Off the M8 – Kilree Monastic Site

Kilree is possibly the most perfectly contained and atmospheric site you will visit in Ireland. I defy you not to be enchanted with its leafy depths, its air of antiquity, and evidence of continued use. (I would also vote for Monaincha in Tipperary, a site that deserves its own post one of these days).

When you’re travelling from Cork to Dublin it’s easy to leave the M8 at Cahir and travel cross-country to join the M9. There are numerous sites to visit if you take this option: most recently we have written about Fethard and its Medieval Walls, but we also did a post about Kells Priory a long time ago (The Hallowed Fortress) and it remains one of our favourite sites and one of the most impressive monastic sites in Ireland. And don’t go without your copy of Ireland’s Ancient East by Neil Jackman – it’s our constant companion and a great resource. It’s available on Amazon but why not patronise your favourite bookstore?

Kells Priory, just up the road from Kilree and one of Ireland’s most impressive religious complexes

It’s a great contrast to Kilree. If you haven’t been to Kells Priory yet, try to take them both in, in the same day. What you will see is a typical example of an Early Medieval Irish monastic site (Kilree) and an excellent example of a large 12th to fifteenth century Augustinian Priory built to withstand the turbulent history of Kilkenny in those centuries. The monks in Kilree were living the life of Irish monastics in a pattern set down in the 6th century, while the Augustinians were mainstream European clerics invited over by the Normans.

Inside Kells Priory

The other things about Kilree is that it’s unspoiled (except for one thing – I’ll get to that later) and in Ireland, that means that the farmer who owns the land is using it. There’s a Bull sign on the gate and indeed there he was, with all his frisky bullock friends. We thought our chances of crossing the field were slim, but two friendly ladies on horseback offered to draw the attention of the cattle away from us so off we dashed while they were distracted, not giving much thought to how we might get back again.

Having charged off down the field after the horses (which were on the other side of the hedge) the bullocks, followed at a dignified pace by the bull) ended up beside the high cross so we decided to leave well enough alone and not venture over to that quarter. A distant shot will have to suffice for this post, but you can see excellent images of this cross at the Irish High Crosses website, and we thank them for that since this is the closest we will get for the moment.

But there was so much to see within the monastic enclosure. First, the round tower – it is missing its conical cap but apart from that it’s complete and in good shape. Brian Lalor, in his book The Irish Round Tower, assigns it an 11th century date based partly on the simple doorway. The arch, he points out, has been cut from the soffit of a monolithic lintel which is now cracked.

Crenellations were added to the top in later medieval times (you can see them in the first image) – the tower must have been renovated for some kind of defensive purpose at that time. When the Ordnance Survey folks came around in 1839 it was possible to climb to the top by means of rope ladders. There is no access now, apart from by the rooks and crows who have left evidence of their prodigious nest-building.

Lalor also points out that the round tower is perched on the circular boundary wall of an old churchyard which probably represents the position of the inner rampart of the monastic enclosure. What did such a monastic enclosure look like? I’ve used an illustration from a marvellous book called The Modern Traveller to the Early Irish Church, by Kathleen Hughes and Ann Hamlin (second edition, Four Courts Press, 1997). The site illustrated (Nendrum, County Down) was enclosed by three circular walls, a not-unusual configuration although one and two enclosing walls are also found. There is no real evidence left at Kilree for a second or third wall, but the location of the high cross indicates the likelihood of an outer wall.

The church is of an early form, rectangular, with antae at either end. To understand how this fits in with the architecture of the period, see my post Irish Romanesque – an Introduction. The nave, or main part of the church probably dates to the 10th or 11th century, but a chancel was added later, probably in the 12th century, by means of an inexpert Romanesque arch, which eventually had to be shored up with an even more awkward-looking inner arch.

Upper: East wall with buttresses added in 1945; Lower: The earlier Romanesque arch is clearly visible above the later one

The whole place was repaired by the Office of Public Works in the 1940s and it was they who built the buttresses which have successfully kept the east wall from falling down.

Upper: Looking through the linteled doorway into the nave and the chancel beyond; Lower: Looking towards the nave from the chancel. The chest tomb is on the right

There are several thirteenth to fifteenth century cross slabs within the church but the seventeenth century chest tomb just inside the chancel is the most interesting.

