A Lost Cross-Inscribed Stone – Found Again!

An exciting discovery by Robert has led us on yet another journey – this time to the Dingle Peninsula in the Early Medieval period. But the journey started in Adare Manor and I don’t think it’s finished yet. Let me explain…

Our Christmas present to each other was a two night stay in Adare Manor – a favourite place full of history. Robert has written about a previous stay there when he was overwhelmed by the Gothic architecture and I wrote about our falconry experience. This time, we spent much time wandering the extensive and beautiful grounds. There’s a small grove of trees between the house and the golf club and this is where the Adare Manor collection of Ogham stones are located. These fine examples of Ogham, all of which came from Co Kerry originally, have been located at the Manor since the early nineteenth century. In recent years the grove has been cleaned up (older photos show it to have been quite overgrown and brambly) and the stones themselves have been straightened and cleaned. (Read more about Ogham in this post from a few years ago by Robert.)

Robert spotted a flat slab lying in the ground among the stones. He has developed a keen eye for anything resembling a carving (remember his find at Inish Beg?) and called me over to look more closely. We took several photographs, trying to get the best light to show up the carvings – a difficult task underneath the trees. It was obviously something, and vaguely reminiscent of Early Medieval (or Early Christian as it used to be called) carvings we had seen elsewhere, but odd and indistinct.

Noting that there was no record of anything except Ogham stones at this location in the National Monuments inventory, I sent photographs to Chris Corlett, an archaeologist with the National Monuments Service and an authority on the Early Medieval period. He responded that he was pretty certain it was from that period and forwarded the correspondence to Caimin O’Brien, the NM archaeologist with responsibility for Limerick. That’s where we started to get some answers. Caimin immediately recognised the carving from an 1865 book!

The book is Memorials of Adare Manor by Caroline, Countess of Dunraven (it’s available online at that amazing resource, archive.org). Caimin sent me a screen print, from which it was obvious that this was the same stone. The Dunravens, like many educated people in the nineteenth century, were interested in antiquities of all sorts. They are referenced here and there as ‘rescuing’ ancient artefacts and stones from damage, and Lady Dunraven goes to some pains to explain that none of the pieces that ended up in the museum at Adare Manor were in situ when they were acquired.

Four cross-inscribed stones are described in the book, all of which came from the Dingle Peninsula in West Kerry, or Corca Dhuibhne, from the area around Ballyferriter, west of Dingle. It’s an area that is unusually rich in Early Medieval sites – Reask, Gallarus and Kilmalkader are only three of the well known monastic ruins. Of those four stones, three are now back in West Kerry and on display. Until we found it, however, nobody had any idea what had happened to the fourth stone!

Imaged above and below are the cross-inscribed pillar that came from Reask in the early 1800s – and returned there in the 1970s

The late Tom Fanning excavated the Reask site (Riasc, in Irish) in the 70s and it is now a monument in state care, carefully reconstructed to suggest what an early monastic site would have looked like. One of the Adare stones had come from Reask and it was sent back to the reconstructed site “. . .through the kind offices of Lord and Lady Dunraven.” My photographs are below, but if you want to see it in 3D, click here.

A group of Americans were enacted some kind of ritual at the Reask monastic site when I was there. There was a lot of shouting about darkness and light and and dancing in a circle

Two others of the original four also arrived back in West Kerry and are both now at the Músaem Corca Dhuibhne in Ballyferriter, under the knowledgeable care of Isabel Bennett, the curator, pictured below with the second cross-inscribed stone). I am assuming that the stones were returned at the same time as the pillar now at Reask. Isabel has poured over all the available documentation but, like me, she can’t quite figure out when or why the transfers were made.

The more elaborate of the two came from Reask, but may have been considered too worn to be displayed outdoors. I give Lady Dunraven’s drawing below (although I am not sure who actually did the drawings – it may have been our old friend George Victor du Noyer). You can view a 3d rendering here.

The smallest of the stones (below) is triangular in shape and came originally from the townland of Killvickadownig, a few kilometres south of Reask, near Ventry. There’s a faint carving of a cross on the back, but the front bears a lovely four-armed cross with curled ends. The stone appears to have been detached or broken off from something else.

But our piece, the Adare Manor cross-inscribed stone, where did it come from and why is it, alone of the four, still at Adare? Well, it appears from Lady Dunraven’s account that the stone came from Ballydavid (Baile Daith), not too far from the other stones, and ‘close to a ringfort.’ Caimin has now uploaded the record (screenshot below) with a provisional original location near the only ringfort in Ballydavid, but noting of course that the stone is located in Adare Manor.

I can find no explanation as to why this stone was left at Adare Manor when the others were moved. It seems that the Reask pillar was located among the Ogham stones also, while the other two may have been indoors. Perhaps our Ballydavid slab was covered in moss and brambles to the extent that it was simply overlooked. Whatever the reason, I am glad to have been part of the rediscovery of this curious stone. I never cease to be amazed at the variety of forms these early cross slabs take, and this one is certainly unusual. While a cross shape forms the upper core of the carving, the central part reminds me of the monks’ habits that you see on occasional high crosses, such as the ones at Kilfenora. But what about all those squiggles at the bottom? I can make no sense of them.

Nick Hogan of the Dept of Archaeology at University College Cork had graciously taken the images I sent and turned them into a 3D rendering: the image below is a still from that process. My photogrammetry skills need refining but he still managed to create an image that is clearer than any photograph.

A close-up of the carved area. The grid at bottom left is part of a scale-arrow

There are still unanswered questions in this story, but the biggest unanswered question – Where is the fourth stone? – has at least been answered.

