Many thanks to Sara Nylund for her wonderful reconstruction drawing of an early ecclesiastical site
A couple of years ago, confined to explorations within 5km, Robert wrote about Croagh Bay (pronounced locally as Crew Bay). Recently our friends Donagh and Tamsin enticed us back to take a closer look at the eastern part of the Bay – Croagh Cove (Crew Cove).
What intrigued us about this place and why we were eager to visit (apart from Donagh’s world-class coffee) was a place marked on the map as an ‘ecclesiastical enclosure.’ There aren’t a lot of those on the Mizen, although there may be more early ecclesiastical sites than have been identified and recorded. Kilbrown (see my post Mizen Mud), Cove and Kilbronogue are the only others so far.
What establishes a site as a likely ‘early ecclesiastical enclosure?’
The Irish church was dominated by scattered rural monasteries from the sixth century onwards. These were surrounded by large enclosures (varying in diameter from 40 a.m. to 400 M), often circular or oval in plan, and usually far more extensive than the surviving graveyards. In some cases the original bank, fosse or stone wall survives but more often the line of the monastic enclosure (or vallum) is indicated by curving field boundaries, roadways or a laneways. As well as the church and graveyard, these enclosures contained the dwellings, outhouses and workshops of a community, sometimes approaching the size of a town. Because the buildings were constructed of wood nothing survives above ground today; the graveyard often contains the ruin of a mediaeval church. In some cases the surviving burial ground has no inscribed headstones but was used for the burial of unbaptised children during the last few centuries. Bullaun stones and cross-inscribed stones are often found on early church sites while holy wells may be situated close by and retain the name of the saint anciently associated with the site. Unfortunately little of the history of the early church in West Cork has survived and the earliest reference to many of these sites is as late as the 12th century.
The Archaeological Inventory of County Cork, Vol I, West Cork. P 271
So, as you can see, not much normally survives on the surface but a tell-tale sign is a circular or oval enclosure, or (often) two concentric enclosures, with the barely-discernible signs of buildings inside. (Readers may remember the above illustration from my post on Ardpatrick – no sign of a round tower at Croagh, though!).) The memory of these places as once-sacred seems to be retained locally, and led to their use as Cillíní, or Children’s burial grounds in the past. See my post Unknown Souls for more about Cillíní – ‘the loneliest places on earth.’ Thus – small uninscribed headstones peeking out through the grass is an indication that this may be a cillín, and in turn perhaps something more ancient yet.
The original site may have been carved out of the hillside – the flattening process leaving a sharp-edged bank on the sea-ward side (above and below). This reminded us of the similar bank we found at the possible ‘Scoil Mhuire’ site that Robert reported on in his post Schull – Delving into History.
What would such a site have looked like? They varied enormously in size – for example Glenadalough in Wicklow and Kells in Meath would both have been monastic cities. Most, however, and especially in remote places, would have been small religious foundations in which there would be a central church surrounded by an inner wall, and houses and gardens for the monks surrounded by an outer wall.
Nendrum in Co Down shows what a monastic settlement considerably larger than Croagh might have looked like. The Illustration is from The Modern Traveller to the Early Irish Church by Kathleen Hughes and Ann Hamlin
The word reilig (pronounced rellig) is the Irish word for graveyard and it comes from the word for relic. Early sites like this were assumed to have had a founding saint, who gave his or her name to the site. Kilbrown, for example, would be the church of Brón, and he would have been buried on the site – hence the ‘relic’ association. Kilcoe was named for a saintly nun, St Coch. The echoes of the cult of those saints would have remained alive through the centuries in the names of townlands and holy wells.
Possible remains of church at Croagh
The name Croagh, however, is based not on a saint’s name but on the Irish word for a ‘stack’ and may refer to the gentle hill that rises up from the water. It was, and remains, an almost perfect spot to establish a peaceful settlement based around hard work and prayer. There’s a lovely little beach below, so transport and travel was easy by water. It’s in a sheltered haven protected from storms by Long Island off the cost, and from it there’s a good view out to sea (below) so the monks could see Vikings or other raiders coming.
And right across the Cove there’s a ring fort – a cashel, in fact, since it looks like the walls were made of stone (below). It’s a classic – on elevated ground with commanding views all around, out to sea and to the low hills behind. Puzzlingly, this cashel is not recorded by National Monuments. It’s overgrown by bracken so may not have been obvious at the time of the survey.
This juxtaposition, across the cove from each other, of an early-medieval monastic settlement and a fortified residence, leads to speculation as to the relationship between the two. Was the monastery endowed by the local chief, committing the monks to say prayers for his eternal soul in exchange for land and protection? This is certainly a familiar pattern from the later medieval period.
