Southwest Ireland Tour III – Ancient Christianity

Today we’re visiting some ancient sites, starting with Lathair Mhainistreach an Riaisc, otherwise known as the Reask Monastic Site.  Although it’s a ruin, consisting mostly of low stone walls and some inscribed standing stones, it nevertheless illustrates well the layout of a small monastery during the Early Medieval period (the 500’s).  The monastery consisted of a square oratory (small church) and several clochans (bee-hive shaped huts,

some conjoined, in which the monks lived).  The buildings were dry stone masonry – intricately stacked stone fitted together using no mortar; the stone walls would have been slowly cantilevered inward until closure, as we’ll see shortly at the Gallarus Oratory.  On the premises are several inscribed standing stones, some shown below.  The largest and

most impressive (it’s almost 6′ tall), called the Reask Stone, is decorated with an encircled, equal-arm cross, below which are spiral designs.  On the left side, inscribed vertically, are the initials DNE (the “D” looks like “d” to me), short for the Latin Domine (“Lord”).  Some other inscribed stones with crosses are shown above.  The early beginnings of Christianity were certainly a far cry from the magnificent stone Catholic cathedrals that were to come 7 or so centuries later!!

Also found at the site were pieces of Roman amphorae that would have held wine, and a kiln for drying grain and corn – for the monks themselves, and for the locals for a 10% tithe.  After the site was abandoned, the area around the oratory was used as a children’s burial ground.  Pictures of the walls of  the oratory and a conjoined hut are shown below.

We’re now off to the nearby Gallarus Oratory, but first we pass an Irish “fort”.  It is not An Irish ringfort; a circular earthen bank surrounded by a ditchimpressive!  These forts, or ringforts, date from the late Iron Age (~500 BC) to early Christian times. They’re simply a circular earth bank with ditches in front, sometimes topped with wooden palisades; thatch or wooden dwellings would have been located in the center.  The forts survived untouched over the centuries because they were believed to be “fairy forts” imbued with Druid magic; it was safer not to disturb them.

The Gallarus Oratory is one of Ireland’s best-preserved early-Christian churches, built and used by The Gallarus Oratoryfarmers somewhere between the 500’s and 900’s AD.  The visitor’s center says about 700 AD.  The Oratory has such an austere beauty about it, enhanced by its simple architecture.  Shaped somewhat like an upside-down boat, the structure is corbel vaulted – layers of local stone carefully fitted and overlapped using no mortar, each course projecting slightly inward from the course below, and eventually meeting at the apex to close the roof.  The walls were also built with the stones slightly tilted to the outside, resulting in a structure that is still waterproof today; water has to travel uphill to


get in.  The church has not needed restoration – it has withstood the formidable Atlantic storms for some 1300 years with only a slight sagging in the roof!   We are blown away by the workmanship, which we’ll show below.  Hard to believe how well everything fits

together!  Just for perspective, the left picture below shows Ginger leaving the church.  The

door had two projecting stones with holes, which once held a door.  A carved stone marker is also nearby, shown above.  Like most of Ireland, the area suffered from attacks by successive invaders. Vikings and Anglo-Normans burned, pillaged and destroyed the settlements around Gallarus and the oratory was abandoned.

Next on the list, and about a mile away, is the Kilmakedar Church.  A monastery was

founded at this site by a local saint who died in 636.  This church was built in the middle 1100’s and was an attempt by English King Henry II (with the Pope’s blessing) to extend English authority over the fractious Irish territorial kings and to reform the Irish church by replacing the old monastic settlements.  The church consisted of a nave and chancel, the chancel being an addition in the later 1100’s.  The architecture is a mixture of Romanesque forms such as chevrons (zig-zags) and diamond shapes, together with native

Irish structural features such as stone projections at the ends of the church.  One of the doors is a classic round-arched Romanesque doorway, but with sides that slope inwards like older Irish churches.  Inside the church, by the chancel arch, is a stone from the 500’s

carved with the Latin alphabet, the letters DNI (representing Domini), and a small cross.  There is a nice little video of this church at this link,Romanesque Church in the Dingle. Outside the church, a densely populated graveyard holds a large-stone early Christian cross, a much older ogham stone, and an early sundial.  The ogham stone is fascinating.

It had already stood there for 900 years when the church was built.  Those slash marks on the side of the stone are Morse-code-like letters from an early Irish language (Primitive Irish) used from The Ogham alphabet200 – 600 AD.  The picture to the left shows some of the marks and their English alphabet equivalents.  This stone marked a pre-Christian grave.  About 400 of these stones survive in Ireland and Wales.  There are several theories about who created the language: either (1) Irish scholars to provide a secret means of communication in opposition to the authorities of Roman Britain (who would know Latin), or (2) the early Christian communities in Ireland who wanted to write short messages and inscriptions but found the sounds of Primitive Irish too difficult to transcribe into Latin, thus requiring a unique alphabet.

The sundial is also intriguing.  Whose idea was that?  In a region of Ireland where it rains 225 days out of the year, why a sundial?!  But there it is, needing only the horizontal stick

to measure the time of day … in the graveyard … on a rare sunny day ….  Perhaps it was a way to know when a church service would begin?  It may be somewhat odd, but it is still an amazing relic of the long ago past.

From here we’re off to see some scenery, so this is a good time to close this post.  In the next post we’ll drive to the coast at Slea Head, the westernmost part not only of the Dingle Peninsula but Ireland itself.  Then we’re off to County Clare to visit the famous Cliffs of Moher!





4 comments on “Southwest Ireland Tour III – Ancient Christianity

  1. Marty Warner says:

    Thanks, Ron, for the interesting narrative and enhancing pictures. I’m amazed how you (while viewing the areas for the first time) would know in advance of actually writing your narrative, which pictures would be most helpful. I’m afraid I would have to have written my narrative first and then made a second visit to snap the picture, to know precisely which pictures would be the most illustrative.
    I’ve enjoyed sharing your travels. And your postings when bound will make quite a published travelogue.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Marty! The secret is to take 1 bazillion pictures ….

  3. Dermot says:

    Hi, I was wondering if you could send me a (large) copy of your photos of the Reask Pillar? I would lve to show them to my students.

  4. […] achieve, given a purpose; these parish churches, like the beautiful Gallarus Oratory in Ireland (Southwest Ireland Tour III – Ancient Christianity), to me question what that purpose was.  Really, they’re both beautiful in their own […]

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