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.

Memento Mori

Fanlobbus

It’s Halloween – what better time to take a wander round an old graveyard! Fortunately, we’re well endowed with them in Ireland, in varying states of preservation and decay.

Old graveyard, near Dunmanway

Except for the wealthy, who could afford to erect tombs and decorate churches with effigies of themselves and carved wall plaques, most people who died in Ireland up to the 1700s lie in unmarked graves. However, in the 18th century the practice of erecting carved headstones become commonplace for those who could pay for it. Styles of headstone carving evolved over time. Local craftsmen used the symbols in vogue, interpreting them according to their own ideas and their level of skill. The result can best be described as folk art.

Bridget Sweeney Kilmallock

Bridget Sweeney’s grave in Kilmallock Co Limerick is memorialised with a great example of a nineteenth century carved headstone

One recurring theme is the passion, or crucifixion of Christ, and a headstone we saw recently in Kilmallock, Co Limerick, is an excellent example of the crucifixion and other symbols.

Bridget Sweeney Closer

Top: Not only a crucifixion image,  but various other symbols feature on the headstone, such as a chalice (eucharist) and a rooster (awakening or time). Below: close up of the two angels: left is Michael blowing his trumpet and bearing a set of scales (reflecting his role of weighing souls at the gates of heaven); right is another angel bearing a book (in which might be recorded a person’s good and bad deeds) and keys (to the gates of heaven?)

Denis Sheehan, Kilmallock

Another crucifixion headstone, also in Kilmallock: harder to make out, but full of interesting elements

You may have noticed the letters IHS on Bridget Sweeney’s grave. Ubiquitous on old gravestones, on its own, accompanied by a simple cross, or as part of a more elaborate decoration, IHS stood for the name of Jesus. For a full explanation, see this post from the always excellent Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland.

Thomas Donahoe Clonfert

Another favourite symbol was a head with wings, usually representing the soul on its flight to heaven, but perhaps also an angel. 

Alice Bolster, Kilmallock

A particularly fetching angel/soul on the grave of Alice Bolster, Kilmallock

St Michael, blowing his trumpet to welcome that soul to heaven, was a favourite motif. We found one behind a bank of ivy in the old Aughadown graveyard near us, down by the Ilen River.

Aughadown

AughadownCan you make out Michael, blowing his trumpet? The enemies of all headstones are ivy and lichen and this one has been overtaken by both

Symbols of mortality decorate some of the earliest Irish headstone – skull and crossbones, hourglasses, books and bells, skeletons, even rotting corpses – all represent the finite nature of life on earth. Memento Mori literally means Remember, you must die. These images were supposed to encourage us, apparently, to lead better lives by reflecting both on the futility of relying on earthly delights and on the reward awaiting us in heaven. Mortality symbols generally date to the 1700s.

Cloondara, Co Longford, no inscription

Top: this slab is in the churchyard at Cloondara Co Longford and has no inscription. The two images below it are from a grave in Castlelands, near Kinsale. These two images are courtesy of our friend Amanda Clarke: she was told by a man doing maintenance work that this was the grave of Anne Bonny the pirate – hence the skull and crossbones!

Sun, moon and star images represent the glories of creation and we’ve seen many instances of sunbursts, often enclosing the IHS lettering. Here’s a nice example, below, from Kilmallock, which also has winged heads and beautiful lettering.

William Jones Kilmallock

Lettering styles varied widely, as did the carver’s ability to spell and to ensure he had left himself enough room. Anyone wanting to invent new fonts (yes, that’s a thing) could well study old headstones and admire the incredible variety of lettering. Carving some of the more elaborately rounded scripts must have been a job for only the most highly skilled.

Dan Linnehan, Cullen, Co Cork

We often see instances where letters and words have to be added above or below the line, where the carver ran out of room

The Lamb of God is another common image – although it can be hard to recognise a lamb in the often lumpen carving at the top of a headstone.

Headstone, Cullen

At an old graveyard in Cullen, Co Cork, there are several stones that appear to be in a local style with a head on either side of the top of the stone

We can’t resist old graveyards – we seldom pass an opportunity for a stroll and an explore. Sometimes we find interesting headstones, sometimes we just soak in the atmosphere, sometimes we worry about the neglect that allows them to slowly disappear into a jumble of brambles and nettles.

Four Children gravestone, Bandon

It’s hard to make out what’s on this old headstone in the churchyard at St Peter’s C of I church in Bandon. The words include a reference to ‘his four children’ so I am tempted to think these four heads representing those little souls.

Here’s some good new – there is an Irish organisation, Historic Graves, that is doing outstanding work in saving our historic graveyards from that fate. In their own words:

The Historic Graves project is a community focused grassroots heritage project. Local community groups are trained in low-cost high-tech field survey of historic graveyards and recording of their own oral histories. They build a multi-media online record of the historic graves in their own areas and unite to form a national resource.

Lissagriffin

Kilmoe churchyard, in LIssagriffin on the MIzen Peninsula, has benefited from a Historic Graves survey

I used information from the Historic Graves survey in my posts about the Stouke Graveyard (Priests and Poets Part 1 and Part 2) and I hope to learn more about their methods and objectives in the future.

Another Historic Graves project was Castlelands, near Kinsale. These photographs are by Amanda Clarke, used with thanks

One thing we have seen is that once a graveyard has been surveyed it’s important to keep it well maintained. The Cloyne graveyard was surveyed in 2013 and many fine old headstones were found and recorded. We visited in May 2014 and loved our walk through the flower-strewn pathways and the newly-revealed headstones. However, earlier this month when we dropped in it had started to resemble a jungle again. 

Cloyne Graveyard

I will leave you with a couple of my personal favourites from graveyard visits – not elaborate, not particularly old, but saying so much. The first is from Castlehaven graveyard in West Cork, the second from Kilbarry, near Dunmanway.

Castlehaven Bridge McCarthy

Crowley Castle St