Mizen Magic 10: Sailor’s Hill

Fancy a walk? One with just enough elevation to get the heart going and with the reward of spectacular views at the top? It will take about an hour, maybe a bit longer if you stop to chat, or just gaze.

We’ve mentioned Sailor’s Hill before in the course of other posts – this one and this one. But it deserves a post of its own, because it’s a complete experience. Start from Schull and walk out along the Colla Road until you get to the old St Mary’s Church and graveyard. The National Monuments listing tell us that this was originally a medieval structure, although what we see in ruins now is mainly an eighteenth century church, situated in a picturesque burial ground. Turn right at that point.

You will notice the waymark signs. This is one of the newer extensions of the Fastnet Trails, and an initiative of a committed group in Schull. The walk up Sailor Hill is actually part of a larger walk, the Colla Loop – we are planning to do that one soon but only had time for this stretch of it today.

The road meanders gently upwards. Take the first left and then the next left. Views of Schull Harbour start to open out as the road rises. Looking back, you can see how Schull nestles at the foot of Mount Gabriel (see the photograph at the top of this post).

A tiny shrine in a gatepost

Later on, this boreen will be heady with Foxglove and Loosestrife and Oxeye Daisies, and later still the purple heather will dominate, but this is early spring and it’s been a long cold winter. 

Everything is late this year, so I am happy to see the ever-reliable Celandine in profusion.

The willows are starting to bud out too, but apart from that, it seems that dandelions and lawn daisies are the only wildflowers brave enough to flourish along the way. Not that we disdain these humble flowers – they provide early and important nourishment for the insects and the bees. Must feed those pollinators!

Connie and Betty Griffin have built a house with magnificent vistas near the top of the hill. They never stop adding to it, Betty with flowers and Connie with quirky additions, sculptures and walls. This time, he showed us his Sailor Hill Newgrange, a nifty arrangement of standing stones that respond to the rising sun by capturing the morning light in a stone recess.

Connie demonstrates his sun calendar to Robert

Up to the top then, and there it is – a breathtaking panorama that encompasses the whole of Roaringwater Bay and Long Island Sound to the south, and Mount Gabriel and its foothills to the north. Cape Clear, the Fastnet, Sherkin Island and all the smaller islands are laid out in front of you.

And there’s a cross and inscriptions, so you begin to realise that this site is about more than those views. Connie, who designed and built it, wants us to think about those who lost their lives at sea. It’s his own personal mark of respect and a reminder to us in the midst of all this grandeur to take a moment to contemplate on the power of the ocean and the fleeting nature of life.

I had to look up The Niña, 1492, and of course it was one of Columbus’ ships. He took the Santa Maria, the Niña and the Pinta on his voyage to the New World, but the Niña was his favourite. To learn why, take a look at this. But why is it here? Well, I’m not sure, but there is a tradition around here that Columbus may have visited West Cork on his way. His last provisioning stop may have been with the hospitable, learned and Spanish-speaking Fineen O’Mahony, Scholar Prince of Rossbrin

Connie has built his own tiny belvedere (he calls it his folly) perched to take maximum advantage of the view. It’s the perfect spot to sit, munch an apple, and enjoy a companionable chat before the walk down again.

A final look out to sea. There’s Long Island and beyond it the Fastnet Rock with its iconic lighthouse.

We paused to admire a Goldfinch in Connie’s garden, as well as his wonderful textural arrangement of sticks, stones and whalebones.

Thank you, Connie and Betty, from two happy walkers.

Darerca – A Neglected Saint

Ireland is ‘The Land of Saints’. The Catholic Online website lists 331 of them, but some get much better treatment than others. Last week we celebrated St Patrick – the news was full of it, as it always is on 17 March. Yet, just five days after Patrick’s Day – on 22 March – I was at a schoriacht and asked the assembled crowd who was the Saint for that day: nobody knew. It was the day for St Darerca and she is, unfairly, much neglected, especially since she is St Patrick’s sister. In order to redress the balance I have put together everything I can find on the story of St Darerca, and – because she has never been pictured (as far as I can tell) – I have illustrated it with some general Irish Saintly connections.

