The National Museum of Ireland and the proposed taking by Seanad Éireann of its facilities

This blog post has been re blogged from the Early Medieval Archaeology Project blog. The post was written by Prof Aidan O’Sullivan of the School of Archaeology at UCD and provides a fantastic discussion of implications of the proposed taking by Seanad Éireann of facilities belonging to the National Museum of Ireland

Early Medieval Ireland and Beyond


Aidan O’Sullivan,

UCD School of Archaeology

Thursday 20th October 2016


The National Museum of Ireland in Kildare Street, Dublin, is one of our premier cultural heritage institutions. It is the treasurehouse of our national archaeological collections amongst other things. It is the place where we keep the things that can be used to tell the story of our 10,000 years on this island.

The National Museum of Ireland’s and its staff’s responsibilities are enormous; including the curation, management and protection of our archaeological and material culture heritage, and the communication of knowledge about this heritage to the widest possible audience, both in Ireland and to people all over the world. It is also a place for the education of our children about our ancient past, as can be seen the throngs of school children and students that move though it every day.

It was recently reported on Tuesday 18th…

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Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland at Montserrat in Spain

Recently I paid a visit to the medieval pilgrim shrine of the  holy statue of the Blessed Virgin of Monserrat in Spain.


View of the monastery of Montserrat

The shrine is located at a Benedictine abbey at Montserrat, around  40 miles from Barcelona in the province of Catalonia. The abbey is a working monastery and home to  80 monks. The monastery is overshadowed by majestic  mountains. The name Montserrat is derived from Catalan and means ” serrated mountain”.  When you stand back and look at this jagged and rocky mountain you can see why the name was chosen.

Religious activity in the area can be traced back to early medieval times. It is said that a hermitage dedicated to  the Blessed Virgin, was constructed here some time between the sixth-ninth centuries. According to legend  the statue which is the focus of the pilgrimage was carved by St Luke and brought to Spain and hidden in cave at Monserrat. In the year 880 some shepherds were grazing  sheep in the mountains when they saw a light and heard otherworldly singing. When the shepherds when to investigate  they found the statue in a cave.

Following the discovery of a statue of  the Blessed Virgin and Christ Child, the site gradually evolved and by the eleventh century abbot Oliba of the Monastery of Ripoll established a small monastery here beside the chapel of Santa María. A small Romanesque church was built beside the monastery and the image of the Virgin placed inside.


View of the  valley below the monastery at Monserrat

My pilgrimage to Monserrat began in Barcelona when I boarded a coach at 6.45am. I arrived at the monastery at 8am. Monserrat is a very important tourist destination and attracts vast numbers of tourist each year so  the site is always busy throughout the year. My early morning start meant that  I  and my fellow travelers were able to arrive  just as the shrine opened  and  experience the place without the  bustle of crowds, who arrived later in the morning.

The Vewpoint of the Apostles is the first  monument that tourists who arrive by car or coach see. It is named after the Chapel of the Apostles which was demolished in the  early twentieth century.  It offers spectacular views of the valley below.  It is located beside a piece of sculpture known as   The Stairway to Understanding . The Stairway  is a concrete monument 8.7m high created in 1976 by Josep Maria Subirachs. The sculpture consist of  nine blocks  placed one on top of the other that represent the different beings of creation from the more material to the most spiritual.

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From this point you walk  along an avenue known as Passeig de l’Escolania or the Choir Walk, passing the buildings where the  which houses the choristers.


As you approaching of basilica of Montserrat you are at all times aware of the mountains that tower of the monastery.

The monastery also houses the Publicacions de l’Abadia de Montserrat, a publishing house that is the oldest printing press in the world, still in operation. Its first book was printed in 1499 and you can buy many of its modern publications in the monastery gift shop.


Approaching Plaça de la Crue (Square of the Cross)

As you approach the basilica  and the Plaça de la Crue you pass by a wonderful sculpture of Saint George carved by Josep Maria Subirachs, an identical statue of the saint carved in a different darker type of stone is found in the La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. St George along with Our Lady of Monserrat is a patron saint of Catalonia.


St George by Josep Subirach.

The monastery buildings are constructed from polished stones quarried from the mountain. When the sun shines on the stone it gives it a lovely warm golden colour which blends into the surrounding mountains. From the  Plaça de la Crue  you enter into the atrium in front of the basilica.


From the Plaça de la Crue you enter into the atrium

The atrium of the basilica is surrounded by buildings constructed in the eighteenth century. The mosaic floor is particularly impressive and was designed by Fr Benet Martinez (1918-1988).


Mosaic floor in the atrium at Monserrat

The floor is a reproduction of a design by  Michelangelo for the Campidoglio in Rome.



