Irish Romanesque 3 – Monaincha, the Isle of the Living

There are places on this island that seep into your soul. You come away with a sense of having visited another world, of having passed through a portal and been lucky enough to come back to tell the tale. Such a place is Monaincha in Tipperary.

We made this trip because I was studying Irish Romanesque architecture and Monaincha is a fine example, but we had no real idea what to expect and it caught us off guard. An ancient signpost directed us down a rough track through the trees and then by foot across the fields. Our first glimpse was of what looked like an island in the middle of flat land.

We weren’t wrong – this had been an island, called Inchanambeo (Incha na mBeó) which translates as Island of the Living. Curious name, but of course, this being Ireland, there’s a story to it. Here it is from Dúchas, the School’s Folklore Collection, collected by a 12 year old in the 1930s:

On this lake were two islands; the Island of the living which was the smaller of the two was a place to where saints went who wanted to live alone – with God. It was called the Island of the Living because it was said that no one could die who went on this island. Of course this is not to say that their bodies could not die – it meant that their souls could not die, because Our Lord said “He that eateth of this bread shall live for ever”. No woman could go on the large island because she would die. This was often experimented, when men brought female animals on the island but they dropped dead the moment their feet touched the island.

Hmmm – as a woman, perhaps I did indeed go through some kind of portal, since I managed to live through the experience. That explains the Otherworldly feeling!

The top image and this one are from Ledwich’s Antiquities of Ireland, published in 1790. His map clearly shows that both islands were still there at that time, with a building still in place on the small island, while the first illustration shows the second building on the large island, no longer there

For this and more Duchas stories about Monaincha, go to this link on the Dúchas website. You will see that Cromwell sacked the monastery, that the woman who gave away the monks’ location was turned to stone along with her cake of bread, that the lake contains hidden treasure, that the water if used improperly would not boil, that many miracles were associated with the saints who lived on Monaincha, and that a white lady roamed the area until banished by a priest but not before she left her mark on him (read the story).

And here it is – the cake of bread that was turned to stone

One of those saints was St Canice, who came on retreat to this sacred spot:

He did not let anyone know where he was but he got letters and messages each day by means of the Garnawn Bawn. This was the White Horse which passed each day without a guide from Agherloe to Monahinche.

St Canice (second from right) in good company with Sts Patrick, Brigid and Eugene. He’s holding his cathedral. The window is in St Eugene’s church in Derry

But it was St Cronan who built the church:

St Cronan and his monks sought a place where they could build a residence. They proceeded to the parish of Bourney to a place called Bogawn  but looking towards Monahincha they saw the sun shining on it and so fixed the site of their future home on Monahincha. St Cronan lived for a long time in Monahincha and while he was there he prayed a great deal and performed many miracles.

For a more academic history of Monaincha we turn to the bible of all things Romanesque, the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture. From it we learn that:

Originally known as Inis Loch Cré, the name Mona Incha was only given to the site in the in later centuries. The earliest monastery here was founded by St Cainneach of Aghaboe in the 7thc as a hermitic settlement. Column Mac Fergus died on Inis CrÈ in 788 as did Elarius, anchorite and scribe, in 807. The latter was St Elair, or Hilary who was patron of the monastery in which the Culdees were instituted in around the 10thc. In 902 Flaithbertach, King of Cashel, came here on pilgrimage. An Augustinian community was established at Mona Incha during the mid-12thc.

In 1397 the monastery, containing a prior and eight canons, was taken under the Pope’s protection and released from paying Episcopal dues because of its extreme poverty. At about the same time the Book of Ballymote described Mona Incha as the 31st wonder of the world! In c.1485 the prior and convent finally moved to Holy Cross at Corbally, as the canons found the vapours from the marshes surrounding the island unhealthy. Following the Dissolution the church was used as a penal chapel. 

Much of this is based on the erudition and scholarship of Harold Leask, whose three volume book Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings has a section on Monaincha. He also authored, along with C MacNeil, an article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland which is a very comprehensive account of all that can be gleaned from annals and hagiographies of the history of Monaincha*.

Leask’s plan of the ruins at Monaincha

He cites Gerald Barry’s (better known as Giraldus Cambrensis) Topographia Hibernia (written in 1188), to show how ancient is the tradition of the Isle of the Living.

