around this ‘box’ are a number of low, unshaped stones set in the ground. This was long thought to have been just a children’s burial ground – a Ciilín or Ceallúnach, but we now know that this was a later use. Between 1994 and 2004 the site was substantially investigated and excavated by students from University College Cork’s Department of Archaeology under the direction of John Sheehan, with remarkable results.

. . . Recent excavations at the early medieval ecclesiastical site at Caherlehillan, Co Kerry, have resulted in the discovery of important information on its initial development and structure. The ritual core of the site, consisting of a church, cemetery and shrine (which probably originated as a ‘special’ or founder’s grave), dates to what is probably the formative phase of Christianity in the south-west of Ireland. The picture emerges of a site that was conceived and built as a coherent entity in accordance with a clear conceptual template . . .

John Sheehan, A Peacock’s Tail: Excavations at Caherlehillan, Ivereagh, 2009

These two illustrations are from the Sheehan / UCC Excavation summary. The photograph is a good representation of the two upright cross-slabs, while the illustration shows two fragments which were found during excavation. Both show the same motif displayed on the smaller slab, yet each representation is to a different scale. This motif therefore occurs three times at this site.

This is the plan that was made at the commencement of excavation, showing the ecclesiastical site at Caherlehillan. The south-eastern boundary is a built-up stone retaining wall (shown on the photograph below), and the indicated embankment above the later roadway implies that this site was originally circular in form (courtesy John Sheehan). Carbon dating of excavated materials suggest a date of mid-5th to early 6th centuries for the earliest activity on the site, while activity appears to have ceased beyond the 8th century. Most importantly, the excavations revealed – to the north-east of the ‘shrine’ – the foundations of a timber church dating from the 5th century – possibly the earliest church remains ever found in Ireland.

The photograph above is from Church Island on Lough Currane, Co Kerry, a site which we visited recently. It shows the shrine of Saint Fionán Cam, who was the founder of that ecclesiastical settlement. The island foundation was set up in the sixth century, and the name of the holy man and his exploits are recorded for us to observe today. Sheehan suggests that the ‘box’ at the Caherlehillan site is also a founder’s shrine, but we have no record of who this ‘saint’ or holy man was. Four hundred years of occupation of the site have, apparently, left him without a name, either through inscription, implication or oral tradition.

The upper picture shows a detail of the carving on the smaller cross slab at Caherlehillan. Sheehan (and others) suggest that the bird representation is in fact a peacock, which features frequently in early Christian art. This is because the wonderful plumage of the bird is entirely renewed every year, through moulting, and this symbolizes the underlying Christian theme of death and resurrection. The relief carving (above) from Northern Italy is dated to the 8th century and shows two confronted peacocks, ” . . .symbols of paradise and immortality in early Christian and Byzantine art . . . “. Sheehan in fact goes further, suggesting that the symbols on the shrine stones at Caherlehillan show a direct link with early Christian influences from the Mediterranean, something that is borne out by ceramic fragments also recovered from his excavations. These are of of ‘Bii type’, a form of pottery of north-eastern Mediterranean origin that may be firmly dated to the period between the late 5th and mid-6th centuries.

So there we have it: a small, remote settlement in a wild Kerry mountainside that has given up its ancient secrets to us. Dwellers there left us enigmatic Rock Art, possibly 5,000 years ago. Their descendants populated the fertile valley, farming the land and building here a prestigious stone fort, while nearby – and contemporary with that fort – was established perhaps the very earliest Christian foundation in Ireland! Today the place is sparse and rugged but, in keeping with Ireland’s spirit, breathing with an almost remembered past.

The researches and writings of John Sheehan, lecturer in Archaeology at University College Cork have been invaluable in formulating this post.

Elizabethan Map of a Turbulent West Cork

The Elizabethans were map-makers, especially if they needed information for the purpose of wars and conquests. I was first alerted to this extraordinary map of West Cork by a reference in the O’Mahony Journal (subscription needed) and then to a piece written on it for the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society in 1958 by P O’Keeffe who labelled it a Map of Beare and Bantry. Neither of these sources had a good image of the map and so, intrigued, I sent off a request for a digital copy to the British National Archives. It arrived by return email, at no charge. What a service! (Irish national repositories take note.) Here is the complete map.

While it is clear that this map dates to the Elizabethan period, there are many questions about it: who did it, for what purpose, exactly when? For this post I want to go through elements of the map and identify, as far as possible, what it depicts. A subsequent post will deal with what is actually going on – that is, what are the actions that are being chronicled. Let’s start with the fact that the map is quite accurate. It depicts the three peninsulas of West Cork – the Mizen, the Sheep’s Head and the Beara – and the inlets in between them. It is oriented east-west rather than our modern convention of north-south, but the cardinal points are clearly identified. The map is drawn on paper, with the sea coloured in blue and the islands in brown. I have provided maps below of the same area, the first in our typical north-south orientation and the second as it is orientated in the historical map.

