Viking Traces

If you want to find some remote Irish history which is a long way off the beaten track, try the city of Dublin! Just a few minutes’ drive from the edge of this bustling metropolis (and down a long, rough and muddy farm track) is a collection of carved stones which have their roots in the time of the Vikings.

Here, in the barony of Rathdown, the remains of a small ruined church date from the twelfth century, but a monastic settlement was set up long before that by St Comgall of Bangor, who lived from 520 to about 600 AD. There is the stump of a round tower here, known locally as the Skull Hole, as bones from the surrounding graveyard were thrown in here. Some say, also, that it is actually the entrance to an underground tunnel going down to the coast: furthermore, a piper was once seen to enter the tunnel playing his pipes – but was never seen again!

There is another piping tale connected with a nearby site: Puck’s Castle. A fairy piper is often seen jumping from rock to rock while also playing his pipes. We watched and listened, but in vain . . . Here are some of the noteworthy ‘modern’ gravestones in the cemetery at Rathmichael:

But the real treasure of the place are the carved stones which date from Viking times, and which are probably early Christian grave markers. They are generally known as The Rathdown Slabs. Some of these we would classify as ‘Cross Slabs’, even though, on some, the cup marks and concentric circles make us think of Prehistoric Rock Art. Well worn by time and weather we can still make out the various motifs – and we are fortunate to have good drawn records of these stones dating from a study carried out by Pádraig Ó hÉailidhe, a member of the Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, and published in volume 87 of the Journal of that Society in 1957.

Rathdown Slabs (top to bottom): 1 and 2; 8 and 9; 3 and 4 – as classified by P Ó hÉailidhe in his 1957 study

From around 850 AD we find mention of Norse names: Amláib (Olaf the White) arrived in Dublin in 853 and ruled jointly with Ímar (Norse Ívarr inn beinlausi – ‘Ivar the Boneless’). Amhláib was a Norwegian but Ímar may have been a Dane. Ímar is mentioned as ‘king of all the foreigners in Ireland’ at his death in 873. The grave slabs at Rathmichael probably date from the time when Viking settlements were established in the Dublin area, and – although we tend to think of the Vikings as plunderers of monasteries – it seems that they began to follow Christian practices once they settled in Ireland. 

Top – Rathmichael Church with its round tower and Viking graves was established on an ancient Rath or fort, in fact one of the largest in the locality: you can see the probable circular outline of the fort in this extract from the National Monuments Service Archaeological Survey Database; middle – ruins of the medieval church at Rathmichael and, lower – fragments of Bullaun Stones at the church site

Other – probably related – inscribed slabs from the wider area are recorded by Pádraig Ó hÉailidhe (below): Dalkey Castle Heritage Centre displays one of the finest of them all (left), while the Tully Slab (right) is assumed to have come from another remote church ruin close by – however I cannot find any record of its current whereabouts. If anyone can throw light on this, please let us know.

Dalkey and Tully grave slabs – drawn by Pádraig Ó hÉailidhe, 1950s

I have used the drawings by Ó hÉailidhe because they are so clear: we visited the Rathmichael site this week and were struck by how faded much of the inscription seems to be. It could be that we were not seeing the carvings in a good, clear light. Worryingly, it may also be that the stones are suffering from accelerated weathering (much as our unprotected medieval high crosses appear to be) due to acid rain and pollution. You can see for yourselves by comparing the drawings above with our own photographs, a selection of which form the tailpiece of this post.

The Wonders of Monasterboice

In our recent journeys around Ireland we both had opportunities to indulge our particular interests. Among them, Finola was able to take in some fine examples of stained glass and Romanesque architecture, while I concentrated on the beautiful medieval carving of a number of Irish High Crosses, to add to the examples I have written about recently.

For any Irish High Cross enthusiasts (I suspect that there are many of you out there), Monasterboice in County Louth has to be on the list of ‘must see’ places. It was founded in the 5th century by Saint Buithe, a follower of St Patrick – the Irish Mainistir Bhuithe means Monastery of Buithe – and was an active and important Christian settlement through to the 12th century, when its importance was eclipsed by Mellifont. I found out that St Buithe ascended into Heaven by climbing a ladder that was lowered down to him for the purpose.