It’s hard to decipher as it’s faded and covered in lichen, but here is the description of it taken from the National Monuments listing:

Latin inscription, in a margin around the edge of the upper slab, was transcribed by Carrigan as, ‘Hic jacet Dns. Richardus Comerford quondam de Danginmore qui obit [date left uncut] et Dna Joanna St. Leger uxor eis pia hospitalis et admodum in omnes misericors matron quae obit 4 die October A. 1622’ and translated as, ’Here lie Mr. Richard Comerford, formerly of Danganmore, who died [left blank] and Johanna St. Leger, his wife, a matron pious, hospitable, and charitable to all, who died Oct 4th, 1622’. The front slab. . . is decorated with the symbols of the Passion flanked with stylised fluted pillars which taper towards the base. The symbols from dexter to sinister include a ladder, entwined ropes, a spear, dice and a seamless garment, 30 pieces of silver and beside them a bag with two straps, a cross ringed with a crown of thorns, a heart pierced with nails and pierced hands and feet above and below this, a scourge on either side of a plant, a cock on a three-legged pot, a sword, a chalice, a hammer, and pincer holding 3 nails and two sheaves of wheat. 

Can you recognise the details from the NM description?

Outside the church, the graveyard is quiet and picturesque, but I couldn’t help noticing the absence of vegetation of any sort. Older photographs I have seen show a covering of grass, and I suspect that somebody has been in here with the Roundup – I told you I would get to the one problem I have with this site, and this is it. It may be historically and archaeologically fascinating and important, but the ground itself is a dead zone – no biodiversity here. And that’s a pity because there was a swarm of bees about to settle in one of the trees. They will have to look outside the site for pollen.

We saw many old gravestones, dating from the early eighteenth century and into the current day. But the one that caught my eye was this one – all the instruments of the passion clearly carved for John Brenan, who died in 1772. Can you recognise and name them all?

I know you’re wondering how we made it back across the field. Well fortunately, the cattle stayed over by the hight cross and we sneaked back across without attracting their attention. I can’t decide whether their presence added to the experience or not, but it certainly made it more exciting, even though we didn’t get to see the high cross up close. Kilrea is a very special place, I think. I am hoping that next time we go back the grass will have been allowed to grow again.

Oldest Lighthouse in the World!

It’s a bit off the beaten track, but we had to make the journey to visit the oldest working lighthouse in the world! It’s right at the southern tip of the Hook Peninsula, in County Wexford. Maybe it’s an extravagant claim that it is the ‘oldest in the world’: there is another ‘oldest’ lighthouse – The Tower of Hercules – in Galicia, northern Spain, which is said to have been built in the 2nd century. However, the Tower of Hercules was given a major restoration at the end of the 18th century, including a new neoclassical facade, with the original Roman structure retained behind this. Wexford’s assertion that the main visible structure of the Hook Lighthouse – both inside and out – is exactly what was built in the 13th century, perhaps gives it the edge. I was delighted to find, incidentally, that the Tower of Hercules has an Irish connection: it is mentioned in the 11th century Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Invasions of Ireland). If you recall my account of the story of Cesaire – the first person ever to set foot on Irish soil – you will remember that on her travels away from Egypt in the years before the Great Flood Cesaire stopped off in Spain and climbed to the top of a very tall tower from which she could see, in the distance, Ireland’s wonderful green land, and from there she travelled on to arrive on Ireland’s shores in Bantry Bay. Well, according to tradition, it was the Tower of Hercules which she climbed!

Header – the bulky main structure of the tower dates from the 13th century – its walls are four metres thick. The chambers within the tower are stone vaulted (above)

The lowest tier of the tower consists of three storeys, and has a base diameter of 13 metres. Each storey has a vaulted stone ceiling. Above this is the narrower section – 6 metres in diameter – which would have supported the original brazier, kept burning at all times to warn ships of the rocky ‘Hook’ of land at the entrance to the channel leading up to the port of New Ross – the most important in Ireland in the 13th century.

Upper – an exploded view of the structure of the lighthouse, one of the exhibits on the guided tour; centre – the whole tower: the topmost section, housing the electric lighting system, is relatively modern; lower – the treacherous rocks around the shore of the Hook 

But there was, in fact, a light burning on this headland for hundreds of years before the construction we see today: this was a beacon fire established by Saint Dubhán, a monk from Wales, in the 5th century. Dubhán came to Ireland as a missionary, and built his monastic settlement a little way inland: this is marked today by the medieval ruins of a church and burial ground.

