Celtic church Overlay
The Christian Overlay of the South Munster Landscape
This chapter is about what happened on the Irish landscape as the early church embedded itself and about how all of this settlement activity and subsequent development laid down the core social and religious geography for the centuries which followed in South Munster; how the landscape was opened up. This chapter will begin to sketch out the platform upon which the Topographies chapter can position the souterrains, and their provenances, as monuments which indicate the nature of the settlement geography as well as the spiritual geography of that world as it came into existence across South Munster.
What remaining literary, place-name or artifactual evidence might there be to tease out a sense of the local, everyday, historical events of early Christianity in the South Munster landscape? How did the religion spread from its shorelines and traverse to the inland landscape forms, settling its missionaries, monks/hermits and forming settled communities? How did it draw the peoples to itself? Why and how did they respond?
The Arrival of Christianity in South Munster
If it is true that Christianity came to North Arica in Roman times, then, Perhaps, there is also some truth in saying that Christianity came to Roman Britannia in such times. Did it come to the garrison towns (vici) and also to the countryside villa estates; as at Lullingworth with its chapel mosaics dated circa 400 AD? If so, what form, or forms, did it take? Did some of its forms penetrate Britannia’s peripheral places arriving either in tandem with Roman conquest, and its expansion of influence, or did it penetrate such places independently? If independently did it arrive from places within the Empire seeking refuge in places beyond its boundaries? McBirnie speaks about the possibility that the apostle St.Paul preached in Britain (1973, 227). He quotes the writings of the Carthaginian presbyter Tertullian in 192 AD which say ‘The extremities of Spain, the various parts of Gaul, the regions of Britain, which have never been penetrated by the Roman Arms, have received the religion of Christ’. Did Britain, as understood by Tertullian, include Ireland; which also had not been penetrated by Roman Arms even if it did have Roman influences present? From the vantage point of Carthage was Ireland understood to be part of the Celtic Britannic isles at that time?
If there is truth in this, and similar references also quoted by McBirnie, then did Paul arrive in Britain to strengthen an existing community or to introduce the words of Christ to Roman communities? Were those, among the native tribes in Roman clientship or not given that Britannia was conquered by the mid 70s AD, also introduced to it in this way, or were there independent and alternative parallel introductions via travel, trade and kinship abroad whereby Celtic peoples received news and influence from the nascent world of Christianity in its cradle lands of Palestine, Syria and Egypt? Did small groups bring the new teaching with them as they migrated for refuge or through military assignment? Did they then require preacher, teacher and spiritual leader to administer the sacraments?
Raftery (1994, 219 ) speaks of an entry in a poem by second century Roman author Juvenal which says ‘we have taken our arms beyond the shores of Ireland and the recently conquered Orkneys, and Britain of the short nights’. He also states (1994, 200) that the Brigantes tribe of Celtic Britain waged war, under their leader Venutius, against the Romans between 71 and 74 AD and that they were defeated. Was it to such events that the 17th century English author William Camden was referring when he stated that many people from Britain retired into Ireland circa 76 AD during the reign of Emperor Vespasian? About 20 years later, circa 98 AD the Roman author Tacitus stated that Irish harbours and their approaches were well known to Roman merchants. About 70 years after the defeat of the Brigantes, by the time of the writing of the Geography of Ptolemy of Alexandria, circa 140/150 AD, a branch of this tribe was described as situated in South East Ireland – somewhere between Wicklow and Waterford. Did they migrate after the defeat? Were some already Christian, having originated or having been for a time elsewhere in the Empire? Why did the mission of Palladius on behalf of the church of Rome, some three centuries or so later, travel to the Wicklow area in 431 AD? Why was this mission unsuccessful at that time?
Ireland’s Christianity as a Refugee church
Did Ireland became a melting pot for this eastern christianity and its many forms and practices while at the same time also absorbing the residues of Roman Christianity, its formalities of clerical control, its house christians and its salve christians, as the Empire fell, as the Anglo-Saxons invaded and settled Britain from the early 5th century onwards, as Roman garrisons scattered into oblivion, as Rome in Gaul, Spain and North Africa fell, as the empire crumbled in the West, as Christianity rose, fractured, debated and theological arguments flared, as heresies as orthodoxy fought to establish itself? As the West and Roman civilisation was reduced to ruins, did Ireland became a place of refuge. Does the recent archaeology of Leinster which shows strong Byzantine influences indicate the arrival of settlers from the east as much as it indicates trade? If there is a very large influx to Ireland then where are they to be housed and settled? How will they acquire land? How will they open it up and use it for agriculture and buildings? Is it easier to use underground space rather than surface space in some territories? Is underground space use seen as less intrusive upon the surface landscape, or more culturally familiar from their places of origin, or more comfortable because of climate? Does this result in the souterrain distribution patterns, as currently known, in the Irish provinces once of many tribe lands? Does it imply many people who are Christians being accommodated underground rather than damaging the economic productivity of the landscape? Densely clustering around the main port and coastal fishing hamlets until generational expansion in numbers and deepened social integration allow them to infuse through inland localities?Does the spread of a radius of expansion, and space use requirements within it, eventually thins out northwards beyond the great rivers of South Munster and beyond coast centred tribe lands? If so, for a time at least, why did the influx stop and influence stop? Did it reflect a maximum space need or tribal boundaries of those accepting and those not, the arrival of such influences? Did reflect a rejection of advancement northwards? Might the known distribution of ogham inscriptions, so dense in South Munster, so space by comparison elsewhere, in some way reflect this? If early Christian settlement both in terms of the monastic life, and in terms of broader Christian community (civitates) settlements, had a maximum line of advancement northwards in South Munster, was it due to such a state of affairs that St. Patrick would have brought his evangelising mission beyond such a boundary and in to the landscapes of other tribes and clans? All he might perhaps do is ask existing Christians in South Munster to come into fold of the influence he brought from Rome; some conceding, some not, their being loyalties elsewhere. Were some of those Christian settlements in South Munster who conceded those who wrote to Pope Celestine I asking for such a person as Bishop Patrick? But why so little of souterrains and ogham stones in South Leinster? Did settlements there have different origins and were they less accepting of Christianity in its early years? Were the descendants of the Brigantes and the Menapii less accepting of it, it being of the world of Rome?
Scholars such as dePaor, Henri, Stokes and others have detected this eastern cultural influence beneath the surface of social understanding of Irish history and culture for centuries, present in a variety of forms of artistic expression in the architecture and religious artwork of the Celtic church. Perhaps this is where the expression ‘Holy Land of Ireland’ finds most meaning, as reflected in a short 14th century AD poem which reads
I am of Ireland and of the holy land of Ireland. Good sir I pray of ye for saintly charity come dance with me In Ireland.
Perhaps there was an element of serendipity in the experiences of the author of the great corpus of Irish Ogham inscriptions RAS Macalister’s Corpus Inscriptionem Insularum Celticarum published in 1945(?), when he spoke of his ‘souterrain’ excavations in Palestine circa 1900 after his return to Ireland in 1909 to become one of the early 20th century doyens of the discipline here.
However, as illustrated in Mecca and Dipasquale (2009) vernacular beehive structures in Syria are built in mud for all their otherwise similarities with Skellig. A final interesting piece of information comes from the writings of the Carmelite Order which was founded in 12th century at Mount Carmel in Syria with the intention of pursuing the monastic life of early Christianity and indeed the Old Testament going back to the prophet Isaiah. Reading through their Book of the First Monks (Ribot 2005) one learns that first monks were called prophets, one learns about their types of habitations – including caves and man made grottos, their order’s foundation in Palestine, and their exodus because of the Saracen invasion. Also, note in deBhaldraithe that ‘grotto’ in Irish is focla as in focla mhaisithe. Dineen gives focla as a den, cave or grotto and he also has foclair as a word for a young person at the beginning of his poetic education or writing phase. Does the early Irish monastic poem A hermit’s Song bring the reader into the mindset and experiences of the ‘cave’ and the life associated with it a cell Murphy 1998, 19-23) ? As in the Byzantine image of hermits in a cave where one cubicle has a young person, a novice perhaps, were some artificial caves the abodes of novices? Lucas 1971-73, 186 ) has a story about young St. Brendan being ordered by Bishop Erc to spend the night in a ‘cave’ as punishment.
Do the tunnelled souterrains of the ‘ long passage and chamber’ type either in masonry in the Fermoy locality or clay tunnelled such as Oldcourt in West Cork, multi-chambered sites such as Templebryan or Ahalisky, the ‘two parallel chambers’ type as found in Muskerry, represent examples of single monastic cells of one or two chambers; indicate either solitude or the status of the occupant e.g. an abbot, a founder hermit or an early bishop (a word in the original Greek sense meaning an overseer)? Do the multi-chambered sites of three or more chambers represent hermit groups (scete hermitage groups in the Egyptian tradition) consisting of those for whom the solitary life was too difficult, or who were of a lower status to that of the solitary? If the suggestion that the first souterrains in Ireland were tunnelled ones i.e. closest in form therefore to natural caves, then were the occupants of these sites some of the first to practise and or preach christianity in Ireland in imitation of the eastern traditions of the Desert Fathers and Mothers? Does the distribution of the tunnelled sites – and perhaps some masonry examples at places where the underlying clay or rock was unsuitable, indicate where this initial christianity arrived or at least some forms of it? It is of interest that they are within the lands of the Corcú Laoidhe people ( and of their one time allies the Muscarige) who claimed to have had the first christian king in Ireland.
Does the distribution pattern also indicate the limits of the progress of the religion, or early forms of it, in its earliest years across the landscape of South Munster? If so what does it say? Does it say that from the coastline at Ardmore – where the pre-Patrician Declan of the Deise people founded his hermitage, to the Desert hermitage of the Beara peninsula, is where the earliest monastic forms of eastern christianity, and perhaps also christian communities, arrived in Ireland occupying its coves, harbours and islands, – perhaps reminiscent of Greece, though not climatically, and spreading inland via the great rivers of South Munster and their tributaries? Was the hand bell, found safely deposited in the chamber of the Oldcourt souterrain, speak of an early bishop acquiring a coastal foothold and a community in need of him? What factors might have stopped the initial progress? Might it have been a change of allegiances from direct connections with the four patriarchates of the East (Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria) and in favour the Patriarchate of Rome? Is it this which leads to the leaders of existing christian communities giving their churches to Patrick as stated by hagiography?
If tunnelled souterrains are the oldest souterrains in Ireland, then did the architectural designs which occur in tunnelled form in South Munster become replicated in masonry designs in the Kingdom of Fermoy? Or, was the approach taken there different, based on a different tradition using masonry construction i.e. one for which the beehive dome was a central element? If so, might the change represent differing christian traditions from the east interacting with independent kingdoms in South Munster at this point in time? If as Brash suggested the beehive dome souterrain was the model for the surface clocháns in County Kerry, did this tradition find one route inland via the Blackwater river and another via the coastline to the peninsular communities of Iveragh and Dingle? If the mud domed village huts of north Syria were the models for beehive domed clocháns, then what version of early christianity came to these parts of South Munster to establish itself and develop?
Is it possible that Christianity from Antioch brought the beehive cell, in imitation of the vernacular architectural tradition of beehive mud built village huts in Syria, to South Munster and elsewhere along the western coastline of Ireland, using it as the model for masonry built beehive underground cells in the Fermoy locality and for surface, clochaun, structures further west in Dingle and Iveragh? In the light of substantial and significant scholarship in past years concerning the origins of Irish early medieval art and architecture, discoveries such as the papyrus used in the binding of the 8th century Faddan Mor psaltery and references in early texts is it gradually becoming apparent that early christianity in Ireland was in direct contact with the Byzantine and earlier church of the East, and gained much from it? If so, then should it not also have examples of something so central to that tradition as the use of the cave as cell, and in its absence the artificial cave as cell – something which the archaeological record describes as a souterrain? But, there is a caveat here and that is a quote from Mathew’s Gospel ……….which advises early christians to use cellars and store rooms as their private places of prayer. Apart from using natural caves and creating artificial ones, does this mean that cellars already present in the Irish landscape when they arrived were also used?
The ‘City of God’ upon the South Munster landscape
In the early part of the 5th century AD Rome was sacked by the Visigoths. Sometime later in the century St Augustine of Hippo wrote a book which argued that the concept of a ‘City of God’ would in time triumph over the world of the earthly city in which people of the Roman Empire lived their daily lives. His book was called De Civitate Dei i.e. the City of God. It is notable that in Egypt (part of Rome’s Empire) the concept of the Desert as a City also existed; at Kellia and Sketis and Tabennisi, place where large numbers of persons lived cenobitic or anchorite lifestyles.