The sea is shown teeming with ships – warships and galleys. Taking a closer look at the two north of Bear Island we see two different ships, one light and one dark. Each is in full sail, with men on the riggings and in the look-outs. They have cannons emerging from the hull, a trumpeter aft and a bugler on the bow-spit.

As a reference, here is a painting by Andries van Aervelt showing the kinds of ships that were engaged in The Battle of the Narrow Seas (1585) – both the full-sail warships are shown as well as galleys.

Galleys were also deployed here, shown between Bear Island and the mainland (below). The lead galley has a trumpeter on the bow, while the second galley shows a man blowing a horn in the stern and what looks like a drummer on the bow (like those ramming speed scenes in Ben Hur). The rowers were often convicts and the life of a galley rower was brutal. This map shows a single row of oars. Galleys essentially provided platforms upon which armed soldiers could shoot, and had the advantage of being more stable than sailing ships and often faster, depending on wind and swell. 

Another warship (below) is rounding the tip of the Beara , heading for Dursey Sound. Dursey Island has both a church and a castle on it. There isn’t much trace of this now, but there was an O’Sullivan castle on a small grassy peninsula on Dursey, described as two rectangular buildings with a rectangular enclosure in the National Monuments records. It was destroyed in 1602 (more about that in the next post) along with what was then left of the church, known as Kilmichael, which was already in a ruinous state. At the right, in this section of the map, are two rocky islands, one with a set of steps leading up to a church. Could this be Skellig Michael? The other candidate is Scariff Island, off Lamb’s Head, which had a monastic settlement and hermit’s cell on it.

Let’s take a look now at the area around Bantry (below). The large church is of course the Franciscan Abbey that stood here, where the graveyard is located There is a church shown on the aptly-named Chapel Island between the mainland and Whiddy (no trace if it now remains), and both a church and a castle on Whiddy.

The fragmentary remans of an ecclesiastical enclosure can still be seen at the graveyard on Whiddy, while the O’Sullivan Castle has only one wall still partly standing. That’s it, below.

The hinterland of the Beara is shown with trees and animals. Either this is a hunting scene with dogs chasing a stag, or it is meant to show the wildness of the interior, with wolves and deer. Settlements are indicated by churches surrounded by a cluster of cabins (not that different from Irish villages up until recently), and there is a castle labelled Ardhey and O Sulyvans Ho. This is likely to be the ruined casted of Ardea, which actually stands on the other side of the Kenmare River – the Iveragh side rather than the Beara side.

The final depiction I want to highlight is of the Mizen. Several towers dot the  landscape as well as two substantial castles, one of which is under siege. 

Which castles are these – especially the one being attacked? Tune in next week!

Half a Kerry Day

Kerry is an Irish county rich in history and archaeology. Our day was spent in the company of the ‘Saints’ – a term given to devout men and women who set themselves apart, leading small communities in the remotest of places, dedicated to order, prayer, knowledge, and the contemplation of humanity. Traces of these medieval ecclesiastical sites abound in Ireland, (sometimes described as The Land of Saints and Scholars), and we are always eager to search them out.

The header and the picture above are from Church Island, formerly known as Inis Uasal (meaning Island of the nobles), on Lough Currane near Waterville. The Lough – also known as Loch Luioch or Leeagh – is a substantial body of water, about 1,000 hectares in area. It is fed by the Cumneragh River in the north, Isknagahiny in the east, and drains to Ballinskelligs Bay at its south-western end. This Aerial view (below) shows the Lough in context, while the 6″ OS map extract dates from the 1840s.

We were fortunate to be taken to the island by Tom O’Shea. He is the owner of the island today, and a mine of information on its history and traditions associated with it. He is also a Ghillie – anciently the attendant of a Gaelic chief, whose job it was to carry the chief across a river or lake – but in the present day an organiser of fishing or hunting expeditions: Lough Currane is one of Ireland’s premier sea trout fisheries. We hired Tom to carry us across the water to this ancient sanctuary which had been occupied by saints and monks for over a thousand years!

That’s Tom ferrying us across the lake in the upper picture – only two at a time due to Covid restrictions. Above is my picture of the rest of our group on the island, with Tom in the centre explaining the geography and history of this remarkable place. The day was organised by our good friends Amanda and Peter Clarke, and we had along with us friends from Kerry – David and Janet, all of us discovering this gem for the first time.

