Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 21st: Clonmacnoise

Clonmacnoise1clonmacnoise2Clonmacnoise3Clonmacnoise  in County Offaly was founded on the banks of the Shannon River by St. Ciaran in 544.

St. Ciaran didn’t have the chance to lead the monastery he founded for long. Clonmacnoise was founded on the 23rd of January 544 and St. Ciaran died of the plague on the 9th of September 544, he was only 33.

Clomanoise has buildings from a variety of ages:  round towers, temples and high crosses from the 10th and 11th century, a cathedral,  temples and churches from the 12th century, an Anglo-Norman castle from the the 13th century and 17th century temples. Clonmacnoise has also been an important burial site since its inception, with everyone from kings to saints buried there.

Clonmacnoise was much more than a simple monastery however, it was a renowned school that was a seminary for all of Ireland not just the local area. Masters were chosen for their learning and their zeal and abbots were changed on a rotation from all around Ireland. Students flocked to the monastery from all over Europe. From the eighth to the tenth centuries if boasted a legendary Scriptorium.

In the Scriptorium monks copied and illustrated bibles and other classical works. This was the golden age of monastic arts and craft and exquisite Celtic motifs. In the community at the same time stonemasons were carving the spectacular high crosses you can see today.

Sadly Clonmacnoise wasn’t allowed to remain a peaceful site of learning. It was the object of many raids by vikings, local lords and once the Anglo-Normans arrived they enacted almost yearly raids. The monastery was burnt and rebuilt many times, either partly or wholly. The ultimate demise of Clonmacnoise was down to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It was reduced to ruins by the English garrison of Athlone in 1552. They carried away absolutely everything of value leaving the monastery devastated.

References:

Site visit 2015.

The Story of Clonmacnoise and St. Ciaran: History, stories and legends of Clonmacnoise ISBN: 9781782800217

The photos are all mine

 

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 5th: Lindisfarne Priory

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The elegant and almost ethereal Lindisfarne Priory sits on Holy Island, which is only accessible by a causeway that is completely flooded with every high tide. The priory is one of the oldest religious sites in England. The land was gifted to Saint Aiden by Oswald, an Anglo Saxon King, in 635. Saint Aiden and later Saint Cuthbert used it as a base to convert Northumberland to Christianity. Lindisfarne is known as the cradle of Christianity in England.

Saint Cuthbert became bishop in 685 and when he died in 687 he was buried in a stone coffin on Lindisfarne. When his tomb was opened 11 years later the body was “incorrupt,” which was taken as a sign of his saintliness and a cult sprang up around him. The cult attracted pilgrims and ensured Lindisfarne’s place as a centre of Christian learning. This resulted in what, for me, is the most interesting part of the priory’s history; the famous Lindisfarne Gospels. They were begun at the priory in 698.

Very unusually for a medieval manuscript we know not only that the gospels were the work of one man, but who that man was. A note was added later identifying the artist as Eadfrith, who was bishop of Lindisfarne between 698 and 721. The work is one of extraordinary detail and skill, using a wide variety of pigments, although it remains partly unfinished due to Eadfrith’s death in 721. The Lindisfarne Gospels embodied a sense of Englishness that was growing at the time; the gospels are a mixture of Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Roman, Coptic and Eastern traditions. They symbolise a realm that was beginning to develop an individual identity. It is also truly beautiful.

This image is from the British Library and can be found here

http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/sacredtexts/lindisfarne_lg.html

To return to the priory itself. The origins of what you see today largely dates to the early 12th century when the priory was re-founded in 1122. The priory was abandoned in 875 after a series of devastating Viking raids from the 790s onwards led to the decision being taken that remaining on the island wasn’t safe. The church, the remains of which you can see in the first photo, was built around 1150.

The priory continued despite ongoing border warfare until it was dissolved under the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537. It was one of the 200 small religious houses that were the first to be suppressed.

References:

Site visit 2012.

Holy Island of Lindisfarne information booklet.

http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/lindisfarne-priory/history/

http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/sacredtexts/lindisfarne.html

The photos (apart from the gospel) are all mine

Mellifont Abbey

 

Mellifont Abbey in County Louth is one of the most interesting if inconspicuous (at first glance) abbeys in Ireland.

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It was founded by St. Malachy, with a group of Irish and French monks in 1142. It was the first Cistercian monastery in Ireland.

The Cistercian Order was founded in 1098 in Citeaux in what is now France. While its foundation is complex, essentially it was a reaction against the perceived corruption and extravagance of the older Benedictine monasteries like Cluny. The aim of the Cistercian Order was to return to the original ideals of St Benedict and to live a very simple life. Cistercian abbeys were usually isolated and self sufficient, though the lay brothers did the work on the farms because the monks were cloistered. They lived simply and ascetically, closely following the rule, away from the gold, excesses and luxuries often seen in the bigger older monasteries. They also deliberately founded daughter houses. By 1153 over 350 houses had been established across Europe, including Mellifont. This was at least partly due to the work of the man who is probably the best known Cistercian of his period; Bernard of Clairvaux.