View of the ecclesiastical site from the cashel
This is just a tiny corner of the Mizen. There is much more of interest in this small townland but for today I wanted to focus on these early-medieval sites. In their ruins lie clues to a distant but vibrant past.
This is Cork city in the 1940s. The subject of today’s post is a Cork man – the sculptor Séamus Murphy. Born in 1907 near Mallow, Murphy took classes at the Crawford School of Art before apprenticing as a stone carver at O’Connell’s Stone Yard in Blackpool, a parish in the city, for seven years. Murphy and his work could occupy several posts, but today we concentrate on his only architectural building project, the Church of the Annunciation in Blackpool. Séamus Murphy can fairly claim to be the ‘sculptural designer’ of this building – as he conceived the way it would appear – while the architect Edmond Patrick O’Flynn most likely carried out the technical drawings and specifications.
According to the Murphy family, Séamus found inspiration for Blackpool from pictures of churches in South America. In particular, the roughly textured render on the external walls is said to have derived from the adobe finish common in Spanish missionary churches there. The Cork church was commenced in January 1945, and the picture above (courtesy of Cork City Library) dates from around that time. The picture below – also courtesy Cork City Library – shows the dedication ceremony in the church on 7 October 1945.
This picture of Séamus, above, is from the RTE archives. The Blackpool project is a good area of study, as the church shows the sculptor’s ability to conceive large, three-dimensional spaces as well as his skills in producing his own figurative and relief works, a number of which are used in the church furnishings: they are of polished Portland stone.
While the church is a valuable repository of Séamus Murphy’s design and carving skills, the work of many other contemporary artists can also be found in the building. The stained glass windows are from the Harry Clarke Studios, designed by William Dowling.
Particularly striking is the crucifix window at the east end. Above is the original cartoon (courtesy of Trinity College Library Dublin) by Dowling, side-by-side with an image of the window today. All the windows are of fine quality.
A full view of the east end of the church. The interior has changed very little over 77 years and is, therefore, a great tribute to Séamus Murphy and the the commissioning family of William Dwyer, then head of the nearby Sunbeam Wolsey factory. Dwyer funded the whole project as a memorial to his daughter Maeve who had sadly passed away in 1943.
This fine font cover was carved by hand by Bart, a younger brother of Séamus.
Murphy’s Church of the Annunciation is certainly a landmark building – not just for Cork, but for the whole of Ireland. And Séamus himself must rank as one of the outstanding artists of the Free State. You will come across his distinctive work in many locations; I will be directing you to some of them in future posts.
Many thanks to Orla Murphy for giving me valuable insights on her father’s works
Starting next year, we’ve been given a new National Holiday! It falls on Feb 1, which is celebrated as St Brigid’s Day in Ireland. (Also Imbolc but that’s another story.) Although in my far-off youth I had a devotion to St Brigid and took her name as my Confirmation Name (is this just a Catholic thing?) I realised I knew very little about Brigid herself. So I set out to do some digging, using my own photographs of her image in stained glass to illustrate. That’s Harry Clarke’s take on Brigid above, from the Honan Chapel in Cork, and another one of his below, from Castletownshend.
Note the lamp, which is one of her attributes, since she is associated with a perpetual fire that miraculously never went out. Given this is Harry Clarke, the lamp looks suspiciously like something from the Arabian Nights.
For the life of Brigid, although there are many, many versions, I have turned to two sources. The primary source is The Life of Saint Brigit by Cogitosus*. Almost unbelievably, this Life dates from about 650 and is written in Hiberno-Latin. Cogitosus may have been a monk in Kildare, steeped in the cult of Brigid. Part of this cult was to claim the highest status for Kildare of all the Irish monastic settlements and therefore the Primacy over all Ireland – a claim that was eventually won by Armagh, which trumped Kildare by its appropriation of St Patrick. Cogitosus’s story is told in the form of 32 miracles, each of which leads us through Brigid’s life.
My second source is the Life of Brigit from the Book of Lismore**, translated by Whitley Stokes. I love Stokes’s language, a form which he seems to have invented himself to convey something of the Medieval Irish he was translating (see this post on The White Hound of Brigown for more on this). The Book of Lismore dates to the fifteenth century and it is thought that the Lives of the Saints within it, or some of them, were written in the Abbey at Timoleague in West Cork. In both versions her name is given in translation as Brigit, rather than Brigid which is the more usual modern spelling used in Ireland.
