Dingle Peninsula Medieval Churches
It is probable that the earliest Irish churches were built of wood but, as such structures leave no visible trace on the ground surface, their existence and nature is mainly inferred from early literary references and other indirect sources. However, excavation has revealed traces of small wooden oratories underneath the stone churches at a few early church sites, and it has been tentatively suggested that a wooden oratory may have preceded the stone one at Reask, the only church site yet excavated on the Dingle peninsula. It is not known when wooden churches began to be replaced by stone churches nor whether this occurred earlier in certain parts of Ireland than in others. Until quite recently it was widely accepted that the Gallarus-type, boat-shaped oratories, typical of the Dingle and Iveragh peninsulas particularly, were erected in the 8th century AD or earlier and that they represented the first stage in the development of Irish church architecture from the beehive hut to the church with upright walls.
The corbelling technique used in their construction is clearly an adaptation of the corbel principle found in the clochauns or beehive huts. but the early date has been challenged by Harbison. The arguments for such a date are based entirely on circumstantial evidence and Harbison suggests that the oratories may date from any time between 800 and 1200, and should perhaps be regarded as a local variant of the Irish stone-roofed church rather than as a stage in its evolution. Five of these boat-shaped oratories (so called because they resemble the shape of an upturned boat) occur at early ecclesiastical sites on the Dingle peninsula, at Ballymorereagh, Ballywiheen, Gallarus, Illauntannig and Kilmalkedar.
They are small rectangular buildings with drystone, corbelled walls which incline inwards to the ridge which forms the apex of the roof. The lintelled doorways are located in the middle of the W gable and the interiors are lit by a single window in the E wall. Perforated stones above the doorways at Gallarus, Ballymorereagh and Ballywiheen probably served to secure the door frames. The use of mortar at Gallarus, coupled with the superior stonework, probably explains why this oratory has survived intact for at least 800 years. The oratory at Reask may have had a corbelled, dome-shaped roof in the manner of beehive huts , but the oratories at Illauntannig, Inishtooskert), Inishvickillane, Killelton and Kilfountan are of uncertain type. Like the boat-shaped oratories, these latter are also small rectangular buildings in plan, with doorways in the W wall (except at Inishvickillane), but the nature of their roofing is not certain. Irish churches of the 12th century are characterised by the Romanesque decoration on their doorways, chancel arches and, occasionally, windows. This style of ornamentation was first introduced into this country with the building of Cormac's chapel at Cashel in 1134, and the similarities between this and the Romanesque church at Kilmalkedar suggest that the latter was erected shortly after that date.
This above information was sourced from the Archaeological Survey of the Dingle Peninsula (1986) and provided to dodingle.com courtesy of Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne. Republication of the extract or any part therin, in any form or capacity, is strictly prohibited without the express permission of the publishers. © Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne 1986-2010.
Copies of the Survey are available in the bookshop of Músaem Chorca Dhuibhne,
Ballyferriter, tel. 066-9156333 (www.westkerrymuseum.com)
from Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne, tel. 066-9156100
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