Bernard is not one of my favourite historical figures, largely due to his puritanical opposition to Eleanor of Aquitaine when she was Queen of France. He was, however important. He joined the Cistercian Order as a novice in 1113 and by 1115 was the founding abbot of one of the early daughter houses in Clairvaux. He preached the 2nd crusade, was a councillor to Louis VII and had an immense amount of influence. He died in 1153 and was canonised  by 1174.

It was Bernard’s friend St Malachy who founded Mellifont Abbey. He was granted the land by Donnchadh Ua Cerbhaill, King of Airghialla. It was founded with roughly 300 monks and 300 conventuals. The church in the abbey was consecrated in 1157. The remains of part of the transept can be seen below.

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The foundation was part of a general re-evaluation of christianity in Ireland. There were several Synods leading up to Mellifont’s foundation in 1142. Furthermore the Cistercians were only one of a number of continental orders that arrived in Ireland at around the same time.

Mellifont might have been the first Cistercian abbey in Ireland, but it certainly wasn’t the last. It was the mother house for at least 8 daughter houses by 1153, including Boyle Abbey which was founded in 1148. The church of which can be seen below.

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The Cistercian Order spread quickly, partly because of Ireland’s landscape, which worked well for the Cistercian model of isolated self-sufficiency. The abbeys were also supported by the incoming Norman-French/ English nobility who came to Ireland in c.1170. Many of the Cistercian abbeys can be found in parts of Ireland that were  under Norman control by 1200. An example is Tintern Abbey which was founded by William Marshal.

Marshal came to visit his lands in Ireland that came to him by right of his wife Isabel de Clare in 1200-1201. They were caught in a terrible storm crossing the Irish Sea and Marshal vowed to God that if they survived he would found an abbey. The ship didn’t sink and Marshal kept his word. As thanks to God for their survival he founded Tintern Abbey, which  stands on Hook Head Peninsula. It’s known as Tintern of the Vow as well as Tintern Parva, meaning small Tintern in Latin. It can be seen below.
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It is a daughter house of Tintern Abbey in Wales, which also stood on Marshal land. It can be seen below.

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As you can see from the photos of other surviving Cistercian abbeys there is comparatively little left at Mellifont. IMG_4577IMG_4569IMG_4567IMG_4571It, like many other abbeys, was a victim of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. Following the Dissolution the buildings came to Sir Edward Moore who converted them into a fortified residence. It played a role in several Irish wars and during the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 King William based his headquarters there. It fell into disrepair in the early 18th century and eventually ended up in the hands of the state in the 1880s.

Despite that lack of large buildings remaining there are some fascinating surviving features. The one most people notice is the lavabo which dates to the beginning of the 13th century and would have been where the monks washed before entering the refectory. You can see it in the photos below. It is an unusual survival partly because it was octagonal.

IMG_4568IMG_4566Additionally much of the intricate stone work has survived and can be found preserved in the visitors centre. Examples can be seen below.

My favourite survivals however are the medieval tiles. I’ve written about medieval tiles before and that can be found here. 

The tiles at Mellifont aren’t in the original positions and they are kept in formation in a closed off area because they were damaged by vandalism. They were most likely first introduced to Mellifont sometime after 1230. Intricate patterns adorn the tiles. They represent  roughly 10 or 11 of the common medieval tile designs. You can see examples of surviving tiles below. IMG_4557IMG_4560

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I was also lucky enough to be able to have a look at some of the individual tiles which are in storage, including a really lovely lion rampant tile (see below). The tiles are surprisingly heavy and are earthenware with a lead glaze. They were fired in batches in a kiln. Mellifont would have bought them in, not made them on site

IMG_4564Most of these tiles were discovered during an excavation in the 1950s.

The overall evolution of Mellifont Abbey architecturally was key to religious architectural development in Ireland generally. It would have possessed some of the most dramatic and beautiful church buildings in Ireland. By 1540 Mellifont held estates that extended to 50 000 acres making the abbot one of the wealthiest landlords in the country. It was remodelled on several occasions and it is likely that other religious buildings across Ireland would have been based on its design. The photo below is a model which shows how the abbey itself might have looked at the height of its powers.

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Mellifont benefited from the support of many noble families including local Irish nobility, especially in its early years before the Norman conquest. For example Dervogilla, who was the wife of O’Rourke of Breffini, gave a gold chalice for the altar and furnishing for nine other altars as a gift for the consecration of the church in 1157. Only a little before this gift Dervogilla had, unwittingly, become one of the key sources in the Norman invasion of ireland.

Diarmait Mac Murchada was King of Leinster. He was involved with the other kings of Ireland in various disputes and battles. In 1152 during yet another conflict he carried off Dervogilla, who was the wife of his old enemy O’Rourke, and her cattle. Depending what source you believe she may have been consenting as her husband was a bit of a tyrant. This abduction was a personal insult to O’Rourke and he held a grudge. Although O’Rourke managed to reclaim Dervogilla, a little over a year later, he never forgave or forgot Diarmait. His grudge helped to lead to Diarmait’s loss of his kingdom in 1166 and his subsequent request for help from Henry II, which brought the Norman/French to Ireland in 1169. The never left again.

