Irish Romanesque 2 – Doorways

In April I introduced you to the form of architecture known as Irish Romanesque – the dominant form of church architecture in Ireland in the 12th century. If you haven’t read that post already a quick glance over it will get you ready for this one. To continue the series, I’m going to look at one of the glories of the form – the elaborate doorways, often highly decorated, such as the one at Clonfert, above.

Our friends Brendan and Kathie are visiting at the moment and I pressed Brendan, an artist, into service, drawing the Killeshin doorway for me, so I could use his drawing to illustrate the main features of these doorways, and cover some basic vocabulary. (Thank you, Brendan!) Take a look at our joint effort – it will help as I talk about the doorways.*

This simple door is at Ardfert in Co Kerry. It only has one order and no decoration apart from a string of bosses above the arch. The romanesque elements at Ardfert are mixed with later gothic elements – fragments only of the 12th century buildings that once occupied the site. The doorway below is yet another example, built into the wall of the later cathedral building. The stone is soft and much weathered but the columns were once carved, and the door is flanked by blind arcading.

This doorway (below) at Ardmore in Waterford is no longer complete – while the jambs are there, the columns have disappeared, leaving only their capitals behind.

Killeshin in Co Laois, our model for the drawing, is a beautiful site. The early church retains antae on one side, and there are windows and vestiges of a stone roof reminiscent of the early medieval site we described at Kilmalkedar in Kerry.

The doorways has three orders and a pediment above. Many of the voussoirs are carved with intricate designs and the keystone features a carved head.

Not only do the Killeshin carvings include intricate geometric patterns and heads on the capitals, but there is writing memorialising the builder and the donor.

Not far from Killeshin is Freshford (Co Kilkenny) where a church still in use has incorporated a romanesque doorway from a 12th century church into a later building. Much modification has taken place – the round widow in the neo-romanesque style is an 18th century addition and the cross at the top of the pediment is also recent.

Note the inclined jambs – meaning the doorway tapers towards the top. The stone is soft and badly weathered, but some carvings are still discernible on the capitals. Interestingly, the jambs originally had niches for statuary, one example of which, two figures, remains,

Two of my personal favourites come now. The first in in Clare, at Dysert O’Dea, a fascinating multi-period site. The romanesque doorway is distinguished by its multiple carved heads on the voussoirs of the outermost archivolt of the arch.

The columns, capitals and inner archivolts are also highly decorated, but it’s those carved heads that never fail to capture the imagination. Not all are human, but of the ones that are I can’t help wondering who the models were – bishops? warriors? saints? kings? Or perhaps the carvers themselves?

Finally, the greatest doorway of all, widely considerered to be the masterpiece of romanesque architecture on Ireland – the great door of Clonfert cathedral in Co Galway. It’s the photograph I led off with, showing the whole doorway. Let’s take a look at some of the details.

The pediment is unusual in that it is filled with triangular reliefs, each having a carved head. Below that are blind arcades with yet more heads. Although weathered, each head has its own distinct character.

All seven orders of columns and capitals are decorated, as are the archivolts. In fact, it’s hard to find an inch on this doorway that isn’t intricately carved. There are fantastical creatures, animals, geometric and interlaced designs, and on the innermost jamb, two carved figures that are mostly likely 15th century additions, but no less compelling for that.

Romanesque carvings deserve a post to themselves one of these days, as does the iconic building of the period – and this time not just doorways but a complete building – Cormac’s Chapel at the Rock of Cashel. Look out for those posts in the future. Meanwhile, one last glimpse of some of columns and capitals from Clonfert…

*For a truly erudite treatment of Irish Romanesque, see the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland – its the Romanesque Encyclopaedia!

Clonfert, St Brendan – and the Ghost of British Fascism

yew walk 2016

Clonfert, Yew Walk

The yew walk at Clonfert  – ‘a great cathedral of natural growth’ – which Tom and Angela Rolt found so impressive on their visit to Clonfert, Co Galway, in 1946, during their travels around the waterways of Ireland. Their photograph is above; 70 years later we followed in their footsteps and took the picture at the top of the page

We were following the Rolt’s journey described in the book Green & Silver – this post is the sixth instalment of the Travel by Water series. We would certainly have included Clonfert in our own itinerary, as we could not have missed the incredible 12th century doorway of Clonfert Cathedral, a high point of Hiberno Romanesque architecture – that deserves a future post of its own. The Rolts walked to Clonfert from their mooring on the Grand Canal at Shannon Harbour, a round journey of over a dozen miles; we drove to Clonfert and managed to get thoroughly lost in the maze of tiny roads in that part of rural County Galway.

