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


The Hallowed Fortress

The first sight of Kells Priory is breathtaking

The first sight of Kells Priory is breathtaking

Our West Cork castles, or tower houses, can be impressive, built as they are to be dominant and defensive. But imagine a place where there are not one, but seven tower houses, all connected by a high stone curtain wall with defended gates. A medieval fortress? No – a monastery! Welcome to thirteenth century Kilkenny!

Each one of the 7 towers at Kells Priory is as large as one of our West Cork Castles

Each one of the 7 towers at Kells Priory is as large as one of our West Cork Castles

Kells Priory (not the Kells in Meath that Robert is writing about this week) in Kilkenny is a truly awe-inspiring site. A combination of monastery and walled refuge, it speaks directly to the history of Kilkenny in the 12th to the 15th centuries. This was a time when the Anglo-Normans had established themselves as the lords of Ireland, dividing the land between them. They built castles to establish their military dominance and churches and monasteries to receive the tithes that came with ownership of vast tracts of land – and to save their souls. Although there was probably an older smaller church on the site, the current priory was established when Geoffrey fitzRobert invited Augustinian Canons from Cornwall to settle in Kells in 1193. The Augustinians, unlike the enclosed Cistercians, functioned as parish priests who tended to their congregation, hosted travellers, ministered to the sick, and assisted the local economy by providing mills, and sometimes bakeries and breweries.

Monastic Precinct. To the right is the Prior's Tower. Over the reredoter is the water tower and far Burgess Court

Monastic Precinct. To the right is the Prior’s Tower. Over the reredoter is the water tower and beyond is the Burgess Court

The initial phase of building included the area now known as the Monastic Precinct. A church, chapter houses, stores, a refectory and a mill were built and added-to over the course of the 13th and 14th centuries. This precinct was surrounded by a wall, which included some mural towers, but it was not primarily defensive. 

The construction of the enclosed area known as the Burgess Court dates to the 1460/70s. Warring factions among the Anglo-Normans, constantly invading each other’s territories, sacking and looting, created a climate of turbulence and insecurity. In the absence of a resident and powerful defender of the people of Kells, the Priory took it upon themselves to provide a refuge.

The Fortified Gate, from the outside (note the machicolation above the arch) and the inside (note arrow slits on either side).

The curtain wall and its mural towers constitute an impressive defensive system. Each tower was based on Henry VI’s ‘£10 Castle’ plan, with stores and administration rooms on the lower floors.  Living quarters occupied the upper floors which had fireplaces and garderobes. The crenellated battlements supported wall walks, and here and there were machicolations, murder holes and copious arrow slits. We can imagine the townsfolk of Kells flocking to the Burgess Court with whatever they could carry as a succession of marauding knights advanced and retreated. The priory was burned and sacked in 1262, and twice in the 14th century.

Inside the Burgess Court. The curtin wall had arrow slits all around it, as well as the towers

Inside the Burgess Court. Besides the mural towers, the curtain wall itself had arrow slits all around it

The Prior added a fine new tower for himself around this time too – well crafted and recently stabilised. Improvements and enlargements to the church were undertaken and a new belfry was added. When times were peaceful it must have been a bustling and thriving place, a welcome sight to weary travellers.

The Prior's Tower. Beautifully built, but still emphasising defence against attack

The Prior’s Tower. Beautifully built, but still emphasising defence against attack

Left, a sedile (seat) and piscina (for washing vessels) inside the church. Right, some recent reconstruction demonstrates what the church would have looked like.

The monks had a cloister, of course, for prayer and contemplation. Their refectory was above the store house and featured a lavabo, for hand washing, at the entrance. A small canal from the river provided water for the mill and also carried away the waste from the reredoter, or necessarium – the communal latrine.


The Cloister. The Prior’s Tower and Cross Tower in the background

Lavabo. Note the drain.

Lavabo. Note the drain

The Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, under Henry the VIII, spelled the end of Kells Priory as an active monastery. All its lands were confiscated and it gradually fell into ruin. Unlike other religious ruins, the walls and towers remained reasonably intact, indicating that they were probably used as farm buildings and perhaps garrisons, over the centuries.

Southeast Tower. Three different windows and a guarderobe chute

South-east Tower. Three different windows, arrow slits, and a garderobe chute

To learn more about Kells Priory, take a tour through this brilliant website. Written by Daniel Tietzsch-Tyler, and illustrated with his plans and drawings, it is a mine of information and a virtual course in medieval history and architecture. I gratefully acknowledge that this post owes much to the treasure trove of detail it contains.

© Daniel Tietzsch-Tyler

© Daniel Tietzsch-Tyler

You’ll find Kells Priory about 10km south of Kilkenny City. It’s well signposted. While you’re there, make a side trip to Jerpoint to see the medieval carvings that Robert illustrates in Medieval Feast. It would make a grand weekend outing from Cork!

A Grand Outing!

A Grand Outing!

