Irish Discoveries

A couple of interesting finds on Wikipedia:

Conolly’s Folly is an obelisk structure and National Monument located near MaynoothCounty KildareIreland. The folly was built within Castletown Estate (containing Castletown House), which contains two follies, both commissioned by Katherine Conolly, the philanthropic widow of Speaker William Conolly, to provide employment for hundreds of the poor of Celbridge when the famine of 1740–41 was at its worst.”

The Wonderful Barn is a corkscrew-shaped building on the edge of Castletown House Estate, formerly of the Conolly family, in CelbridgeCounty KildareIreland. The barn itself is formally in neighbouring Leixlip. Flanked by two smaller dovecote towers, the barn was built with the stairs ascending around the exterior of the building. The barn was built in 1743 on the Leixlip side of the Castletown Estate.

“Several purposes are suggested for the unique structure:

“One theory is based on the custom in Georgian times of using doves as a delicacy when other game or animals were not in season, and suggest its use as a dovecote.

“The height of the structure would also lend itself to sport shooting, supporting another theory of its use as a shooting or gamekeepers tower.

“The tower is seen from the east windows of Castletown House, so it filled that vista, possibly as a folly.

“However, a central hole through each of the floors supports the generally accepted theory of its use as a granary. The barn was built in the years immediately following the famine of 1740-41, as there was a need for new grain stores in case of another famine. The Conollys owned Kilmacredock and rented it out, so the barn was also useful for their tenants.”

Medieval Porn

From El Pais:

Deciphering the sex scenes in Spain’s medieval churches

Experts meet to discuss the meaning of highly explicit sculptures made 1,000 years ago

Why is that man showing off his enormous phallus, which seems to be pointing straight at us? What about that other bearded fellow who is apparently masturbating? And what is the meaning of that woman who is exhibiting her vulva? And is that couple really in the middle of intercourse?

These figures have all been there for nearly 1,000 years, sculpted into churches in northern Spain. They are in plain view on the façades, on the corbels that hold up the cornices, on the capitals crowning the columns, and even on the baptismal fonts.

But why did the stonemasons of the Middle Ages craft this cheeky iconography? What was the Roman Catholic Church trying to convey? A group of experts gathered inside the monastery of Santa María la Real in Aguilar de Campoo (Palencia) tried to answer that question last weekend at a seminar called “Art and sexuality in the Romanesque centuries.”

Unfortunately, there seem to be no clear answers….

You’ll have to click the link to see any images.

Saint Louie

We’ve been to and from St. Louis many times, and we always try to see something new en route or while we’re there (along with McKay’s in Nashville, of course – that is a staple!).

This time we stopped at the George Dickel Distillery in Tullahoma, Tennessee. I had visited the Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland and was keen to learn how American whiskey was different from Irish. (Answers: the composition of the mash, the state of the aging barrels, and in Tennessee, the Lincoln County Process.)

In St. Louis itself we got to see the refurbished and newly-reopened Museum at the Gateway Arch. It’s larger than the previous one, and deals with westward expansion in more detail and from a greater variety of perspectives. There’s also some good background on the arch itself, and no longer an animatronic Red Cloud.

The City Museum is like nothing you’ve ever seen. It occupies the former International Shoe Company building and is constantly colonizing new areas of it. The “museum” aspect consists largely of architectural detailing (I was pleased to discover the St. George pictured above), recovered nineteenth-century trash, a large insect collection, and other found objects; these are interspersed throughout an artificial cave system, a ten-story spiral slide, a ferris wheel on the roof, giant ball pits, skateboard ramps, a miniature train for people to ride, a space for circus performers, welded creations to climb on, and much, much more, all eccentrically decorated. As you can probably surmise, the museum appeals mostly to children, although it is fun for anyone to visit; what I like about it is that it’s dark and mysterious, even slightly sinister, an exciting contrast to much of the pabulum served up to kids these days.

Our event took place at the Contemporary Art Center, which we had never before seen. It’s what you’d expect: a brutalist building, with installation art like that depicted above (Jacob Stanley, TIME). It’s worth a visit, and it’s free.