There is, he says, a lake in North Munster containing two islands, a greater and a less. The greater has a church of an ancient religious order and the less has a chapel served by a few celibates whom they call Celicolae or Colidei [Culdees – an ancient hermetic order]. No woman or animal of the female sex could enter the greater island without dying immediately. This has been put to the proof many times by means of dogs, cats, and other animals of that sex, which have often been brought to it as a test, and have died at once. As regards the birds of the district, it is wonderful how, when the males settle at random on the bushes of the islands the hen birds fly past and leave the males there and avoid that island like a plague, as if well aware of its natural power.  No one ever died or could die in the smaller island, whence it is called the Isle of the Living; yet from time to time persons are afflicted with deadly ailments and suffer agonies to their last breath. When they feel there is no longer any hope of really living, and by the increase of their disease they are in the end so distressed that they would rather dies outright than continue in living death, they have themselves brought at last in a boat to the greater island, and they give up the ghost as soon as they touch the land.

Leask and MacNeill go on to state that the place had been the site of pilgrimage formerly and some stations were still visible in 1848, and that the proprietor of the place had drained the lake in the 1820s or so and forbade all access to the church either for burial or pilgrimage, destroyed tombstones and erected round the church a circular mound, composed, the people say, of the mortal remains of the hundred generations deposited in that favourite churchyard.

What was once the larger island (there is no sign now of a second one) is still, as Leask described in the 1920s, a circular raised platform, due to the draining of the surrounding land, but there is still very much a sense of travelling across an open expanse to get to it. Marooned in the middle of a large field, the island is visible as a group of very tall trees and it’s not until you get close to it that you begin to see the structures.

As with many such sites in Ireland, the graveyard surrounding the ruined church, despite what Leask asserts, appears to be still intact. This adds to the reverential feeling of the place, as do the enormous trees, which must be hundreds of years old. A partly reconstructed high cross stands at the entrance – Robert wrote about this one in his post Fading Treasures.

The church is a Romanesque gem. (For more about Irish Romanesque architecture, I have provided a list of previous posts at the bottom of this post.) Dating to the twelfth century, it is a nave and chancel church, fairly typical of the time. There is a later addition on the north side, referred to as a sacristy in Leask’s plan. The sacristy is shown in the Ledwich drawing (first image at top of post), which dates from the 1790s.  As could be seen also in Ledwich’s site map, there was much more to the whole site than there is now.

The main door has three (or four, depending on who’s counting) orders, each one carved in the Romanesque fashion with chevrons, zigzags, pellets, floral motifs within lozenges, and some scrollwork. Although weathered, most of the the carvings are still clear to see and very attractive. There are hints of animal heads but they are difficult to discern.

One of the pleasure of Leask’s accounts is his wonderful line drawings. In his plan of the door M stands for ‘modern’ – the doorway was repaired, probably by the Office of Public Works, at some time before his visit

The door is much plainer on the inside, with only one order and no visible carvings. This is normal in Romanesque buildings – the difference between the elaborate entrance and the unadorned exit is often quite startling.

Above the door is a narrow window that was modified in the 15th century by adding an ogee head to the top of the frame

Inside, the nave has some fine windows, although not all of them bear scrutiny as original to the 12th century period of construction.

Only the smallest window is recognisably Romanesque

But it is the chancel arch that dominates the space. It separates the small chancel – the area where the altar would have been and mass would have been celebrated – from the nave where the monks and the faithful would have gathered.

Photograph taken in 2017 and drawing done in 1790. In Ledwich’s drawing the entry to the vaulted sacristy (probably 15th century) is on the left

The arch is characteristic – three orders with carvings on both the arch and on the jambs, which are slightly inclined. The capitals are scalloped. The decoration is similar to that on the main door, indicating it was probably carved at the same time and maybe by the same hands.

The experts at the Corpus compare the carvings to the Nun’s Chapel at Clonmacnoise and say, The squared patrae on the outer order of the doorway find an almost identical parallel at Clonfert (Galway), although at Clonfert the floral decoration of the motif does not vary. The closest comparisons to the chevron ornament are found at Killaloe and Tuamgraney (Clare). These comparisons suggest a construction date of c.1180, perhaps to coincide with the establishment of the Augustinian canons at the site.

Another view of the chancel arch, this time from Archiseek

The ground floor of the sacristy is vaulted and contains tombs. This one memorialises A Sincere Friend and An Humble Christian and dates from 1832

The vaulted sacristy was added in the 15th century (Leask comments on the inferiority of its construction) and several other later modifications are visible to windows. There are  now no other buildings on the island, and of course no trace of the second island or of any other structures that one would associate with a 12th century monastic settlement, such as a round tower or an enclosing circular wall.

