Fading Treasures

For me, Ireland’s greatest treasures are those that are shy of publicity. There’s nothing more rewarding than turning off the beaten track and negotiating a narrow boreen with a lush growth of grass down the middle and brambles scratching your car on either side to find – often by chance – a stunning piece of medieval architecture, perhaps just the fragments of a ruin in a field, but revealing the beauty of a decorated doorway or an ornately carved corbel. Always these items are discernible but fading. Their splendour – and the exquisite craftsmanship that created them – are manifest. But there’s a melancholy in these finds: you see them, and wonder at them, yet you ask: how many more generations will be able to appreciate these works of ancient hands?

A classic case study would be the medieval high crosses. There are a remarkable number of these still intact on the island of Ireland, and many more fragmentary remains. We go out of our way to search for all these traces in our travels: some of those we have visited to date can be found through this link. It’s such a rich archive, and there are many more to be written up.

Above is St Cronan’s High Cross, Roscrea, Co Tipperary. As you can see, this example has been removed to an indoor location (Black Mills Heritage Centre), to protect it from further weather deterioration, although all the fine detail has been lost. In fact, this example has been assembled from sections of two different medieval crosses for purposes of display. I am an advocate of protecting these artefacts in this way, as acid rain and modern pollution seem to be accelerating the decay of the stone monuments. As in many cases with the protection measures, a high quality reproduction cross has been placed on the original site in the churchyard of St Cronan’s, just a few metres away. Have a look at my post on Monasterboice for a further discussion on the arguments for preservation of these monuments – and compare the condition of the as yet unprotected high crosses there with the wear and tear above.

While in Roscrea, you can take your own journey along a ‘secret track’ to find treasures. Visit Inis na mBeo (Island of the Living) at Monaincha, just a stone’s throw from the town: you are likely to be the only visitors there and can fully appreciate the solitude of the location while exploring a ruined Romanesque church and a reconstructed high cross (above). The monastic site was founded in the 6th century, and was then a true island, only accessible by boat; now you can walk to it. Not least of its attractions is the fact that you are immortal while you are there (so they say). Certainly, we came back alive, but I was concerned to read later that another tradition has it that when the now dry lough contained water, no woman or female animal could ever set foot in or cross it without dying instantly. (Below – looking along the remote trackway that takes you to the former Island of the Living at Monaincha).

Another ‘rescued’ high cross can be found quietly located in the far less remote (but still a little unsung) Cathedral of St Flannan in Killaloe, Co Clare. Megalithic Ireland has a good account of the history of this cross, which can be seen in the images below (while the header picture at the top of this post shows exquisitely carved detailing from a Romanesque doorway in the same Cathedral):

. . . The High Cross in St Flannan’s Cathedral was moved to Killaloe from Kilfenora in 1821. Originally the cross stood on the highest point south of Kilfenora Cathedral, and became known as the cross on the hill. Dr Richard Mant who was appointed Bishop of Killaloe and Kilfenora in 1820, was appalled by the condition and lack of respect shown for the antiquities in Kilfenora. The cross, which had fallen in 1820, was sent to the Bishop the following year. He had it erected on the grounds of his residence Clarisford Palace. The cross was moved at a later date by a Bishop Ludlow and moved back within the Palace grounds in 1850. In 1934 the cross fell again and this time broke into three pieces. It was re-erected inside the cathedral and fixed against the west gable. In 1998 the cross was repaired and erected as a free standing cross. It stands over four metres high and bears a figure of christ in the centre of the head . . .

The White Cross of St Tola (images below) may not be on everyone’s list of things to see at Dysert O’Dea in Co Clare (you are more likely to be channelled to Corofin), but it’s easy to visit from the better known Romanesque monastery ruins: the ecclesiastical centre was founded by the saint in the 8th century. Cromwell’s forces destroyed the monastery and demolished the cross, but the cross was repaired by Michael O’Dea in 1683. The Synge family restored the cross again in 1871, and in 1960 it was temporarily dismantled and shipped to Barcelona for an exhibition on Irish art.

Clonmacnoise is likely to be on everyone’s list, and rightly so. It was one of Europe’s most important religious centres in medieval times. Ireland’s Ancient East website describes it thus:

. . . The whole of this early Christian site – including ruins of a cathedral, seven churches (10th–13th century), two round towers, high crosses and the largest collection of early Christian grave slabs in Western Europe – is a vast story in stone that keeps alive the spirit of Ireland as a Land of Saints and Scholars . . .

