Why our past is written in stone


The story of Irish archaeology begins with the dramatic megalithic tombs and burial grounds. Extraordinary field monuments such as portal and court tombs adorn the landscape, as do individual standing stones and stone circles, while rings forts, or raths, of which there are about 3,000, are the most common.

The great passage tombs, such as Newgrange, the passage tomb cemeteries of Loughcrew, Co Meath, Carrowkeel, Co Sligo, and the megalithic tombs of Carrowmore, also in Co Sligo, all testify to the dignity and honour the ancients awarded their dead.

Perhaps the most eloquent statements about the past are still made by Ireland's Early Christian ecclesiastical sites. More than the castles, tower houses and gracious 18th and 19th-century houses, their high crosses and round towers speak to us.

Most towns and many villages can claim at least traces of the ruins of a medieval place of prayer. Ireland's early church architecture is as much about engineering, stone-cutting skill and sculptural art as it is about religious ritual.

Central to our stone heritage are the monastic sites, as aesthetically located as the forts and castles are strategically sited. For all their beauty and simplicity, their most fascinating feature is that they testify not only to prayer and spirituality but also to the busy lives lived within their stone walls, the manuscripts decorated, the meals eaten.

From Devenish in Co Fermanagh, to St Ciaran's Clonmacnois in Co Offaly, to Kilmacduagh in Co Galway, to Monasterboice with its mighty Cross of Muiredach in Co Louth, to St Tola's Dysert O'Dee on the Burren in Co Clare, to the much later Cistercian abbey of Jerpoint, Co Kilkenny, to the Franciscan friaries of Ross

Errilly in Co Galway and Ennis, Co Clare, or the spectacular collage of the Rock of Cashel - all of these places share a sense of continuity over the ages and, above all, community.

The largest were busy monastic villages, though none quite reached the scale of Glendalough in Co Wicklow. Today Glendalough retains traces of its intensely inhabited former self. A range of buildings clusters about the foot of the fine round tower, which owes much of its splendour to its new cap, restored by the enlightened gentlemen antiquarians of the late 19th century.

It may look congested, but in fact the monuments extend over about a mile and a half across the valley. Temple-na-Skellig, a small rectangular church on the southern shore of the Upper Lake, is reached by boat, and marks the site of St Kevin's early monastery, founded by him in the sixth century.

Among the crosses and grave slabs of Temple-na-Skellig is an inscribed Latin cross. Activity may have predated the saint's arrival. St Kevin's Bed, a small man-made cave in the cliff-face some 20-30 feet above the level of the Upper Lake provides a clue. Although said to be St Kevin's living quarters at time of retreat, it may well have served as a Bronze Age burial place.

Near the Poulanass waterfall, in a grove of trees, stands Refeert Church, worth noting for its plain Romanesque window. Tradition maintains it is the burial ground of local rulers.

Glendalough has endured multiple fires and Viking raids. It was destroyed nine times between 775 and 1071. It was raided at least four times during the ninth and 10th centuries. A dispute over succession culminated in a devastating blaze in 1163, while the English burnt it down in 1378. Active restoration began in 1875.

Yet even the buildings - the foundations of a small beehive hut known as St Kevin's cell; the cathedral with its Early Christian and medieval slabs, St Saviour's Priory, with its Romanesque carvings - can not compete with the daunting physical beauty of the glaciated valley it resides in. The Wicklow landscape is among the most glorious in Ireland, and Glendalough is best appreciated by responding to its topography.

Climbing above it gives some sense of the relative isolation the site once experienced. Now, it seems within commuting distance, but even two centuries ago it was extremely inaccessible. Regardless of its development as a tourist centre however, Glendalough should withstand any further development threats, though who knows?

Surveying Ireland's archaeological riches and attempting to contextualise ruins makes immense demands on the imagination. Not only does one try to imagine the buildings in their working entirety, one has then to edit out the pylons, TV masts, modern houses or - more common nowadays - the estate of holiday homes surrounding the ancient sites.

Surely interpretative centres, if relevant at all, should be more concerned with information than with souvenirs and coffee? Restoration is contentious, but when does restoring and repairing become formal re-building and replacing?

Aside from the drama of a round tower, church sites are physically beautiful, thanks to the dignified simplicity of the stone buildings. Their walls have stood witness to the centuries. Whether one is standing inside the remarkable boat-shaped 9th to 12th-century Gallarus Oratory on the Dingle Peninsula, or in the tiny rectangular 12th-century Priest's House at Glendalough, it is impossible not to be conscious of the generations that have come and gone. It must also be said of Glendalough, and indeed of any of the places mentioned above, that they all look as splendid and mysterious in the sharp mid-winter light as on a summer's afternoon.

A complex of hermit retreats is scheduled to be opened at Glendalough by the end of October, as part of a millennium project to rejuvenate the site as a spiritual centre. Individuals can spend a few days or a week in a cell fitted with a bathroom and rudimentary cooking facilities. Inquiries by e-mail to: glendalough2000@eircom.net