Among the Historic Churches of Ireland
Before the coming of Christ, Ireland had a very highly developed religion, a very complex system of law and order and a considerable tribal civilization. It was the only important portion of the scattered Gaelic Empire that had not been conquered by Rome. But although Rome did not conquer her, Ireland was practically cut off by Rome from free intercourse with Europe. As a consequence of this isolation, and more especially as a consequence of the overthrow of Gaelic civilization in France and elsewhere, this ancient Irish civilization had begun to become decadent.
It is only by admitting this that one can understand the extraordinary facility with which the Irish, naturally a conservative and pugnacious people, forsook their own highly developed religion and adopted Christianity, a religion so opposed in almost every respect to their own religion, which was somewhat similar to the Greek cult.
In fact one must admit that the coming of Christianity into Ireland had a very deteriorating effect on Irish civilization; it had the effect which is always produced when some organism already beyond its prime tries to assimilate something which is opposed to the traditions of its youth. One can imagine what would happen to the British Empire if at this stage in its development it tried to assimilate communism.
Our young aristocrats were becoming bored with the futile life of the provincial courts, a continual round of hunting, feasting, horse racing, composing poetry and love making. When the Christian missionaries appeared, the young nobles listened eagerly, hoping to find a cure for their world-weariness in the new doctrines. They went away to the rocky coast of the west of Ireland and became hermits in stone huts. The same thing happened in Egypt and elsewhere in those days.
The stone huts occupied by these noble hermits are the earliest remains of Irish Christian churches. They are, of course, indigenous and of pagan origin.
They had been used as dwelling houses for thousands of years previous to the coming of Christ by the lower class of peasant. In fact, in Kerry, they are still used as dwelling houses by peasants. They are of beehive shape, very crude in appearance and exceedingly uncomfortable as residences. They are to be found in many places, both with Christian associations and purely as pagan remains; and there is no structural difference between the pagan ones and the Christian ones. At Kilmurvy, on the island of Arranmore, Co. Galway, there is an excellent pagan one. On the island of Innismurry, off Sligo, and on the Great Skellig, off Kerry, there are Christian ones side by side with later churches.
This beehive-shaped hut of stone remained for a long time the only form of Christian architecture in Ireland; if indeed it can be called Christian. The fact was, I suppose, the early Christians in Ireland had no idea of making churches; considering that extreme simplicity and dire poverty were the symbols of the new God.
However, as the number of Christians increased, an organization developed. S. Patrick probably came and organized them on a definite basis. They were put in touch with the continental Christians, and the Roman style of architecture was introduced. The Irish did not take to this new style very quickly. From the early attempts at rectangular church building, it seems to have been too revolutionary for them. The oratory of Gallarus in Kerry gives the impression that the monastic architect commenced building a church in the Roman style, but got afraid of offending the public half-way through the work. So he built an extraordinary thing, half-Irish, half-Roman, half-Christian, half-pagan, half-round, half-oblong.
One can well imagine that when the public saw him making straight gables and threatening to make straight walls, they raised a commotion. However, the result of his work is very beautiful. In my own opinion, the Oratory of Gallarus is the most perfect work of art, in stone, that exists in Ireland. The gables are almost similar to those of later churches, but the walls slope from the base to the point of the roof. It is like an upturned boat, with a very deep keel. The stones are beautifully dressed to shoot off the rain. It has the form of a pointed arch, both inside and outside. The sides curve inwards until they are only a few inches apart. Then they are closed in with stones laid across the top.
Finally, the pagan style was entirely abandoned and the Roman or rectangular style became the fashion. In this style are built most of the early remains that are still extant all over the country. They are not very impressive. In shape and size they are almost identical with the better type of Irish peasant cottage.
But it is impossible to compare these simple early churches with the great structures of more modern times, or with the earlier pagan ones of Greece and Rome. They look trivial and inconsequent to us, who have seen Westminster, S, Paul's or the ruins at Glendalough and Cashel. Yet the very numbers of these early churches are a marvel in themselves. The ancient Irish seem to have been seized with a frenzy for Christianity and the building of churches and monasteries. And this at a time when the whole fabric of society was crumbling into ruin and anarchy. On the island of Arranmore it is reputed that ten monasteries and thirteen churches were built by S. Endaeus in the fifth century. And that little island became so thickly populated with saints and holy men that we are told by the writer of the Life of S. Kieran that their numbers were known only to God alone. Elsewhere in Ireland they were almost as numerous. And the numbers of those built in wood and destroyed by fire or by the civil wars that were being continually waged must have been equally numerous. Of these latter we have no trace.
These primitive churches were built without any particular manner or fashion in masonry. Sometimes an enormous stone is seen, reaching from top to bottom of one wall. Sometimes there was only one window, in the east end. The windows were of a curious shape. The window at Killelton had a triangular head, cut out of rough stone. In Teampull Brecain and Teampull MacDuagh, on the Aran Islands, this triangular shape was produced by two flat stones set at an angle to form the head. At S. Caimin's, Inniscealtra, three stones form a triangular window.
In a church at Tomgraney the windows in the older part of the church are rectangular. In the later parts of the church the same form appears with a moulding. These irregularities would suggest that primitive churches were built according to the whim of the local architect, or in accordance with the material at hand. The sides of the windows and doorways invariably incline. That may be due to a lingering respect for the old pagan method of building sloping walls.
The roofs were usually made of timber, covered with reeds or straw. Some, however, had stone roofs. The stone roofs had a very high pitch, which gave them great dignity. Two good examples of these high-pitched stone roofs are to be found at Teampull Benin on the Aran Islands and at S. Columba's House, Kells. At Teampull Benin only the gables remain. They are of a great height and thickness. At Friars' Island, Killaloe, there is another church with a roof of great thickness. It is triangular inside and outside. In the roof there is a little cupboard, two feet long by fifteen inches broad, used probably for hiding precious chalices and other valuables.