In this window, Brigid brings the winding sheet for the dead St Patrick, a story that does nor feature in either of the Lives I am using here. This is the lower section of a paired window in Killarney Cathedral, part of a series that draws parallels between the Life of Christ and the Lives of Irish Saints. In this case, Brigid is being compared to Mary Magdalene anointing the body of Christ
Many of the same stories occur in both lives. Significantly, though, Patrick is not mentioned in the earlier Life by Cogitosus, although he appears frequently in the Book of Lismore as if she and he were living contemporaneously. There are other differences, showing how the stories grew through the ages, but both agree that Brigid was the daughter of Dubhtach and a bondswoman called Broicsech. Like all good Irish saints, her birth and her greatness is foretold. From the Book of Lismore:
The wizard went to meet him, and asked whose was the woman who was biding in the chariot. Mine, saith Dubthach . . .The wizard asks if she was pregnant by anyone. She is pregnant by me saith Dubthach. Said the wizard, Marvellous will be the child that is in her womb, her like will not be on earth. My wife compels me, saith Dubthach, to sell this bondmaid. Said the wizard, through grace of prophecy, the seed of thy wife shall serve the seed of the bondmaid, for the bondmaid will bring forth a daughter conspicuous, radiant, who will shine like a sun among the stars of heaven. Dubthach was thankful for that answer, for till then no daughter had been born to him.
This image of a young Brigid is by Evie Hone and is in Blackrock, Co Dublin. Evie Hone’s windows are pared-to-the-bone, deeply spiritual depictions inspired often by ancient Irish carvings.
I love the fact that Dubhtach rejoices to have a daughter since most of these stories glorify the birth of male babies. Brigid accomplishes many miracles as a child, mostly having to do with her charity and her faith. Here’s one such from Cogitosus:
So, when she was old enough, she was sent by her mother to do the work of churning so that she could make up the butter from the cow’s milk which had been dashed; she too was meant to carry out this work, in the same way as other women were accustomed to do, and to deliver for use the complete yield of the cows and the customary weight and measure of butter at the appointed time with the others. However, this maiden with her most beautiful and generous disposition, preferring to obey God rather than men, distributed the milk and butter liberally to the poor and the guests. So, when as usual the appointed time came for all to hand in what the cows had yielded, her turn came. And when her workmates presented the finished result of their work, the aforementioned blessed maiden was also requested to hand in her work in like manner.
In dread of her mother since she had nothing to show because she had given the lot away to the poor without a thought for the morrow, strengthened and inflamed with an ardor of faith so intense and unquenchable, she turned to the Lord and prayed. Without delay the Lord heard the maiden’s voice and prayers. And, being a helper in the hour of need, he came to her assistance with the generous bestowal of a divine gift, and lavishly restored the butter for the maiden who had confidence in him. Astonishingly, the very moment after her prayer, the most holy maiden proved that she had fulfilled her task by showing that nothing was missing from the fruit of her work, but that it was even more abundant than her workmates.
A rather sumptuous Brigid from the Harry Clarke Studios, in Ballinrobe
Eventually, determining to be a virgin and devote her life to God’s work, she took the veil. Cogitosus relates that
Brigit, inspired from above and wanting to devote herself as a chaste virgin to God, went to the most holy bishop MacCaille of blessed memory. Seeing her heavenly desire and modesty and seeing so great a love of chastity in this remarkable maiden, he placed the white veil and white garment over her venerable head.
However, by the time the author of the Lismore life wrote his account, MacCaille had been relegated to inferior status and the Bishop who confers the veil is Mel, who is depicted in the window above, in Armagh Cathedral, performing the ceremony. By now, the story has acquired one of its most-quoted aspects – that Brigid, through divine intercession, is actually made a bishop. The next image, the lower panel of the previous window, shows Mel handing Brigid a crozier, symbol of episcopal authority. This large window is by Mayer of Munich.
Brigit and certain virgins along with her went to take the veil from Bishop Mel in Telcha Mide. Blithe was he to see them. For humility Brigit stayed so that she might be the last to whom a veil should be given. A fiery pillar rose from her head to the roof-ridge of the church. Then said Bishop Mel: Come, O Holy Brigit, that a veil may be sained on thy head before the other virgins. It came to pass then, through the grace of the Holy Ghost, that the form of ordaining a Bishop was read out over Brigit. Mac-caille said, that a bishop’s order should not be conferred on a woman. Said Bishop Mel: No power have I in this matter. That dignity hath been given by God unto Brigit, beyond every (other) woman. Wherefore the men of Ireland from that time to this give episcopal honour to Brigit’s successor.