st brendan's grave inscription

The twelfth century doorway to Clonfert Cathedral – a medieval architectural masterpiece – and the grave of St Brendan which it faces

…Close behind the cathedral and sheltering with it among the fine trees which make Clonfert an oasis in the bogland, stands the Bishops Palace, now a lay residence. Having been courteously granted permission to explore the grounds, we found Clonfert’s celebrated yew walk which is reputed to date back to early medieval times. The yews have attained unusual stature, and their interlacing branches curve outward and then upward towards the light to form a series of those ogee curved arches beloved of the Gothic revivalists of the Strawberry Hill period. As the main walk runs from east to west with two short transepts radiating from a central crossing, the effect is truly remarkable and represents nothing so much as a great cathedral of natural growth. Moreover, the light within was appropriately dim and religious, the dark foliage excluding most of the light from the overcast sky. We found the silent twilight of this great nave of ancient trees strangely impressive, more so, in fact than the man-made cathedral close by. In spite of the difficulty involved we decide to make this the subject of our pictorial record of Clonfert rather than the often-photographed west doorway… (LTC Rolt, Green & Silver, George Allen and Unwin 1949).

nuns walk sign

Tom Rolt, the navigator of canals, devotes several passages in his book to Saint Brendan ‘the navigator’ and his many voyages all over the world until …having completed ninety three years… Brendan set out fearfully and alone upon his last voyage while his body was brought home to Clonfert for burial… (Green & Silver): …There is much evidence to support the belief that Brendan reached America nearly a thousand years before Columbus, that Newfoundland was his first landfall, and that he sailed from thence down the coast to the Bahamas and the everglades of Florida… Rolt goes on to admire the conjectured boat which Brendan and his small party of monks would have used: …The hull of this vessel of AD 551 bears a remarkable resemblance to that of an ice-breaker boat which I saw re-timbered at the yard of an English canal company in AD 1943. She was massively built of oak, iron fastened to the ribs, with a high prow and a whaleboat stern equipped with a steering paddle (the rudder had not then been invented). She was decked fore and aft, while the mast stepped in the well amidships bore a single lug sail. Her timbers were possibly skin-covered as the wooden curraghs of Inishbofin are today covered with canvas. She had considerable freeboard, and she shipped no oars but depended on sail alone. In this small but stoutly built craft, of which the Galway Pookawn of to-day is probably the direct lineal descendant, Brendan set forth to sail into the sunset…

Fascinating and curious juxtapositions in the offerings left at St Brendan’s Tree in Clonfert

The Rolts did not mention St Brendan’s Tree, which we encountered on our way to the yew walk. We don’t know how ancient or how recent this manifestation might be. It’s a horse chestnut and it is festooned with all the offerings one would find at a holy well – and more! In addition to statues, rosaries, cards, coins and ribbons there were toys, musical intruments, shoes – and underwear. We were guided to the yew walk by a forester working nearby: we expressed curiosity at the tree, wanting to know its history and efficacy but his response was pragmatic: “I’m Church of Ireland myself and wouldn’t be knowing anything about this sort of goings-on”.

Brendan made several voyages. Rolt continues the story: …It was upon Brendan’s return from his second voyage that he founded his monastery and college at Clonfert – Cluain Fearta Breannain or the meadow of Brendan’s Virtus. This was destined to become a great European University of three thousand students rivalled only by the similar institutions of Clonard and Bangor. Clear thinking was the liberal aim of education at this period… Fifteen years elapsed before Brendan once more set sail to Scotland, and Wales, visiting the great Welsh scholars Gildas the Wise and Cadoc of Llancarvan, and from thence to Brittany and the Cornwall of King Arthur… Where Brendan voyaged after this is uncertain, but rumour and legend associate the name of this indefatigable traveller with the Canary Islands, Teneriffe, Egypt, Palestine and the Isles of Greece. Yet the patron saint of seafarers returned to Ireland to die in the convent of his sister Brigh at Annaghduin…

Bishops Palace

Palace Interior

We found the Bishop’s Palace, which Rolt mentioned as being a ‘lay residence’ – presumably in good order – in 1946. 70 years later it is ruinous. We were intrigued and I determined to seek out its recent history. In doing so I chanced upon a whole section of Irish and British relationships which startled me, and seemed somehow to make entirely poignant the time span of 70 years which I have been observing in this series.