At the St. Louis Science Center we saw a traveling Smithsonian exhibition entitled “Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission.” The showpiece is the actual Columbia capsule that took Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins to the Moon and back; this was accompanied by Aldrin’s helmet, a part of one of the Saturn V engines that Jeff Bezos fished out of the Atlantic, and other such objects. I especially liked all the Space Race newspaper headlines, videos of Kennedy speaking to Congress and giving his “We choose to go to the Moon” speech at Rice, and the midcentury-modern living room that you entered through (although I doubt that the television depicted above was all that common in middle America!).

On our way back, we stopped at something called the Arant Confederate Memorial Park, an SCV project situated beside I-24 just outside Paducah, Kentucky. This has appeared recently, and advertises itself, like a car dealership, with a massive flag. But the Battle Flag is not the only one on display: as you can see in the photo above, there are other ones, including all three national flags of the CSA, and the Bonnie Blue Flag.

The flag I was most curious about (as I had never seen it before): the flag of the Orphan Brigade, a Confederate brigade recruited in Kentucky (so-called as Kentucky was not really a member state of the Confederacy).

The flea market next door was festooned with American flags, and I can’t help but think this was some sort of a riposte to Arant Park.

The Tower of London and Westminster Abbey

While in London we visited two UNESCO World Heritage Sites there: The Tower of London, and Westminster Abbey. Both are major tourist attractions and of great historical significance.

The Tower of London is situated at the southeast corner of the City of London, on the River Thames and close to the Tower Bridge. The core of it, the White Tower (pictured), was built by King William I (1066-87) in order to control London. Since then two concentric walls have been built around it, and a number of buildings within the inner wall, producing a complex looking more like a fort than a castle. This has had many functions over the years, including as a royal residence, a mint, a prison, a menagerie, a record office, an armory, and a treasury.

Most of these functions have now been shed, although famously the Crown Jewels are kept in the Waterloo Block (pictured) to the north of the White Tower (they won’t let you take pictures of the jewels themselves, for reasons of security). The Tower’s function as a menagerie is continued with the residence of a group of captive ravens, the result of a superstition (no older than the Victorian era, alas) that the Crown will fall if the ravens ever fly away. And its function as an armory is remembered by an extensive display of arms and armor in the White Tower: pikes and guns on the walls, and suits of armor perched on the backs of wooden horses (my friend Malcolm Mercer pointed out that these horses, each one of them different and handmade in the nineteenth century, merit further study).

No post on this blog would be complete without some heraldry. The arms of the Board of Ordnance, which was responsible for supplying munitions to the armed forces from the sixteenth century until 1855, may be seen in several places.

This is my favorite part of the Tower of London: an austere Romanesque chapel dedicated to St. John, in the White Tower and dating from the late eleventh century.

I had forgotten about another chapel in the inner ward: the freestanding church of St. Peter ad Vincula, which dates from 1520. Unfortunately they don’t let people take pictures inside it. It is probably most significant for being the burial site of people executed in the Tower, such as Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, and Lady Jane Grey.

Many people imprisoned in the Tower, however, were executed elsewhere. One such was Thomas Abel, chaplain to Henry VIII’s first wife Queen Catherine, and conscientious objector to Henry’s Reformation. Abel was imprisoned in the Beauchamp Tower, on the western inner wall, and eventually executed at Smithfield in 1540, but not before inscribing a rebus of his name on the wall of his cell (pictured). Many other prisoners did the same thing, and some of their inscriptions are minor works of art; it is safe to say that standards of graffiti were much higher in the past.

I was surprised to learn that the Kray brothers were imprisoned here in the 1950s.

I must record my profound thanks to my friend Malcolm Mercer, who works for the Royal Armouries and who took time out of his day to show us around. (The Royal Armouries takes care of the arms and armor on display in the White Tower; a charitable trust called Historical Royal Palaces governs the rest).

Westminster Abbey is located near the Houses of Parliament in the City of Westminster, slightly upriver from the City of London. Prior to the Reformation, the building served as the abbey church for a Benedictine monastery that had been founded by King Edward the Confessor, who died in 1066 and who is buried within. Since Edward died without issue, a struggle ensued for the throne, which was ultimately won by Duke William of Normandy, who was crowned king of England in the church on Christmas day in 1066. This established a precedent: all subsequent monarchs except Edward V and Lady Jane Grey have been crowned there (and those two would have been had they managed to stay on the throne longer). The current fabric is largely a product of the thirteenth century: King Henry III (reigned 1216-72) rebuilt it in the newly fashionable Gothic style – dig those flying buttresses! – largely to honor Edward to Confessor, who had been canonized as a saint in 1161. Henry III was the first English monarch after the Conquest to be buried within the church, to bask in the sanctity of St. Edward, a custom followed by some thirteen of his successors.