There are three conserved high crosses at Clonmacnoise – all are placed inside the visitor centre, while quality replicas are positioned on the original sites: this is a good exemplar of how to look after ancient stones and, while perhaps the seasonal crowds can be off-putting, I believe it’s the only answer for maintaining access to and displaying this valuable history. Ancient East mentions the important grave slab collection: after the high crosses (and, of course, Romanesque architecture) I feel these are the most beautiful representations of art and craftsmanship that connect us across the centuries to our remarkably focussed forebears.

These are just a few examples of the many grave slabs which are fortunately conserved at Clonmacnoise. But there are many more monuments that are less fortunate, albeit they may enjoy some sort of state care. There are just not enough resources to look after the huge historical heritage of Ireland: we can only hope that, in time, they will all be fully appreciated and that not too many treasures will fade away.

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!

A Week in Clare

Even on a cloudy day, the Lakes of Killarney are breathtaking

Even on a cloudy day, the Lakes of Killarney are breathtaking

From West Cork, the whole of the southwest of Ireland is within easy reach. Killarney is an hour and half straight north, through magnificent mountain scenery. Another hour brings you to Tarbert, on the banks of the Shannon Estuary. Take the ferry across to Killimer, and you’re in County Clare. For the trip last week, our lodging was a beautiful holiday home in Liscannor, owned by a generous friend. It’s about half way up the County, right beside the famous Cliffs of Moher – an ideal base for exploring Clare.

Anchor Inn, Liscannor. Best food in Clare!

Anchor Inn, Liscannor. Best food in Clare! This is the bar/grocery section.

While Robert attended the annual Noel Hill Concertina School I became a tourist. Clare is an astoundingly fertile area for geography, history, archaeology and culture and a wonderful place to spend time exploring with a map and guide book. I highly recommend The Burren and the Aran Islands: Exploring the Archaeology, by Carleton Jones – one of the best guides of its kind I have ever used. I was also lucky to have met a new friend online recently, Susan Byron, and in Clare I met her in person. The brains behind Ireland’s Hidden Gems, she gave me all kinds of great advice, along with lashings of tea and apple pie, about how to spend my time here.

Burren Landscape

Burren Landscape

For this visit, I confined my travels more or less to the area known as The Burren, which occupies the northern third of the county. It is a striking landscape of bare limestone hills – a karst formation full of caves and limestone ‘pavements’ and home to many species of rare and colourful wildflowers. No flowers yet – it’s still too cold. Too cold for other tourists too, so I had most places to myself. It rained and it hailed and the winds blew mightily, but in between the sun shone enough to imagine it was really spring. And if I got too cold, well, I retreated to the nearest friendly pub with a roaring fire and a pot of tea.

Eugene's Pub in Ennistymon/old ad in Valughan's in Kilfenora

Eugene’s Pub in Ennistymon/old ad in Vaughan’s in Kilfenora

The photographs I have chosen are a small selection of the sites I visited. One of the most iconic of all irish prehistoric sites is Poulnabrone portal tomb (what used to be called a dolmen). I don’t think it’s possible to take a bad photograph of it. Not too far away is Parknabinnia wedge tomb, another example of a neolithic stone monument. In researching this one on the internet I came across a recording on the excellent Voices From the Dawn site of an interview with 88 year old Paul Keane. Mr Keane’s story, familiar to us all over Ireland, illustrates how the beliefs of country people have kept these sites safe from depredation over many centuries.

Poulnabrone and Parknabinnia

Poulnabrone and Parknabinnia

Medieval ruins abound in Clare. I went twice to Corcomroe to admire the stonework, to Dysert O’Dea (one of the most impressive Hiberno-Romanesque doorways I have ever seen, ruined abbey, round tower, an unusual high cross and 15th century castle) and Kilfenora, where the crosses are stored in the ruined church under a glass roof.

Corcomroe Abbey. 13th Century Cistercian Monastery

Corcomroe Abbey, 13th Century Cistercian Monastery

I also took in, although I have not illustrated, a church in Killinaboys with a sheelenagig (more on sheelanagigs in an upcoming post) and one in Noughaval to view the ‘cyclopean’ masonry. I spent a fruitless couple of hours, as the light was fading, trying to find a way to visit a particular stone cashel but had to give up – there’s lots to see but not everything is signposted, close to a road, or down a grassy boreen.

Dysert O'Dea and Kilfenora

Dysert O’Dea and Kilfenora

Robert has written about the incredible music scene we were part of in Clare, something that is also accessible to anyone who visits. The wonders of Ireland- no matter where you go, there’s so much to do and see! If you’re coming, try to fit in some time in Clare.

Finally – a piece of whimsy. Indulge me….

First century BC Chinese head from the Terracotta Warriers; 12th Century Irish head from the Dysert O’Dea Romanesque doorway; 21st Century American head from Wrestlemania.

Just sayin’…

Dysert Fu1