Discarded robin

A poignant moment – discarded robin and broken statue in Clonfert graveyard

I quote from an article in The Dublin Review, issue No 26, Spring 2007. This is an excellently written and comprehensive account of matters well beyond the remit of this little post, but I commend anyone who is interested in history – and the state of the world today – to read it. This extract continues the story of the Palace at Clonfert:

…In 1951, John Arthur Burdett Trench – obsessive huntsman since the age of eight, polo player and, in his mid sixties, possessor of a memory of having ridden home the winner of the Grand National at Fairyhouse at a time when English officers could still relax in the grandstand – sold Clonfert Palace near Eyrecourt in Co. Galway to an English family not long arrived in Ireland. The house had belonged to the Trenches for generations and had once been the residence of Church of Ireland bishops. It stood on the flood plain of the Shannon, a short walk from Clonfert Cathedral, hidden away behind its famous avenue of yew trees, an inconspicuous island of Ascendancy civility on the frontier of the vast bog. Like many other ancient mansions, its comforts and refinements had not survived the privations of the twentieth century and it was badly in need of restoration. Every day for months the new lady of the house would drive across the bogland roads from her temporary accommodation in Tipperary to supervise the installation of bathrooms, electricity and central heating, an Aga in the kitchen. Word spread that Clonfert Palace was being returned to its former glory and that there was work to be had from the new owners. They turned the ballroom into a drawing room and brought a carpenter from Banagher to build bookshelves that covered an entire wall. They filled the once-dilapidated rooms with fine furniture, replaced the broken sash cords on the windows, draped curtains made to measure in Dublin and hung paintings of their ancestors on the wall. They recruited a gardener, a housekeeper and a cook. Occasionally the lady’s husband would arrive in a large, exotic Buick driven by a French chauffeur.

Soon, it became known that the family bringing Clonfert Palace back to life was Sir Oswald and Lady Diana Mosley and their two sons. On the fifteenth of February 1952, the Westmeath Independent carried a short item entitled ‘Distinguished Residents’, disclosing that the previous Friday the Mosley family had ‘moved into occupation’ of the palace. ‘Sir Oswald and Lady Mosley, who have a large staff, are charmed with Ireland, its people, the tempo of its life and its scenery,’ the paper related, dutifully informing readers in a final sentence that ‘Sir Oswald was the former leader of a political movement in England’…

Frightening reminders of a world in chaos – less than a lifetime ago. Left – a poster from 1939 (Oswald Mosley led the British Union of Fascists) and – right – Mussolini and Mosley meet in Italy in 1936 (image from http://www.panorama.it/)

After the war, the Mosleys were virtually outcasts from Britain. Neutral Ireland seemed to offer them a retreat and a measure of civility. The Dublin Review continues:

…Sir Oswald would take his breakfast in bed. The Irish Times and Financial Times would be delivered from Eyrecourt. Lady Mosley would give her orders for the day to Mrs Swan, the cook. When Sir Oswald surfaced he might go for a long walk along the Shannon, passing the barges hauling cargoes of porter, coal or flour. On return he would set to work in his study. Nicholas Mosley has written about his father’s attachment to ‘the hierarchical … classless patterns of life … in the semi-feudal grandeur’ of the estate where he grew up in Staffordshire; in Clonfert Mosley seems to have replicated this idyll. Just as his grandfather had produced wholemeal bread, Sir Oswald supervised the growing of vegetables and ploughed the paddock to plant lucerne, a clover-like plant used for fodder…

bishops palace from neswpaper

This newspaper photograph of the Bishop’s Palace at Clonfert could have been taken around the time of the Rolt’s visit (1946) or after restoration by the Mosleys

The ‘idyll’ did not last too long. The Dublin Review again:

…One foggy night a few weeks before Christmas 1954, while Diana was visiting London, the Mosleys’ neighbours the Blake-Kellys were woken just before two o’clock by the whinnying of a pony in their stables. From their window they could see flames and smoke billowing from the Palace next door. Mrs Blake-Kelly sent her son to bang on the Mosleys’ front door and within minutes Sir Oswald, Alexander and their servants were standing on the lawn watching the flames consume their house. A French maid, Mademoiselle Cerrecoundo, rushed back into the house to fetch some clothes and was trapped at an upstairs window. Sir Oswald, Alexander and the chauffeur, Monsieur Thevenon, held a blanket under the window and she leaped to safety, hurting her back and her hand. Monsieur Thevenon drove to the Garda station in Eyrecourt and from there fire brigades were summoned from Ballinasloe and Birr. It took an hour and a half for the engines to arrive and by then more than half the house was lost to the blaze. The firemen cut through the roof with their axes to create a barrier to the advancing flames…

The story does not quite end there: as if some sort of retribution of biblical proportions were needed, even the land was punished. The Dublin Review concludes:

…By morning, when the firemen had finished their work and stood gazing at the hole rent through the roof of the house, cold westerly winds were gathering strength. It was the beginning of the worst storm in the midlands for a hundred years. Rain, sleet and snow poured down on the smouldering ruins of Clonfert and the winds reached hurricane force, knocking trees across the roads and felling the electricity wires that had been strung only in the last few years. Within a few days thousands of acres of land by the Shannon were flooded. The army came to evacuate farmhouses which were under three or four feet of water and drive cattle to high ground. Stone outhouses were washed away, corn stooks submerged and the swollen bodies of cows and pigs that could not be saved were left bobbing in the water…

protect

I was born in 1946, just when Tom and Angela Rolt were planning their exploration of Ireland’s waterways, but also directly after the turbulence of an awful global war which caused the deaths of over seventy million people. One of the elements which led to that war was the rise of fascism in Europe. In my lifetime to date I have seen fascism largely invalidated and the creation of a European Union whose members have worked towards common and positive aims. For seventy years there has been ‘peace in Europe’. Now – in 2016 – I have reason to worry about our children’s future; some things which should have been buried forever in the pages of history seem to be stirring. I desperately hope my foreboding is misplaced.

brendan stamp

Wild Beasts of Ireland

tiger at feet st canice

There are wild beasts all around us!  Animal, fish, serpent or fowl, real or mythical, carved, painted – imagined. This is my second ‘Menagerie’ – previously we explored the Honan Chapel in Cork, and I was struck by all the wildlife representations there, as set out in this post from over two years ago.

2 deer cashel

Deer and antlers on a memorial plaque in the Cathedral at Cashel – one of the earlier representations here, dating from 1574. Top picture – believed to be a tiger, this fine beast lies at the feet of a medieval knight in St Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny

Our travels take us around many of Ireland’s historic sites, and I’m always on the lookout for Creatures – they are abundant everywhere. Countless stories of the saints involved animals: they are common symbols on tombs and heraldic plaques, but we can’t resist also using them today – for inns, shop signs or just decoration on the streetscape. Have a look around you – you might be surprised how many you can see…

toucan guiness

Inhabited streetscapes: top – two Kilkenny Cats undoubtedly belonging to Dame Alice Kytler and, above – there are plenty of these toucans still around in Ireland! They originate from a ‘zoo’ advertising campaign for Guiness begun in 1935 (abeted by Dorothy Sayers who wrote captions and verses); the toucan campaign flourished until 1982

Nobody has ever claimed the toucan as an Irish bird, but pelicans were certainly not uncommon in medieval carvings here. That’s because the pelican in early Christianity symbolises atonement as it was believed to wound itself in order to feed its young with its own blood.

2 birds shield cashel

fish lid st canice

Christian symbolism: top – medieval pelicans at Cashel, and below – a fish incorporated in a modern lid to the ancient font in St Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. The Greek ΙΧΘΥΣ is an acrostic for ησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ, literally translating as Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour

Also in Christian symbolism the lamb represents Jesus – the Lamb of God – who was sacrificed in order to atone for human sin.

lamb with pennant kilkenny

ihs lamb detail
Top picture – not a wild beast, perhaps, but a pascal lamb mosaic in St Mary’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. Lower picture – this strange creature is also a lamb, from a graveyard memorial in Killeen, Co Meath

Lions are popular animals in Britain and Ireland, possibly because they appeared on royal crests and were therefore associated with status and dignity. I was surprised to find bears and eagles well represented.

All the lions (graphic tiles and wistful memorials) are from the Collegiate Church in Youghal. The stained glass is from St Peter’s Church, Bandon, Co Cork and shows off bears (from crests of the Earls of Bandon – their motto was Bear & Forbear), eagles, another lion and – for good measure – a fine serpent

Some of the most splendid and oldest carved stonework in Ireland is to be found at Cormac’s Chapel, Cashel and at Clonfert Cathedral, both dating from the twelfth century. The Hiberno Romanesque doors and arches display arrays of human heads but also numerous creatures.

Heads cormacs chapel

Upper pictures – a small selection from the riotous carvings at Clonfert Cathedral, Co Galway and – lower picture – ambiguous creatures from Cashel, Co Tipperary: all are around 900 years old

I’ll round off for now with some more cat-like creatures and a Kilkenny pig. Oh – and a carving we found in the Cashel museum, titled ‘Elephant and Castle’. Both the carving and the name are enigmatic, as the creature with a castle on its back (wherein resides another creature – a gryphon?) looks to me like a boar with feathers!

pig dores kilkenny

Elephant + Castle

 

Into the Heartland

Elphin Windmill

Because we live on it, sometimes we get carried away by the notion that The Wild Atlantic Way represents the best that Ireland has to offer. A recent trip to the midlands – the Heartland of Ireland – convinced us (if we needed it) that there is no part of Ireland that isn’t beautiful and full of fascinating things to do and see. (Like the Elphin Windmill, Co Roscommon, above.)