As everyone knows, Henry VIII dissolved all English monasteries in the 1530s, and Westminster was no exception. But he founded six new dioceses in the Church of England, and five abbey churches were reemployed as cathedrals, one of which was Westminster (the others: Bristol, Chester, Gloucester, and Peterborough; the new diocese of Oxford got the chapel of Christ Church College as its cathedral). Westminster lost its diocesan status under Edward VI in 1550 although the main priest in charge of it is known as a dean, a memento of the time when it was a cathedral. The church is now designated a Royal Peculiar, that is, a church not subject to diocesan control but directly subject to the monarch, a status shared by a few other places like St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy, or the two chapels in the Tower of London noted above.

Poets’ Corner. From David Carpenter, The Glory of Westminster Abbey (Dean and Chapter, n.d.), 47.

The really interesting thing about Westminster Abbey, though, is its status as a national mausoleum. It’s not only kings and queens who are buried or memorialized there, but over three thousand other people, many of them quite notable. Exploring the place is somewhat like visiting the National Portrait Gallery, as you thrill to recognize certain big names. One famous grouping of these is at the so-called Poets’ Corner, located in the south transept. (Westminster Abbey forbids photography, so I have scanned in some images from books that I have.) The tomb of Geoffrey Chaucer is the ultimate reason for this, even if Chaucer (died 1400) was interred there only incidentally to his retirement at the abbey (one could purchase a lease on a residence within the monastery, and live with the monks without taking vows). But many memorials, some very beautiful, to everyone you ever read in English class have been added over the years.

Tomb of Sir Isaac Newton. From Edward Carpenter, Westminster Abbey (Jarrold Publishing, 1993), [5].

Another grouping of memorials may be seen near the tomb of Sir Isaac Newton, which is found on the northwest corner of the quire – this has attracted a number of memorials to scientists like Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace, and Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (while we were there, they were preparing a place for the interment of the ashes of Stephen Hawking). Not far away from this, in the north choir aisle, are numerous memorials to musicians like Benjamin Britten, Henry Purcell, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Elsewhere in the church, memorials to prime ministers, politicians, military officers, physicians, historians, and many others may also be discovered.

Grave of the Unknown Warrior. From David Carpenter, The Glory of Westminster Abbey (Dean and Chapter, n.d.), 19.

Perhaps the most famous is that of Britain’s grave of The Unknown Warrior, who was buried with great ceremony on November 11, 1920 just inside the west entrance.

From Westminster Abbey: The Monuments. Photographs by Joe Whitlock Blundell (John Murray, 1989).

From Westminster Abbey: The Monuments. Photographs by Joe Whitlock Blundell (John Murray, 1989).

From Westminster Abbey: The Monuments. Photographs by Joe Whitlock Blundell (John Murray, 1989).

Of course, not all of the memorials represent famous people – or rather, many of them might have been moderately well-known in their day, but they are now known only to specialist historians. Herbert Westlake once wrote that:

The visitor to Westminster Abbey will do well to remember that many of those who are commemorated within its walls were scarcely deserving of the honour which ordinarily attaches to such commemoration. The Abbey records show instance after instance of the burial of, or the erection of a monument to, those whose chief claim to distinction was the ability or willingness of their heirs to pay the fee demanded. Moreover, even where the verdict of history has justified such commemoration, it is not to be thought that the often prodigious size of a monument is any criterion of the greatness of him whom it commemorates.

These monuments, largely put up during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, can indeed be large, and their style can clash violently with the architecture of the church itself. Nonetheless, some of them are interesting in their own right. And I must say that I’m glad that, apart from the bodies of Oliver Cromwell and some other Parliamentarians, who were removed following the Restoration in 1660, Westminster Abbey is not in the habit of disinterring people who are no longer politically palatable. As nationally important as the place is, it remains a Christian church, where peoples’ mortal remains are not gratuitously disturbed.

Henry VII’s Chapel, looking northwest, with banners, crests, and stalls of the Knights Grand Cross of the Bath. From Edward Carpenter, Westminster Abbey (Jarrold Publishing, 1993), [13].