Still from a 3D render of the cross-inscribed stone

It’s been a fascinating bit of detective work to piece the story together and many people have contributed their expertise generously, particularly Chris Corlett, Caimin O’Brien, Nick Hogan and Isabel Bennet, while Sarah Ormston of the Adare Manor Hotel facilitated our access to the slab for recording purposes. Our thanks to all of them.

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 – an Introduction

This post will introduce you to one of the most exciting aspects of our architectural heritage – the building style known as Romanesque, which in Ireland became the dominant form in the 12th Century. Characterised by flamboyant doorways and elaborate carvings, it replaced an earlier and much plainer indigenous Irish church-building form of which few unmodified traces remain.

An early church at Liathmore, Co Tipperary. Note the square doorway with a simple linteled top. The projections of the sidewalls beyond the gables, known as antae, are a feature common to many early churches

Most churches in the Early Christian (or Early Medieval) era in Ireland were probably built of wood, although some early stone examples survive, such as the one Robert wrote about in his post Molaga of the Bees. Defining characteristics of these churches were their relative plainness – one rectangular space, often quite small, with a linteled portal, one or two small windows, projecting antae, and finials atop the gables.

Leaba Molaga, or Molaga’s Bed – note the antae and small linteled doorway. The reconstruction drawing in the leading photograph above is based on this building

Besides Molaga’s Bed, we have seen several of these early churches on our travels – last year at Oughtmama when we spent a day with Susan Byron (see Susan’s Burren) in Clare, and earlier this year when we stopped off the M8 to visit the churches at Liathmore. This week we saw two more, one at Ardfert and another at Kilmalkedar, both in Kerry. (Robert also writes about Kilmalkedar this week, although concentrating on other aspects). However, in each case, the native form has been modified by the influence of the Romanesque style.

Both photographs were taken at Oughtmama in Co Clare. In the first, a simple linteled doorway leads into a large nave, which was later modified with the addition of a chancel, accessed through a Romanesque arch. In the second, the small doorway, although no bigger than the first example, is in the Romanesque, arched, style

Romanesque was the pan-European architectural style of the 11th century. More than just a construction method, it was an ideological movement. After a period known generally as the Dark Ages in Europe, the renaissance of scholarship and art in the 11th century harkened back to the idea of the antique Christian culture, with all the construction and engineering skills of the Romans. As in every era, the elite wished to associate themselves with this and Romanesque architecture gained popularity for great buildings such as cathedrals and castles.

A great Romanesque Church, Sant’ Ambrogio, in Milan. The Romanesque period of its construction dates to the 12th century – about the same time as Cormac’s Chapel in Cashel, generally reckoned to be the high point of Irish Romanesque architecture, was being built. More on Cormac’s Chapel in the next post

This was a period when people, especially clergy, from all over Europe travelled to great pilgrimage sites such as Compostela or Rome and this helped to spread ideas within the Christian world. In Europe the Romanesque style was well established by the mid 1000s and flourished until it was gradually replace by Gothic beginning in the mid-12th century. It took longer to reach Ireland, and didn’t really become the dominant church-building style until the 12th century.

This is one of two Romanesque sites at Ardfert. We are looking through the chancel arch into the nave. Note the roll-mouldings where antae would once have been, and also the small arched west doorway

In Ireland the simple rectangular stone-built early medieval churches with their antae, linteled entrances and finialed gables were gradually replaced or modified starting in the mid 1000’s. Romanesque churches become nave-and-chancel buildings rather than one rectangular room. The chancel is separated from the nave by a rounded arch, and windows have similar arched tops and are deeply splayed on the inside, often asymmetrically.

Kilmalkedar church in Kerry. While antae remain, the portal is now in the full Romanesque style  with an arch, a couple of receding ‘orders’, chevron carvings and a carved head

The doorway is in the west wall (on the opposite side to the chancel and the altar) and is now arched rather than linteled. The walls of the nave may have blind arcading. There is clear evidence that they were painted – a few vestigial examples survive in Ireland.

At Kilmalkedar, the finials still top the gables. The stone roof can be clearly seen, or at least what remains of it

The roof are sometimes stone, and may contain attic-type spaces.

Two examples of Romanesque arched windows. The first (from Kilmalkedar) is topped by a simple arch hewn from one stone. In the second example the arch is more sophisticated. It is constructed using voussoirs – precisely cut wedge-shaped stones – which are beautifully carved with geometric and foliate shapes

But the real glory of the Romanesque building style, and what makes it so attractive for visitors are the carvings – a feature that is curiously absent from the Early Medieval church forms that preceded the Romanesque. (I say ‘curiously’ because other forms of stone carving, such as our wonderful high crosses, are well known from pre-Romanesque contexts in Ireland, as well as decorative metalwork and manuscripts.) Doorways, chancel arches and window surrounds are often carved with a variety of floral and geometric motifs (especially chevrons), while heads of humans and animals are found around doorways and arches, and occasionally outside. 

The chancel arch and blind arcading at Kilmalkedar

This post is just an introduction to Irish Romanesque, intended to cover the basics of the form and get you comfortable with the terminology. I have deliberately avoided talking about the carvings and the more spectacular of the sites. But in my next post on this topic I will concentrate on the doorways. There are many fine examples, from the simple to the elaborate – they are truly one of the wonders of our Irish architectural heritage. Here’s a sneak peek…

And by the way – this post is a celebration of sorts: it’s the 400th post in Roaringwater Journal! Our first post ever was in October 2012. With a five month hiatus (in order to move countries) we’ve been blogging faithfully week after week ever since. Our practice is that we, Robert and Finola, publish one post each every Sunday (and update the Table of Contents on the Navigation Page as we go along). We love the way this lends a shape to our week; we love the research and the photography; we love your feedback, both here and on our Facebook Page. Thank you, our wonderful readers, for sticking with us. Long may it continue!