What role model for early Christian settlement forms and patterns in the South Munster landscape did these places, and those influenced by them already in the West, have?
What types of places or place-names exist in the South Munster landscape which might help to answer this question? Foundations like those of St Abbán come to mind and Kilcrumper (cell of the presbyter) parish between the Blackwater and Funcheon Rivers in North East Cork spreading southwards into Clondalane (Cluain dá Lann, the spiritual meadow of two chapels) parish.
On the southern boundary of Clondalane is the town-land of Coole Abbey, a single town-land parish. The word Coole is an anglicisation of the Gaelic word Cúile meaning back or corner patch of land. However this word also exists on the island of Sardinia (Italy) where it is associated with shepherds and dry masonry, corbel built, structures. It is in the lands around the Blackwater and Funcheon Rivers that the beehive domed, corbel built, souterrains distinctive to this part of Cork have been found. They are not replicated to the South West in Carberry; as best I can judge from current evidence based on discoveries over the past two centuries. Not only are these Cúile, their fields and buildings, associated with agriculture and animal husbandry they are also associated with a tradition of local pilgrimages and Byzantine monks (Mecca and Dipasquale, 2009, 111 – 120). Was Coole Abbey once the Cúile portion of Cluain Dá Lann; before being secularised in the 17th century AD leaving only Coole Abbey because of its ruins, pilgrimage and holy well surviving as church property? It was at Cluian Dá Lann that St. Flanait, a princess of the local Fermoy kingdom founded her cell, her nunnery in the late 6th or early 7th century.
Apparently, local tradition associates Coole Abbey with the existence of a civitates, a community, there at one time. In a land area from midway along the Funcheon River southwards to Kilcrumper, to Clondalane to Coole Abbey was this the landscape of an early Christian civitates settlement foundation of the late 6th to early 7th centuries? Was this what Abbán (white abbot?) founded before moving on to create other communities leaving it (Power, 1932, 76) in the hands of Cruimthir Fraech (Presbyter Fraech)? Or was Kilcrumper separate from Clondalane, apart from being contiguous with it, and was Kilcrumper founded by Abbán while St Mochuda subsequently of Lismore founded Clondalane (Power, 1932, 70). Canon Power speaks of much evidence for population movement in the area – in medieval times and perhaps earlier, and of the King of Fermoy being based at Manning Townland beside the Funcheon. Nearby, very near, on the Funcheon River the beehive souterrains of Ballyhindon and Ballinacarriga, among others, were discovered. This is also a landscape associated with St. Finchú (White Hound) of Brigown further north along the Funcheon and with his parents in a rath at Rathealy by Fermoy.
To the South of Fermoy following the Blackwater River past Lismore the river flows southward to the sea at Youghal. Along this part of its course it is joined by the Bride River which might, once, have formed a natural southern boundary to the Fermoy Kingdom. Near it end by the sea there is an island in the Blackwater River linked by a causeway to the mainland. It is called Dairinis where an abbey said to have been founded by St Molana, a disciple of St Mochuda founded an abbey in the 6th century AD and where early canon law was written down. The Gaelic word Dairinis is usually translate to mean oak island, but it is curious that in the Byzantine tradition Dair or Deir is the word for a monastery and given that there is an early monastery on the island it would seem that ‘monastery island’ is a better translation; with an acknowledgement of an Eastern tradition. Molana in Gaelic is Maol an Faidh meaning Maol the Prophet. It is interesting to note that the mountain range to the north of Dairinis is called, in Gaelic, Cnoc Maol Domhnaigh (Knockmaeldowns) i.e. the mountain of Maol’s Sunday gathering place.
Like the Fermoy district does this represent another area of Christian settlement, a paruchia, stretching from the mountains, south along the Blackwater, and down to Dairinis, perhaps one once connected to Kilaspugmullane (cell of Bishop Mullan, Mollan or Molana?) and further to the West in East Cork? Molana became abbot of Lismore circa 609 AD.
Fr John Ryan(1931) speaks of Skellig Michael island, off the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula, as a laura monastery or hermitage. He also says (p. 45)
‘In the desert or sterile lands about Jerusalem a number of lauras were established early in the fourth century’.
Laura (Lavra) monasteries are very much a part of the eastern Christian tradition in Greece, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. They are often, in origin, semi-cenobitic and cave associated monasteries. In the early 10th century a Viking raid took place along the Bandon River in Cork and it attacked a monastery or hermitage at a place called Laravoolta (smashed, or beaten up, laura). After the raid the monks went to a new site nearby to rebuild their monastery. This was at a place called Sleenoge. The new monastery which arose was the focal point of a bishoprick which lasted until the Norman Conquest of Ireland took place in the 12th Century AD and church reforms were introduced. There are many place names across South Munster which appear to be associated with the name laura though it can be difficult because of anglicisation to determine what the original form of a name was. Laura can be confused with Laragh from láithreach meaning a meeting place and indeed there is a Laragh immediately beside St, Kevin’s monastery at Glendalough County Wicklow. However in the early years of a monastic foundation was not a meeting place a place to hold Sunday services? Is laithreach a derivative of laura?
A collage of landscape elements and place names helps to give a sense of some of what survives of the overlay of early Christianity across the South Munster land area. Apart from laura related names, there is an abundance of kill (cell) names, desert names such as Caherdesert, drishane (thorny place, perhaps of penance), cró such as Cró na hOidhe (cell of the scholars, religious persons) at Cronody, Cluains, Cuiles, Corcachs, Cahers, Domhnachs, ‘beds’ and ‘seat’ hermitages of famous saints. There are, perhaps, several others yet to be identified through more detailed study. Did the word for a small hermitage , a skete, in some form or other, as a dependency of a laura monastery, also find its way to Ireland along with the word desert and laura?
To this landscape collage of monasteries, cells and hermitages one could add topographical elements such as nunneries. In the Medieval text known as the Ancrene Weiss (Anchorite Rule, another being the Dublin Rule) three sisters adopting the religious life were given instruction on how to live. Where did they live, in three cells, one attached to the other? Though understood to be for anchorite nuns in England, how old was this tradition and did persons such as St. Flanait follow an earlier, similar, Rule at Clondalane when founding her nunnery there? One could add: coastal monasteries on cliffs, in harbours, bays, coves and creeks, on islands and at estuaries, monasteries in lakes and on dry ground in bogs and marshes; along valley slopes, beside rivers and tributaries, on rough ground and wasteland, on fertile plains; beside natural caves, beside springs to be blessed and used as places of baptism, beside existing field systems, gardens, orchards and ploughed land already in existence or to become such as a result of the efforts of monks; raths, lioses, dúns and dangans absorbed. How familiar most of these location types are, as one scans through the site information for souterrain discoveries in South Munster over the past two centuries. One wonders if the dún containing a local population’s food supply ( a dún as a dangan fortress?) which supplied Domhnaill Cam Ó Súileabháin, Lord of Beara in West Cork his weary and harassed and greatly reduced clan followers, as they made their Great March of escape northwards from Munster in 1602 AD from their homeland of Beara, his tower house castle besieged after the battle of Kinsale in 1601 AD?
As early Irish Christianity developed and spread across the South Munster landscape, how much in its early stages would have been familiar to St. Benedict, as he wrote about four kinds of monks? Where would one have looked for these ascetics beyond the world of presbyters and their communities? Not wishing to be noticed what types of habitations did they make for themselves and what degree of seclusion did some find?
With the coming of Patrick and those soon after him, were such practices reformed or absorbed sensitively in to the morphology of Christian landscapes and their social infrastructures?
How close during these early years was Irish Christianity, both in terms of its secular as well as monastic communities, to what would later be styled in its own lands as Byzantine Christianity? How much of the ways and traditions of the peoples of the Byzantine world and direct influence overlay an emergent Celtic Christianity, its society, its clerics, its ascetics. To what degree was it their role model? What influence did the Syrian popes in Rome have on the styles and form of the religion and its vernacular architectures in Ireland? One wonders why Byzantine pottery appears to be uncommon in the archaeology of Southern Ireland or do some shards require a re-appraisal?
The Irish receive the Christians
What initially caused Christianity to come to Ireland and to what part or parts of the island did it first come? In what form or forms did it arrive and begin establishing its presence? Who were its first Christians and what traditions did they bring with them and from where? These are key questions to explore if one is to attempt to proffer the thesis that the Eastern tradition of using underground space to create the habitation and prayer places of either singular and /or group ‘cells’ for early monks and hermits, was responsible for the existence in Ireland of a large number of man-made underground spaces within the provinces of Ireland.
The potential for refugees and a refugee church to where and seeking what landforms bringing what architectures, learning, traditions and practices from the desert lands. Was this direct with perhaps Dumnonia as a staging and provisioning port avoiding Roman Britannia and thus no souterrains there and thence to Corcú Laoide via existing wine trade shipping routes?
Did plague and famine in connection with a comet make conversion easier during 6th century? Was this the spur which caused mass conversion and brought druids over to Christ?
Within the initial decades of the 5th century, perhaps because of its presence here in Ireland and because Roman christianity was now seeking control on the island of Britain, missionaries were sent from there to introduce the western church of Rome to existing Christian inhabitants of Ireland.
If the reason for British missions to Ireland was to bring it into line with the Roman church in Britain and if therefore Irish christianity was of a form which was not characteristically Roman perhaps the origins of Irish christianity on this island were earlier and bypassed pagan Roman Britain (Britannia) bringing the eastern form of the religion to southern Ireland and establishing an eastern style monastic church.
This was the church of the cave monasteries of the eastern Mediterranean lands, already well developed in the first three centuries of the existence and formation of the religion there. As a church of the East it had differences in architecture, practices and beliefs. These practices included the concept of the Cell – and the private spiritual experience in that space of direct communication with God, which is in turn the natural or artificial space which is both habitation and meditative space for the solitary worshipper.
The Arrival of the Christian teaching and the geography of its spread across South Munster
South Munster, for the purposes of this study of souterrains – and their distribution patterns within this region, is defined as those parts of the south and southwestern coastlines of the island of Ireland which stretch from Waterford harbour as its eastern extent, to the Dingle peninsula on the west. From where the northern coastline of the Dingle Peninsula meets Fenit Bay, its stretches inland following a notional boundary stretching from there to north of Killarney, on to the Slieve Luachra district of north west County Cork and eastwards along the southern borders of County Limerick before spreading northwards to Kilmallock and beyond it to Cashel, County Tipperary. From Cashel it stretches southwards again skirting the western boundary of the Kingdom of the Ossraige people (County Kilkenny) to the northern banks of the River Suir which flows to the sea at Waterford harbour. To the north of this line, in what is now north County Kerry and stretching southwards to Killarney and Slieve Luachra, were a people known as the Ciarraige.
Within the territory of South Munster (Desmond) and along its coastal lands from Dingle to West Cork were a people named for an ancestral figure named Corc; those of the Dingle Peninsula being the Corcu Duibhne and those from Kilorglin to the Old Head of Kinsale being the Corcu Laoighde. These were peoples of the sea coast and of mountain lands; and still are. Many other peoples, clans and extended families came to occupy the landscape area of South Munster from prehistoric to medieval times. Their names resonate in O’Herrin’s (O Huidhrin) 15th century geographical poem, a snapshot in time. They resonate in many sources brought to light by nineteenth century scholars such as John O Donovan and Eugene O Curry – and the original Ordnance Survey of Ireland. The territory of South Munster, in its pre-Norman conquest (1169 A.D) form, was defined at what is called the treaty of Glanmire in 1118 A.D. Based on what little is known about the early history of the peoples who occupied it in the initial centuries of the first millennium A.D. it was in the initial centuries of this time period a landscape which was largely controlled by the Corcú Laoidhe people.
From sometime before or during the 8th century AD or so, their hold over this landscape had begun to wane as their boundaries were reduced eventually to an area of land subsequent defined by the the Diocese of Ross to the south of the Bandon River. Other large tribal entities in South Munster at this time were the Muscraige(from whom the landscape of Muskerry), the Erainn, the Eoghanacht and the Deise(West Waterford). The early histories of these peoples – and their interactions, defined and redefined the internal social identities and alliances of those who lived there. But, as peoples, perhaps to some extent with differing origins and differing interactions abroad, there is little if anything to identify them in terms of distinct remains of material culture i.e. apart from the fact that monuments or artefacts found in localities once known to have been within their territories, what is there that can be classified as distinctive of the material culture of the Muscraige compared with the Déise for example?