A Medieval Feast

4 weepers

This was a feast for the eyes – a few thousand years younger than Rock Art and far less enigmatic! Our travels took us to County Meath where we explored the monastic city of Kells (where the famed book was written and illustrated), Kells Augustinian Priory – a different Kells but in County Kilkenny (and which Finola has written about in her post) – and Jerpoint Abbey – a Cistercian monastery rife with carved figures – some up to 900 years old.

kells 2

Firstly, the Book of Kells is worth more than a passing mention, especially as some commentators have likened the medieval carvings at Jerpoint and other contemporary monastic foundations in Ireland to ‘illuminated manuscripts cast in stone’ – because of the richness of the characters, the decoration and the detail. The Book of Kells probably dates from the 8th or 9th centuries and may either have been written in its entirety in Kells, or started by St Columba’s community in Iona and completed in the Scriptorium in Kells. That building still exists! In fact it (or something very like it) is illustrated in the book. It’s known as St Colmcille’s House – we went to have a look at it, and were fortunate to have a tour by its guardian.

scriptorium book of kells

A page from the Book of Kells which may be an illustration of the Scriptorium at Kells – and, perhaps, a self-portrait of the writer: see him sitting in the doorway to the house working away with his quill pens…
St Colmcille’s House – in its 21st century context (top left), the keeper of the key (bottom), and the ancient stone roofed oratory (main picture) which is supposedly where the Book of Kells was written – or, perhaps, completed. The upper floor of the building has a small window oriented to focus sunlight on the writing table. St Colmcille’s bed was also kept here – a large and heavy stone slab – until it was stolen in the 1950s! A few hundred years earlier (in 1007)  the Book itself was stolen from Kells and eventually found in a nearby bog. It stayed in Kells until 1654, when it was sent to Dublin for safekeeping: it is now on permanent display in Trinity College.

So – back to the feast, and this was centred on Jerpoint (Kilkenny), which has spectacular examples of medieval carving, including at the tomb of Felix O’Dulany, Bishop of Ossory between 1178 and 1202. Adornments on later tombs include ‘Weepers’ – those who might be in mourning for the departed souls. These figures were carved by members of the O’Tunney family – sculptors from Callan who worked in the 15th and 16th centuries. Some of them can be readily identified: St Peter, for example (another keeper of the key), while the trio below are St Catherine – with her wheel, Michael the Archangel and St Margaret of Antioch – who is conquering a Dragon.


The Weepers at the top of this post show how they were martyred: St Thomas with a lance, St Simon with a saw, St Bartholomew holds a skin (he was flayed to death) and St Paul with a sword.

trio 2

Another trio of Weepers: none of the guidebooks identify these, but I’m sure that among our readership there is an expert hagiographer who can help out…

At Jerpoint it’s not just the tombs and the Weepers which fascinate: there is a 15th century cloister which, in its heyday, displayed a riot of carvings both saintly and secular. Some of these are in situ; some are partially destroyed and others have been recovered during archaeological excavations, and placed on display in a little museum. Among them we identified knights, ladies, animals fantastic and real, and ‘ordinary folk’ – including a man with stomach ache!


It’s not easy to do justice to all the carvings at Jerpoint: I could fill many more pages. There are also cross slabs, roof bosses, decorative friezes and capitals…

I can’t leave Jerpoint without recounting one story which I was delighted to discover. You may remember my excitement when I found out that the real St Valentine is interred in the Carmelite Church in Dublin. Here at Jerpoint, Co Kilkenny, is another marvel: the bones of St Nicholas are reputed to be buried here… Yes – the Santa Claus St Nicholas! Tradition has it that a band of Irish Norman knights from Kilkenny went to the Holy Land to take part in the Crusades. As they headed home to Ireland, they ‘seized’ St Nicholas’ remains, bringing them back to Jerpoint, where the bones were buried – some say – under the floor of the Abbey (others say they repose nearby at the old church of St Nicholas).

Cross-slabs commemorating knights at Jerpoint: did they bring back Saint Nicholas from the Holy Land?

…That saint protector of the child
Whose relics pure lie undefiled
His casket safe within its shrine
Where the shamrocks grow and rose entwine…

(from The Bones of Santa Claus by Bill Watkins)

Well, we may or may not have seen – or walked over – the tomb of St Nicholas, but we saw his Reindeer during our medieval feast tour. Or perhaps they were somebody else’s Reindeer… They are carved on to the base of the Market Cross in Kells (Meath), the town which boasts so much history and which has no less than five high crosses and a round tower.

kells deer

Medieval illustrations on the high crosses at Kells, including some enigmatic Reindeer

Finola and I between us have treated you to a horn of plenty this week with our tours of medieval hotspots in Ireland. We know it’s not West Cork! However, these posts demonstrate, again, how easy it is to find history (and legend) wherever you go in this special land. In fact, it’s very difficult to travel far here without tripping over the past. It’s always fairly low-key. Most sites are protected as scheduled monuments; some are in the good care of the Office of Public Works and have guides and visitor centres. Many are remote, open to the wind, rain and sunshine and free for us all to visit: very often you will have the history all to yourself.

st peter