Although she is associated with many places in Ireland (there are numerous townlands called Kilbride or Kilbreedy) it is the great city of Kildare that is most closely hers. She managed the city, the Lismore Life says, in partnership with Conleth, a hermit whom she persuades to join her. Cogitosus tell us:
And as by her wise administration she made provision in every detail for the souls of her people according to the rule, as she vigilantly watched over the Churches attached to her in many provinces and as she reflected that she could not be without a high priest to consecrate churches and confer ecclesiastical orders in them, she sent for Conleth, a famous man and a hermit endowed with every good disposition through whom God wrought many miracles, and calling him from the wilderness and his life of solitude, she set out to meet him, in order that he might govern the Church with her in the office of bishop and that her Churches might lack nothing as regards priestly orders. Thus, from then on the anointed head and primate of all the bishops and the most blessed chief abbess of the virgins governed their primatial Church by means of a mutually happy alliance and by the rudder of all the virtues. By the merits of both, their episcopal and conventual see spread on all sides like a fruitful vine with its growing branches and struck root in the whole island of Ireland. It has always been ruled over in happy succession according to a perpetual rite by the archbishop of the bishops of Ireland and the abbess whom all the abbesses of the Irish revere.
Cogitosus goes on to say this of Kildare and her establishment (and don’t forget he was writing in or around 650!):
And who can express in words the exceeding beauty of this church and the countless wonders of that monastic city we are speaking of, if one may call it a city since it is not encircled by any surrounding wall. And yet, since numberless people assemble within it and since a city gets its name from the fact that many people congregate there, it is a vast and metropolitan city. In its suburbs, which saint Brigit had marked out by a definite boundary, no human foe or enemy attack is feared; on the contrary, together with all its outlying suburbs it is the safest city of refuge in the whole land of the Irish for all fugitives, and the treasures of kings are kept there; moreover it is looked upon as the most outstanding on account of its illustrious supremacy.
Today we honour St Brigid as one of the founding great women of our culture. She is often shown with Patrick and Columcille as one of the three great Patrons of Ireland. In the window above, also from Killarney Cathedral, Brendan has been added in because, well, we’re in Kerry.
This window is in the Church of the Most Holy Rosary at Kilcoe, near us in West Cork. It’s a bit of a mixed metaphor – we see her holding her church, which is clearly based on the 12th century Cormac’s Chapel at Cashel, and surrounded by her oak leaves. However, she is also holding a set of rosary beads, something that doesn’t appear in Catholic imagery before the 13th century. It’s beautifully executed, though, by Catherine O’Brien of An Túr Gloine.
Brigid’s end was peaceful. As it is related in the Book of Lismore:
Now when it came to the ending days for Brigit, after founding and helping cells and churches and altars in abundance, after miracles and marvels whose number is as the sand of sea, or stars of heaven, after charity and mercy, then came Nindid Pure-hand from Rome of Latium. The reason why he was called Nindid Pure-hand was that he never put his hand to his side, when Brigit repeated a paternoster with him. And he gave communion and sacrifice to Brigit, who sent her spirit to heaven. Her relics are on earth with honour and dignity and primacy, with miracles and marvels.
A conventional image of Bridget in the church in Goleen, West Cork, by Watsons of Youghal. She’s looking very saintly indeed. By now, you no doubt recognise all her attributes
Summing up her life and legacy, the anonymous author of her Life in the Book of Lismore says:
For everything that Brigit would ask of the Lord was granted her at once. For this was her desire: to satisfy the poor, to expel every hardship, to spare every miserable man. Now there never hath been anyone more bashful, or more modest, or more gentle, or more humble, or sager, or more harmonious than Brigit. She never washed her hands or her feet, or her head among men. She never looked at the face of a man. She never would speak without blushing. She was abstinent, she was innocent, she was prayerful, she was patient: she was glad in God’ s commandments: she was firm, she was humble, she was forgiving, she was loving: she was a consecrated casket for keeping Christ’s Body and his Blood: she was a temple of God. Her heart and her mind were a throne of rest for the Holy Ghost. She was simple (towards God): she was compassionate towards the wretched: she was splendid in miracles and marvels: wherefore her name among created things is Dove among birds, Vine among trees, Sun among stars. . . . She is the prophetess of Christ: she is the Queen of the South: she is the Mary of the Gael.
Brigid by Michael Healy, in the stained glass room at the National Gallery, holding her church with the round tower that can still be seen in Kildare.
It is entirely appropriate that a new National Holiday is named for Brigid. About time, in fact!
*Cogitosus’s “Life of St Brigit,” Content and Value. Author(s): Sean Connolly and J.-M. Picard. The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland , 1987, Vol. 117, pp. 5-27
**Lives of Saints from the Book of Lismore, Edited with a Translation, Notes and Indices by Whitley Stokes, Oxford, 1890.
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!
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 itsinitial development and structure. The ritual core of the site, consistingof a church, cemetery and shrine (which probably originated as a ‘special’or founder’s grave), dates to what is probably the formative phase ofChristianity in the south-west of Ireland. The picture emerges of a site thatwas conceived and built as a coherent entity in accordance with a clearconceptual 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.
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:
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