There certainly is a lot of archaeology from these places but how it can be contextualised as associated with these people groups is something still enigmatic. The Corcú Laoidhe are understood to have been an expanding tribal people in existence by the 2nd century A.D. The progenitor of the Eoghanacht people, a legendary figure known as Eoghan Mor(Big Eoghan) is also thought to have lived around this time. They are an example of the ‘internal’ picture of who occupied the lands of South Munster at this period in time. It is also at this time that we get a glimpse of what the peoples of the Mediterranean shores understood about the occupants of Ireland, seeing it from the perspective of their ‘mappa mundi’ as an island located in the northern part of the Cantabrian Sea, and closer to them than the island of Britain, then largely under the control of the Roman state of Brittania. Ireland remained outside of this administrative control though possibly greatly influenced by it in some places.
The classical writer Tacitus tells us that the approaches and harbours were well known to merchants. Tertullian tells us that the message of Christ had already travelled westwards beyond the lands were Roman arms were carried. In the great library of Alexandria in Egypt, Claudius Ptolemy – circa 140 A.D. some suggest, recorded navigational references, ethnographic, place and people information known to Mediterranean mariners; based on which a cartographic ‘map’ of the island as known in his time would be constructed in later times. This ‘map’ names major headlands important waypoints for navigators. It names and locates major people groups, along with notable places of assembly or settlement; information which could be important to merchants and resource prospectors.
Why is there interest in this information? Is it simply geographical and ethnographical curiosity? Is it to do with interests in expanding trade or prospecting fro resources? Is the information reflective of recently acquired knowledge and interaction or is it just a chance recording of what had already been well known – and even recorded, centuries before? But how might one go about mapping the external informational perspective on to the internal one? Stories told from without to stories told within? Whatever answers future scholarship might bring to this question, it can be said that Iron Age society – and its Bronze Age antecedents, which had come to exist in South Munster by this time had shorelines open to trade probably with Britannia and beyond to the lands of the Mediterranean shores.
Whether or not it also had its own maritime merchants and ocean going fleets is an interesting question to speculate upon as are questions relating to refugee settlement from abroad and entrepreneurial activities associated with market opportunities in Britannia. It is not an isolated, remote and secluded place – at least from a coastal perspective. If early christianity, stemming from its cradle lands in the eastern mediterranean, was active along the sea ways there, active along the northwestern African shore at Carthage and beyond, active at ports on the south eastern boundaries of the Cantabrian Sea, then what likelihood was there that in its search to bring the message of Christ to ‘all corners of the earth’, it would not have sought to bring it to the peoples of an island understood to be closer than Roman Britannia with which trading was active? What likelihood was there that from its earliest and turbulent centuries within the Empire prior to Constantine, from its formative period time as a faith of many forms and competing doctrines, it would not have sought to evangelise as well as settle refugee communities from the Empire; communities which sought freedom from persecution, from disputes, from doctrinal authority along with those who sought new and alternative modes of living beyond the borders of the Empire, in both its Eastern and Western expressions, and beyond its controls? In such circumstances did communities acquiring land by conquest or purchase or renting arrangements (rent tribes) bring their faith with them allowing it to be a formative influence in their settlement arrangements in the landscapes they came to occupy?
Did such christian settlements merge peaceably over time with the social architectures of the society which already existed? Did they compete and did a gradual subsumption of the latter into the former take place? Did the fire burning religion of Zoroaster, a Persian and Anu worshipping religion originally from the Eastern Mediterranean give way to early christian settlement beside the Paps of Anu in Slieve Luachra in north west Cork and at its ceremonial assembly site at Shrone beneath? Did persons trained in druidic schools find similarity in the ‘new teaching’ between those dedicated to the ‘Mindful Lord’ (West, 2013) ‘ahoura mazda’ whisperings at the Ballyhouras perhaps, and that of the new teaching from the east? Were the mythical and ‘magical’ Tuatha De Danaan ( the land and people i.e. tuatha, of the god Anu) of legend spread across the mountain landscapes of South Munster? Was there a transition phase in Leinster and Munster which led to Dicuil, Erc and Ibar among others from druidic educations and origins to champion the ‘new teaching’; becoming very early christian bishops, prophets, leaders, elders in Ireland?
In the fashion of the early monasticism of Egypt did they accumulate followers, however unwillingly at first, which grew to become large semi-cenobitic communities and if so how did they imprint their mode of living, humble vernacular architectures, their crafts and skills, their economies, their plant and animal husbandry knowledge, their soil and geological knowledge, upon the landscapes occupied; along the rivers and tributaries, upon the mountains and foothills, among the bogs and fens, along the coastlines and their islands, onto the existing domestic landscape and its expressions of Iron Age settlement forms? Was this what Pope Gregory 1st was advising when speaking of a ‘two step’ approach, one of gradual inculturation of older beliefs into the new faith rather than conflict, one of older assembly sites, cemetery sites and shrines becoming Domhnachs, Cahers, hermitages, places of Christian worship, where old local gods merge into the pantheon of the new one? Intriguing as such questions may be, whether within the realms of the ‘imaginarian’ or the scholar, suffice it to say that there is still a threshold of investigation to be crossed between the liminal world of pre-christian myth and that of the embedding of a christian consciousness across the landscape in South Munster.
Taking the view that the souterrain distribution patterns (clusters and ribbons) of South Munster are indicative of where and how early christianity spread itself across the multitude of physical forms which that landscape has, what follows here is an attempt to describe what is there seeing the souterrains, in their many structural forms, as principally the lodgings (cells) of early christian hermits and clerics, of solitaries, of small groups and of larger communities. It is my hypothesis, if at times no more than a means of contextualising, that the majority of souterrains were created in South Munster as lodgings/ prayer houses/ penitential places and that these specific uses evolved over time from their original use as discrete underground lodgings, following norms developed in the lands of the eastern Mediterranean by the Desert Fathers. However, I do not think, for the present, that every souterrain structural form was a lodging.
Some, I consider to have been intended for storage purposes connected with monastic agriculture, with the need for a place of safe concealment for property, with the need to keep crop produce at an even temperature, with the storage of wine perhaps. Certainly all of these functions are feasible. Certainly, such storage needs could have existed in the secular community both before and after the establishment of christian settlement activity. Some ringforts may have been given or commandeered for use as hermitages or early church locations. Some ringforts may have continued in use as secular entities after christianity’s arrival. A large scale floruit of ringfort building which is considered to have taken place in the later early christian period may reflect changes in secular landholding arrangements. What is perhaps easiest to say at this point in time is that the secular became deeply entwined with the religious and that the ‘built’ rural environment reflected this. In such a context some ringforts will have no souterrains, others several. Some will have been cellars, others will have been monastic cells and for some their function will shift from cellar to cell or vice versa. Some may also have been modified in which regard a story about a Saint Anthony of Kieve in the Ukraine is indicative; where he is given a cell by a Saint Hilarion of the same place and he modifies it to become his ‘four yard’ cell from where he founds a great Laura monastery as numbers grow and local nobility provide patronage – leading to a dispute regarding the abandonment of the cells in favour of moving to a more cenobitic form of living arrangements.
The Irish become Christian : a gradual process
1.The Result of a People Process: A superimposed refugee’s settlement landscape and its church overlaying a landscape and people who were already a mix of earlier settlers and older natives….an older social landscape designed by people from the tribes of western Europe and migrants from Britannia.
2. The Result of a Planned Mission: was it a missionary christianity i.e. only a church in exile.
3. A cult church of peregrination: seeking solitude and freedom to develop.
4. A church seeking new souls in its search to create a ‘kingdom of God’ in the west?
5. Or, was it a mixture of all of these processes and forms and influences seeing Ireland as the western end of the known, civilised world?
6. 5th to 7/8th centuries a gradual conversion to christian values, absorption of the druid intellectual class and their social roles. Ban-dri to female saint (e.g. Brigit), slave classes convert to freedom, aristocrats convert, druids convert….prophecies and natural disasters such as famine and plague play a role. But what or who is it that strings the beads into a necklace? Was Patrick or this version of him just an Armagh invention (Muirciu) for supremacy reasons by the Ulster tribes to claim high kingship with help of their tribal church in the 7 or 8th century?
What precisely were the objectives of Patrick’s mission? Were they 1. the conversion of pagan communities where ever they existed in Ireland, 2. persuasion of the existing forms of christianity in Ireland both native and refugee to fall in to line with Rome and its clerical tradition as Rome attempts to formulate and take supremacy over a Western church? 3. how much does Ryan say about Patrick persuading existing Irish bishops and consequents their flocks to submit to him and the Roman authority over the church which he brings?
What reaction by those of the eastern tradition and its forms might this have caused? Was this why subsequently the Easter controversy survived for centuries, the ‘going to Skellig’ tradition, the synod of Whitby in 664 and the Culdee revolt and finally the arrival of the Cistercians with Malacy’s approval and the Norman Conquest on its heels with its Laudibiter to bring the Irish church in to line. Is their a co-incidence in the fact that this happens in the century of the Great Schism in the 12th century AD between Rome and the East and is this the time that, and only time, that an English/Saxon Pope at on the Throne of Rome? Who was he, what name, was he Saxon or Norman? Is all this evidence of a long centuries old struggle of the eastern church ad its traditions to survive cut off over here in the west from its homeland and religious traditions there? How feasible is this scenario? and how resonant of what we have and know here on the ground through archaeology and folklore and hagiography and associated scholarships?
Who were the Peoples who contributed the population of South Munster
The known historical information from annals and genealogies which gives rise to an understanding of the tribes and territories of that area of the Irish landscape which by the 12th century became known as South Munster or Desmond is a partially recognised and understood record, slim as it is, which connects the peopling (sliocht, pobal, muintir) cultural and economic flux, of this part of the Irish landscape from roughly the 2nd century A.D. up to the early 13th century. It is a story of populations in flux, or territorial boundaries in flux, of generations of personalities, their personal and community actions and thoughts within this timespan. It is a story of conquests, of battles, of murders, burials and deaths, or intermarriages and alliance, of changing and evolving identities.
It is a story of landscape use and development or non-development, of conceptualising and configuring landscape areas in both popular and remote localities, or rough terrains from mountain to foothills, of barren rocky soils to marshlands, of coastal pastures to inland fertile plains, or horses and cattle ranches and of fishermen and sheep farmers as dictated by the natural resources provided in each environment and by the knowledge and skill sets of those peoples who worked them to make their settlement localities viable for community life. At this level it is a story of adaptability to landscape, seascape and climate which dictates survival and continuity for the larger majority of people living within the tuataras any they small as the western mountainous lands or larger along the floodplains of the major rivers of South Munster and their networks of tributaries. It is upon these basic social activities of daily life that the history of genealogies and annalistic references rest. How many of these individuals are named in the Ogham inscriptions which survive from South Munster?
It is from the stories, folk memories in oral form, of these localities that such information was collected and submitted to written form by the monks of Irish medieval scriptoria. And it is according to the nature of that information and what priorities of preserving it was subjected to, that the basis for drawing a historical narrative was created in later times.
Phases for Early Christianity in South Munster.
This is not so much a story of how or why they came. It is the story of what they did when they got here. The initial phase may have been before 100 AD and connected with Roman Britain and St. Paul and perhaps other maritime networks direct to the western European coast and the Mediterranean. This may have been followed by the prophets phase e.g. Maol an Faidh perhaps influenced by Syrian holymen. The next stage may have been the travels of pre Patrician Gaelic aristocracy children such as Declan and Ciaráin to Rome and beyond to Antioch, and the Holy Lands in Egypt. As communities of Christians were formed in South Munster a civitates phase comes into being and perhaps it is those who seek a bishop from Rome as Britannia fails. Palladius is said to be full of Irish porridge. As Rome becomes predominant as the patriarchate of the Western Empire the civitates respond to Patrick to Martin of Tours to John Cassian to Benedict’s Rule. Next there is the exodus from Islam from the 7th to the 8th centuries. In the mid 7th century the Synod of Whitby takes place giving Rome control over a Byzantine influenced hibernian church. From the late 6th century a gradual great flowering of the green deserts of Ireland takes place and though impacted by the Viking world it survives to the middle of the 12th century when Malachy brings the Cistercians and the Norman Conquest begins.
St Patrick at the Old Head
What are the chances that if he made his way south after escape from his captivity that
Patrick came to a Roman Kinsale and its fleets of merchant ships?
and that from there he ventured home and onto Rome for study and ordination
But as Roman Kinsale emerged from Roman to Saxon times he heard the call of the Roman merchant settled at Kinsale’s Old Head for a bishop and therefore went there to begin his mission to the Irish. But as South Munster tribal churches in the Greek tradition refused to surrender to him, he moved from his foundation at Lios and Domhnach (perhaps in a dún) Patrick moved into the other provinces to become a national legend? The absence of a Roman Bishop for a Roman Christian community in what is otherwise a Greek and Egyptian influenced Christian landscape already established?
