The Derrynaflan Monastery and Easter Pilgrimage

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.

derrynaflan-hoard

The Derrynaflan hoard (the chalice and associated ecclesiastical objects)

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.

Derrynaflan

Decoration on the Derrynaflan paten (a plate used to hold the host during the celebration of the Eucharist).

Location

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.

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Aerial shot of Derrynaflan (from the Slieveardagh Rural Development http://www.slieveardagh.com/history/towns-and-villages/derrynaflan/).

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.

Founding Saints

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.

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Approach to Derrynaflan 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).

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View of Derrynaflan church

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.

Interior of Derrynaflan Church

Interior of Derrynaflan Church

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.

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Romanesque window reused to frame the 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.

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Stone roof slates

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).

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East gable of Derrynaflan church

Gobán Saor

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.

1st ed Ordnance Survey map of Derrynaflan from http://maps.osi.ie/publicviewer/#V1,617960,649614,6,8

1st ed. Ordnance Survey map of Derrynaflan (from http://maps.osi.ie/publicviewer/#V1,617960,649614,6,8)

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.

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Grave of Gobán Saor

  Easter Pilgrimage

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 Heritage have a great a audio guide for this and some of the other sites in the area .

References

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.

http://www.abartaheritage.ie

http://www.abartaheritage.ie/product/derrynaflan-trail-audio-guide/

http://www.nationalist.ie/news/your-community/easter-sunday-dawn-mass-planned-for-famed-derrynaflan-site-1-4929037

One comment on “The Derrynaflan Monastery and Easter Pilgrimage

  1. Reblogged this on Séamus Sweeney and commented:
    Recently I visited Derrynaflan with my son (5) and found it a wonderful site. The approach was challenging – we came from the Southern Route following a trip along roads with less and less room to turn and more and more grass in the middle. Then we had to climb various gates and pass through the eerie, desert-like (albeit very wet) bog landscape to Derrynaflan itself. We had a mighty time scrambling around and copying the designs on the Goban Saor’s purported grave. My son had absorbed that there was some kind of treasure story linked to the place, albeit the subtleties of the legal arguments passed him by. He did wonder if we found a euro coin would we have to give it to the government. Curious to know what came of the Derrynaflan trail proposed here?

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