There is no virtue which does not become a vice when carried to extremes. The innumerable churches and monasteries and the absorption of the flower of the community in the ranks of the clergy gradually ruined all semblance of law and order in Ireland. Most of the country's wealth entered the monasteries. Most of the educated young men were monks. There was left among the laity only the inferior types to control public affairs, and these fellows looked with greedy eyes on the rich monasteries. They began sacking them, looting them, and then, to appease their consciences, built other religious houses with the proceeds of their loot.
Barbarian Danes, hearing very probably that this good work was in progress and that the country was undefended as a consequence, came and joined in the business. Ireland was in a state of anarchy and continual warfare. Then the monasteries and churches became fortresses and garrison towns, so to speak. It is presumably at this period that the Rpund Towers were built (see Chapter XV) as a means of protection and refuge when enemies approached.
Nobody knows at what particular period the Irish began to use mortar in church building. But it is generally supposed that from the seventh century onwards they became aware of the more finished types of Greek and Roman architecture. Lord Dunraven says that the earliest form of Irish cement was composed of shells and sea-sand for those living on the coast and a compound of mud and gravel for those living farther inland. Sometimes the walls were dry-built, and then the cement was poured in a liquid state through the top and filtered through the wall to the bottom. Later the wall was built with two faces and a rubble core grouted in the same manner. In the tenth century the stones were well bedded in good mortar. But the presence of mortar in the building of an Irish church is no evidence of its age; for the reason that the churches were being continually burned, and then repaired and rebuilt.
These early churches had no features which were not of practical use and hardly any effort at ornamentation, excepting the architraves round doors and an occasional cross, as at S. Mary's, Glendalough, at Killiney and at Fore Church. In Teampull MacDuagh there is the figure of an animal carved in stone on the west wall. But these decorations might very well have been added by some pious monk after decoration had become a practice elsewhere in later churches.
The chief forms of ornamentation that came into use were the divergent spiral or trumpet pattern, key or fret-patterns and interplacement. These designs were mainly used for decorating crosses and grave slabs. I think they are peculiarly Irish, as they seem to be a direct continuation of the old pagan art which was used to decorate stones and ornaments that have been found in the country, dating from prehistoric periods. The work in stone appears a trifle crude; but where this method of ornamentation has been used on manuscript some very fine work remains. The most famous is the Book of Kells.
Although the most beautiful and elaborate Irish churches date from the twelfth century, they are, to an Irishman, at least, less interesting than the simple and primitive ones that are older. For they ceased practically to be Irish. Irish culture came to a standstill and the people opened their arms wide to receive a more virile and youthful foreign culture. The Normans were striding across Europe, bringing with them the remnants of Roman civilization added to their own admirable qualities. It is from the appearance of the Normans as a conquering: people that a new style of Irish ecclesiastical architecture appears, the style that is called Romanesque.
Of course, the learned are at variance about the origin and date of the style, but its general aspects are all that concern this article. The numbers of the churches built or rebuilt according to the new style is so great that it is impossible to make more than a casual reference to them. Glendalough, Cashel, Clonmacnoise, by their structure and their history, would each require a volume to do them justice. This style was not a mere copy of Norman architecture, but was rather based on it, with Irish variations. Cormac's Chapel, at Cashel, has many early Irish characteristics. It resembles the monastery at Kells in the square, transverse ribs of the barrel vault over the nave and the moulded diagonal vaulting ribs of the chancel. It has three stories and a double stone roof, which is a perfect example of an old Irish roof. The plan of these churches seems to have been a nave and square-ended chancel, without aisles, in the old Irish style, with Norman ornamentation. Perhaps the most beautiful work of this period, in my opinion, is the west doorway of Clonfert Cathedral. The chancel arch of the Nuns' Church at Clonmacnoise is also very fine.
From the end of the twelfth century foreign influence became more marked, and what is called the Transitional Style came into being. Some churches were built in a modified Irish style, as were those I have just mentioned. Others were built in a purely English style, notably under the influence of Pembrokeshire and Somersetshire. Foreign orders of monks entered the country in the wake of the Norman-English conquerors, and they brought with them their own ideas and methods for church building. The native Irish clergy had probably exhausted themselves, or began to go abroad in large numbers. By the middle of the thirteenth century pure Gothic architecture held complete sway in the country.
S. Patrick's Cathedral, the largest church in Ireland, belongs to this period. It is three hundred feet long. S. Canice's, Kilkenny, also of this period, is two hundred and twenty-six feet long. No church of this size had previously been built in Ireland.
About the fifteenth century a fresh start was made with church building, on a national basis. The Irish had practically assimilated their Norman invaders, and many churches belonging to this period have Irish characteristics. Among these are the Franciscan Abbey at Adare, built in 1464, Muckross Abbey, built about 1450, and Callan Abbey, built about 1470. Muckross Abbey is still a feature of Killarney, and Adare is also an imposing heap of ruins, covered with ivy.
This style, Late Irish Gothic, was practically the end of Irish church building. Since then the work of destruction has gone on without interruption until the last century. And at the present day our country presents the unique spectacle of a land covered, here with beautiful ruins, and there with horrible buildings.
Passing through the country, meeting ruin after ruin where once there were monasteries and abbeys, one is reminded of the wail uttered by an old pagan writer, who hated Christianity:
"Woe is me, that in this land that was once sweet with the baying of hounds there is now only the mournful tinkle of Church bells."
Dogs can now bay at their ease among the ruins.