Why the SW coast? What pre-existing shipping contacts were there ? How much of our story is the result of maritime stories, shipping routes and contacts, coastal trading stations, mercantile empires in the Empire, mercantile prospecting for markets, resources and trade, slaves and minerals, grain and leather and cattle and other products….as a cattle ranchers country how did Irish chieftains – with family connection to Gaul and Britain’ strikes from pagan times see themselves as supplies of cattle products in to the Mediterranean as well as the Britannia market places? What archaeological evidence do we have to demonstrate contact in Munster with Rome and /or Byzantium or outposts of their influence by Atlantic shores? Were these trade routes direct to the east or in stages across Europe, North Africa, the Atlantic coast of Europe and Britannia? What significance if any lies in the DND evidence from Trinity College Dublin that many Irish are of Eastern European origin in the Bronze Age? Does this also related to the East Christian times. How open an empire of social movement and extensive and intensive sea travel both for goods and people.
The ‘built cave’ is one of two categories of a type of archaeological monument in Ireland which is called a Souterrain i.e. an artificial cave of the early medieval period. The other category of Irish souterrain is a tunnelled ‘cave’ created in either glacial till or rock or a combination of both. Though there are often sufficient similarities between the architectural design forms of built caves and between those of the tunnelled form, vernacular architectural traditions in the Irish countryside of which souterrains form a significant part are variable in their detail reflective of individual local needs and circumstances to do with the choices made by those who created them and /or requested their creation. In regions where limestone is not present ‘built caves’ were also constructed using slate or sandstone chipings and slabs.
Blending itself into the landscape
As one of the ‘Twelve Apostles of Ireland’ is Ciarain’s story an example of how Christianity established itself in Ireland’s early medieval tribal lanscapes? Are Irish place names, Diseart(desert) meaning a wilderness and a hermitage and/or solitary cells in proximity to each other, Donoughmore meaning the large Sunday meeting place of hermits and a place of pastoral care and spiritual services for them, reflective of local early monastic geographies? Are they also reflective of the wider secular christian communities in such places. If souterrains, or at least some of them, are the cells of early semi-cenobitic monastic establishments i.e. Laura or Lavra monasteries, led and overseen by founding bishops then where in the South Munster landscape were they located and what strategically did the choice of such places indicate? Did some become great monastic establishments due to royal patronage, royal inheritances from their member’s families, with large estates absorbing many from such communities as lay workers as Monaig, in the 7th to 9th centuries of the early medieval period? Were others abandoned due to a variety of circumstance including absorption in to the larger ‘institutions’, in St. John Cassian’s words Institutis Coenobiorum ?
By the 12th century AD as the Cistercian Order arrived from the European mainland, were all such places – including the palimpsests of earlier absorbed or forgotten ecclesiastical landscapes, gradually abandoned; leaving in some cases only place name evidence from their working landscapes, and in other cases leaving structural evidence of those once great surface architectures and their landscaping, of Eastern influence, to survive or be absorbed by reform? Did the saint’s seats, saint’s beds, holy wells, hermitages and solitary locations of such monastic and christianised community geographies become disassociated, their interlinking trails and route ways, their boundaries and social relationships to the monastic focal points they once had, forgotten within local folk memory and overgrown laneways(bohereens)? If so, were the locations of individual cells or groups cells, beneath the ground, also forgotten? Were the burial places of early ‘saints’, their disciples and secular christianised community members of importance, forgotten equally; their burial or cenotaph monuments removed, scattered and re-used elsewhere over time, the relationship between their ogham inscriptions and the spiritual places they were connected with lost to memory or ignored due to reform? But how far from the tree did such apples originally fall, how far from it were they scattered, how may were simply buried or absorbed in to later ecclesiastical structures, or utterly abandoned leaving picturesque vestiges in the countryside, or buried beneath the farmer’s plough?
With such questions in mind I looked at the relationship between souterrain distributions and types in the Cork landscape attempting to contextualise them with the distribution patterns for Ogham stone discoveries, above and below ground. I also looked at place name evidence within a radius of such discovery sites in an attempt to see if place name evidence might indicate a local focal point such as a desert (wilderness or hermitage), a domhnach(donaghmore); a ‘donickmore’ or a ‘donoughmore’ or a ‘down’ all perhaps corruptions of the original domhnach name due to phonetic mis-recording in later centuries. I also looked for variations of the word Cluain( meaning home meadow) as this term is often found in connection with great Celtic monastic foundations of the later years of the early Middle Ages in Ireland such as Clonmacnoise in County Offaly and Cloyne in the territory of the Imokilly (Uí Mochaille) people of East County Cork, whose king, according to tradition asked Colmán of Muskerry Mittine further west on the River Lee, in the 6th century AD, to establish a great monastery there.
Meadow lands were highly prized in medieval times, both in an agricultural sense well as in the sense of common social, communal, ascetic and spiritual places. Were it possible to identify, based on what Chitty says about walking distances from isolated cells or hermitages to monastic focal points e.g. a caher or domhnach place, a projected radial distance or ‘catchment’ area within which to identify cell distribution patterns, might it be possible to match such patterns to souterrain distributions? It was of interest to see, as I attempted this, the frequency, distributional and topographical patterns of Kil place name elements within such areas; as well as other words similar in pronunciation to names connected with early monasticism in the East. If the new religion which arrived here in early medieval times was of eastern origin and reflective of what existed there in its early phases, and if ‘place making’ and ‘place naming’ was the outcome of monastic and secular christian landscaping in localities where such names still existed in South Munster, then how might the souterrain record and ogham stone discovery record relate to them? Matched to souterrain distribution evidence for some civil parish groupings the outcome was intriguing.
If what Cassian was advising, like those of Saint Pachomius, was what Ciarán introduced how might the presence of semi-cenobitic style establishments of hermitages, solitary cells and Sunday or weekend meeting places in South Munster be explained? Was a cenobitic establishment distinct from, parallel with or a part of a broader concept of semi-cenobitic, ‘cave monastery’ establishment? Or, was the latter simply the initial pattern arising organically during the evangelising period until such time as larger, more centrally organised cenobia could come into existence as places of learning and christian civilisation with all of the assets from far and near which that implied, a rational which would give great emphasis to coastal, major river and tributary, networks of communication and thus the siting of monastic foundations in proximity to such geographical features.
Does the transition from semi-cenobitic to cenobitic forms introduce disagreement as seems to have been the case at the Cave monastery of Kieve, Ukraine, in later centuries where the immediate successors of the founder appear to have resisted the change, resulting from royal patronage, from a setting of dug individual ‘cave’ lodgings to one of more integrated monastic structures and lifestyles adopted by succeeding generations? In terms of the role of Abbot (from Abba meaning father), does this blend with the role of ‘bishop’ or the Syrian term Ma, as secular christianised communities blend with monastic communities, a monastic church infused in to the hierarchical and hereditary and territorial governance of a locality, their clan and tribal consciousness and identity, as the Medieval Millennium unfolded across the landscape of South Munster? And, is it in the landscaping activities resulting from the expansion of their monastic estates that the older place name geographies of such resulted, remaining, significantly, in place to the present day? If so, what might the souterrain distributions and the specific topographies of their locations say about the organisation of land use and occupancy patterns within such estates? This type of questioning reveals a range of potential research topics, spread across several academic disciplines, which more intensive identification, study, recording and analysis of souterrains in the Irish landscape, might rewardingly facilitate at some future time.
From Sea to Inland landscapes
Rivers: Its major rivers have many tributaries and sub-tributaries. Its principle rivers traverse, mostly West to East in their direction of flow, great lengths of the territory of South Munster i.e. the River Bandon River is 72 km long, the River Lee River is 90 km, the River Blackwater is 169 km, the River Suir is 185 km and its tributaries runs down the slopes of its great valleys creating a trellis pattern. As highways of access the principle rivers provide the opportunity to reach into the depths of the countryside following the tributaries and connecting streams leading to distinct upland and lowland locations where over many centuries settlement took place. The drainage system provided the access route for early christianity in its inland form through forests, cliffs and inland promontories, while the coastline of the south provided large promontories, inlets, coves, bays, harbours, many islands – particularly in the South West.
Seeking close access to maritime communication and trade as well as isolation and remoteness for the spiritual lifestyle Christianity took root among the coastal people – part people of the sea and part people of the coastal lands, among inland settled peoples along the principal rivers and their multitude of tributaries with such peoples working the better quality lands of the interior from fertile meadow lands to boggy wetland of the mountain foothills. How much of the interior landscape was cultivated during these initial centuries, how much came to be cultivated and shaped for societal needs at this time, how much was already developed in pagan times, how much was developed as a consequence of the advent of christian communities, how much of it was broken from its wild natural form for social use as a result of monasticism and the skills, knowledge and requirements of its world as it settled here and created its monuments are all ongoing questions of scholarship and research in several disciplines.
Monasteries and christian communities open up the landscape
The impact of monasteries on rough and rugged landscapes should not be underestimated. A good example is given by O’ Flanagan in his book The Blackwater in Munster published in 1844 where he describes the landscape impact of the arrival of the monks of Mount Melleray (Cistercian Order) to a rugged mountain foothills area in North West County Waterford. Can we see a similar story of landscape and environmental development in the arrival of early christian and monastic communities elsewhere in Munster, particularly at a time when the Roman Empire and all the knowledge, skills and traditions of working many landforms and giving in them was part of the overall mix of the economies and scouts of the empire in its heyday stretching from Mesopotamia to the northern Britain, to the south along the north coast of Africa…a vast empire of peoples, cultures, traditions, ideas, skills, knowledge, energy, travel, trade, wealth and power and a multitude of social inter activities?
Beginnings of monastic landscapes: Analysis of Monastic Estate Forms
I seem to be identifying differing forms of monastic estates some of which are small with their cluain centres and working lands surrounding then e.g. Garranes, Sean Cluain at Ballyvourney, others are much larger and seem more like monastic ‘cities’. Each cluain settlement will need a farran, garrane, garraí, gort, meadow, i.e. farm (agricultural) land features as well as ecclesiastic land features.
Three types of ‘settlement’ are identifiable, all evolved from the one baseline i.e. hermit or small hermit group with cells? So how did it evolve? Does the following help to define patterns?
Stage 1: the community or its founder is gifted an estate which becomes a cluain
(meadow) forming the centre point of the hermitage, monastery or
Stage 2: the community absorbs other communities and absorbs the secular communities in these localities.
Stage 3: a great monastic city evolves with dependent cluain communities working the farmlands and dependent small hermitage communities and places for
solitaries and anchorites who can be supervised and cared for in their
What did these early hermitages look like and did they reflect the traditions of the early church in the East if as the 7th century AD Antiphony of Bangor Abbey, County Down states they were the ‘true vine’ of Egypt?
Where did they go? What did they do and how did they do it?
Were they given rough mountain foothills, wetlands beside rivers, hilltops, glens, valleys, inland promontories overlooking wide interior landscapes, rocky promontories overlooking rivers and river confluences, river source places and river fording places, sandy river basins and trading stations with wooden jetties, shoreline places, coves and harbours and seascapes, rough coastal lands or inland lake surroundings?
Were they given remote dense forest places in a vast Munster landscape of dense natural woodland, to clear and work patches of land to provide for nascent christian communities, or to conceal themselves away from secular human contact or even from other hermit groups or solitaries?
Did they receive islands, marshlands, fertile lands abandoned because of conflict, famine, plague?
Did they receive lands through patronage, inheritances; all marginal landscapes unused by the secular social and agricultural settlements of the these early centuries of the first millennium AD?
Did some seek the wild remoteness of ‘green deserts’ while others sought places of mercantile, maritime and social settlement?
If this is how the creation of an Irish christian geography spread gradually through the lands of South Munster in the centuries from, perhaps, the fourth to the 12th centuries CE i.e. a period of about 800 years, forming a christian topography, blending it into the social fabric, of vernacular architectural forms, of existing landscape configurations, of indigenous places of earlier spiritual associations and social consciousness, governance, idealogical orientation, communication routes and focal points, then how slow and piecemeal was the process?