No matter – what is there is magical. We spent so long at Monaincha that the light was declining as we were leaving. It added to the atmospheric feeling of the place, and a sense that we were travelling back to ordinary life from the storied Isle of the Living.

In this, I share the emotion with Harold Leask, whose love of this site shines out in his writing. In his book he states, Perhaps no other church ruin in Ireland is so attractive in site, interesting detail and appearance. . .  In the Architectural Notes that follow the JRSAI history he writes, I first saw it. . . upon the afternoon of a summer, its walls golden in the rays of the westering sun, the little green mound with its circling wall and groups of beech trees forming a perfect setting in the level bogland, bright with ragweed and and bordered in the distance by woods. The whole effect was very suggestive of a Petrie water-colour sketch, with just that delicacy and precision which is the great charm of his work.

Leask may have been thinking of this very sketch by our old friend George Victor Du Noyer from a drawing by Petrie. It is marked ‘unfinished’ and indeed the sacristy is entirely missing**

*McNeill, C., and Harold G. Leask. “Monaincha, Co. Tipperary. Historical Notes.” The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol. 10, no. 1, 1920, pp. 19–35. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25514550. Accessed 16 Feb. 2020

**George Victor Du Noyer, “Ideal Irish Church from a colour drawing by Geo: Petrie. Monaincha. Unfinished,” Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, accessed February 16, 2020

More about Irish Romanesque Architecture:

Irish Romanesque – an Introduction

Irish Romanesque 2 – Doorways

Cormac’s Chapel: The Jewel in the Crown (Part 1)

Cormac’s Chapel: The Jewel in the Crown (Part 2)

Off the M8 – Kilree Monastic Site

Labbacallee

rookery

My strongest memory of our visit to Labacallee wedge tomb, Co Cork, earlier this summer was the rookery above it. Our presence seemed to make this multitude of large black birds restless: there was a constant movement over our heads – a mixing up of flapping feathers, wind in the still bare branches and screeching protests. These are the unpaid guardians of this monument, apparently the largest of its kind in Ireland, with a long documented history and a wealth of folklore.

labbacallee view

Labacallee today: it must once have been an impressive and dominant feature on an open landscape. Now it has been closed in by fields, trees and a byroad running north out of Fermoy. In the foreground is a cairn, possibly made in relatively modern times from material excavated from the monument

Finola has written about wedge tombs. She calls them The Last of the Megaliths: court-tombs, portal-tombs and passage-tombs are slightly earlier constructions, built before c2000 BC, while wedge tombs date from some 500 years after this. According to the Archaeological Inventory of County Cork Volume 1 (Stationery Office Dublin 1992) …The more numerous and widespread wedge-tombs are relatively small and simple constructions, so called because of an increase in height and width from the chamber rear to the entrance front. They generally face in a south-westerly direction, an orientation they share with stone circles and stone rows…

labbacalle back end

The east facing – and narrower – end of the wedge tomb

Labacallee is enormous, especially if you are only familiar with examples such as Altar, west of Goleen (itself sizeable) or our own more domesticated version at Kilbronogue, a neighbouring townland:

kilbronogue-wedge-tomb

A more ‘human scale’ wedge tomb at Kilbronogue, West Cork: many thanks to Stephen Lynch, a near neighbour, for looking after this example and allowing us access

Labbacallee – the name seems to be from the Irish Leaba Caillighe – ‘the bed of the witch’ – measures some 14 metres by 8 metres overall. It has a series of upright stone ‘walls’ supporting three capstones. The largest of these measures 5 metres by 2.5 metres and is a metre in thickness: it must weigh at least 10 tons. These stones house three ‘chamber’ enclosures.

tomb plan

Plan of Labbacallee wedge tomb drawn following the excavation by H G Leask and Liam Price in 1934, from Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Volume 43

The tomb has been recognised as an important site in British and Irish archaeology over a long period. English antiquary John Aubrey, who lived from 1626 to 1697 (and who was incidentally described as “Shiftless, roving and magotie-headed…”) is recognised as one of the first serious recorders of historic sites. He was also a keen collector of folklore and, like me, felt that the stories that local people told about the monuments around them were valuable insights into perceived history.

