Derrynaflan is best known for its medieval metal work, including a two-handled chalice known as the Derrynaflan chalice, on display in the National Museum of Ireland.
The chalice along with a paten, a liturgical strainer and basin were part of a hoard of treasure found by metal detectorist on land close to the monastery of Derrynaflan Co Tipperary. The complications, surrounding their discovery, helped to instigate Ireland’s current metal detecting laws which make it illegal for anyone to engage in metal detecting without a licence.
As a child I remember going on a school trip to the National Museum at Kildare St. After all these years I still remember this visit clearly, along with our teacher pointing out this treasure (Derrynaflan Chalice) found in my home county. I also purchased a small booklet in the museum shop on the chalice which I still have, once a nerd always a nerd. The craftsmanship of the chalice and other objects is true breathtaking.
The hoard is associated with the monastery of Derrynflan. The monastery sits on an island in Littleton raised bog, in the townland of Lurgoe, approx 11km from the modern town of Thurles in Co Tipperary.
In early medieval times it was located close to the territorial boundary of the territories of the Éile and the Éoghanact. As you can see from the photo above much of the surrounding bog has been processed and removed by Board na Mona, giving the land a desolate and unappealing vista. One can only imagine what his site and its surrounding landscape would have looked like in medieval times.
Although built-in the middle of a bog, Derrynaflan was far from isolated and recent archaeological excavations in the surrounding bogland, has revealed the presence of several bog roads and trackways, some of which line up with the site. These roads and tracks linked the monastery to the wider world.
The Irish and Latin Lives of St Ruadhán recounts an interesting tale concerning one of these roads. St Colmán Mac Dáirne of the monastery of Daire Mór decided to bring a gift of butter to St Ruadhán who at the time was residing at Derrynaflan. Conn Manning (1997) has identified the monastery of Daire Mór as Longfordpass alias Durrihy, located north of Thurlas. Colmán placed the butter in a vessel which was carried by two oxen and set off on his journey. We are told that he two monasteries were divided by bog but Our Lord miraculously made a road spring up through the bog so that Colmán could deliver the butter.
Derrynaflan was founded by St Ruadhán of Lorrha in the 6th century (Harbison 1970, 226) but the site gets its name from two other saints who lived here during the 9th century. In Irish Derrynaflan is Doire na bhFlann, in English the name means ‘the wood of the two Flanns’. This placename remembers two saints both called Flann (meaning red or blood-red) who are associated with the site. The saints were Flann son of Foircheallach and Flann son of Dubh Tuinne (Conna), both acted as co patrons of the area. The calendars of Irish saints note Flann Foircheallach died in 825 and his feast was commemorated in the 21st of December.
The monastery acquired its present name by the association with two prominent clerics of the early 9th century, Fland mac Duib Thuinne of Dairinis who died in 821 and Fland mac Fairchellaig, abbot of Lismore who died in 825 (ibid.).
Derrynaflan was linked to the Ceilí Dé movement and the annals suggest links to other Céili Dé churches at Lismore, Emly and Cork. Additionally it is included in a list of sites in ‘union’ with Máel Ruain, and the asceticism practices by Flann son of Dubh Tuinne is elsewhere specified in the rule attributed to Máel Ruain who was the patron of Tallaght (Ó’Riain 2011, 345).
The site today
The approach to the Derrynaflan is little bit difficult but so worth the effort. I visited here during the summer with Conor Ryan of the South Tipperary Development Company who is currently working in a project to develop an The Derrynaflan trail linking this site and other church sites such as Holy Cross Abbey in east Tipperary Slieveardagh area.
We approached the site from the north the townland of Liskeveen and followed a small surfaced bog road and then headed cross county through some scrub. It is also possible to approach the site from the south.
After a little bit of walking we came to the base of a hill and were rewarded with view of the ruins of the monastery sitting on top of a hill. The monastic site consists of a series of earth work and the ruins of a church and a single wall of another monastic building. The island was originally enclosed by a bank and outer fosse (ditch) which is visible only in places and the eastern side of the enclosing bank and fosse are now covered by a build up of bog and peat (Ryan 1980, 10).
Today the most visible remains are the church. This is a nave and chancel church with two phases of construction. The nave of the church appears to be pre-Norman, a separate church in its own right. In the 13th century the chancel was added on this earlier church then became the nave of the new building.
Only the walls of the chancel in the north, south and east survive to any great height . The earlier church (nave) was built of coursed Cyclopean limestone masonry (large blocks), of which only the lower courses of the south wall survive (Ryan 1980, 11).
The east gable contains two single-light trefoil-headed windows, while there are three single-light trefoil-headed windows in the south wall. At the east end of the south wall there is a re-used Romanesque window which was used to frame a decorated sandstone piscina.
Within the interior of the church there is a triangular-shaped gable finial with socket for a cross belonging to the original roof of the 13th-century church.
Along the top of the north side of the east gable are stone roof slates, additional stone roof slates from the medieval chancel were also found during previous excavations (Ó Floinn 1985, 37).
Derrynaflan is also associated with a mythical figure called the Gobán Saor. The Gobán was a highly skilled smith or architect in Irish history and legend. Tradition holds he was responsible for building many of Ireland’s castles and churches including Holy Cross Abbey.
Local tradition holds that the Gobán Soar was buried at Derrynaflan and the 1st edition Ordnance Survey map marks the site of his grave to the north-east of the church.
Farrelly (2011) notes that White writing in 1892 say
‘further down the slope to the north, are the graves of the Gobann and his wife and two children. Stones of coffin shape mark the place and bear quaint figures and curious celtic tracery. Heretofore, these relics were religiously preserved, but latterly they have suffered in some ways. A barabarian smashed one of the stones some years ago and obliterated the tracves with a chisel’. Traditionally the Gobaun was said to have been Grand Master of the ancient order of Freemasons in Ireland (ibid).
Today the area is an area defined by a timber fence. Inside the fence are three very worn medieval grave slabs one which is held to mark the Gobán’s grave. I will come back to the Gobán again in the new year as I think this very interesting character is deserving of his own blog post.
This quiet site is transformed into an annual place of pilgrimage at Easter time when there is a celebration of a dawn mass on Easter Sunday. The tradition was started by Canon Liam Ryan, PP, Killenaule-Moyglass, in the 1990s and attracts large numbers of pilgrims from the surrounding areas. I am hoping to attend this pilgrimage in 2014.
My friends at Abarta Audio Guides are currently working on an audio guide for this and some of the other sites in the area so I will let you know as soon as the app is available.
Byrne, F. J. 1980 Derrynavlan: the historical context. In JRSAI 110, 116-26.
Farrelly, J. 2011. ‘Derrynaflan’ http://webgis.archaeology.ie/NationalMonuments/FlexViewer/
Ó Floinn, R. 1987 ‘Derrynaflan’, Lurgoe: Monastic settlement. In I. Bennett (ed.), Excavations 1986: summary accounts of archaeological excavations in Ireland, 33. Bray. Wordwell.
Ó Floinn, R. 1988 ‘Derrynaflan’, Lurgoe: Monastic settlement. In I. Bennett (ed.), Excavations 1987: summary accounts of archaeological excavations in Ireland, 24-5. Bray. Wordwell.
Manning, C. 1997. ‘Daire Mór identified’ Peritia 11, 359-69.
Ryan, M. 1980 An Early Christian hoard from Derrynaflan, Co. Tipperary. NMAJ 22, 9-26.