How conflictual was the process, how compromising and mutually accommodating was the process, how internally influenced by, how driven by, a desire for civilised norms and networking abroad, a desire to interact with, rather than be insular from, the empires of the Mediterranean, were the processes of individual family, social group, clan and tribal entities in their specific localities, attracted by a desire for acculturation through this new religion? At the commandingly located hillfort of Corran Tierna hill (‘cairn of the lord’ where two Bronze Age urns were discovered beneath the cairn, where a Christian cross is now prominently positioned) overlooking Fermoy in the Fir Maige Kingdom was there a welcome, by its Iron Age community, for an early bishop praying in a masonry built ‘beehive and passage’ cell – placed in the bank of a ringfort to heighten it’s dome – close to the base of the hill at Carrignagroghera (rock of the crosses or gallows); looking unwittingly perhaps somewhat like an imitation of a Bronze Age Greek Tholos and Dromos tomb; resonant of Canon Power mentioning a practice of placing crosses by fords and places of community activity in the Fermoy Kingdom?
To what extent were these social entities influenced by their places of origin elsewhere, such as Britain and Gaul, by the existence of early Christian societies already established in Rome’s Western Empire? Did the Déise people bring elements of christian contact with them when they arrived in the Waterford landscape sometime from the 4th century AD onwards, influence Declan’s attraction towards the new religion resulting in his conversion of these people to Christianity? Did the Corcú Laoigde’s maritime contacts with Gaul influence its arrival and Ciarán of Saighir’s formation as an evangeliser elsewhere in South Munster before journeying to County Offaly and founding Saighir there?
Did some elements or separate missions or refugee communities arrive directly on to the southern shores of Munster from the lands of the Eastern Empire, initially occupying coastal lands and islands from the ‘cradle’ lands of christianity’s formation, from what would become the lands of Byzantine christianity prior to Arab conquest and expulsions in the 7th century, coming from the Eastern as well as Northern as well as Southern shores of the Mediterranean world from Morocco to Greece, before crossing by a few days journey to Munster’s shoreline?
If the actual story of the initial centuries of christian arrival is one of communities bring their new religion with them to individual local landscapes, then, what impact was made upon the natural, as well as existing social, landscapes of South Munster? To what extent was the landscape already cleared and settled, to what extent was it largely wild and unoccupied? What impact do christian communities have on the transformation of wild landscapes into landscapes of social and economic benefit?
Of what size were these communities? What were their economic needs? How did they perceive the potential of the landscape forms presented to them in terms of their knowledge and skills developed in their homeland places abroad? How did they see and read the landscape of South Munster?
Where did they go and how did they open up the Irish landscape that was given to them? Perhaps we can postulate from scholarly work already underway in the East mediterranean today regarding the agricultural activity and knowledge of early monastic communities as to what happened here. But, perhaps by reflecting backwards in time from an example given by O’Flanagan in 1844 of the founding of Mount Melleray Abbey in County Waterford we can get a sense of the nature of such events as sections of the Munster landscape began to be opened up for the first time to agricultural exploitation and settlement.
Where did they go and how did they open up the Irish landscape that was given to them? Perhaps we can postulate from scholarly work already underway in the East mediterranean today regarding the agricultural activity and knowledge of early monastic communities as to what happened here. But, perhaps by reflecting backwards in time from an example given by O’Flanagan in 1844 of the founding of Mount Melleray Abbey in County Waterford we can get a sense of the nature of such events as sections of the Munster landscape began to be opened up for the first time to agricultural exploitation and settlement.
The following if taken from O’Flanagan (1844, 42-46)
‘The members of this community, driven from their establishment in France during the Revolution in 1830, sought shelter and refuge in this country; and not in vein. Sir Richard Keane granted them a large tract of mountain land, comprising above 500 acres, at a nominal rent. Sums of money were given them by benevolent individuals. The Duke of Devonshire, ever prominent in acts of liberality and munificence, gave one hundred pounds. All denominations of Christians assisted the religious alms-seekers, for such they literally were in worldly goods when they reached Cappoquin, mustering in money but one shilling and sixpence. They applied themselves to labour; their farm was an unprofitable moor, yielding heath and stones in abundance. The brethren cleared off the former, and made heaps of the latter, which they used as occasion required, in building houses, fences etc. They commenced tillage, and were assisted by the peasantry of the surrounding countryside, who supplied them gratuitously with horses and cars, deeming it a duty to aid these servants of God, who, when their funds permitted, paid to hire their assistants.
In an incredibly short time the aspect of the place was changed. The stony waste was fertilised; the barren district, where no foot, save the sportsman in pursuit of game, ever trod before, was divided into fields, and cut up by the spade and ploughshare. The grouse, scared by the harrow, flew from their old haunts, and the snipe and hare found their province invaded, while they suffered no danger from the hand that disturbed. Beneath the unpromising surface of bog and furze-brake was a rich subsoil to work upon: when lime was applied, the gardens yielded pease, beans, and other vegetables…The stones used in the entire building are those picked off the land; the masonry-work, carpentry, painting, etc. is the labour of the brotherhood – a noble monument of combined labour and perseverance. There are about 300 acres of the land reclaimed, and the rest in progress of improvement. They have a large dairy, thirty cows; and have fine green crops, turnips and potatoes. They grow a good deal of corn, principally wheat; some rye; and make their own bread and butter, which, with vegetables, form their diet – as no animal flesh is permitted by rule of their order. The monks are in number about one hundred…’
(O’Flanagan 1844, 42-46)
Cuile and Civitates
How familiar to a Carbery (West Cork) or Iveragh (South Kerry) landscape feature does the Sardinia cuile look? If cúile, in Irish place names, is a borrowing from the same origin as the Cuile of Sardinia (su cuile in Italian, so cuile perhaps in Irish i.e. Gaelic), – and refers to transhumance farming, beehive huts and drystone stockyard enclosures, then why would this word appear as a name for Coole Abbey near Fermoy in Cork. The corpus of souterrain records for Cork has several souterrains from ‘Cool’ prefix townland names. Coole Abbey forms the southern boundary of Clondalane Parish (the cluain of two chapels i.e. lann) and it has a holy well and the ruins of two small chapels. It is a single townland which also has the status of a parish. the Holy Well is still a place of veneration. Is it plausible to suggest that Coole Abbey was once the Cúile of the Cluain (monastic land) of Clondalane? When Warham St.Leger (a family in later times of Doneraile nearby) was given the task by King Henry VIII of England to oversee the Dissolution of Monasteries in Ireland did that part of Clondalane which contained the chapels and holy well along with associated pilgrimage practices become set aside as church land precincts while the rest of the land of Clondalane was sold for secular use?
Was the situation similar at Dunisky, a town-land locality which became a parish to itself, near Macroom County Cork when its Teampail Aghadoe sub-unit, perhaps connected with Milo deCogan’s campaign phase ‘castle’ there and named for his pilgrimage to Aghadoe monastery in Kerry in 1177 AD, was defined as church land while the rest of that townland became secular land? But, why would Coole Abbey (Cúile) if named in the context of transhumance farming be located beside a religious cluain (both meadowland and spiritual meadow)? Unless the cúile came to be the location for Clondalane’s chapels, well and pilgrimages. Coole is on the south side by a stream, of rising land on its north side beyond which Clondalane sweeps down to the Blackwater River and crosses it into Kilcrumper (Cell of the Presbyter) in which a clustering of beehive domed souterrains occurs and a king’s residence once stood in Manning townland. Beehive domed churches, cells and houses in mud and drystone examples were part of the vernacular, as well as formal architectural traditions of the Byzantine world and its one time influences in the West; particularly as the Islamic world unfurled its banners in the East.
It is curious to read in Mecca and Dipasquale (2009, 114) that in Sardinia, though connected to transhumance farming in subsequent times, the origin of the Cuile (su cuile) according to folklore lies with Byzantine monks and that these places were connected with subsequent traditions of pilgrimage. Are they also a reflection of the Borias structures of the Marseilles region (Roman Gallia Narbonensis) which St. John Cassian introduced Egyptian style monasticism in the early 5th century AD?
Finally, when one looks across the townland names for the civil parishes (pre-Reformation) parishes of South Munster it is noteworthy that the Anglicised form of the Gaelic word cúile (cool as a prefix, suffix or by itself as well as in the English form ‘cooly’) is so common. When it does not occur, one may ask, does this mean that that land area did not have a cúile, that the associated cúile came to be allocated to a different parish that it is a lost sub unit of the townland, that the land area was never used for such a purpose.
Perhaps, as scholarship investigating the relationship of the development of agricultural practices to early monastic groups in Egypt and the Levant, continues to grow particularly for the 2nd to 4th centuries AD, it may be possible to understand how an arrival of such influences in South Munster, through St. Ciarán and other Irish pre patrician saints, impacted on the development of agriculture and monastery farms here.
On a signpost beside Coole Abbey, an unreferenced statement is made to a ‘civitates’ once existing there. This word is often used to refer to a settlement in the Roman world. If whatever historical tradition underlies the use of the word at Coole Abbey recollects a settlement at Clondalane (and Kilcrumper?) then was it large, was it influenced by the Roman world and its Christianity or by that of the Byzantine world? If its origins were pre patrician did it lend its voice to those who requested a bishop from Rome (to preach, ordain, confer, baptise and convert) in the early 5th century? Was it a place where the shepherd and his flock would gather as shepherds gathered their flocks into the ‘cuile’ enclosures in Sardinia?
Cuile, Transhumance farming and the Clochán
In the vernacular architecture of Sardinia, the word Cuile is used for a stockyard connected with a dry stone corbel domed hut, quite similar to an Irish clochán. The hut is called a pinnettas and is understood to have derived from the tradition of nuragic drystone huts. The tradition may have been brought to Sardinia by Byzantine monks who settled there. These places were associated with rural sanctuaries and pilgrimages to worship local saints. They were also associated with transhumance farming. Herders of cattle or sheep had to stay in rich pasture areas during the summer months. these temporary residences consisted of a cluster of structures called a cuile. Situated in a central position, sometimes behind a river, they were enclosed by a drystone wall. During winter the herders brought sheep and cattle down from the mountains to warmer areas near the sea coast. The cuile was also a place for cheese making and cheese as well as other dairy produce is a suitable product for temporary underground storage(Mecca and Dipasquale 2009, 111-114).
Transhumance farming had a very long tradition in the rural life of West Waterford, Southwest Cork, Iveragh and Dingle. In South Munster the Gaelic work cuile (translated as cool) is very common as an element of townland names across its civil parishes e.g. Coolarney, Coolnacrannagh. Souterrains are often discovered in cuile townlands. In Lisnabrinny (Lios na Bruíne) in Kilmeen Parish, East Carbery, a souterrain was discovered with steps leading down to it from inside a clochán (Irish dry masonry corbel dome hut). The souterrain had 3 or more chambers and a passage. Other examples of souterrains connected to clocháns are notable at the large settlement at Fahan on the Dingle Peninsula where some of its clocháns are now being rebuilt. Are there similarities between Lisnabrinny and the cuile of Sardinia? Did the lios act as an alternative to a drystone wall stockyard? Do the Sardinian sites have cellars beneath their huts?
Tribal Churches – Origins and Evolution
To what extent in each territorial/clan/tribal space dictates the nature and origins of the Church which establishes itself within it. Each type of Christian Church as it becomes a tribal church takes on the identity and culture of the tribe and its symbols of identity. So each trie, its origins, connections, customs, evolution will interweave itself into the fabric and identity of the version of Christianity they get and its originating culture. Likewise that version if Christianity will interweave itself and its culture into the bribe. The result is a cross-weaving which gives a distance identity: and inculturation. The geography of its identity has fluid boundaries which fluctuate with the fortunes of a tribe over the period of its rise and fall. An example of such in South Munster was that of the Corcu Loaide people.
The following work sets out to discuss, describe and assess manmade underground spaces within the tribal landscapes of South Munster over the period circa 400 A. D. to 1200 A. D. with a defined geographical area and a defined date range, as proposed, it should be possible to come to an understanding of their role and purpose and why they survive as such; a dense underworld of manmade activity beneath the South Munster landscape.
‘a characteristic feature in the Judean Desert monasteries was a tower, which demarcated the monastic buildings and may have served as a refuge in times of unrest’.
(Heiska, 2003, 79).
There is perhaps much in Heiska’s work (2003) which could be mapped onto the story of early Christianity and monasticism in the South Munster landscape; especially if there is direct transference via Rome’s superstate from the Levant to Ireland’s south coast, which, form the study of souterrains and place names, seems likely as one of several channels by which Christianity in some of its earliest forms arrived to the coastal tribelands of South Munster, giving it its Túr (toor, tooreen) places and Dar (Dair Inis) places especially one with the Toureg River near it, and much more embedded into the surviving Irish topographies from that time, a time during and after the Pax Romana. Does a geography of toor place names across contiguous Cork civil parishes imply a one time geography of towers and an enclosed kingdom?