Land of the Saints: header picture – Clonmacnoise, Co Offaly – Ireland’s holy centre, and one of the oldest and most important early Christian settlements in Europe. Above – the beautifully located Kilmalkedar monastic site in Kerry has long associations with Saint Brendan the Navigator

St Darerca is first mentioned in the Vita tripartita Sancti Patricii (Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick), which some scholars believe was written in the sixth century – within a century of St Patrick’s death (possibly in 493 at the age of 120). In the Tripartite Life, we read that St Patrick had two sisters, and that when he came to Bredach in County Derry for an ordination, . . . he found there three deacons, who were sons of his sister Darerca . . . These deacons were eventually ordained bishops and became St Reat, St Nenn, and St Aedh, the . . . sons of Conis and Darerca, Patrick’s sister . . . 

Upper – St Patrick’s Bell; lower – inscription on another 10th century bell – both now in the National Museum, Dublin

In his own Confessio, St Patrick makes no mention of his sisters. The Confessio begins:

. . . My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many . . .

But it’s a very brief account of his life, and hardly qualifies as an autobioigraphy.

Medieval cross head, in the National Museum, Dublin

One version of the Tripartite Life suggests that both sisters were kidnapped from Britain along with St Patrick and returned to Ireland with him when he set out on his missions. A 17th century Irish hagiographer, John Colgan, collected fragments of information pertaining to Darerca . . . from Irish tradition . . . He asserted that St Darerca may have had as many as seventeen sons between two husbands, and that all of them became bishops. He also states that, according to tradition,  many of these became saints:

. . . By Darerca’s first husband, Restitutus the Lombard, she bore St Sechnall of Dunshaughlin; St Nectan of Killunche, and of Fennor (near Slane); of St Auxilius of Killossey (near Naas, County Kildare); of St Diarmaid of Druim-corcortri, in addition to five other children. By her second husband Conis the Briton, she bore St Reat, St Nenn, and St Aedh; ancient Irish authors also attributed her motherhood to St Crummin of Lecua, St Miduu, St Carantoc, and St Maceaith . . .

A 1950s photograph from Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh showing the annual pilgrimage to the summit of St Patrick’s holy mountain in Co Mayo, Croagh Patrick

St Darerca’s second husband, Conis, was said by some to be the King of the Bretons, although others only suggest that, by him, she gave birth to Gradlon the Great, who became King of Brittany. It’s really surprising (and a shame) that we don’t know more about Darerca: perhaps she has just always been overshadowed by her famous brother. As well as – perhaps – seventeen sons, she is supposed to have had four daughters, all of whom were also connected with the spread of Christianity in Ireland. Only two are named: St Eiche of Kilglass and St Lalloc of Senlis.

The Ardagh Chalice, National Museum, Dublin

There is a reference to Darerca as having another name: Moninna, said to have founded a convent at Killeevy, Co Armagh which was second in importance only to that at Kildare. A curious story is told to account for the change of her name to Moninna. The Irish commentary is translated into English by Whitley Stokes:

. . . Darerca was her name at first. But a certain dumb poet fasted with her, and the first thing he said after being miraculously cured of his dumbness was minnin. Hence the nun was called Mo-ninde, and the poet himself Nine Ecis . . .

Moninna studied theology, established convents in Ireland, Scotland and England and travelled to Rome. Perhaps most interestingly she is also known by the name Liamain, and there is a connection with an ancient stone on the island of Inchagoill in Lough Corrib. The ‘Pillar Stone’ on that island is known as Lugnaedon Pillar, a piece of Silurian grit stone, about two feet high with an incised cross on the north side, and two such crosses on each of the other sides. The inscription on the stone translates as . . . The stone of Lugnaedon, son of Limenueh . . . or Liamain. The pillar is said to originate in the 6th century, and would therefore be the oldest Christian inscribed stone in Ireland.

Two photographs of the 6th century Lugnaedon Pillar on Inchagoill Island. It is also known as the Rudder Stone because of its shape

The Benedictines say that Darerca’s name is derived from the Irish Diar-Sheare which means ‘constant and firm love’. And, finally, a piece of local folklore say that St Darerca blessed a poor man’s beer barrel so that it provided an endless supply of beer ever after!

Lives of the Saints – a detail from a stained glass window by George Walsh in St Kentigern’s Church, Eyries

So there you have it – scraps gleaned from many sources, some of which are not named – from which we can piece together an incomplete picture of an Irish saint who may well have done as much in her day for Christianity in Ireland as her famed brother. How about giving Patrick a rest next year and, instead, celebrating the day of St Darerca?