John Aubrey and a drawing of Labbacalle  he published in 1693. While you can see in the drawing the principle of a chamber constructed of upright stones and roofed with large slabs, there is very little resemblance in the drawing to the structure itself (which was anyway in a ruinous state in Aubrey’s lifetime). It has been suggested that Aubrey obtained the sketch – or a verbal description of the tomb – from a Mr Gethyng who lived close by it
A drawing from the1897 work The Dolmens of Ireland, their Distribution, Structural Characteristics, and Affinities in Other Countries; together with the folk-lore attaching to them and traditions of the Irish people by William Copeland Borlase 1848 -1899. This Cornish antiquary and politician spent part of his life in Ireland so it is likely that he did visit the tomb. Certainly the drawing is more true to life than Aubrey’s. After what has been described as ‘high living’ Borlase died in disgrace, having been involved in scandal and bankruptcy
Artistic interpretations of a subject: views of Labbacallee dating from 1827 (top), 1844 (below left) and 1845 (below right by George Wilkinson)

The first full scientific examination and excavation of the tomb was carried out in 1934 under the supervision of H G Leask, using workers paid one guinea per week as part of a government unemployment relief plan. According to the excavation report, at this time the smallest chamber was filled to the top with rubble, including earth, stones, ash and the bones of animals and humans. When these were cleared a skeleton of a woman was exposed, together with a bone pin which might have fastened a garment or shroud. The woman’s skull was missing but later found upright (as though on display?) in the large main chamber. One of the leg bones of the skeleton was deformed: this led to the speculation that her handicap may have set her apart in life, giving her a status that was either feared or revered: she might have been ‘marked out as a witch’.

labercalle excavators

Leask’s excavation team in 1934 (top) and (left) his drawing of the headless skeleton as found; (right) the separated skull of the ‘witch’

I am fascinated that ‘folk’ or oral traditions survive through generations, centuries and even millennia. In the case of Labbacallee, we know that the name existed back in Aubrey’s time – over three hundred years ago – and was undoubtedly well established by then. Could it be that the name – ‘bed of the witch (or hag)’ – was the persisting memory of the interment of an important person, perhaps a priestess or shaman, from very ancient times?

hag's bed

The Hag’s Bed – the main chamber in the monument, where the skull was found

While the excavators were exploring Labbacallee they found evidence to suggest that the tomb (or part of it) had been an occupied dwelling at some point during its history. The notion that some historic and prehistoric monuments were (or are still) the dwelling places of the Old Ones, or The Other Crowd – supernatural beings possibly descended from ancient invaders of Ireland – or had in fact been used in some way by practitioners of magic – is not unknown. Borlase’s 1897 work on The Dolmens of Ireland… included this illustration (albeit from the Netherlands) of ‘A ‘White Woman’ (wise woman or witch?) prophesying from a dolmen-mound’. It’s not a big leap to the idea of a witch being buried in a wedge tomb.

whiteWoman borlase

Legends specific to a ‘hag’ of Labbacallee suggest that she was married to a druid, Mogh Ruith, who ‘had an eye’ for the hag’s sister. In a fit of jealously the hag chased the druid towards the River Funchion. He reached the water and started to cross it: the hag threw an enormous boulder which struck the druid, toppling him and pinning him down under the water. As far as we know, he’s there to this day!

labbacallee stones

Stories in stone: Labbacallee landscape

Another story specific to Labbacallee also involves a drowning – and a warning! This version is from theirishplace.com:

…Whatever the provenance and history of the remains found in the Labbacallee Wedge Tomb, there is no doubt that it is a site around which legends abound. One of the most pervasive legends tells that one day, very long ago, four local men went to the tomb in the middle of the night, with the aim of digging for the treasure that they had heard was buried there. As they started to dig, it is said that an enchanted cat appeared, fire bursting from its tail, terrifying the men, who were dazzled by the light emitting from it. Panicking, they ran screaming from the scene, and in the ensuing panic one fell into the nearby river (Funchion) and drowned. The remaining men lived to tell the tale, and their experience stood as a stark warning to others that they should never, under any circumstances, disturb the resting place of the long dead at this most mysterious of megalithic sites…

labbacallee shadows

 

Liscarrol: Cork’s Keepless Castle

Liscarrol walls and towers

As soon as the Normans arrived in Ireland (1169) they set about building enormous fortifications, the like of which had never been seen in this country before. Dublin Castle was typical, but not a lot remains to be seen of the original shape. More accessible is Limerick Castle – a space enclosed by imposing stone walls with corner towers and a strong gatehouse. Few of these very early castles remain. Leask, in his Irish Castles, termed them keepless castles, since they had no central tower houses or keeps. (Regular readers of Roaringwater Journal will recall several earlier posts about castles – these refer almost exclusively to the much smaller tower houses, most of which date to the 15th century and later. See When is Castle…? Tower House Tutorial Part 1 and Part 2, and Illustrating the Tower House.)