A Matter of Housing: Tig ar Talaimh, or Tig faoi Talamh
How does one project one’s thinking backwards in time on the basic human need of having a place of shelter or occupation either seasonal or permanent, either mobile or fixed? What expectations and conditions existed for differing class and sub-cultures of South Munster peoples in the Early Medieval Period? If this period of Irish social history, Irish (Gaelic) society is understood to have been very structured, very hierarchical and subject to Brehon Law to frame its order. It was a society of herders, shepherds, farmers, metalworkers, of travellers, of wanderers, of labourers of professionals, of lords, of the poor, of the enslaved, of artisans, of monks, holymen, nuns, priests, bishops, prophets, traditional musicians and seanachaí, of families and solitaries.
It is not clear how many of these headings represent independent individuals or groups be they secular or religious. How and in what conditions, where, did all of these groups reside through the centuries of the Medieval Millennium in south Munster? Within each class group what residential expectations, entitlements, allocations or undefined places to reside, were available hierarchically from lord to slave within a clan group? What ways of living dictated a traveller lifestyle a variable seasonal lifestyle, a fixed place lifestyle? There appears to be very little information, at a surface scholarship level, to answer these questions. What craft or agricultural or political activities dictated a fixed place of residence? What conditions and circumstances dictated transitory, impermanent residency as inter clan wars, conquests, newly imposed social orders, land clearances, famines and plagues impacted on the Gaelic social order? How were surface habitations impacted and how did they reflect cultures of origin and lifestyles introduced by migrant and conquerer? As previously quoted Lucas (1971-73, 185) gives a reference from Gaelic literature in which persons living underground in a ringfort are regarded as dangerous and of the lowest social grade. Who were they? Were they slaves, migratory poor, thieves, people socially marginalised for a wide variety of reasons? Perhaps, a scholarly investigation of this uncharted history, and its archaeology, within the South Munster landscape, could provide a basis for understanding the concept of having a Tig Faoi Talaimh. Sabine Baring-Gould, author of the Deserts of Southern France, in his pioneering work entitled Cliff Castles and Caves Dwellings of Europe devoted a chapter to the use of caves as Robber’s Dens (1911,176-191).
The concept of the Cave and the Cave as monastic Cell
It has long been known from hagiographical and folklore sources that the early medieval saints of Ireland used natural caves as places for habitation, retreat, austerity practices and prayer. The evidence for the use of natural caves is summarised by Dowd (2015) in her recent book on the Caves of Ireland. Resonant in this are the famous saints caves of monastic Ireland such as that of Finbarr at Cork (Tuckey 1837, 5) in the face of the cliff upon which Gill Abbey was situated, another on the north side of the Lee, the cave of St. Kevin of Glendalough and others. The use of caves as places where austerities were performed survives in the stories of the Purgatory Lough Derg, Donegal. Did the use of caves for religious purposes have an earlier, pre-christian, association?
However, natural caves are only found in regions where the bedrock is Limestone and these are not the places where manmade ‘caves’ are most prolific. Furthermore, where manmade caves are found in Limestone districts in Ireland they are usually places which have been constructed in excavated trenches and then lined with prepared stone chipings and roofed with slabs before being hidden by a backfill of soil. It is my view that where suitable natural caves were not available and because of a growing demand for ‘caves’ to use as cells during the early years of Christianity in Ireland, the practice of creating them by either tunnelling – as was already the practice in the Eastern church, or by constructing them in trenches, became common practice.
Like the Egyptian desert the strong clustering of souterrain discoveries spreading outwards from heavy cluster centres at major harbour areas in each of Ireland four province with a further cluster in Louth pointing to the fifth ancient and royal province of Meath. almost like replications of the City of God concept from the Nitrian desert in Egypt.if there is a clue in this then why is it being replicated and how many people are involved and where are they coming from and why? Is this scenario feasible and what would it take to prove it?
Insula Sanctae Clarae
Were the female saints Flanait and Cranat to the district of the Fir Maige people what Ciara(Cera) and Gobnait were to the Muscraige? As one time allies of the Muscarige, might one have travelled from the lands of the Muscraige to an offshore island in the lands of the Corcú Laoidhe? As part of an ongoing process of inculturation and reform might St. Ciara of the Muscraige have become refashioned by Franciscans on Cape Clear Island in later medieval times as St. Clare (1194-1253 AD), the friend of St. Francis of Assisi?
At Kilcrea (Cell of Ciara) in the 15th century AD they founded an abbey in Muscarige lands where 6th or early 7th century St. Chiara (Chera or Cera) founded a religious cell. They named the abbey Kilcrea (the cell of Ciara) for this early Irish female saint. If it was in this locality that she had her cell, and if it was in the form of an artificial cave, and given that what we now take to be town-land boundaries were non existent were was her cell/cave in the vicinity of where the abbey was later founded? On the opposite side of the Bride River (the western one) from where Kilcrea abbey stands are two town-land place-names of Currahaly (marshland of Ceallaigh) and Garryhesty (garden at the front of the house). Two souterrains are recorded for this locality, that from Garryhesty similar in the details of its discovery – and entrance area, to that recorded by Cork antiquarian and architect Richard Rolt Brash in the 19th century at Currahaly. Brash’s drawing of the site which was rock tunnelled is of considerable interest. Was it, or one of them, the cell of Ciara and her little community (nunnery)? It is said of Ciara that she solaced a small community in Muscraige whose hamlet had burnt down.
Were it the same Ciara associated with Clear Island then did she have a cell also somewhere by Trá Ciarán and Cill Ciarán on the island? Was there a tradition of women ascetics living in caves by the seashore?
Sabine Baring Gould has a story of two Irish women living in a cave by the seashore in Wales in much later times (Baring Gould 1911). Were they secular or religious persons? Was this a tradition i.e. of hermits living in rock shelters and in huts/hovels hewn into rock faces, which was part of a tradition found in Britain as recorded by Mary Rotha Clay (Clay 1914 and 2014) in later times, one that was also common in Ireland?
Daniel Donovan in his Sketches in Carbery (1876, 99-115) writes at length of Clear Island and its distinctive population and customs. On Sherkin Island close by circa 1920 AD five underground dwellings each 1.3 metres high with fire places, conduits for water and ventilation shafts were discovered (McCarthy 1977, 282). In 1893 six beehive shaped clay tunnelled chambers, joined by creepways, were discovered near Trá Eoghan Mór (Eoghan Mór’s beach or strand) on the island (ibid, 313-314). Donovan (1876, 37-39) recorded six sub-rectangular plan chambers tunnelled in a stiff white clay ‘between Cooney [Kinish] Harbour and the north-western shore’ of the island in 1849, rediscovered in 1869, with much evidence of soot on the ceilings and walls. A stream or water was said to have flowed through each chamber. Were they connected with a safe anchorage for the crews of fishing smacks in bad weather or are they from a much earlier time?
Of Clear Island Donovan say that from time immemorial it was an Imperium in Imperio of the O’Driscoll clan. O’Driscoll (Uí Eidhrisceoil) is a clan which appears to have had contact in early historic times with the wine trade of the Gironde. Bearing in mind the story of the Gascon from the Corcú Laoidhe genealogies between Sherkin (Inis Arcain) island and Clear Island lies the Gasconane Sound. Prior to a great inundation of the early 9th century AD how might the closely set islands of Clear (Cape Clear), Sherkin and Cooney have been related to each other? Oldcourt’s deep water harbour in Creagh parish, on the mainland by Skibereen, also had a souterrain, tunnelled in clay where an expansion of the passage into an end chamber held a small handbell wrapped in moss and placed beneath a flagstone.
If Ciarán’s mother was of Clear Island, as tradition says, was his mother connected to Ciara if she was the original saint ‘Clare’ of the island? And was Ciara in imitation of early Christianity in the East during the 4th to early 5th century? Was she an admirer of St. Cyra (Ciara?) of Roman Syria who lived a life of extreme asceticism with her companion Marana as described by Theodoret of Cyrrhus (Price,1985, 183-185)circa 440 AD? In such a scenario would such a story have influenced young Ciarán and where might his travels in O’Driscoll ships have taken him? To what extent would contemporary Syrian ideals of asceticism (Brown 1971, 80-101) have influenced the early history of Irish asceticism and anchorite traditions (O Clabaigh 2010, 153-177)? Did a tradition of cave (natural or artificial) functioning as religious cell arrive in South West Munster at this point in time?
Muscarige (Muskerry) (and especially Muscraige Mittine) is based upon the River Lee and Aglish on its southern part, its northern part close to the Blackwater River, was a place of major Christian activity during the years of the Celtic church. It is also a place of many souterrain and Ogham stone discoveries. It was said that St. Colman of Cloyne came from his cell there at the request of the King of the Uí Mochaille to found a great monastery at Cloyne in East Cork. In the northern part of Muscraige Mittine lies Kilshannig (old cells) parish and below it Donoughmore (great Sunday gathering place) and site of a great monastery and church (see O’Rourke, 2015, 31-49). On the southern boundaries of Donoughmore and sweeping past Dromatimore (ridge of the big house) townland down to the River Lee near Dripsey lie the parishes of Aghabulloge, Matehy and Iniscarra parishes.
At Inniscarra St. Senan lived and on adjacent land was his monastery of Inish Luinge (ships island) where tradition says 50 scholar came to him from abroad, perhaps at a time of upheaval in their homeland(s). The details of the story vary but 10 are said to have remained with him at Inis Luinge while the rest went northwards to found their own cells. Cronody is the townland in which Inis Luinge (now beneath the River Lee) was located. A local tradition stated that St. Finbarr once had a cell at Cronody (Bolster). Cronody is translated by Bolster (1972,14) as Coradh na hOidhe meaning ‘the enclosure of the religious community’ but should the ‘Cro’ element of Cronody be better translated as Cró meaning a shelter i.e. the shelter or cave of the scholars (oidhe)? The word has an interesting connotation with the meaning of the word Cró as still used up to recently on the Mizen Peninsula in West Cork (McCarthy 2003, 27) to describe a shelter either natural or slightly modified.
The southern shore of the River Lee opposite Cronody has the parish of Aglish, another place of souterrains and ogham stones e.g Knockshanawee (hill of the old plain), Currahaly by the Bride River and a sub-unit of the town land of Ballineadig (homeplace of the nests i.e. neadaigh or cells?) wherein was Kilnaclunna (cell of the Cluains as marked on the Downe Survey) where St. Finbarr on his return journey from his early hermitage at Gougane Barra to the West passed away tended by his old friend the hermit Faima of Desertmore (Big Desert) parish abutting Ballineadaigh on its South East side. Ciara of Kilcrea (cell of Ciara) was of Muskerry. Aghabulloge was were St. Olan (Eolaing) whom some call the Egyptian founded his cell. Aghabulloge is where his holy well lies and the Coolineagh ogham stone among others was found. Matehy is where the fine quality masonry built souterrain Kilclogh (Cill Clogh i.e. Bell Cell) was discovered in a field beside a levelled Cilleen (little cell, Killeen). One is reminded of Oldcourt near Skibereen and a bell beneath a slab in the clay tunnelled chamber of a rath souterrain (O Cuileanain and Murphy,1961). One is reminded of the Rule of the 7th century Irish saint Adamnán/Adomnán (later abbot of Iona in Scotland) which says that by the clapper of his bell called dapper Doulgas he will sing his psalms today in the stone cave (see translation of this Rule at Medieval Sourcebook. Cain Adamnain. An Old-Irish Treatise on the Law of Adamnan ( http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/CainAdamnain.asp#anchor99617 ).
In Aghabulloge at Peake town-land in the mid-18th century (Charles Smith’s Cork 1774 edition) a souterrain was discovered and according to a report by a local minister (Marmaduke Cox) it contained a great number of skeletons as well as chambers, with some skeletons carefully laid out some not, the bones being very fragile to the touch, red in colour with much indication of burning in the chambers. It speaks, without modern archaeological investigation, of a case of attempted smoking out of occupants, one of whom had a wooden comb in a wooden box. Smoking people out of ‘caves’ was not an uncommon practice among waring Irish clans according to early Irish literature. Doubtless, Viking slave raiders sailing along the River Lee employed similar tactics leaving cave occupants with a choice between suffocation and the internationally connected slave markets such as that at Viking Dublin; though in this regard the attack by Brian Ború in the 10th century AD of the Aghabulloge area against the O’Mahonys and their Viking mercenaries in revenge for the murder of his brother King Mahon should also be born in mind.