Facade of the bascilia  at Monserrat

The current facade of the basilica was created in 1901, above the door are  sculptures of Christ and the twelve apostles.

The statue of Our Lady of Monserrat  is located in the basilica above the high altar.


High altar within the basilica church.



Stairs leading to the shrine of the statue of Our Lady of Monserrat.

The shrine is very elaborate and  its walls are covered in gold mosaic and marble. The ceiling depicts the four archangels.



View statue from top of stairs

The statue  of Our Lady of Monserrat is  Romanesque, polychrome statue  95cm (38inch) in height. The statue depicts Our Lady in Majesty. Mary is in a seated position with the Christ Child seated on her lap. In her hand she holds a sphere  which symbolized the universe. Her left hand is placed on the Christ Child’s shoulder and is symbolic of his omnipresence. The Christ Child holds a pineapple in his hand  the symbol of  eternal life, with his other hand he offers a blessing. The image is popularly known as La Moreneta (the Dark One), due to the dark colour of the Blessed Virgins skin, a result of age and  centuries of candle smoke. Pope Leo XIII proclaimed Our Lady of Montserrat Patron Saint of Catalonia in 1881.


The statue in turn sits within a silver shrine. According to the Monserrat website

In 1947, the image was enthroned in a silver altarpiece, paid for by popular subscription and installed in the upper section of the basilica apse.


Our Lady of Monserat behing glass

Today the statue is  protected behind glass. There is an opening for the globe held in Mary’s hand.  This opening allows the globe to be accessible to devotees. Modern pilgrims will often touch, kiss, rub rosary beads and cloth against  he globe it as they pray before the statue.


The statue of Our Lady of Monserrat  holds a globe symbolizing the cosmos in her hand.

The statue looks out  the basilica church.  It must be quiet a sight  to see the church full with pilgrims.


View of the basilica church from Shrine of the Lady of Monserrat from above the altar

Monserrat has been a pilgrim destination from at least the twelfth century when the current statue was created. Many miracles  were recorded in medieval times and Alfonso X el Sabio in the thirteenth century  recorded some in Cantiagas de Nuestra Señora (Talbot 2010, 454). Throughout the late medieval period the statues was visited by countless pilgrims including St Ignatius Loyola.

In recent centuries the shrine has had a more turbulent history. The monastery was sacked by Napoleon in the early nineteenth century destroying much of the medieval fabric luckily the statue survived after being hidden by the monks. In the twentieth century 23 custodian monks were shot during the Spanish Civil war. Today the site continues to attract pilgrims and it is also one of the most popular tourist destination in Catalonia.

The side chapels and the grounds of the monastery are filled with wonderful sculpture by Spanish artist. If you follow this link it will you can experience a virtual tour of Monserrat Cathedral and shrine.

Montserrat is also famous for the boy’s choir called  L’Escolania who trace their history back to 1223 .  The Boy’s Choir performs at least two times a day for most of the year at the Montserrat Basilica they also give concerts around the  world . They specialize in a type of singing known as Gregorian chanting.


Useful Links & Sources

Virtual tour of Monserrat Bascilica

Esteve Serra i Pérez, 2016, Monserrat. Geocolor.

Talbot, L. 2010. ‘Monserrat’ In Taylor, L. et al. Enclyopedia of Medieval Pilgrimage. Boston: Brill  p453-454.

Catalan Caminos


Holy Cows. The Miraculous Animals of the Irish Saints: Part Five St Ita and the Beetle

St Ita and her donkey featured in my last post on The Miraculous Animals of the Irish Saints. There is another great story about St Ita  and a beetle which I really want to share with you.  As well as running a monastery for nuns Ita was also the foster mother to many Irish saints including St Brendan and St Mochaomhóg,  who was her nephew.  They along with other saints  came to study at the school attached to  Kileedy (Gwynn & Hadcock 1988, 392; Ó’Riain 2011, 377).

Ita followed a very strict and devote lifestyle  and the ninth century Martyrology of Oengus tells that Ita engaged in sever fasting and ‘she succoured great grievous disease’.



Stain glass window by Harry Clarke of St Ita of Kileedy Honan Chapel UCC

The Martyrology also depicts  Ita as a very kind and caring person.  It was said she once let a stag beetle as ‘big as a lap-dog’ suckle at her side. The beetle caused much damage eating ‘the whole of one of her sides’ which the saint endured without letting anyone know (Stokes 1984, 44–45).

One day the nuns at Kileedy saw the beetle . You can only imagine the scene  of horror when the nuns were confronted with  this mutant beetle strolling the monastery and its not surprising they killed the creature.

