The Glories of Ireland



The ruins of Ireland are her proudest monuments. They stand as a lasting revelation to all mankind–a distinct and definite proclamation that the Irish people, century after century, were able to raise and adorn some of the finest buildings in stone that western civilization has seen or known. It is recognized the world over that Irish art has a beauty and distinction all its own, in its own Irish setting unrivalled, throned in its own land, in its own natural surroundings. The shrines and gospels, the reliquaries and missals, the crosses and bells that are still existent, many in Ireland, others in every country in the world, attest beyond any dispute that Irish art-workers held a preëminent place in the early middle ages, and that works of Irish art are still treasured as unique in their day and time. No country has been plundered and desolated as Ireland has been. Dane, Norman, English–each in turn swept across the fair face of Ireland, carrying destruction in their train, yet withal Ireland has her art treasures and her ruins that bear favorable comparison with those of other civilizations.

In Dublin and in many private Irish collections can be found hand-written books of parchment, illuminated with glowing colors that time has scarce affected or the years caused to fade. On one page alone of the Book of Kells, ornament and writing can be seen penned and painted in lines too numerous even to count. They are there by the thousand: a magnifying glass is required to reveal even a fragment of them. Ireland produced these in endless number–every great library or collection in Europe possesses one or more examples.

As with books, so with reliquaries, crosses, and bells. When the Island of Saints and Scholars could produce books, it could make shrines and everything necessary to stimulate and hand down the piety and the patient skill of a people steeped in art-craft and religious feeling. What they could do on parchment–like the Books of Kells and Durrow–what they could produce in bronze and precious metals–like the Cross of Cong, the Shrine of Saint Patrick’s Bell, the Tara Brooch, and the Chalice of Ardagh–not to write of the numberless bronze and gold articles of an age centuries long preceding their production–they could certainly vie with in stone.

Of this earlier work a word must go down. In Ireland still at the present day, after all the years of plunder she has undergone, more ancient gold art-treasures remain than in any other country, museum, or collection, most of them pre-Christian, and what the other countries do possess are largely Irish or of Celtic origin. We must have this borne into the minds of every one of Irish birth or origin, that this great treasure was battered into shape by Irish hands on Irish anvils, designed in Irish studios, ornamented with Irish skill for Irish use.

With such workmen, having such instincts and training, what of the housing and surroundings to contain them and give them a fit and suitable setting? The earliest stone structures in Ireland still remaining are the great stone cashels or circular walls enclosing large spaces–walls of great thickness, unmortared, in which there are vast quantities of masonry. Around their summits a chariot might be driven, inside their spaces horse races might be run. As a few examples, there are Staigue, in Kerry; Dun Angus, in Aran, off Galway; Aileach, above the walls of Derry. Of the earliest churches, cyclopean in construction and primitive in character, built of stone, with thick sloping walls from foundation to ridge, Gallerus still remains, and the Skelligs, those wondrous sea-girt rocks, preserve both church and cell almost perfect. There are many other examples, some of a later date, such as Temple Cronan and Maghera and Banagher in Derry, St. Finan’s oratory in county Cork, St. Fechin’s at Fore, and St. Molaise’s at Devenish.

From the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, there are innumerable examples of oratories, some with stone roofs, others with roofs not so permanent, but all having the common features of an altar window facing the east, through which the sun fell at the beginning of the day to tell the early missioner that his hour of devotion had arrived, and a west door, through which the rays of the declining sun fell across the altar steps, speaking of a day that was closing. A south window was added close to the east end, and it, too, was a sun-dial; it told the hour of angelus, the mid-day, when the bell was rung and a calm reverence fell on all within its hearing. Such churches can still be seen at Aran and Inismurray, on the islands of Lough Derg, Lough Ri, and in many other places.

A few years later these oratories were too small for the growing faith, and larger churches were built, some using the older structure as chancels. Where the west door was built a circular arch was made and the new and old united. This can well be seen at Inis-na-ghoill in Lough Corrib, on the Aran Islands off Galway, at Glendalough, at Inis-cleraun in Lough Ri, at Clonmacnois, at Iniscaltra, and on many another island and promontory of the south and west.

During this time, and after, we find the most elaborate carvings on door and arch and window, equal in skill to what is found in book or metal work.

It must have been at this time that the Galls, or strangers, first invaded Ireland, bearing havoc in their train, for then it was that the cloicteach, or Round Towers, were built. It is now admitted by all Irish authorities of any repute, and that beyond dispute, that the Round Towers, the glory of Ireland, were built by Irish people as Christian monuments from which the bells might be rung, and as places of strength for the preservation of the valued articles used in Christian worship; here they might be safely stored. They were also used for the preservation of life in case of sudden attack and onslaught by unexpected enemies. All the towers are on ecclesiastical sites, many are incorporated in church buildings, such as those of Glendalough in Wicklow and Clonmacnois on the Shannon, The records of the construction of some of them in the tenth and eleventh centuries are still extant, and this is conclusive. There are today about seventy Round Towers in Ireland, and many have been destroyed.

The pillar towers of Ireland, how wondrously they stand By the lakes and rushing rivers through the valleys of our land; In mystic file, through the isle, they lift their heads sublime, These gray old pillar temples–these conquerors of time.