At Ballyany (Baile Uí Ainle, the homeplace of the Uí Ainle people) in Inniscarra parish a masonry built souterrain of the same form as Kilclogh was found some years ago with two human skeletons, one of a young woman and the other of a teenage girl, in it.
In all of this information do we see evidence of the beginnings and subsequent evolution of a great monastic centre at Donoughmore, its paruchia, something of the scope of its lands demesne lands and those who lived beneath its aegis from early to lat medieval times? Are its souterrains i.e. its tig faoi talaimhs, its bell cells (cill clogh) or prayer cells (cill paidir) and shrines as well as its ogham stones (relics of protection and spiritual support), cilleens and holy wells, part of the physical heritage of a millennium or more during which it sprang from simple beginnings by Inis Luinge to achieved greatness at Donoughmore. Perhaps in teasing out the nature of this and other such manifestation of the concept of the monastic City of God, the Desert a City (Chitty, 1966) – from their early less defined forms to those of a period of greatness, an overlapping of the work of Nina Heiska (2003) for Palestine and Clare Crowley (2009) for Ireland might be well worth considering.
The Story of Ciarán in Ireland, Rome and perhaps Syria Maritima: A tale of two Seighir/Saighirs?
Is it possible that Saint Ciarain of Saighir, located in the south of County Offaly in the Province of Leinster, had a connection with Antioch? Saighir in Ireland was within the Kingdom of the Osraige people of whom Ciarán’s father was a nobleman. HIs mother was of the Corcu Laoidge people of West Cork, a maritime people trading with Gaul and perhaps beyond. He was born on Cape Clear island off the West Cork coastline, among the Corcu Laoigde who claimed to have had the first Christian king in Ireland. The first ‘church’ in Ireland was, according to local tradition, founded at Cape Clear. In nearby Sherkin Island during the 19th century two souterrains consisting of 6 chambers each were discovered and as well as a gathering 5 separate ‘underground dwellings’ elsewhere on the island. Another example of a 6 chambered souterrain was found at Garnish Island situated in Bantry Bay a short distance by sea from Sherkin and Clear Islands (Cape Clear). Sailing a short distance towards the mainland from Clear and Sherkin Islands, at Roaringwater Bay, one enters the channel of the Ilen River where, in close proximity to Oldcourt’s deepwater harbour, a handbell was found carefully wrapped in moss and placed beneath a floor slab in a clay tunnelled souterrain at a ringfort; there, in Creagh parish, a missionary bishop with his shepard’s bell perhaps, his place of prayer, his cell.
Some scholars see Ciarán as a pre-Patrician saint i.e. existing prior to the arrival of the legendary Saint Patrick in 432 AD. If true then did Ciarán’s evangelising work begin in Ireland in the late 4th or early 5th centuries? Were Christian communities already established along the West Cork coastline by the late 4th century leading to the children of Gaelic noblemen such as Ciarán and Declán of the Déise, travelling abroad, and to Rome, seeking education and training; some perhaps venturing further to tour the great centres of early Christianity in its cradle lands stretching from Syria to Egypt?
The hagiographiphical biography of Ciarán sees him being educated at Tours, where Saint Martin, regarded as the founder of Gaulish monasticism, established his monastery, and at Rome. Some suggest he met Saint Patrick in Italy. By anecdote, it is said that Patrick gave him a dapper/clapper-less bell which would not ring until he reached a well, back in Ireland, where he should build his cell. So, on returning from Rome, Ciarán, perhaps following the example of the early saints of the Egyptian desert, built himself a little cell in the lands of his father’s people near the Slieve Bloom Mountains. A great monastic city, in the semi-cenobitic sense grew up around him, a place of learning and education, a place with a commons, a spiritual meadow, a place focused on a ‘caher’ enclosure as focal point, as seems to have happened with Saint Kevin at Glendalough, County Wicklow. Ciarán became the ‘bishop’, in the early Greek sense of an overseer, of this Christian community, its hermitage dependencies and remote solitary cells, and the burial place of christianised Osraige kings; initially speaking Greek as well as Latin. In effect it became the focal point of the people of this tribal area as christianity became ingrained in their society in the following centuries. How often elsewhere in Ireland was this pattern of circumstances repeated? In my opinion, for South Munster, it was replicated across that landscape area, resulting in a pattern of contiguous christian territories eventually occupying that landscape from East to West. In my opinion the souterrain distribution patterns, enhanced by, both above and below ground, ogham stone discoveries provide the evidence for this, if matched to place name evidence and local historical ecclesiastical evidence.
Given the phonetic similarity, both Seighir and Saighir can be pronounced the same way depending on what language emphasis is given to pronouncing the letters ‘e’ and ‘a’. The toponym Saighir in Ireland’s County Offaly, in a territory where there is souterrain clustering. The toponym Seighir is found at a village in Syria south of Antioch where conjoined mud built domed huts are still present and used. Is it possible, if Saint Columba built his Iona monastery in Scotland circa 563 AD in imitation of Antioch, where the first gentile christians were named, that Ciarán was commemorating Antioch in his use of the name Saighir for his monastery?
In Offaly, the largest clustering of its known 18 souterrains are to the west and south of the Slieve Bloom mountains. The civil parish of Seir Kieran. Roscrea is about 14km (8.6 mls) to the South. The arc of souterrains in the cluster below the village of Clareen which is where the ruins of Seir Kieran monastery has seven souterrains which lie close to rivers and their tributaries. Elsewhere in the county Clonmacniose has two souterrains and the rest are scattered to the east. As to other very early associations, the nearby county of Kildare has a clay tunnelled souterrain ecclesiastical site at Killashee near Naas, Co Kildare which is a rare souterrain type for this part of Ireland. The site, with its early ecclesiastical remains, is said to be associated with a Saint Auxilius. Auxilius and Isserninus, some suggest, were companions of Palladius, the first bishop despatched by Pope Celestine as ‘primus episcopus, ad Scotus in Christem (first bishop to the Irish believers in Christ). If associated with Patrick rather than his predecessor Palladius would this explain a passage quoted from the Chronicon Scotorum that ‘Secundinus, Auxilius and Isserninus are sent to the Irish, but they obtained not pre-eminence or authority in the time of Patrick alone’. If tunnelled souterrain are the earliest forms and represent the cells of the earliest founders in Munster, then is it possible that the Killashee ‘cave’ is also very early and represents Auxilius’ and Isserninus’ cell? This is an intriguing question.
The Cells and Cluains of Eithne and Ceasar
The 14th to 16th centuries Book of Fermoy has the following story (Todd, 1868, 48) which says (in summary),
Eithne was wandering and at length she came to a walled garden; in which stood what seemed to her a dwelling. A man, a hermit in a garb, sat at the door and was reading a book. She spoke to him, and told him her history. He received her kindly, and brought her to St. Patrick by whom she was instructed and baptised. One day she was sitting at the Church of the Recluse on the Boyne when she died. She was buried with due honour in the ‘little church of the recluse’, which from that time received the name of Cill-Eithne, or Eithne’s cell/church.
The hermit’s name was Ceasar. He was son of the King of Scotland and one of St. Patrick’s priests. He abandoned his little cell/church on the death of Eithne, and retired to the wood of Fich-Gaibhle, in Leinster, ‘where he cleared for himself a field, in which he built another hermitage, called, from his name, Cluain-Ceasair’.
Abbán. His Cluian, His Cell
Is Shanacluain (old cluain) at Ballyvourney – where tradition says his grave lies with ogham stones beside it and his holy well nearby, a place of pilgrimage – where Abbán’s cell was situated? Beside the river there did he and his followers clear a piece of land, make a field, a pleasant place, a spiritual place, a meadow (cluian) for his cell wherein to live and pray? Did his followers settle on the opposite side of the river at a place called Na Cilliní (the cells) where a standing stone, with a Greek cross in a circle, is located within a circular stone structure, where a robed figure with staff walks the rim of the circle? Did Abbán introduce Christianity to this clan or tribe land at Ballyvourney after coming from Kilcrumper (cell of the presbyter or priest) by Clondalane (Cluain of two oratories) located in the lands of the Fir Maige (Fermoy) Kingdom beside the junction of the Blackwater and Funsheon Rivers? Who came first to the lands of Ballyvourney, St. Abbán or St. Gobnait, and did Abbán go there to die at the end of his life, to be with his sister (natural or spiritual) Gobnait?
Ancient Ecclesiastical Demesnes in Cork as focal points for souterrain clustering
In the Topographies chapter I will look at this topic in detail. There are several locations across South Munster where large monasteries and their demesnes, dating from the 6th century AD onwards, came in to being, some becoming bishopricks. The well known known sites include Donoughmore in Muskerry, Kinneigh north of the Bandon River, Rosscarbery on the sea coast, Abbeystrowry/Aghmanister/Creagh by Skibereen. Though in some cases there is very little historical information available and very little known or remembered or visible, souterrain evidence and place name evidence suggests to me that other early ecclesiastical centres existed at one time in localities such as Clonmult (Donickmore and Killaspugmullane and Dangan Donovan) in East Cork, Kilcrumper/Clondalane (Fermoy), Donaghmore and Desert (in Ibane and Barryroe barony), Cullen and Drishane in North West Cork. The large ‘desert’ civil parishes such Desertmore in Muskerry (which seems to be associated with Donoughmore), Desertserges which seems to be associated with Kinneigh and the lands of Abbeystrowry stretching westward to Aghadown and Roaringwater Bay (as on the Downe Survey parish map). Desertmore ia associated with the Bride River which is a tributary of the River Lee. It lies immediately to the south of Aglish parish notable for two Ogham stone bearing souterrains, Knockshanawee and Roovesmore. A tunnelled souterrain was discovered at Currahaly in this civil parish. Also it was at Kilnacloona in Aglish (Eaglaise i.e. church) that St. Finbarr died. Desertmore is where the hermit Fiama lived and he attended to Finbarr as he was dying. In Desertmore St. Crea founded her nunnery close to where Kilcrea Abbey was subsequently built. Leading southwards from the southern boundaries of Kinneigh and Desertserges there are some small, long narrow civil parish land areas, some of which have ‘Kill’ (cell) place names, stretching to Clonakilty Bay. Were these at one time part of the demesne lands of Kinneigh giving it access routes to the sea coast for many reasons; including sea sand used in manuring the fields?
These appear to control the main cluster areas for Cork souterrains so far discovered. they probably also explain the Ogham stone distributions. To a large extent the known souterrains from these localities are more than likely to have been, in my view, a) private lodgings, b) group lodgings connected with these semi-cenobitic monasteries and their dependencies.
Fitting souterrains in to Coastal and Inland landscapes
If souterrains are part of the process of cultivating raw landscapes and imposing a monastic community on them, then the story of the formation of these early human landscapes here in South Munster is very much part of the context for the architectures created on the surface of the landscape as well as beneath it. If they form part of the settlement ‘package’ of knowledge, skills and requirements of the settlers and their religious practices, then in places where that surface history is no longer evident, or known, the geography and nature of the souterrain heritage is a very valuable survival from those times no matters how many subsequent layers of social development and upheaval exists on the surface.
Souterrains as the First Oratories
The first churches were cells and quite often cells were certain forms of souterrain! A ‘church’ as a surface and rectangular building is later and it is community oriented i.e. for the few followers, an oratory. But, when the broader christian community wishes to attend the oratory, this results in the several chapels tradition of the great Celtic monasteries like Clonmacnoise, as communities grow. Does replacement of this architectural approach come with the arrival of European monastic traditions and reforms during the 12th century AD resulting in single large building with small side chapels/altars? But how did oratories originate?
Beehive and Passage Cells as Oratories
An oratory is a small chapel especially for private worship, a place of public speaking also to inform preach and persuade. The early descriptions of the Lough Derg Purgatory Cave, County Donegal e.g. that of John Richardson circa 1727 AD describe it as a space which has characteristics and dimensions comparable with some souterrain architectural forms as found in South Munster. At Lough Derg the cave, as transferred from a neighbouring island in earlier times, and rebuilt semi-subterranean on Station Island, was ’22 feet long, 2 foot !inch wide, 3 feet high… within a bend 6 foot of the far end where there is a very small window or Spike-hole to let in some light and air to the pilgrims that are shut up in it’.
He continues by describing the ‘seven penitential saints beds’ which range in diameter from 9 to 11 feet but that dedicated to St. Patrick is 16 feet. It is interesting to compare these dimensions with diameters for dry masonry beehive dome souterrains in Cork and elsewhere in Ireland, as well as with surface clochán in general in Ireland, be they large or small. As illustrated in Ware (1658) and in Carve (1666) were these circular plan structures clocháns?