The monastic foundation on Church Island was set up by Saint Fionán Cam in the sixth century. Cam means ‘bent’ or ‘squint-eyed’, and it is significant that the name already gives us a picture of the man – a picture which has survived in local tradition for more than fifteen hundred years. One of the most impressive aspects of this island is that some of the historic structures date from the time of the saint – the one above is known as his oratory, or ‘cell’. This is a ‘gallurus’ type of oratory, and would have been roofed completely in corbelled stone: the upper part of the roof has fallen. Archaeologists do not agree over the dating of the structure, but local tradition is clear that it was built by the saint himself, and his community. At its eastern end is a low doorway with two roof boxes above, while opposite is a small, rectangular ‘squint’. It has been noted that the opes of this oratory align with the sunrise at midsummer. As that is almost upon us as I write, it is appropriate that we should have visited at this time of the year. The old photograph is courtesy of the National Library of Ireland Lawrence Collection, dating from the late 1800s. Below is the same view today: the ivy and creeper growth has been removed, revealing the roof box ‘slots’.

Fionán Cam was an important figure in Kerry: he is regarded as one of the three coinnle – or ‘candles’ of the Múscraighe, and descended from Conaire Cóem, High King of Munster. His birth was miraculous, his mother Beagnad – a virgin – having conceived while swimming in Killarney Lake, with a salmon. There are numerous dedications to this Fionán in the west of Ireland, but most traditions link him to Lough Currane and he is reputed to be buried beneath one of the three Leachta – or shrines – on the island, within the enclosure of the Romanesque church at its eastern end.

The OPW took over the archaeology of the island in 1880 and this illustration (above) from the Duchas information board shows pilgrims paying their devotions at the Leachta in 1000 AD. Nearly a century and a half on, the OPW has not yet completed their work on the island! There were plans to restore the west doorway of the twelfth century church (below), but this has not happened.

One of the Leachta (shrines) in the church enclosure. This probably marks the burial place of a later saint (or holy man) – Anmchad Ua Dúnchada – described as ‘anchorite of God’ in the Annals of Inisfallen, which states that he was buried here in 1058. Close by this shrine, and shown in the photograph above, is an inscribed slab on which can still be read the inscription to him:

The eleven stone slabs – mentioned on the Duchas information board – are beautiful examples of this medieval craft: some are displayed now within the church building, although still open to the elements. Nevertheless they are surviving reasonably well.

One carved stone from Church Island is very unusual, being a rare representation of a musician. Known as ‘the fiddler’ the figure is clearly playing a stringed instrument with a bow. It is thought to be a lyre, an instrument which came to Europe in the eleventh century. This is the only known early representation of a lyre found in Ireland. In fact, the stone that we saw is a replica (on the left, below), which has become very weathered: the original (right) is being conserved in museum conditions.

There are other early buildings on the island, including the base of a ‘beehive hut’, said to have been the home of the early saint.

Some quite fine examples of graffiti by visitors to the island, on the Romanesque church walls: some of it dates from the nineteenth century.

Our visit to Church Island only occupied half of our Kerry day. We had more treats from medieval times – and earlier – in our explorations later on. These will have to wait for another post, but here are some tasters:

Back to Clonfert

Clonfert is only a couple of counties over from us: we just have to skip through a bit of Cork and Tipperary and there we are in Galway – a tiny corner of it that is shaped by the River Shannon. So, on a Thursday afternoon at the beginning of June, we found ourselves tripping along dead straight boreens – narrow for the most part – taking us through lush dairy lands – on a quest to revisit Clonfert’s medieval Cathedral, and its associations with one of Ireland’s most famous saints: Brendan the Navigator.

As we approached the little settlement of Clonfert, our empty road ahead was interrupted by a small white car, which seemed to travel erratically from one side of the lane to the other, and our arrival made little difference to its progress. As we got near, we realised that there was a wiry Jack Russell ambling along the road in front of the car: it was clear that the terrier was having its daily walk, with the owner driving along protectively behind it, regardless of where its fancy might take it. Ah, sure – we were in no hurry, so we joined the procession and waited as the dog sniffed and shuffled its way back home: eventually, dog, car and owner vanished through a gate, and we had the road to ourselves once again . . . This is life in Ireland, and it’s good!