Left – a photograph of the great cross at Monasterboice – known as  Muiredach’s Cross – taken in 1905 and, right – the same west face seen today. Finola is there to show its true scale: remarkably it is 5.5m tall

Muiredach mac Domhnaill, who died in 923, was an Abbot at Monasterboice. He is  credited with commissioning the great cross, shown above. It’s not quite the tallest high cross in Ireland, but it’s said to be the finest, probably because of its stature and remarkable state of preservation. The carved panels are all legible, and the biblical stories illustrated have all been identified. An inscription on the lower section of the cross shaft states: OR DU MUIREDACH LASNDERNAD IN CHROS – A prayer for Muiredach under whose auspices this cross was made. Confusingly there was also a king, Muiredach mac Cathail, who owned the lands on which the monastery was built. He died around 867, so it is possible that the cross was commissioned by him, or was made in commemoration of him, rather than by the Abbot.

The Office of Public Works has responsibility for overseeing the site at Monasterboice. The well produced information panel details the carvings on Muiredach’s Cross

A gallery of detailed carving work from Muiredach’s great cross: the subjects include Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel; Celtic knotwork; Moses striking the rock; the crucifixion and (header) nativity scene with the Magi. The lowest picture, above, shows the decorated base, which is shaped like a saint’s reliquary and the panel with two cats and the prayer for Muiredach

This wealth of medieval art is only part of the site’s wonders. There are two more complete High Crosses, fragments of other carvings and slabs, and a round tower. The Tall Cross or West Cross is the highest in Ireland, at nearly 7 metres. Because of its size it has the greatest number of carved panels of any Irish High Cross. However, these panels are suffering from weathering much more than Muiredach’s Cross, and their present state must raise concerns for all the carvings at Monasterboice. At other sites, crosses have been sheltered (Moone) or moved into buildings (Clonmacnoise, Durrow).

The Tall Cross (or West Cross) at Monasterboice; left – in context with the round tower beyond; right – an example of a badly weathered panel on the Tall Cross

Upper – the west face of the Tall Cross cross-wheel, which is in comparatively good condition, and lower – the east face. The number of scenes depicted on these panels alone is remarkable

Carved panels on the Tall Cross at Monasterboice and – lower – a study of Celtic knotwork found on Irish High Crosses, taken from MUIREDACH – Abbot of Monasterboice 890-923 AD by R A S McAlister MA FSA, Dublin 1914

There is a third High Cross at Monasterboice, known as the North Cross. It is less spectacular, perhaps, than the large ones, and the carvings are comparatively minimal. Nevertheless, its modesty gives it a somewhat more refined character. Close to the North Cross are some fragments, including part of a medieval sundial – reminiscent of the one we saw at Kilmalkedar, County Kerry, earlier this year.

Upper – the North Cross with the round tower in the background; lower left – North Cross east face and, lower right – nearby fragment of a medieval sundial

Monasterboice displays so many wonders. Yet, in some ways, it’s an uneasy site. It’s probably not helpful – but perhaps essential – that the parking area a little way off is rife with warnings about thieves, and broken glass is evident. There have also been reports of vandalism against the monuments themselves – emphasising their vulnerability. The place is of major importance: during the summer season the site is attended, and guides are available. We were there in early October, when no-one was around.

This site – and similar ones all across Ireland – are vitally important to the heritage of this country. The artefacts are irreplaceable, yet too little resource is given to protecting them – from weather and people. As we know from our forays into the world of Prehistoric Rock Art, stone carvings are fragile, and under-appreciated. There’s no obvious easy solution, apart from them being given higher status and priority by the empowered bodies such as the Office of Public Works. They, in turn, need to be given more support by the State, particularly in terms of funding: they do the best they can with very limited resources.

Cats on the base of Muiredach’s Cross, recorded  by McAlister in 1914:

Off The M8 and into Medieval Ireland

Twomileborris Castle

The drive from Cork to Dublin used to take four hours; now it takes two and a half on a speedy motorway. As you drive along, tantalising glimpses are offered of castles, a round tower, those brown signs that point to ancient monuments. If you’re not in a mad hurry, why not do some exploring? This post is about one stretch of the old road, running parallel to the motorway, where you can have a medieval experience, great coffee and cake, and rejoin the motorway when you’ve sated your curiosity. You can take a few hours and do everything on this list on one day, or you can do one or two each time you travel.