Ita  soon missed the beetle and having searched in vain for it asked her nuns ‘Where has my fosterling gone?’ (Stokes 1984, 44–45). The nuns told Ita what they had done  but upon hearing the news of the beetle’s death the saint  became very sad.  According to the Martyrology of Oengus she then asked God to send her the Christ child to foster and he was sent to her as an infant and she composed a poem which begins ‘Jesus, who is nursed by me in my little hermitage’ (ibid).


Killanin , L. & Duignan, M. 1967. The Shell Guide to Ireland.  London: Ebury Press.

O’Riain, P. 2011. The dictionary of Early Irish Saints. Dublin : Four Courts Press.

Stokes, W. 1905. The Martrology of Oengus the Culdee. London: Printed for the Henry Bradshaw Society.












Finalist in Littlewoods Ireland Blog Awards 2016

I’m delighted to have reached the finals of the Littlewood Ireland Blog Awards 2016 in both the  Education and Arts and Culture categories.  There are lots of amazing blogs in each category so its  fantastic to have gotten this far.

Blog finals


A big thank you to all who voted for my blog and for all your support and kindness.  Thanks also to Littlewoods Ireland for sponsoring this years blog awards.



A Day Trip to the Parish of Kilmovee Co Mayo

Last summer I spent a day exploring some of the archaeology sites in the parish of Kilmovee Co Mayo. Kilmovee is located a short distance from the town of Ballaghadreen in  Co Roscommon.  Local man, Tommy Horan  was kind enough to act as my guide for the day.

The parish gets its name from St Mobhí. Kilmovee or Cill Mobhí in Irish, means the church of St Mobhí. It is said he  came to the area as a missionary, continuing on the work of St Patrick.


Bullaun stone known as Na Trí Umar Bheannaith in townland of Rushes

The day began in the townland of Rusheens West with a visit to one of the largest bullaun stones I have ever seen. The stone is known as Na Trí Umar Bheannaithe/The Three Holy Water Fonts.  The  bullaun stone is a large boulder with three large depressions.  It sits on a plinth against a wall at the side of a small byroad. Folklore tells that the stone was transported from Killericín and placed in its current position.


Bullaun stone known as Na Trí Umar Bheannaith in townland of Rusheens West

From the bullaun stone we travelled on to the site of a holy well called Tober na Bachaille/The Well of the Crozier. The holy well is located in marshy field. As the site is  on  a working farm so permission should be sought before gaining access.


Field where Tober na Bachaille/ The Well of the Crozier is located.

Folklore tells that when St Mobhí came to the area as a missionary he needed somewhere to baptise new converts.  Not having a suitable water source the saint struck the ground three times with his crozier and three wells sprung up on the spot.

It is thought there was originally three wells  here but today only one well is visible.  The well is very overgrown  and a small blackthorn tree  grows beside it. The well is a spring  enclosed by a low stone wall.  The location of single well is marked on the 1st ed. (1839) OS 6-inch maps which could suggest that the three springs are within the well enclosure. Unfortunately the Ordnance Survey Letters  relating to Mayo fail to mention the well.  The Folklore Commission National Schools Essays provides an origin tale for what it calls the three Blessed Wells in the parish.

St Movee’s sister was a nun and she lived in Sligo. One day she came to Kilmovee to see her brother and the church. She was passing down through Barralackey and there was a boy minding cows. He told her he would help her and he told her that the Ardeull people thought she was a witch and that they were to follow her. He said he would go with her to the church only he had a long way to bring water to his cows. She was very thankful to him and said he would never again be short of water and she — [can’t read the word] on a rock and water filled in it and is there still. In three long steps she reached the church and every step she gave a well sprang up three well in succession and these are called the ‘Blessed Wells’ (NFSC  Cloonierin 114:52).


Tober na Bachaille is no longer visited by pilgrims and as a result it has become overgrown.  Local knowledge may shed more light on the well(s) and traditions relating to pilgrimage.

View Tobar na Bachaille.

View of Tobar na Bachaille

To the north of the well is a large stone built penitential cairn or leacht. Sitting on top of the cairn is a stout Ogham Stone.

View of penitental cairn with ogham stone beside Tobar na Bachaile

View of penitential cairn with ogham stone beside Tobar na Bachaile

Macalister noted that the ogham stone, once acted as a ‘kneeling stone’ and sat on the low wall surrounding the holy well. The stone had moved to its current position by the 1940’s (Macalister 1945, 7-9).  An ogham inscription is found along one of the edges of the stone. Macalister identified this inscription as AlATTOS MAQI BR…. He also suggests that the top of the stone was deliberately cut away by a mason during the building of the wall around the well (ibid).