Knockdrum Stone Fort

There is no firm line that denotes where our most south-westerly Irish peninsula begins. Our series, Mizen Magic, has reported on walks, roads, views, history and archaeology which can definitely be defined as belonging to the Mizen (which we tend to think of as being to the west of, and including, its ‘gateway’ – Ballydehob). Perhaps we should start a series titled Magic Beyond The Mizen – in which case this would be the first: a report on a very prominent site about half an hour’s drive along the coast east of where we live: a historic structure – built within the last 2,000 years – but which contains evidence of much older human activity.

Here is an overhead view – the best way to see and understand the layout and construction of Knockdrum Stone Fort, which occupies a superb hilltop location in the townland of Farrandau between Skibbereen and Castletownshend. Thank you, Dennis Horgan – our professional West Cork aerial photographer – for allowing us to use this image: have a look at his website for other examples of his work, and for details of his excellent photographs and books.

The Fort is located on a high ridge (although not on the summit of the ridge) with far-reaching views both inland and to the south, over the sea. The header picture looks from the Fort out to the west over Castlehaven to Galley Head in the far distance; the view in the picture above is due south – looking towards Horse Island, and the stone wall of the Fort is in the foreground. From these breathtaking vistas it’s reasonable to conjecture that Knockdrum Fort has a strategic siting, providing views of anyone approaching from the sea, and able to signal their arrival to dwellers in the ‘interior’ – the lands to the north. We cannot know for sure that stone fort structures had this – or any other – specific purpose: many theories have been advanced. Comparison with other examples is worthwhile. One of the largest stone forts in Ireland is Staigue Fort, near Sneem in County Kerry.

Staigue Fort (above) has a diameter of 27.5 metres, the present wall height is 5.5 metres, and the wall thickness is 4 metres. At Knockdrum the diameter is 22.5 metres, the present wall height is 2 metres and the wall thickness around 3 metres. The Duchas information board at Staigue says:

. . . This is one of the largest and finest stone forts in Ireland and was probably built in the early centuries AD before Christianity came to Ireland. It must have been the home of a very wealthy landowner or chieftain who had a great need for security . . . The fort was the home of the chieftain’s family, guards and servants, and would have been full of houses, out-buildings, and possibly tents or other temporary structures. No buildings survive today . . .

The picture above shows the present interior of Knockdrum Fort: the stone walls are likely to delineate a former building here. In the corner of the inner stone enclosure is the entrance to a ‘souterrain’ – a series of underground passageways. The souterrain is outlined on the following drawing of the Stone Fort which was made in 1930 after a detailed investigation of it by Vice Admiral Henry Boyle Somerville, the younger brother of writer and artist Edith Somerville of Castletownshend. Boyle, his life and his tragic death, is the subject of Finola’s complementary post today.

Finola is also discussing Boyle Somerville’s interest in the alignments of archaeological structures. In Boyle’s paper for The Journal of The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 1931 (title page below), he presents the evidence that this Fort is on a solar alignment.

Boyle sets out the case for an alignment based on the Knockdrum Fort:

. . . This conception of the earlier use of the site of the cathair [the stone fort] for purposes which may perhaps be termed “religious,” seems to be borne out by the following fact. At a horizontal distance of about 600 yards to the E.S.E of the cathair, and at 210′ difference of level below it, there is a small rocky ridge standing up from the surrounding grass land. The name of the ridge is “Peakeen Cnoc Dromin,” The little peak of the white-backed hill . . .

The following paragraphs and photos are from the Journal paper:

Finola and I are familiar with the Peakeen Cnoc Dromin from our researches into Rock Art: the uppermost stone (which does appear similar to the capstone of a fallen dolmen) is heavily cupmarked. The photos of the Peakeen (above) were taken before we had any idea that they might form an alignment connected with Knockdrum Stone Fort. We will have to revisit again at Bealltaine. Boyle confirmed his alignment theory by personal observation:

He went on to suggest:

. . . It is one of the clearest instances of intentional orientation between two ancient, and artificially formed monuments that can be imagined . . .