Twomileborris Gravslab and Castle

The castle and old graveyard at Twomileborris offer lots of opportunities for exploration. Above, the castle looms over the graveyard, but note the white gravemarker with the head above a stylised fleur de lys – similar to many such markers set into the floor of St Canice’s Cathedral. It’s much earlier than anything around it

I am assuming you are coming from Cork and are dying for a coffee about the time you see that turn-off for Horse and Jockey. The busiest spot in all Ireland, nevertheless we always find a corner on a comfy couch and relax with a coffee and goody before we continue. But don’t go back to the motorway – The Horse and Jockey Hotel is right on the old Cork to Dublin Road, now called the R639, so head north on it and go exploring. I’ll provide directions but a good map will come in handy, as will stout shoes for some of the sites.

Two Mile Borris 1777 gravestone

A 1777 gravestone in the Twomileborris graveyard

First off – Twomileborris. You’ll see the sign just after Littleton and you’ll spot the castle as soon as you approach the village. Park just beyond the castle and take the path to the old graveyard – it affords good views of the castle, which is on private land. Head for the old part of the graveyard and have a good wander – you will find fine examples of gravestone that date back to the 18th century. As you leave, take a good look at the top of the castle and observe all the architectural features I’ve been telling you about in the Tower House posts. For this one, have a quick read of Tower House Tutorial Part 1.

Liathmore churches

The churches at Liathmore. The round feature is a modern wall built around the stump of the round tower

Proceed through the village and you will rejoin the R639. Turn left and less than a kilometre down the road look for the National Monuments brown sign to Liathmore Churches and follow the signs to the site. This a complex site with early and later churches. The first, right beside the track, is one of those early-medieval churches with the projecting antae that Robert wrote about in Molaga of the Bees. It probably dates to the same period as the round tower – unfortunately there’s not much of this left, just a stump that was found during excavations.

Liathmore Early Medieval Church

The Early Medieval church (8th to 11th century) at Liathmore

But as you head over to the later church look around the field at all the bumps and hollows and enclosures – you are looking at what was probably a medieval settlement, long deserted. The second church was built and modified and re-modified over several centuries. It has an intact vaulted chancel – the plaster work is extensive and still bears the marks of the wicker scaffolding that was used to build it. Here and there, inside and outside, carved pieces of stone have been inserted into doors, windows and walls. You can easily miss these so let your eye rest on each section of the building. The Sile na Gig is sideways in the door nearest the round tower.

At some time in the past, pieces of carved stone were inserted into walls and doorways. Here are two examples – the one on the left has a carved creature and the one on the right is a síle-na-gig. Below I have turned the photographs to facilitate viewing of the figures

Back on to the R639 now and continue north, though Urlingford and Johnstown and about a kilometre out of Johnstown take the left turn at the first crossroads. You’ll go across the M8, turn right and another kilometre or two will bring you to Grangefertagh Round Tower. It is clearly visible in the landscape so if you miss it just follow your nose until you get there.

Grangefertagh round tower and church

Grangefertagh site is visible from the M8 – haven’t you always wanted to stop off and find it? Take a look at the church – what’s that modern-looking wall doing on top of it?

Once again, this is a site with multiple periods of occupation. You can’t climb the round tower, as you can in Kildare and Kilkenny but it’s nice to be able to get up close to one. Robert has a post on round towers, High Drama!, so have a quick read on your phone if you don’t already know all about them. Two aspects of this site are especially intriguing. The first is that, at some point in the past, the medieval church was turned into a handball alley! Hard to fathom how this could have happened, but no doubt the handball players who did it had great bad luck and never won a tournament.

Grangefertagh church and handball alley

The interior wall of the church has been rendered and old gravestones have been used to create a flatter wall. Outdoor handball alleys were once common but most are now disused and crumbling

The second is the effigy tomb – these are relatively rare in Ireland this is a nice one, although the figures are weathered and lichen-covered. The tomb commemorates John Macgillapatrick, Brian his son and Honora, Brian’s wife and is dated to about 1537.

Grangefertagh effigy tomb

Right – we’re going to finish with a couple of castles, so turn right now and it will lead you back under the motorway to the R639 where you turn north again. After another kilometre or so you will see an imposing tower house on the right. You can drive up to the farm and observe this more closely. Since it’s on private property you must ask permission to go beyond the farm gate, but you’ll get a very good view from outside.

Glashare Tower House

Glashare Castle

It’s remarkably intact and from your browsing of the Tower House Tutorial Part 1 you will be able to admire the loops – unusual corner loops in this one, as well as cross shaped loops. This castle has render on the outside, but how old the render is, or what material, I have not been able to ascertain.