Dubhán’s monastic site not far from Hook Head. It was the saint who set up the first beacon light on this peninsula

The lighthouse we see today was built by Strongbow’s son-in-law William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke (1147 – 1219). He constructed it and made sure that the light was maintained in perpetuity to fulfil a promise he made when he was threatened with shipwreck off the Hook while trying to get into the port of New Ross. Marshall is one of the medieval hero-warriors: known as ‘The Greatest Knight’ he is at the centre of many legends. Turtle Bunbury gives a good account of him here.

William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke is very much in evidence at Hook Head: you can even hear him telling his own story when you are in the lighthouse (above)!

If you find your way to Hook Head Lighthouse today you are in for many treats. Firstly, it’s good to know that it is open to visitors all the year round, and guided tours are always available (you can only go inside the tower with a guide). Also there is a welcome heritage centre on site with a shop and cafe – and a fine pirate-themed children’s playground.

Saint Dubhán and his followers are remembered through the displays in Hook Head Lighthouse: the mural above shows the first beacon established by the 5th century saint

It’s a grand day out, if you happen to be within reach of the Wexford coast. There are so many strands of Ireland’s multi-facetted history to be traced here: the earliest missionary monks, Norman Knights, sea-travel through the ages, connections with the medieval world – and a wonderful piece of early Irish architecture still serving its original function.

Coleenlemane – A Walk into History

Finola has written about the destination of our adventures yesterday – the inscribed ‘caves’ at Coleenlemane. Above is a photo of the view from the ‘cave’ entrance, looking back at the glen which we journeyed across. My post today is about that journey on foot through decades of human history and thousands of years of topographical transformation.

Upper – looking back and leaving the world behind: a rough track climbs up from the entrance to the Coleenlemane valley and very soon we were absorbed into the wild emptiness of the mountainsides (lower)

When I looked into the furthest reaches of the glen as we made our way over the rocky track I saw first, in my mind’s eye, the movement of the glacier which shaped it – the splintering, shuddering path it took and the debris it left in its wake: strangely distorted outcrops and huge erratic boulders feigning dice unrestrainedly scattered by a random hand.

Scribings on the rocks in the glen of Coleenlemane: these are made by nature (and the movement of glaciers) long before humans appeared in Ireland. I often wonder whether observation of these marks could have inspired our earliest artists?

Then I couldn’t help the vision that came into my mind of herds of the huge Irish Elk – Megaloceros giganteus – that ruled places such as this in Ireland after the ice receded 10,000 years ago. It was around that time that human habitation came back to these revitalised lands: some say that it was human hunters who wiped out the elk – and the bear – in Ireland using spears, bows and rocks. When you are immersed in these wild places, with no signs of the 21st century around you, it is easy to imagine such scenes from the distant past.

But – lonely and remote as this valley seems today – there is significant evidence of enduring human occupation here. As we journeyed up to the ‘caves’ we were tracing ancient tracks and paths and saw the remains of several settlements: stone walls, enclosures including a cashel, and many haphazard piles of rock that presumably came from rudimentary field clearances. We had the good fortune to meet and talk to Pat Joe O’Leary, who resides in the last house before you enter the glen, and he told us that sixteen families had lived out here.

Some of the many traces that remain of the dwellings which were once occupied by  families eking out their lives in the remoteness of Coleenlemane and (lower image) piles of stones cleared from the lands to provide pastures and potato beds

It’s right to describe the stories that Pat Joe told us as living memories, because he carries them. His own family has lived in the valley for generations so – like the bards of old – he is the keeper of the traditions and lore of the area. One of his tales was about a man from the glen who was the last to be hanged in Cork gaol. His name was Timothy Cadogan, and he was accused of the murder of William Bird, a land agent, at Bantry in 1900. Tim Cadogan was from one of the families who lived in Coleenlemane – who had been evicted by Bird – and Pat Joe assured us that the name T Cadogan is inscribed on a stone beside one of the old buildings in the valley. Unfortunately, we did not hear this until we were returning from our expedition, so missed seeing the stone. Interestingly there is a record in the Schools Folklore Collection – in Irish – describing the same event, more or less in the same words that Pat Joe used. The event occurred in 1900, became recorded as folklore in 1936, and was told to us as oral tradition in 2019!