Ogham stone beside Tobar na Bachaile

Ogham stone beside Tobar na Bachaile

From the holy well we  traveled on to  the ruins of a medieval parish church called An Teampall Nua also known as St Patrick’s church.  Local folklore recalls that  when the church was first built it was called the ‘New Temple’.

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All that remains of the church are the chancel and parts of the nave walls. The walls of the church have been rebuilt and incorporated architectural fragments of windows and doors.  A chancel arch still survives in relatively good condition and appears to have been remodelled in the past. The original arch was rounded and built of cut sandstone, it was later altered and filled with masonry and replaced with a smaller  to a pointed arch defined by vousoirs. The exterior of the church is surrounded by rubble masonry that likely came from the church. In 1838 the Ordnance Survey Letters for Mayo described the church as on

on the East gable of which there is a window about 6 feet and 6 inches broad. Part of side walls remain, West gable is perfect (Herity 2009, 288).


The church is surrounded by a historic graveyard and mass is said here once a year.

Our day concluded with a visit to a large ringfort called  An Caiseal located in the townland of Kilcashel/Coill an Chaisil, which means ‘the wood of the stone fort’.

The ringfort is very well-preserved and is on private land so permission must be obtained before entering.  The fort   measures 30m in diameter and is constructed of a single circular wall which is 5m thick and 3m high.

View of exterior of Caiseal ringfort

View of exterior of Caiseal ringfort

The fort is entered through a formal linteled entrance.

Linteled entrance

Linteled entrance

The interior contains the ruins of two house sites and a souterrain.


The top of the walls are accessed from the interior via four sets of V shaped stone steps.

Stone steps in interior walls of ringfort

Another interesting feature of the fort is  a creep-way that links two internal wall-chamber within the walls.

The wall  chambers appear to be aligned to the morning sun.

For three mornings, light goes into the back of the chambers which are two meters deep and joined at the back by a six meter passage way. Each morning the new sun has moved on half a meter on the back of the wall. There is about 20meters of the back wall (of the Caiseal) that is traversed by the sun. This means that the sun shines only for about  40 days  on the back wall twice a year. This is between Winter solstice and both equinoxes…  The first  chamber was lit on the 5th of October, the Second was lit on or about the 21st of October, but due to the curvature of the wall it is still in the chamber on the 24th …

Two months later the sun will again be shining in the this chamber on the 20/21 February as the days lengthen (Mac Gabhann no date 10-11).


Image of the chamber being illuminated by light (Mac Gabhann no date 10-11)

For a more detailed discussion of the archaeology of this site see the Kilcashel project website. My day in Kilmovee was a brilliant experience and  it reminded me of the  wealth of local archaeological and historical sites that are to be found within and around all Irish villages. So really you don’t need to travel very far to find wonderful historic and archaeological sites to visit.

As many of the sites we visited were on private land, permission was always obtained before going to the sites.  If anyone is interested in visiting the area please contact the Kilmovee Community & Heritage Centre, the people who work here are so helpful and will be able to help you find out if  access is possible. Contact details and opening hours can be found on the Kilmovee website  and Facebook page (see links below). The community centre also houses a wonderful Heritage Centre called ‘Cois Tine’ (beside the fire). The  centre is design is based  on a traditional Irish cottage  and holds lots of information, photographs about the parish history, archaeological sites and folklore connected to the area. I recommend a visit to the Heritage Centre  before any exploring as it is a great way to begin a trip around the parish.

If you are in the area I would also highly recommend a visit to Urlaur Abbey located just a few miles from Kilmovee. Located on the edge of Urlaur lake the Friary built circa 1432 is one of Ireland’s best kept secrets.  Its setting alone is worth a visit.

References and useful links

Herity, M. 2009 (ed) Ordnance Survey Letters of Mayo. Dublin: Fourmasters Press.

Macalister, R. A. S. 1945. Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum,Vol I. Dublin: Stationery Office.

Mac Gabhann, S. no date. Cill Mobhí. A handbook on local history and Folklore.

NFSC  Cloonierin 114:52 after












Holy Cows. The Miraculous Animals of the Irish Saints: Part Four St Ita and her donkey

Continuing on with my series of posts on The Miraculous Animals of the Irish Saints ( St Ciaran and his cow, St Manchan and his cow and St Patrick and his cow) I thought it was about time to write a post about a female saint.

St Ita of Kileedy is on of my favourite Irish saints.  St Ita ( Íte/Íde ) was  born in Co Waterford in the sixth century she was also the founder of the a great church and school at Killeedy in West Limerick.