Glashare Tower House windows and arrow slits and render

An amazing variety of opes – windows and loops

The final stop of this tour is Cullahill Castle – turn right at the small village of Cullahill, which is 4 or 5 km beyond Glashare. This one you can wander around. It was reputedly destroyed by Cromwellian cannon, and so you get a wonderful cross-section view of the interior. Tower House Tutorial, Part 2, will tell you exactly what you are looking at, or have a read of Illustrating the Tower House to see how JG O’Donoghue shows us exactly how the interior of a tower house would have been constructed and used.  You can rejoin the M8 by proceeding to Durrow and following the signs from there.

Cullohill later fireplace

Cullahill Castle – a unique opportunity to look at a cross-section of a tower house

For those of us who travel the M8 regularly it’s great to know that we can take a break along the way and catch up on our history and archaeology at the same time. Let us know if you deviate from the M8 to visit any of these sites, or if you have your own favourites along the motorway. 

Grangefertagh 1741 graveslab

A gravestone from Grangefertagh

Irish History – an Englishman’s Perspective


Why do I feel a little ‘guilty’ about being English while dwelling, for the moment, in Ireland?

This morning I shared a car ride with a friend – Irish – so I started off our conversation by voicing this feeling and pointing out my ignorance of Irish History, having learned nothing about it during my education years. The ensuing journey then consisted of me listening to an erudite and most entertaining blow-by-blow account… Remember Aenghus, the Red Bard? It was as though he was sitting in the car with me, recounting the history lessons of his seven year apprenticeship in the Bardic School at Dumnea.

Round towers helped to defend against Danish raids

Round towers helped to defend against Danish raids

My personal induction began with the Danes. I hadn’t understood, before, that there had been a ‘special relationship’ between Ireland and Denmark, based on trade and education. This had started in the so called Dark Ages and flourished until the time of the High King Brian Boru (c941 – 1014). I already knew about him – in connection with a harp: the Brian Boru Harp sits in Trinity College, Dublin, along with the Book of Kells. Oh – and a traditional tune: Brian Boru’s March. The relationship became an invasion, and the Danes were despatched by a rare coming together – under Brian Boru – of tribal kingdoms, who afterwards reverted to their more usual squabbles.

Now we come to the time of the Normans – well established in England by the 12th Century – and the only English Pope: Adrian IV – who in 1155 issued a Papal Bull to Henry II of England giving him authority to invade Ireland in order to rein in the dissident church there, who were not toeing the line with Rome on a number of matters. This coincided with a feud between a petty King of Connacht – Tiernan O’Rourke – and Dermot MacMurrough, the King of Leinster. O’Rourke’s wife Derbforghaill was abducted by MacMurrough (but evidently at her own instigation, and during which, while being carried off, she provided realistic and convincing screams). MacMurrough had to flee to Wales from where he beseeched the English King to mobilise the Bull and invade Ireland. This actually suited Henry’s empire building ambitions quite well and he dispatched Strongbow (no – not the cider but the Earl of Pembroke, Richard de Clare) and the result of all this was that the Normans arrived in Ireland – where their descendants have caused disruption ever since. Of course – it’s by no means that simple, and this strand of the story will have to be amplified in a future post….

kilcoe2Confused? Well – I haven’t even mentioned Cromwell or William of Orange yet! But perhaps that’s better left until another time… And where does West Cork fit into this jigsaw puzzle? It seems that it was so far away from Dublin and Cork that it didn’t feel the ripples of what was going on for a long time, and local politics were largely sorted out between the O’Driscolls and the O’Mahonys (descended directly from Brian Boru) who built a line of castles along the coast and did very nicely out of charging dues from the Spanish and Portuguese fishermen who reaped an abundant harvest from the seas of those days. And – perhaps surprisingly – the clans built up a reputation for scholarship and knowledge of the arts and sciences. Just around the corner from Ard Glas is an actively disintegrating stone ruin, a single teetering wall: this was the home of the famous ‘Scholar Prince’ Finian O’Mahon, Chief of Rosbrin who lived in the late 15th Century and who was described then as one of the most learned men of his time – not just in Ireland but Europe and beyond. Across the water and central to our view is Kilcoe Castle – formerly an O’Driscoll stronghold: some years ago it was superbly restored and is now the home of actor Jeremy Irons. In order to prevent the ingress of damp (which seems to have been an essential feature of castle life in the Middle Ages), he has treated the walls with an external render which glows yellow, orange and gold as the sun moves round. It is visually prominent in the land and seascape, and this was no doubt an essential element of all the castles in those days when Kings and clansmen had to project their status in order to shore up their often precarious positions in society.