Parked at Coolnahay

We spent a lot of time along rivers and canals! 

Robert explains the background and purpose of our trip in his post, Travel by Water. I knew very little about canals before I met Robert and it’s been eye-opening to learn about the history and the sheer extent of Ireland’s inland waterways. We spent a lot of time exploring the canals – walking and driving – and enjoyed it all tremendously.

Boa Island figures

Boa Island on Lough Erne, Co Fermanagh, is home to these mysterious carved figures. Lower left: heads on a medieval church in Kilmallock, Co Limerick. Lower right: a contemporary sculpture celebrates the mythical Finn McCool, in Keshcarrigan, Co Leitrim

But wherever we went there were always other places luring me away – tower houses and fortified houses, churches and graveyards, friendly villages and colourful houses, stained glass windows and prehistoric sites. We drove along roads where we counted ring forts in every field. We explored ancient graveyards and we found a Holy Tree. We visited two sites we posted about last week, the Corlea Iron Age Trackway, and the Hill of Uisneach.

Holy Chestnut

The Holy Tree. A local man we met called it a ‘holy show’ and it certainly had some very questionable items mixed in with the statues and offerings

It’s autumn now, and, while we do experience a change of colour here in West Cork, it’s really in the midlands that the colours of the deciduous trees can overwhelm the senses. They were just starting to turn. I’m strongly tempted to head back in another couple of weeks for the full experience.

Birr Castle Gardens 2

These photographs were all taken at Birr Castle Gardens. Birr Castle (Co Offaly) was one of the most interesting and beautiful places we visited, home of the famous telescope and beautifully maintained

We visited thirteen of Ireland’s 32 counties on this trip – and never came close to the sea or the Wild Atlantic Way. Instead, everywhere we went we saw notices for the latest iteration of the Tourist Board’s marketing scheme. This one is called Ireland’s Ancient East, and appears to take in every county that isn’t on the Atlantic seaboard. A good resource, if you’re considering a trip like this, is Neil Jackman’s guidebook, Ireland’s Ancient East – we kept it by us and found it invaluable.

Grange Stone Circle, Lough Gur

Grange Stone Circle, the largest in Ireland, is one of a complex of monuments at Lough Gur, Co Limerick

Our headquarters for the biggest chunk of our time away was the incomparable Mearescourt House near Mullingar, Co Westmeath. George and his team made us welcome and comfortable, there were glorious grounds to wander around and animals to meet, and delicious breakfasts that left us feeling full for the rest of the day.

Mearescourt House

Mearescourt House – highly recommended!

When tourists are interviewed about their holidays in Ireland they praise the scenery, the food, the music – but most of all, they say, it’s the people who make it so enjoyable. We agree! Everywhere we went we ended up in conversation, as you do here, with local people delighted to help out with information, share old stories, invite us to the sessions, tell us where to go for a nice dinner, or point out places off the beaten track (and then rescue us later when we got lost).

Claire and Paddy Crinnegan, Coolnahay

Paddy and Claire Crinnegan maintain the canal lock at Coolnahay on the Royal Canal. in Co Westmeath They made us tea, fed us Claire’s delicious currenty bread, told us about the trad concert that evening, loaned us a book, and related stories of growing up at the lock, where Claire’s father was the lock keeper.

Future posts will go into more depth on some of what we saw and experienced on this trip. This one is just an introduction, to share some of our impressions and drop some hints about what might be upcoming.

Clonfert Doorway

Clonfert Cathedrall (Co Galway) has the most beautiful Romanesque doorway I have ever seen
Along the canals and rivers, flora and fauna
Top left: in case you might get too happy with yourself; top right: the imposing gates to Portumna Castle, Co Galway, a 17th century house now owned and managed by the Office of Public Works; Bottom left: I peeped inside the priest’s section of a confession box and observed how he maintains an efficient count of time spent on each confession; bottom right; we disturb the rooks at Ballycowan Castle, Co Offaly

HC Studio, Athlone

Athlone Cathedral (Co Westmeath) has a gorgeous set of enormous windows from the Harry Clarke Studios – this is a detail from just one of them.

Can you detect a future post or two?