Of course, it can’t be the case that a cupmarked stone dating from anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000 years ago was in any way connected with a stone fort that dates from the early part of the first millennium AD. However, I have as yet omitted an important piece of information: at Knockdrum Fort, high up on the hill, are two further ancient cupmarked stones – and significant ones: the larger also exhibits Rock Art. Somerville illustrated them in 1930, and Finola recorded them in detail in 1973.

Images above are of the stones recorded at Knockdrum: topmost is Boyle’s drawing from 1930. Below Finola’s drawings are photographs of the large stone lying by the Fort entrance today: it is known that this has been moved, possibly during Somerville’s time. The old photograph immediately above is from the Coghill Family Archive and shows Arthur Townshend beside the stone, which is standing. Arthur was born in 1863: this photograph may record the occasion of the expedition by the young Somervilles and ‘their cousin’ (quite possibly Arthur) to Knockdrum described below, which took place in 1875. It is the presence of Rock Art and cupmarks at the Fort itself which tells us that the site must have had significance in far earlier times (perhaps that’s why the fort was sited in that location – rather than on the summit of the ridge), and Boyle’s reported alignment would have been with the carved rocks (or the important location that they marked) rather than with the comparatively modern stone fort.

The souterrain in the enclosure of Knockdrum Fort (entrance in top photograph – ‘chimney’ in lower photograph) was explored in 1875, as Boyle recounts:

The ‘band of three youthful archaeologists’ are likely to have been Somervilles: Edith (the eldest, then 17), Boyle (then 12 – it was he who was lowered down into the discovered ‘cave’ by his ankles!) and, probably, a cousin. Great adventures, which would undoubtedly raise eyebrows today.

Within the fort enclosure is this cross-marked stone. It was apparently leaning against the wall in Boyle’s days, but has now been embedded close to the entrance. We visit this site often: this time we noted some significant disruption to the upper level of the dry stone walling, possibly caused by the fierce storm winds earlier this year. Compare the detail below with Dennis Horgan’s aerial view above, taken a few years ago.

Some damage has also been suffered to retaining walls on the green boreen leading to the Fort from the main Skibereen – Castletownshend road (a walking route only), and on the stone walls beside the 99 steps which take you from the green path to the top of the hill. These are passable with care, but it is hoped that this monument – which is in State ownership – will be deservedly returned to good order before too long: it is one of the historic wonders of West Cork.

Boyle Somerville: Ireland’s First Archaeoastronomer

Henry Boyle Townshend Somerville (1863 – 1936) is mostly know in Ireland now for how he died, murdered by the IRA in 1936. And that’s a tragedy in many ways, not least of which is that the notoriety of his death has obscured his important contributions to Irish archaeology and especially to the once-controversial field of archaeoastronomy, of which he was a distinguished pioneer. [The portrait above is by Walter Stoneman and used with permission from the National Portrait Gallery under a Creative Commons License.]

Boyle was about 30 in this photograph. This illustration is from Somerville and Ross: A Biography by Maurice Collis. The family lived in Drishane House, below, in Castletownshend, West Cork. 

Boyle was one of the famous Castletownshend family of Somervilles that included Edith, the writer with Violet Martin of the Irish RM stories. He was her favourite brother and companion on youthful adventures, including the incursions into the souterrain at Knockdrum Fort, armed only with a poker and a candle. See Robert’s companion piece about this ancient site.

Boyle drew the first proper survey of Drombeg and his observations established the winter solstice orientation. Today, crowds gather to witness this spectacular event

He went off to sea in 1877 at the early age of 13 – seafaring was in the Somerville blood – and rose through the ranks of Commander, Captain and finally Vice-Admiral. Throughout his time in the navy he was engaged in surveying and in hydrographic, intelligence and research projects all over the world. He collected ethnographic materials (now in the Pitt-Rivers Museum) and wrote papers on his experiences.

Another one of Boyle’s stone circle solar events, this one occurs at the autumn equinox at Bohonagh

But it was astronomy that fired his imagination, and specifically the astronomy of ancient sites. Following on the work of astronomer Norman Lockyer, he surveyed monuments in Scotland and Ireland and demonstrated that many of them had significant solar, stellar and lunar orientations. His 1927 paper, simply titled Orientation, in the first issue of Antiquity is a readable and well-argued essay that argues for the acceptance of the importance of calendrical observations to early farming communities.