Dervogilla may have stayed with her husband after being reclaimed, but as well as Mellifont she had the Church of the Nuns at Clonmacnoise built. You can see some of Clonmacnoise in the photo below.

IMG_3598Dervogilla retired in 1186 to Mellifont and she died there. It is possible that she was buried in the wall of the church and legend has it that she was buried the wrong way round because she was a “fallen woman”.

Mellifont Abbey was at the core of faith in Ireland from its foundation in 1142 until its dissolution in the 16th century. It shaped the way religion was enacted in the country and it shaped the development of many other religious houses. For what now, especially in comparison to other sites, seems to be a small and inconspicuous grouping of walls and buildings it is of national historical importance.

 

References:

Site visit to Mellifont, Boyle, Clonmacnoise in 2015. Site visit to Tintern Pava in 2012 and 2015. Site visit to Tintern 2012.

Mellifont Abbey OPW guide-book.

Ireland Under The Normans 1169-1333 by Goddard Henry Orpen. ISBN: 9781851827152

Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 1980: Mellifont Abbey: A Study of Its Architectural History by Stalley. pg 264  http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.slv.vic.gov.au/stable/25506059

Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy :Excavations at Mellifont Abbey, Co. Louth: Liam de Paor, J. Hunt, H. J. Plenderleith and Michael Dolley pg 110. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.slv.vic.gov.au/stable/25505154http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.slv.vic.gov.au/stable/25505154

A Monastic Landscape: The Cistercians in medieval Ireland. Dr. Breda Lynch. ISBN. 9781453561003

Special thanks to Lindsay from OPW at the site who answered all my questions and showed me the tiles.

The photos are all mine.

 

Round Towers of Ireland

These structures have always fascinated me.

They were usually built sometime between the 9th and 12th centuries. They were generally part of monasteries and while they were built to stand alone some have been incorporated into later buildings. They are surprisingly uniform in design with circumferences at the base usually between 14 and 17 m and wall thickness from 0.9m and 1.7m. They also almost all have doors raised above the ground at least 3 m and they have at least four windows at the top, each of which often faces a cardinal point, along with more windows at lower levels in the tower. Most stand at close to 100 feet. There is a possibility that the dimensions were determined by the role of certain numbers in christian theology. They also had several levels connected by ladders. Additionally it is worth noting that the surviving conical tops were often reconstructed in later time periods.

Debate still continues as to their purpose. It is possible that they were simply bell towers, part of the system of the call to prayer with the height made necessary by the size of the ecclesiastical sites. They may have also been symbols reaching towards the glory of God and illustrating the importance of the ecclesiastical site, conveying messages of spiritual and temporal power. There is also an argument, though currently thought of as a little less likely, that they were watch towers and were part of defence systems. They may have been built partly as a response to Viking and other attacks. The monks would have been able to climb in, store their treasures, burn the stairs to the door, keep the raiders out and possibly ring bells from the top of the tower to call for assistance. Essentially no one is absolutely certain as to their purpose. It is also plausible that there were multiple purposes, combinations of the possibilities listed above.

They are immense structures though, the tallest at Kilmacduagh stands at 102 feet and is on a slight lean. They are beautiful and a testament to the ability of their builders as there are over thirty still standing in varying states of repair across Ireland.

Below you can see examples from all around Ireland of these beautiful and truly intriguing buildings.

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Glendalough Round Tower built between 900 and 1200.

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Glendalough Round Tower.

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St Canice’s Cathedral and Round Tower. Built c. 1111.

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View from St Canice’s  Round Tower.

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Interior of St Canice’s  Round Tower. It’s one of the only Round Towers you can climb.

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Kilmacduagh Round Tower c. 10th century.

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Kilmacduagh Round Tower.IMG_3586

The taller of Clonmacnoise’s two Round Towers c. 12th century.

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The taller of Clonmacnoise’s two Round Towers.

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The shorter of Clonmacnoise’s two Round Towers c. 12th century.

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Round Tower at Drumlane Abbey c. 10th- 11th century with c. 15th century additions.

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Round Tower at Drumlane Abbey.

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Kells high cross and Round Tower. The Round Tower dates to 10th century.

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Kells Round Tower.

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Monasterboice Round Tower 10th century.

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Monasterboise high cross and Round Tower.

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Donaghmore church and Round Tower 11th-12th century.

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Donaghmore Round Tower

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Lusk church and Round Tower c. 11th century.

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Lusk Round Tower

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Cashel Round Tower c. 11th century.

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Cashel Round Tower.

You can see the astounding similarity in all these towers. They truly stand as a testament to the immense skill of their builders and will, I’m sure, continue to fascinate people well into the future.

For more information see

This truly excellent article by Russell Ó Ríagáin which also investigates the possible influences in the building of the round towers.

https://www.academia.edu/399978/The_Round_Towers_of_Ireland_Date_Origins_Functions_and_Symbolism

For some more general information

http://www.roundtowers.org/

http://www.catholicireland.net/irelands-round-towers/

all the photos are mine.