Statue of St Ita at Kileedy

The place-name Killeedy or Cell Íde in Irish, translates as the church of Ita (


The site of St Ita’s monastery at Kileedy

Like her male counterparts the saint is associated with an extraordinary animal. Ita was the proud owner of  a very special donkey.


Donkeys at Clare Island Co Mayo

In folk tradition Ita’s church was associated with a ringfort located four miles south-west of Kileedy, on the northern slope of a hill called Seeconglass near Mount Collins. The ringfort was referred to as Boolaveeda or ‘Ita’s dairy; (Killanin & Duignan 1967, 389).  It was said that all the milk that was used in the convent was brought everyday from the dairy to the nuns at Kileedy by the little donkey.

One day, as the poor beast was passing through the town of Tournafulla with his accustomed burden, a cruel hearted native attacked him with dogs. The donkey, flying from his pursuers, jumped across the river that flows by the townland, leaving the impress of his hoofs on a ledge of rock which is still pointed out. When St. Ita saw the donkey on his arrival, all torn and bleeding, in her anger she cursed the place where the outrage was committed (Begley 1906, 55).

There are a number of variations on this tale, in one account the saint was visiting Tournafulla and left her donkey unattended when some local boys frightened  the donkey causing it to run away.  Ita became very angry and when she retrieved her donkey she cursed the boys and their locality.  Tournafulla/Toornafulla   or Tuar na Fola in Irish  , tuar  means paddock, (cultivated) field, pasture Fola means blood (

According to Begley this tale may have very old origins as the taxation rolls of 1306, record the presence of  a chapel called De Monte Maledictionis, or the ” Chapel of the Mountain of the Curse,” mentioned as belonging to the church of Killeedy.  Begley recalled that in the townland of Tournafulla, the site of an old church was still pointed out in 1905, evidently the place where the above chapel was built, as there is no other locality in that part of the country having such a tradition (Begley 1906, 55).

In another story the donkey’s  caused a miraculous alteration to a plant. In the story Ita was out riding her donkey when it’s leg became lame. The saint then removed a thorn from the donkey’s hoof. The thorn grew into a tree whose thorns turned downwards and were therefore innocuous (Ó hÓgáin 1991, 259).

One day she was riding  on her donkey and he  was lame. When she looked at his  she found a thorn. She pulled it out and stuck it in the ground, and a bush grew up and all its thorns grew down (NFCS Dromcollagher, 497:051).



Begley, The Diocese of Limerick, Ancient and Mediaeval, 55.

Killanin ,L. & Duignan, M. 1967. The Shell Guide to Ireland.  London: Ebury Press.

Ni Riain, I. 1982. Saint Ita of Killeedy. Dublin: Irish Messenger Publications.

NFCS Dromcollagher, 497:051. online at :

Ó hÓgáin, D. 1991. Myth, legend & romance an encyclopaedia of the Irish folk tradition

New York: Prentice Hall Press.

Ó hÓgáin, D. 2006. The lore of Ireland :an encyclopaedia of myth, legend and romance /

Doughcloyne, Cork : Collins Press.













A Smiling Face at Kilmacduagh Co Galway

I recently was reminded about a really interesting carving I noticed on my last visit to Kilmacduagh, Co Galway.

Burren 207

View of the monastic ruins of Kilmacduagh

Kilmacduagh is an early medieval monastic site founded by St Colman son of Duagh in the seventh century. The site is located a short distance from the town of Gort Co Galway. Today the surviving ruins of the monastic settlement consist of a round tower, a cathedral, two smaller churches and a small Augustinian abbey. I am planning to do a much more detailed post on the site in the coming months.

The cathedral is the largest of the  surviving buildings and also possibly the oldest structure at the site.  It was probably  originally built in the tenth or eleventh century it was extended in the twelfth century and remodelled  again in the fifteenth century.

Burren 224

The church has many interesting features that are worth discussing in more detail  but for the purpose of this post I will  only highlight a very unusual carving.

The carving can be seen just inside the doorway of  the north transept, on the  right-hand side as you walk into the transept from the nave.


View of the doorway of the north transept

The carving consists of  a large  face cut into a sandstone block of stone. It is an  oval shaped face, of a bald male, with two large ears, almond shaped eyes and a broad smiling mouth. All of his features combine to  giving the figure a rather happy expression and when  I first noticed the face I could not help but smile back.


Smiling face carved into the entrance of the north transept at Kilmacduagh

The carving is  most unusual and I have not seen anything comparable in all my travels.  Are any of you aware of similar type carvings at other church sites in Ireland or Britain?  If I find out anything else about the happy face I will let you all know.