Clonfert’s grandly styled ‘Cathedral’ is so important historically, yet it could hardly be more remotely situated. From the east (upper picture above) it looks like many another Church of Ireland building, maybe not worth a second glance – unless, like us, you can’t resist examining every unturned stone because there is invariably something unexpected to be found under it. Just turn the corner and have a look at the west entrance door:

That doorway, with its exquisite decoration dating probably from the 12th century, has been described as ‘the supreme expression of Romanesque decoration in Ireland’. The carvings, although suffering from hundreds of years of wear and tear from the Irish elements, still display an extraordinary richness and variety: we can only wonder at the inspiration, skill and knowledge of the carver, who must have been deeply immersed in both lore and craft. Tadhg O’Keeffe, current Professor of Archaeology at University College Dublin, suggests a date of c1180 for this doorway. Records state that the church was burnt during a Viking raid in 1179, the same year in which a synod was held there by St Laurence O’Toole; installation of this imposing entrance may be connected with these events. Finola’s post today also explores Romanesque carvings not too far away, at Clonmacnoise. She has also written on Clonfert’s architecture in her Irish Romanesque series.

St Brendan lived from 484 to 577. We saw his birthplace in Fenit, Co Kerry, a few years ago. He founded many monasteries in Ireland but arranged for his body to be taken secretly to Clonfert Cathedral for burial as he didn’t want his remains to be disinterred by relic hunters. His grave is a stone slab just outside the great west door. On it are said to be the marks of cats’ paws – interestingly linked, according to folklore, with the many carvings of cats’ heads on the doorway arches.

When we first visited Clonfert, many years ago, the cathedral itself was closed and we went away with the impression that we had seen all the wonders that the place had to offer by our explorations of the outside of the building and its setting. We were wrong: on this occasion the door was unlocked and there were unexpected treats hidden for us in the interior.

Further carvings decorate the church walls: they vary in date and style, but all are fascinating. Here is a selection – notice the seemingly random arrangement of heads and animal features on the great 15th century chancel arch, above.

Angels, cross-slabs, a wyvern and, astonishingly, this fine mermaid complete with comb and mirror. I have found very little information to identify why these various carvings are found here in the Cathedral, apart from general legends which suggests links with Saint Brendan.

The carved stone head was found ‘in the ceiling’ when restoration work was carried out in 1985. It is said to date from around 1500, while the ancient and beautiful font is attributed to the thirteenth century. We could linger and feast on further treasures inside the church, but we need to look at the surroundings, which reveal yet more history.

This extract from the 25″ OS map – late nineteenth century – shows the cathedral and some of the landscape features associated with it. We came here a few years ago, when we were researching Ireland’s waterways, following in the footsteps of English writer L T C Rolt. In his book ‘Green & Silver’ we read of his admiration for Saint Brendan, and his determination to find the grave at Clonfert, which he did in 1946. His book is illustrated with photographs taken by his wife Angela, and the one picture from Clonfert which is used in the book is this one of the ‘Yew Walk’ which was laid out as part of the gardens of the Bishop’s Palace, which you can see marked on the map.

Our own photo of the Yew Walk at Clonfert was taken a few days ago. You can see that it survives, although neglected today. Some of the yew trees are said to be up to 500 years old. From the map you can also see that the Yew Walk connected the Cathedral to the 16th century ‘Clonfert Palace’, and was set out as an ornamental cruciform route, suggesting the path that might have been taken by the monks a thousand years ago. When we explored previously, we discovered the ruins of the Palace at the end of the Yew Walk, and wondered why it has been left in this state (since 1954, as we subsequently learned). The answer to that is fascinating, and I urge you to read my full account from that first visit, here. Below is a photo dating from c1950, showing the Palace at that time (with thanks to Dr Christy Cunniffe). My own photos from this week’s visit follow.

Clonfert might have been a very different place today if Queen Elizabeth had been listened to:

 . . . We are desirous that a college should be erected in the nature of a university in some convenient place in Irelande, for instruction and education of youth in learning. And we conceive the town of Clonfert within the province of Connaught to be aptlie seated both for helth and comodity of ryver Shenen running by it . . .

Queen Elizabeth, Letter to the Bishop Of Clonfert, 1579

The Queen’s advice was not taken up, and Trinity College Dublin was established instead – in 1592 – becoming Ireland’s first University.

The site at Clonfert is so interesting – and covers so many periods in Ireland’s history – right up to the 20th century. It was well worth revisiting – and will merit further visits in the future, too. I’ll leave you with one aspect that probably impressed us most this time around. It’s the Bishop’s Throne which is hidden in the shadows of the Cathedral chancel. Carved from oak, most likely in the 19th century, it is a wonderful representation of Saint Brendan himself, surrounded by the Four Evangelists, crafted in the style of the Book of Kells. Look at him, also, on the header. Here is the Irish saint who set sail out on a voyage into the unknown – seeking Paradise – and discovered the World!