Gallarus Oratory, Dingle Peninsula
Whoever has visited Tuscany and saw the Italian art treasures, certainly became impressed, bearing in mind how old these works of art are. For instance, the Crucifix of San Domenico by Cimabue at Arezzo is more than seven hundred years old (1268-1271). However, it turns out that also Ireland goes a long way when it comes to medieval art and buildings. In the Early Middle Ages, Ireland was ahead of the rest of Europe in cultural terms; Europa was still recovering from the collapse of the Roman Empire and the invasion of new peoples (the Migration).
I take you along to a special little chapel, extraordinary high crosses and remarkable round towers from these ‘Golden Ages’ of Ireland.
Beehive Hut, Dingle Peninsula
While we did the so-called Slea Head Route on Dingle Peninsula (Co. Kerry), it was misty. So, no open views, but we did discover other things. For example, the Beehive Huts, small huts made of stone, which were inhabited from prehistoric times until 1200. They were usually made of rock, which was abundant. The stones were stacked in successive layers, each layer a little closer to the center and so on – in the form of a beehive – until a small opening at the top could be covered with a cover stone.
No cement was used. The stones are angled outward against inflowing water. This construction method, which requires special skill, is called corbelling.
Another example of corbelling (or dry stone masonry) is the Gallarus Oratory (Séipéilín Ghallarais). This is a 8th century (!) chapel of 8 by 5 meters, in the form of an upside-down boat. Although built of loose stones, no water seeps through. The floor inside the church is bone-dry. It is the only building of its kind that still exists and is still in perfect condition.
The chapel has a window and according to legend, the soul of the person who climbs out through that window is purified.
High cross, Drumcliff
Drumcliffe (Co. Sligo) was a pilgrimage, because in 574, St. Columba founded a monastery there. Columba of Colum Cille (521-597) was prince, monk, combatant, poet, and diplomat, as well as the founder of the monasteries at Derry, Durrow, and on the Scottish island Iona.
According to tradition, St. Columba would have expelled the Loch Ness Moster.
Of St. Colmcille’s monastery only the high cross an the round tower remain. A high cross is a stone cross, to Celtic model, in which biblical scenes are etched. These Celtic crosses were intended for the believers of that time, who couln’t read – as some sort of illustrated bible.
The high cross in Drumcliff was erected in the 11th century, is almost 4 meter high, and is one of the most beautiful that still remain in Ireland.
Round tower, Drumcliff
During the Middle Ages, so-called round towers were built in Ireland, to offer refuge against marauding Vikings, Norsemen and local chiefs. They were about 30 meter high, with a conical cap. Typically they were four stories high. The entrance was located at a few meters hight and was attainable via a ladder that could be pulled up. Here the Irish monks secured their handwritten manuscripts, including the Book of Kells.
In Drumcliff stands the remainder of a round tower, built between 900 and 1200. In 1396, lightning struck here and subsequently the largest part of the tower was used to build a nearby bridge.
The story goes that when the wisest man of Ireland passes here, the debris will fall down on him.
Grave of W.B. Yeats, Drumcliff
Now that we’re in Drumcliff…
Next to the church of Drumcliff, built in 1809 and named after St. Columba, we find the grave of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). On the tombstone is a verse from his poem “Under Benbulben”, which he wrote shortly before his death; the title refers to the nearby Mount Benbulben (575 m):
Cast a cold Eye on Life, on Death,
Horseman, pass by.
Near the church is a monument, in which Yeats’ poem “He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven“ is engraved:
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Muiredach’s High Cross, Monasterboice
Off the coast of Drumcliff lies the uninhabited island Inishmurray, where the remains are of the 6th century monastery of St. Muiredach mac Echdach. This name brings me to Ireland’s most beautiful high crosses, the ones at Monasterboice (Co. Meath). Here St. Buithe (445-521) founded a monastery. In his youth, this Buithe mac Bronach probably met St. Patrick, the apostle of the Irish. He followed his training for priesthood in Rome and spent some time in Germany and Scotland, before returning to Ireland. There are many miracles attributed to him, including the awakening of the dead to life. St. Buithe died on the same day St. Columba was born. After his death, Monasterboice became famous for its wealth, art and knowledge.
During 890-923, Muiredach mac Domhnaill was abbot of Monasterboice. In the cemetery is the impressive 10th century Muiredach Cross, 5.30 m high. On the west side of the cross is an Irish inscription: “Or do Muiredach las ndearnad in Chros,” a prayer to the creator of the cross, to Muiredach.
Round tower and high cross, Monasterboice
Near a second high cross is the round tower of Monasterboice from the 9th century, unfortunately without a conical cap.
The monastery was destroyed by fire in 1097 and also the precious library was lost then.
Round tower, Ardmore (with conical cap)
Ardmore and Cloyne
Whoever is looking for a round tower in good order – i.e., with a conical cap – arrives at Ardmore (Aird Mhór, Co. Waterford). Ardmore is the oldest Christian settlement in Ireland, founded by St. Declan around the year 400. This round tower dates from the 12th century.
Round tower, Cloyne
Not far away stands the round tower of Cloyne (Co. Cork), from the 9th century. In this town there is also the somewhat dilapidated St. Colman's Cathedral from 1250. Opposite this church there is a plaque with the following text:
In memory of John Ahern, John Claney, Richard Moreen, Stephen Myles,
Cloyne United Irishmen who for conspiracy to murder a County Limerick Militiaman,
were hanged at The Gallows Green, Cork on 25th April 1798
Columbanus and Willibrord
St. Columba is not the only representative of the influential role of Ireland in Europe during the Early Middle Ages – in his case the Iona monastery. For example, the Irish monk Columbanus travelled to France between 590 and 614 and founded the monastery of Bobbio in northern Italy. This monastery developed into one of the largest libraries of the Middle Ages.
Another example is Willibrord (658-739), who, though English by birth, traveled from Ireland to convert the Frisians (read: the Dutch) to Christianity.
This blog post is a repost of my (Dutch) August 25, 2014 post.
Read my May 20, 2013 blog post about the reason why of my English reposts.
See also my November 17, 2014 blog posts “The largest in the world” about Ireland.