Contemporary newspaper account of the hanging of Timothy Cadogan – formerly from Coleenamane – on 11 January 1901. Cadogan was tried twice before being sentenced to hang. The ‘Bungled Execution’ is reported as a failure on the part of the executioner, causing the condemned man to suffer a long, slow death by strangulation

Ignorant of such thoughts of the harsh realities of the world – even this far-away corner of it – we reached our destination: the ‘caves’. This is an unusual rock formation where a large outcrop has been split into enormous slabs, probably through glacial action. The rocks lean against each other and form crude shelters, within which are the inscribed surfaces. Finola’s post describes these in detail.

The rocks which form the ‘caves’ have a brooding presence on the landscape. It’s not surprising that they harbour enigmatic symbols with some possible other-worldly connotations

In addition to the sites of old farms and cottages that we passed by and explored on our trail, we clearly saw the imprint of ‘lazy-beds’ – ridge and furrow arable cultivation methods traditionally used in Ireland for planting the potato. These took our minds back to famine times and the harsh reality of having to forge an existence out of minimal resources. Also, we could only wonder at how clearly life – and history – have been etched into these aged and incredibly beautiful landscapes.

The very clear impressions of the potato beds which tell of the subsistence farming practiced for generations in Coleenlemane accompanied our hike

Looking back on our day in the wildness of West Cork, my abiding memories are beauty and poignancy. I have used this term before – achingly beautiful – and I often have to return to it in order to try to sum up my own emotional reaction to such unique places in Ireland. You won’t find these places in tourist guides – getting here is hard work! Nor will you find very much recorded in the archaeological records about Coleenlemane. But everything you see here is Ireland’s real history – deep, deep history; we are fortunate in every step we take into it.

Off the M8: Fethard Walled Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mizen Magic 13: Dunmanus Promontory

It’s geologically and archaeologically fascinating – a substantial natural promontory just to the north of Dunmanus Castle: well worth an exploration. But, do be warned – there are cliff edges, exposed fissures, ankle-wrenching undulations and bogs to overcome. Also – it’s private, so please seek permission before crossing the land.

The west side of this shark’s fin-shaped promontory is wildly exposed to the ocean and its gales. You can see from the aerial views, above, how the rock bed is bare and visible, and the vestigial fields which occupy – or once occupied – the east side peter out, and the walls and banks which once formed them fade away altogether over on the left. In fact, these Google Earth images give a better impression of the oddly shaped enclosures than can be seen on the ground.

Three examples of many varied boundary features on the promontory are shown above. Each is differently constructed and they range from a series of vertically-set slabs to rocks-and-rubble and a raised bank reinforced with stones. In the picture below, follow with your eye the boundary as it traverses the scrub and makes a large S-bend on to the ridge facing the distant horizon.

Ireland – especially the west of it – is a huge stone landscape. Wherever people have settled, they have moved the stone and used it. To make fields, or any enclosures, they have had to clear the land. The stone taken from the land is used – sometimes to build shelter, often to build myriad walls to define the holdings. Here’s a striking example from the Aran Islands:

Nothing is recorded on the National Monuments Survey about these land boundaries at Dunmanus – or the significance of the promontory as a whole. Was it once a promontory fort? There are others on this coast. It could easily have been defended along the line of the present road running across the south. However, the land is flat and low, and there is no shelter.

Flat stone surfaces – of old red sandstone – remind us of the Burren landscape in Clare, and we can suppose that the present windswept bog and scrub could once have supported agriculture. But when? In medieval times, perhaps, when the nearby Dunmanus tower house was a thriving centre of occupation and, probably, commerce. In the shelter of the bay the little quay at Dunmanus survives and is still used by small boats searching out shellfish and scallops.

In some places the old walls seem to have a prehistoric feel: the use of slabs embedded vertically like standing stones is quite unusual in West Cork. The presence of large quartz rocks, too, is reminiscent of ancient sites, although they are natural geological occurrences here.

Other natural features on the peninsula include two ‘sea arches’ – bridges formed through erosion of the rocks and chasms by the ocean.

It’s a landscape of vestigial fields, sea – and stones. Nothing more. But I find it a mesmeric place; partly because we can see that it bears the marks of human toil, and we want to know more about who was there and how they lived. It’s a remote piece of Ireland to call ‘home’. Those marks remain after how many years – hundreds, thousands? They intrigue us, and compel us to explore.

Inspired by Stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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