Trim Castle with Keep

Trim Castle in Co Meath is one of our best examples of an early Norman castle with a central keep

Alongside the keepless castles, and gradually taking over in popularity, were built those in which a tower, or keep, was the dominant feature located inside those high curtain walls. These great Norman castles were the predominant form during the late 12th and early 13th century. However, in the late 13th century, for some reason, keepless castles experienced a resurgence and several were built around the country. Most of these are in a ruined state and of course some have entirely disappeared or been so altered as to be unrecognisable.

Liscarrol front elevation

In the middle of the village of Liscarrol in North Cork – this!

But there’s one (and only one) in Cork and it has has retained all its magnificent features. On a recent trip to Duhallow (mostly looking for holy wells with Amanda and Peter of Holy Wells of Cork) we rounded a corner on a country road approaching the village of Liscarrol and there it was – as unexpected as it was jaw-dropping!

bawn walls

Note the splayed base batter of the walls, providing a solid foundation

Liscarrol Castle was probably built in the mid-13th century by the De Barry family but eventually passed into the possession of the Percevals in the 17th century. It was besieged by an Irish army of loyalists in 1642, but was eventually subdued and retaken by the parliamentarians under Sir Hardress Waller, whereupon it was again occupied by the Percevals who owned it into recent history.  James N Healy, in his magisterial The Castles of County Cork provides a detailed account of the back-and-forth sieges of the 1640s, as well as a charming sketch of the castle as it was in the early 1980s, when the key could be obtained from a local pub.

Liscarrol by Healy

It was extensively repaired and stabilised by the Office of Public Works (OPW) on several occasions in the 20th century. The sad state of the walls can be seen in a picture from The Illustrated Dublin Journal of 1862.

Liscarrol from Illustrated Dublin Journal

The Illustrated Dublin Journal is available online through the kindness of the University of Illinois

There are several older illustrations of Liscarrol Castle and they show two features that are no longer obvious today. The first is a moat, which must have been drained a long time ago as the ground is dry around the walls.

Liscarrol Castle drawing

The second is an outermost fortification known as a ravelin – a triangular projection that would have been the first line of defence in front of the entry tower.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Both illustrations above are courtesy of the National Library

Rubble Construction

A section through the wall showing the rubble construction between outer facings of worked stone

How did a keepless castle work? Quoting Prof Tadgh O’Keefe of DCU, the description of Roscommon Castle (another of the keepless castles) has this to say:

Earlier on in the 13th century, two Royal castles in Ireland at Dublin and Limerick were built- the first castles in Europe that were built as keepless castles with an encircling wall that included towers. The emphasis in castle design here was on the encircling curtain wall. This wall included large barrel towers used as storage and partly living space, with emphasis on a residential gate house.

postern gate

The enclosure of these castles then contained further buildings, possibly built from wood or mud. The move to a keepless castle design seems meaningless to us today until we start thinking about the difference this would have made in terms of castle defence.

castle behind bars

The interior of this enormous enclosure is now home to some bullocks

In a castle with a keep, the attacker would have stormed and overcome the walls first, and then attacked the keep where all defenders would have withdrawn to now. Defending the keep was dependent on a single gate/ door holding up, and the bawn then had to be re-captured as well. In a keepless castle, defenders withdrew into the super thick walls themselves, supported by food storage and living space in the towers. The walls contained arrow loops facing both sides of the walls, meaning both the bawn AND the outside of the castle could be defended at an advantage. So, in fact, the move to a keepless castle design was an ingenious innovation providing super safe castles.

Entrance tower

The entrance tower would have provided living space for the De Barrys and the Percevals. Note the garderobe chute high on the walls, and the entrance off the battlements

The entrance is one of the most impressive aspects of the castle. Many defensive features were deployed, including murder holes and a portcullis.

Liscarrol entrance

liscarrol signSome modifications to the earlier structure are visible here and there, although on the whole it remains truly a thirteenth century stronghold.

Later window features

Windows were widened, probably in the 15th century – the ogee heads are a dead giveaway

The only problem with Liscarrol Castle is that it is accessible solely on the outside – the inside was occupied by a small herd of young cattle. Given the amount of public money that has been spent on it, this seems an immense pity. Duhallow and its towns and villages are doing a great job at putting together interesting tourist experiences: Liscarrol Castle, unique and awe-inspiring, could be a jewel in its crown.

keepless castle pic

And to finish off in good old Irish tradition – there is, of course, a tune called The Walls of Liscarrol. Have a listen.