Here was placed the holy chalice that held the sacred wine, And the gold cross from the altar, and the relics from the shrine, And the mitre shining brighter with its diamonds than the east, And the crozier of the pontiff, and the vestments of the priest.

D.F. MacCarthy.

This was the time when the High Crosses of Ireland were carved and set up. They vie with the Round Towers in interest and in the display of skill. What the towers have in perfection, masonry and construction, the crosses have in artistic carving and symbolic design. No two crosses are alike; they are as varied as the clouds in an Irish sky or the pebbles on the beach or the flowers in a garden. They were carved in reverence by those who knew and esteemed their art, and lavished all their skill and knowledge on what they most valued and treasured. They were not set up as grave-marks merely–theirs was a higher and loftier mission. They were raised in places where some great event or period was to be commemorated–they were erected where some early disciple of the Cross could stand beside one of them and from any panel could tell the foundation of the Faith, for there in stone was story after story, from the Old Testament and the New, that gave him his text, and so, as at the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois, a missioner could preach on every recurring holy day from Christmas to Christmas, with ever his text in stone before him. Many a broken and mutilated cross has been set up in Ireland in recent years, proving that the heart of the Gael, no matter how rent and broken, is still inclined to bind up the broken wounds of her past glories.

With the religious orders there came to Ireland a widespread desire to add something to the older sanctuaries of the Gael, to widen their borders and strengthen their cords, and so the abbeys were founded. Here and there we find them still–by winding rivers, on rich meadows, in glens and glades, by the sea margin, or on the slopes of the rugged mountain. Their crumbling walls and broken windows can still be traced, their towers are still to be seen over tree tops and in the centre of many a slumbering town. By the shores of Donegal Bay the old Franciscan house, where the Four Masters compiled what is perhaps the most remarkable record possessed by any nation, is still clothed in ivy. At Kilconnell, in Galway, their old place is almost as they left it, but roofless, with the tears of the friars upon the altar steps. Clare Galway has a tower worth travelling half a continent to see. By the Boniet River, at Drumahaire, on the banks of Lough Gill, are the mason marks of the cloister builders, and the figure of St. Francis talking to the birds is still there. The abbey is roofless and empty, and so the birds of the air are his constant companions.

Space forbids, or endless abbeys might be described. The Black Abbey at Kilkenny, with its long row of Butler effigies, or the Cathedral of Saint Canice, still perfect, with its soaring round tower beside it, or the mystical seven light window of the Franciscan friary by the Nore, with the old mill-weirs running free to this day. How long could we ponder by the east window of Kilcooley, with tracery like a spider’s web, and listen to the mystical bells, or gaze at the beautiful oriel at Feenagh, or stand at Jerpoint, with its spacious cloisters and stone-groined choir, with Saint Christopher in Irish marble beside us.

Cashel, one of the wonders of the world, grows up suddenly into sight on a high rock rising from level land crowned with buildings. A great abbey dominates; beside it clings that carved gem of a stone-roofed church, Cormac’s Chapel. Round Tower and Cross are there, and many a sculptured tomb.

Not far from Cashel is the Abbey of Holy Cross, with its lovely mitred windows, shadowed in the river passing at its feet. The circular pillars and arches of Boyle Abbey are splendidly proportioned, whilst the cloisters of Sligo display in their long, shadowy recesses and ornamented pillars great dignity and beauty. The windows and monuments of Ennis Friary, founded by the O’Briens, are of unusual interest, the carving of figure-subjects being equal to the best of their age.

We have Thomastown and Callan, Dunbrody and Tintern, all having an individual charm and interest that not only dim the eye and make the blood course freely in every one of Irish stock when he looks upon what is and thinks of what was, but even in the coldest light give food for thought to every one desirous of knowing something of the growth and civilization of a great people.

Of the many castles and stout Irish strongholds it is hard to write in such a short paper as this. Those on the Boyne, such as Trim, for strong building and extent, excel in many ways. Carlingford, Carrickfergus, and Dunluce have by their size and picturesque situations ever appealed to visitors. They are each built on rocks jutting into the sea, Dunluce on a great perpendicular height, the Atlantic dashing below. Dunamace, near Maryborough, in the O’More country, appears like Cashel, but is entirely military. The famed walled cities of Kells, in Kilkenny, and Fore, in Westmeath, are remarkable. Each has an abbey, many towers, gates, and stout bastions. The great keeps of the midland lords, the towers of Granuaile on the west coast, and the traders’ towers on the east coast, especially those of Down, afford ample material for a study of the early colonizing efforts of different invaders, as well as providing incidents of heroism and romance. These square battlemented towers can be seen here and there in every district.

Every portion of Ireland has its ruins. Earthworks, stone forts, prehistoric monuments, circular stone huts, early churches, abbeys, crosses, round towers, castles of every size and shape are to be found in every county, some one in every parish, all over Ireland. It is almost invidious to name any in particular where the number is so great.


Proceedings of Royal Irish Academy (Dublin); Proceedings of Society of Antiquaries (Dublin); Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Old Series and New Series, edited by F.J. Bigger, Belfast; Wakeman: Handbook of Irish Antiquities (Dublin, 1891); Stokes: Early Christian Art in Ireland (Dublin, 1887); Petrie: Round Towers and Ancient Architecture of Ireland (Dublin, 1845).

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