From illustrations of them in Hardy (1840) comparison can be made with a clochán. Does this ‘souterrain’ at Lough Derg represent an element of survival of early church (hermitage) religious practice? A 16th century account by a woman, as quoted by Morgan (2015, 37) speaks of pilgrims lining up, presumably on their knees, along a passage which has a special place at an offset end to it. She says ‘The cave was two-chambered, with a stream dividing an upper front chamber from a lower, smaller one behind. She was inside with about twelve people but thought there was room for about twenty in the cave’.
Thomas Carve illustrating the site circa 1666 shows a guardian beside the entrance. The site, closed circa 1632, is referenced as a pit (poll faoi talamh) or cellar. Penitents are enclosed for a vigil period and the prior of the monastery oversees all. Other illustrations (Morgan 2015, 36) e.g. from Ware show the prior standing beside the penitent entering the ‘cave’. One is reminded of the painting by the 15th century artist Hieronymus Bosch of St. Jerome entering a cave in the wilderness (desert) to do his penance. Fr. Anthony Delisi (2005, xvii) says in his book Praying in the Cellar that the Gospel of Matthew offers an important teaching on prayer by advising that one should go to a private room, shut the door and pray to God ‘who is in that secret place’. Delisi states that in the original Greek this secret place or inner room implies a storeroom, ‘a place where one stores up provisions for a time of need’. For him this implies a cellar as a place to pray. Following this logic, was any cellar or store room a place for an early Christian to pray in private? Was a fitecc (an under-the-house, a cellar) a place for an early Christian to pray in Ireland? Was a cave or an ‘artificial cave’ a ‘secret place’ to pray? As a place of penance does local folk parlance refer to the cave as a pit (poll faoi talamh), a place for a spiritual warrior to do battle with the demons of temptation in imitation of Christ? How often does one find, in an Irish field, a souterrain referred to locally at one time as a ‘poll faoi talamh’ (pit or hole beneath the ground)?
The Lyra in the West
The title of Carve’s book is Lyra Seu Anacephalaeosis Hibernica. His use of the word Lyra is interesting given the number of Lyra and Lyre place names in South Munster e.g. Lyrenamon (lyra of the women) and Lyrenavarrig (lyra of the men) near the headwaters of the Bride River in East Cork. There are a number of souterrain discoveries from townlands in Cork with Lyre/Lyra or derived (e.g. Lyroe) names. In the 11th century AD the monastery of Lyre Abbey in Normandy became very wealthy as a result of its possession and cells in England. However, sometime in the 14th century an English king decided that they were no longer they should be removed. Did this also have an impact in Ireland? In Northern Spain the Monastery of Leyre in Navarre was in existence by at least the 9th century AD. If these monastery names, Lyre and Leyre, were one and the same word, then what was their origin? Are they a derivation of Laura / Lavra? If so, then do they speak of this type of monastery, and of its Byzantine influences, originating in Normandy and Navarre as small hermitages/monastic foundations in the style of laura monasteries in the East? If so, then did Lyra and Laura have the same meaning to Thomas Carve and if so then did Lyra, as a loose descriptive term, become synonymous with older Laura/Laragh monasteries in the South Munster landscape – and elsewhere from Skellig Michael island off County Kerry to Station Island at Lough Derg in Donegal? If so then do such places in their origins as ecclesiastical landscapes translate back to the foundations of ascetics in the early years of Christianity’s arrival in Ireland? If the surface cell (clochán) is a habitation for a monk, named in memory of and for the blessings of some provincial Irish saint, then is the Purgatory space underground the cellar or pit? The place where solitary penance is done, or alternatively is it a penitential space were all of the small community come together to pray and do penance? Are they there led in prayer by a spiritual leader, perhaps situated in a cell at the end of their kneeling passage cut off by a creepway, from a beehive domed (symbolic heaven) space? Are some such cell spaces small and for solitaries alone, are others large and for more persons within the dome? Do they follow Cassian’s concept of the dome as the metaphor for a spiritual life? When the formal concept of purgatory is introduced by Rome do these penitential caves become renamed as purgatories?
Consequently, is what Carve describes at Lough Derg a penitential cave in a very long standing early Christian tradition in Ireland originally associated with laura monasteries? One stretching back to the beginnings of Christian practices and traditions incorporating the concept of the private penitential cave, then evolved into the group penitential cave for followers of the ‘saint’, abba, to join in prayer with him/her in prayer and penance? Does this explain ‘beehive chamber and passage’ souterrain architecture? Did such an architectural concept become something no longer sensible as numbers grew and as lateral expansion underground was not structurally feasible and/or as additional passages proved not to be an effective solution? Might one decsribe such spaces as primitive oratories? Of necessity, did these originally private underground places of prayer and penance become refashioned as surface oratory building; taking a rectangular form, but retaining the passage as nartex, and gradually replacing the beehive dome with an altar – unless retaining in some cases a memory of it as an apse or conch?
In the case of beehive and long passage souterrains in South Munster are such architectural structures, and their design, primitive examples of oratory spaces? Does their form represent behavioural evidence for a small hermit/monastic community group? With the abba praying in the beehive cell and his small group of five or so followers, kneeling and lined up in the passage to engage in prayer with him and hear his preaching, inspired by his presence in sanctum, was this the concept behind the creation of this form of subterranean space frequently found in masonry form in the ancient kingdom of Fermoy? In Muskerry and Carbery were other examples created, more crudely formed in rock of clay?
Does the double passage and single cell, partly clay-cut, partly masonry, discovered at Coolgarrif near Donoughmore in Muskerry represent an enlarging hermit community and the maximum extent to which this concept of an underground oratory can be expanded before the concept is abandoned in favour of a surface level solution? Does the dome, or beehive shape of the cell, have a common tradition (or origin) with the round churches at the Egyptian monastery St. Anthony the Great (Cannuyer, 200, 38)? When a small hermit/monastic group does not possess the skills of the corbel mason, does a rectangular solution for cell design suffice?
It is interesting to look at architectural studies of Byzantine Cave monasteries (see Rodley, 1985, 223-254) and at early church architectural concepts such as the development of cell to apse to conch, as well as that of the passage i.e. nartex, to the cell as sanctum. If the nartex is where the few followers kneel ‘in procession’ to the cell, sanctum, does the nartex expand on either side as the community enlarges? By retaining the simple beehive and passage form the only underground structural option was to add another passage. However, this places followers in the outer passage at a greater distance from hearing what occurs in the sanctum. When this solution to growth no longer suffices, then is an alternative surface solution, more structurally feasible, achieved by replacing the underground oratory with a surface structure? In such a situation, the enlarged group can occupy a wider space i.e. a nave, derived from expanding the nartex at either side and structural difficulties in finding a subterranean solution can be avoided? For a small hermitage group would this solution be more suitable if their engineering skills were rudimentary, the quality of rock or glacial till unsuited for subterranean inventiveness?
Though, by comparison perhaps very simplistic in the context of a missionary church to Ireland, perhaps there is something to be learned from the tradition of the cave monasteries of Byzantine Cappodocia (Rodley, 1985) about architectural form e.g. the barrel vault and the dome; from cave to surface building masonry traditions for hermitages and monasteries. Also, perhaps does the concept of cells around a courtyard with a rectangular garth for horticulture attached resonate at Cush, County Limerick – almost like a Syrian village of mud domed huts west of Aleppo called Seghir but with a prayer cell beneath, inside, the doorframe of each enclosed hut of sods or wickerwork almost like a souterrain beneath a clochán?
Therefore does the rectangular oratory come into being as a replacement for an underground space while at the same time retaining some aspects of the subterranean cell tradition as places for solitary prayer e.g. at Knockdrum (Farrandau) in West Cork or Leacanabuile, Co.Kerry? At Leacanabuile the rectangular surface structure abuts the circular, cell-like, structure. The entrance to the souterrain is in this. Does this represent the retention of the domed cell concept at surface level with a rectangular oratory added to it?
Does Knockdrum represent the abandonment of the surface cell, its private functions relegated to a souterrain, while a distinction is made between communal prayer in the surface oratory and private prayer and austerities in the ‘cave’ (souterrain) attached? Therefore, do certain souterrain forms result from the introduction of Christian traditions from the Ease, with subsequent morphological changes, as evolving circumstances dictated?
Round Tower as Cave and Cell
Lynch (2013, 30-40) quotes an interesting concept regarding the monastic symbolism of round tower architecture. She quotes G. L. Barrow describing the round tower as ‘an elongated clochán’ i.e. a dry masonry built, beehive domed, cell frequently found in the West of Ireland possibly in a tradition ranging back across northern Mediterranean shores to mud built, domed, village huts in North Syria. Fr. Patrick Dineen in his Irish Dictionary has an interesting phrase from Irish folklore which is Túr Faoi Talamh i.e. tower beneath the ground. Were both round tower, clochán and beehive domed souterrains, such as in the Fir Maige (Fermoy) Kingdom, all architectural expressions of one ascetic tradition? Were the stelites of the East, such as Simeon, the origin of such traditions? Were the Irish in imitation of it with clocháns above and beneath the ground, clocháns as symbolic towers, places of prayer and penance from which to spiritually ascend Jacob’s ladder to heaven? In connection with John Climasus’ ladder to heaven, is that what desert hermits in a cave are about? Is that what the caves in the Dormition of St. Ephraim were about?
Cave Monasteries and Hermitages: Ciarán and Cróchán. St Crohan’s Cave, hermitage and pattern day.
A short distance from Tobar Chrócháin is a cave, a hollowed-out place in the rock which is called ‘Carraig Chrócháin’ (St. Crohan’s Rock, Hermitage). Tradition says he lived part of his life there, and was buried nearby. The annual ‘pattern’ pilgrimage began about a mile away at a place called Tobar a’Bhile (the well of the Sacred Tree) close to the village of Kilcrohane, Co. Kerry. The 18th century antiquary Charles Smith recorded a local tradition circa 1756 AD that ‘it was at St. Crohan’s (Cróchán) that is his cave in the rock that St. Kieran (Ciarán) of Saiger (Saighir) composed his rule for monks’ [From Mac Neill, Máire (2008), p. 648-649]
The caves of saints are often referred to as their Beds (St. Kevin), Seats (See Mochuda) and hermitages. The great monastery of St. Finbarr at Cork (between St. Finbarr’s Cathedral and University College Cork) which once existed at Gillabbey, above a river side cliff cave, was known as Finbarr’s Cave (De Antro) Monastery (Bolster, 1976, 76). There are other examples of monasteries of the Cave. They are well known in what was once the landscape of Byzantine Christianity in the East and that tradition found expression in later times in the Ukraine at the great cave monastery of Kieve where St. Hilarion his cave and his successor Anthony had a ‘four yard’ cave among the cell caves of his first followers. How does one interpret the word ‘yard’ in a broad, historical, European context of methods of delineation? Does four yards imply 12 feet, or was it up to 15 feet, depending on what measurement system was used at one time? The monastic ‘cave’ tradition in Russian lasted for a very long period becoming in some cases one of prisons and penance administered by monasteries. Was it something which arose from the concept of monastic penitential practices being a means of making repentance for sins, did this in turn evolve in to other reasons for imprisonment? Shubin ( 2001,29) in his book on monastery prisons in Russia, states ‘This medieval manner of incarceration became an anachronism during the Age of Enlightenment, and in contradiction to reforms of the era of Peter the Great, and so had to be dealt with by government. In 1742, the Holy Synod issued an order to destroy these underground earth cells and to wall up the entrances to them’. However he says some monasteries ignored the order.
In the above I have briefly introduced scenarios for Christian societal structures i.e monastic and secular, as well as the types of places connected with them in South Munster in those early years. This topic will be considered in more detail once I have introduced the archaeology of the souterrains, as found in the territory, in the Architecture and Engineering chapters. Souterrains are just one aspect, the underground aspect, of the broader picture of a Christian overlay of the territory, as outlined above. The Topographies chapter will attempt to relate the souterrains to the surface Christian landscape. In it I will also look at how these initial developments towards an infrastructure across the territory subsequently evolved into the monasteries and demesnes, hermitages and holy places, of the Golden Age of Irish Christianity in the 7th to 9th centuries AD. How close was it to that Byzantine world of Christianity where John Moschos would travel circa 600 AD, through its Spiritual Meadow, its spiritual cluain, prior to the rise and conquests of Islam there? Why was it that a floruit of the Irish Christian church took place about this period of time? Why was the meadow, a place of pride in medieval communities, also a place of spirituality?