The Bohonagh complex of monuments as Boyle described them – a stone circle, a cup-marked stone and a boulder burial

It is hard to remember now that the scientific community of the time was dismissive, but even the writer of his obituary in the journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland could not resist a patronising summation:

He was an accomplished surveyor and careful observer, and if the theories as to the orientation of megaliths which he held are not universally accepted, his investigations have resulted in presentations of an accuracy too often absent from the surveys of many writers on those subjects.

Makes him sound like a crank, doesn’t it? But let’s go back to that bit about being an ‘accomplished surveyor and careful observer.’ In paper after paper, he did just that – carefully observed and documented the archaeological monuments of West Cork and elsewhere. It was he who first described the West Cork Stone Circles and coined the term recumbent, providing properly surveyed plans and making careful notes of the way in which they offered sightings to solar events at significant times of the year through the axis provided by the line running from the ‘entrance’ through the ‘recumbent.’ (For an explantation of how this all works, see our post Ancient Calendars.)

Reenascreena Stone Circle with its surrounding shallow fosse

Take a look at a couple of his papers for the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society. The first, on Five Stone Circles, is a good example of how he conducted his surveys. The second, titled Prehistorics sets out the case for a proper classification system for megalithic structures. Most of the terms he recommends, such as Standing Stone, Stone Row, Stone Circle, Passage Grave and Cup-Marked Stone are familiar to us and in everyday use now and he probably didn’t coin the terms. However, one of his terms never gained acceptance, and I think that’s a pity. It’s the charmingly named ‘Clochtogle’ and it’s what we now call a Boulder Burial. But in fact Clochtogle is a better term in being simply descriptive rather than assigning a function, since, as he points out in his paper, and as I pointed out in this post, there is precious little evidence that points to these monuments being burial places and they seem singularly unsuited for that function.

The Rathruane Clochtogle

Clochtogle is based on the Irish term cloch tógáil (cluck toe-gawl) which simply means raised up or lifted stone. We have lots of them in West Cork. In looking at the photograph of the Rathruane clochtogle (do you think this term might still catch on?) I am struck by how it seems to mirror the shape of Mount Gabriel in the background. Boyle, in his writings, did point out that not every monument was oriented to quarter or cross-quarter calendrical events: some, he said, may have other traditions reflected in their orientations. In our own investigations of West Cork monuments we are constantly struck by how many encompass views of Mount Gabriel.

Brian Lacey has an excellent paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland* in which he describes Boyle Somerville as an important and distinguished. . .Irish archaeologist. . .and one of the founders of international archaeoastronomy. He details his various contributions to the field, and does not shy away from mentioning his less-than-scientific interest in ley-lines and also in the use of a medium to communicate with the builders of Drombeg. Edith, along with most of their circle (and indeed many of the literati of the time) routinely used mediums and ouija boards. After his death, as her biographer Maurice Collis puts it, Edith ‘lost no time in getting into touch with Boyle.’ But this does not detract from Boyle’s ultimate contributions: Without any doubt, states Lacey, Boyle Somerville was an extremely important and internationally-influential Irish archaeologist for his time. He deserves to be remembered better and celebrated with pride in this country.

Boyle’s death, at the hands of an IRA hit squad, triggered a national outcry. There’s a good account of it here so I won’t repeat the information that is widely available. I will emphasise, though, that the murder horrified the local community and brought together Catholic and Protestant in mourning the death of one who was highly regarded and universally respected in Castletownshend. Edith determined to raise a monument to the memory of her beloved brother and the notion that took was to erect a bench outside the entrance to Drishane House for the use and enjoyment of the village. She asked Seamus Murphy to execute it, one of his first commissions. Next time you come by, linger at this spot and reflect on the life of Vice-Admiral Boyle Somerville. Accomplished, erudite, decorated and distinguished, he is remembered by those who knew him by the simple and deeply moving words Cómharsa Maith – Good Neighbour.

*The Skibbereen and District Historical Journal, Vol 7, 2011, also has a paper by Brian Lacey about Boyle Somerville, substantially similar to the one in the RSAI Journal. It is not available online.

