Stone Ageless

An Irishman’s Diary about the Gallarus Oratory

“I suspect that the Gallarus Oratory, as it currently stands, would get at best a B3 energy rating. Its lack of a door would tell against it. The glassless east window must cause draughts too. On the other hand, the dry stone walls (not entirely free or mortar, I gather – there is some evidence of the use of medieval polyfilla) are still waterproof after a thousand years or so, which is more than can be said for many houses built earlier this century.”

“I suspect that the Gallarus Oratory, as it currently stands, would get at best a B3 energy rating. Its lack of a door would tell against it. The glassless east window must cause draughts too. On the other hand, the dry stone walls (not entirely free or mortar, I gather – there is some evidence of the use of medieval polyfilla) are still waterproof after a thousand years or so, which is more than can be said for many houses built earlier this century.”

Fri, Jun 20, 2014, 01:00

I realise that the Gallarus Oratory is already fairly busy dealing with tourists, being among the must-see attractions of the Dingle Peninsula. Even so, it struck me on a recent visit that it could also serve a useful role as a part-time house of correction.

My idea that is that rogue builders and property developers might henceforth be required to spend periods incarcerated in it, repenting – as countless pilgrims must have done there down the centuries – of their sins. While repenting, ideally, they would also absorb some of its lessons about beauty and functionality, and how these can be combined in a structure designed to last forever.

Maybe, while we’re at it, the oratory could be given a more formal role in the education of architects too. Instead of just passing through it occasionally, like tourists, they would be required to spend at least one night between its walls, reflecting on the building’s permanence in a world of change.

This might not help prevent things like Hawkins House, and other atrocities that must have seemed like good ideas in their time. But it couldn’t do any harm.

No doubt, masterpiece that it is, even the Gallarus Oratory has faults. I noticed, for example, that its sloped wall-cum-roof is now sagging a little on both sides. This was a weakness in the corbelling technique (the overlapping placement of stones to form an arch), which was more suited to the ancient beehive huts also found around Dingle, and explains why the roofs of other rectangular buildings in this style have collapsed.

Also, I suspect that the oratory, as it currently stands, would get at best a B3 energy rating. Its lack of a door would tell against it. The glassless east window must cause draughts too. On the other hand, the dry stone walls (not entirely free or mortar, I gather – there is some evidence of the use of medieval polyfilla) are still waterproof after a thousand years or so, which is more than can be said for many houses built earlier this century.

A thousand years is just a guess, because nobody knows how old the place is. Estimates of its origins range from the 7th to the 12th century. Guide books claim with certainty only that it was “discovered” in 1756 by a man called Charles Smith. But, a bit like America, its existence must have been well known locally long before the “discoverers” arrived.

There is an echo of this dichotomy in the way most people discover Gallarus now. The approach is these days commanded by an interpretive centre, with carpark, toilets, and the opportunities to spend money that most tourists need. There’s also a small entry fee – €3. And yet you can still bypass the centre and walk straight in without fee, or interpretation.

Like the oratory’s age, the name is a bit of a mystery. It puts the cart before the horse, grammatically, in meaning “the house of the foreigners”. But that aside, the “foreigners” may be misleading. It probably referred to nothing more than pilgrims from outside the peninsula, including those from such exotic outposts as east Kerry.

Apart even from its great age, the chapel is also a visual treat. It’s quite beautiful the way the individual stones fit so perfectly together to achieve a practical end. And the overall shape – like a rick of turf or an upturned boat – is also deeply pleasing to contemplate. An upturned boat made of stone should not be a calming image, yet somehow it is.

I think of AIB’s boat logo, expensively created back in the 1990s. That’s supposed to evoke Noah’s Ark, with the dove and the olive branch hinting at imminent landfall. Which I suppose is the sort of vaguely optimistic message that a 1990s bank needed to project.

Now that we’re trying to reach dry land again after another deluge, however, I suggest a Gallarus-based design might be a more useful image for a company in the mortgage sector. As a symbol of solidity, it would be faultless. But in evoking both a house and a capsized boat, it would also hint that the value of your investment may go up or down.

Anyway, back to the oratory’s potential use as a correctional facility. It’s a pointed coincidence, I believe, that the building most synonymous with modern constructional delinquency also has a religious name. You could write a thesis about the Irish building industry “from Gallarus Oratory to Priory Hall”. And come to think of, maybe that should be one of the tasks set for inmates, upon their arrival in Dingle.

@FrankmcnallyIT

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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