 

Recording the Sheelas

The sheela-na-gig is one of Ireland’s most mysterious historical artefacts, and one that has fascinated professionals and amateurs alike since the antiquarian days. What is a sheela-na-gig? It’s a carving of a female figure (mostly – there are also male figures, or seán-na-gigs), often crudely executed, with the focus on the hands reaching down to display the vulva. The female is often described as aged, or a ‘hag’ and the carvings have certain features that are common to many, such as staring eyes, ribs, stylised hair and breasts.

This is a romanesque arch at the Nuns’ Chapel in Clonmacnoise. Can you make out the tiny exhibitionist figure carved into one of the lozenges?

The carving of Sheelas probably started in the 12th century, as part of the corpus of fanciful or grotesque carvings that were used to decorate romanesque churches. Some are still found in romanesque contexts, especially outside of Ireland. In Ireland, two possible romanesque examples I have seen are at Liathmore and at the Nuns’ Chapel at Clonmacnoise. However, most Irish sheelas appear to have been either separated from their original locations or carved later, possibly up to the late 1500s. They are found on medieval churches, 17th century castles, the sides of old barns, at holy wells, and indeed in museums. Sheelas have been stolen, lost or destroyed and many of the existing sheelas are damaged.

Does this help? This is just a screen capture of one of DH_Age’s 3D renderings – view it properly online here. This may be a very early sheela or simply one of the grotesque figures associated with romanesque carvings. The tiny figure is grinning and has its legs over its head, exposing the vulva and anus

There are multiple theories as to what a sheela represents and how they were ‘used’ on structures. Were they intended to attract and ward off the evil eye? To serve as a warning against lust? To invoke the sacred feminine through the powerful image of the vulva? The hag, or cailleach, is a vibrant motif in Irish mythology as a form taken on occasion by a goddess. Several sheelas are associate with saints, and believed to be representations of them.

At St Gobnait’s Church in Ballyvourney it is customary to rub the sheela as part of the rounds

We have visited many sheelas (and one seán) and noted that it is always difficult to photograph them well. They are invariably out in the open and very worn. The details are difficult to discern and often obscured by lichen. Even where they are indoors, they show the signs of of exposure to the elements, so it is impossible to view them in what would have been their freshly-carved state. And of course they are deteriorating with every passing decade.

From Jack Roberts’ resource map (see below) – a collection of southwestern sheelas

Fortunately, there’s this great project out there run by DH_Age, or Digital Heritage Age, to record all the sheela-na-gigs using the latest 3D imaging technology. Hats off to Gary Dempsey and Orla Power for undertaking this incredibly important initiative with the support of The Heritage Council. They are working away on visiting all the Sheelas in Ireland and already have a substantial body of images to view online.

The Aghadoe sheela is damaged (the feet are broken off) and covered in patches of lichen

Take a look at their collection of Cork sheelas to see how a good 3D image can reveal the true nature of a carving. The Aghadoe (Co Cork) example is particularly striking to me, because we visited it recently and I found it quite hard to photograph. The 3D image shows the breasts, the ribs, how one arm goes behind the legs to display the vulva while the other holds something aloft, and the curious bumps on the wrists that defy interpretation.

The DH_Age’s 3D rendering of the Aghadoe Sheela: the clarity of detail is impressive, but view it online for the full effect

The Aghadoe Sheela-na-Gig has a complicated history of being placed in different locations but it is currently on the side of a dovecote of indeterminate date and looking like at any moment it will be covered by the thick growth of ivy all around it. There was a tower house here at one point, and the sheela was reported as ‘probably from the castle’ and as ‘lying beside it.’ It’s a little tricky to track down now, so it’s a big thrill to find it and to see that, for the moment at least, it’s in the relatively protected position of being cemented into the dovecote wall.

Jack Roberts’ sketch of the Aghadoe Sheela

Our old friend Jack Roberts has written extensively about sheela-na-gigs and has published a marvellous resource – a one page fold-out map of the Sheela-na-Gigs of Ireland. You can order this from Jack’s site. His illustrations, as usual, are superb, and his artist’s eye managed to make out much of the detail that my camera couldn’t catch.

The Aghadoe Sheela is currently cemented on to a dovecote

I will come back to sheela-na-gigs in a future post but for now, you can check out these resources, for Ireland and for Britain, to learn more.

Kilkieran High Crosses – Medieval Gems

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

These are extracts from the OPW signboard located at the site

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

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

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

The enigmatic East Cross – unlike any other Irish High Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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