Essential to a visit to Westminster Abbey is a stop in the early sixteenth-century Lady Chapel. This was a trend in the late Middle Ages – a special chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, usually built as an addition on the eastern end of a church. Westminster’s is an architectural marvel, perhaps the finest example of late Perpendicular gothic, including pendant fan vaulting, in England. It was built by King Henry VII (r. 1485-1509), not only in honor of the Virgin but also as a projected home for the tomb of his predecessor King Henry VI (1422-61, 1470-71) who, by the early sixteenth century, was widely recognized as a saint. But for various reasons only Henry VII himself ended up buried there, along with his queen Elizabeth of York, while Henry VI remained at Windsor. Thus is the chapel generally known today as “Henry VII’s Chapel.” Since 1725 it has also had another purpose: it has acted as the chapel of the Order of the Bath. This organization was founded (allegedly refounded) by King George I as a means of keeping the membership of the Order of the Garter limited and exclusive, and as a way for the prime minister to reward his political supporters. The “Bath” of the order’s name does not refer to the city in Somerset, nor does it confer upon its members the right to view the queen while she is taking a bath (a friend of mine claims he once overheard a tour guide saying this). It was simply a medievalist reference to the ceremony for the creation of a knight, which involved ritual purification. (I do not know if a bath is formally prescribed for new members today, who are largely senior civil servants and military officers.)

Apparently the quadrennial service of the Order had taken place a couple of weeks before our visit, attended by Prince Charles in his capacity as the Order’s Great Master. One problem with having an order that is not as exclusive as the Garter is that not everyone can fit in the chapel! There are a limited number of chapel stalls, more than there are Knights Grand Cross of the Bath. So only the most senior Knights Grand Cross can get their own stalls, and sometimes one must wait a long time between being created a GCB and getting one’s own stall. When a stall does open up, a GCB will get it during the quadrennial service, at which time his heraldic banner and a three-dimensional wooden carving of his crest are hung above it, as is customary with orders of chivalry. (The lesser grades of the Order of the Bath, Knights Commander and Companions, get no recognition at all. I don’t know if they’re even invited to the quadrennial service.)

Be that as it may, Westminster Abbey is a great place to visit. I regret to say that it now costs twenty pounds to get in as a tourist (I can remember when it was four!), but it’s still worth it.

The Temple Church

After our Irish trip, I spent some time in London with my family. I had visited London many times before, and even lived there on a couple of occasions. But for all the time I’ve spent in that great city, I had never visited the Temple Church until now. It is in the (square-mile, capital-C) City of London, between Fleet Street and the River Thames. It dates from the late twelfth century and it was once the London church of the Knights Templar until that order was dissolved by Pope Clement V in 1312. 

Outside the church, a monument to its original owners: a sculpture of two knights riding a single horse, taken from the Templar seal.

What really marks this church as Templar, however, is its shape. The order derived its name from the Temple of Solomon, the site of which has been occupied since the seventh century by the Dome of the Rock, and in reference to this “Temple,” most Templar churches were round.

I do not know how the round church functioned liturgically, however, and as can be seen from this scanned postcard, a longer, rectangular chancel was added to the original building some time later (note the difference in arches – romanesque to the left, gothic to the right).

The round part does hold the grave of a famous occupant: William Marshal, a powerful political figure of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, who acted as regent for England for the first three years (1216-19) of the reign of the young King Henry III. Throughout his career he admired and supported the Templars and took membership vows on his deathbed, thus his burial here and not (say) in Westminster Abbey. 

Here is an interior view of the chancel looking toward the east (which had to be reconstructed after serious damage sustained during the Blitz).

A close-up of the altar, with its decidedly post-medieval reredos, featuring classical detailing and the Protestant emblems of the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.

The altar frontal features two coats of arms, one comprising a cross of St. George with a golden Agnus Dei at the fess point, and the other a white pegasus on a blue field. These are the arms of the Middle Temple and the Inner Temple respectively, which are two of the four Inns of Court, professional associations for barristers in England (the other two are Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn).

Composite coat of arms of the Inns of Court: 1. Lincoln’s Inn 2. Middle Temple 3. Inner Temple 4. Gray’s Inn. Wikipedia.

Following the dissolution of the Templars in 1312, King Edward II granted the site to the other major crusading order, the Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, i.e. the “Hospitallers.” They in turn leased it to two colleges of lawyers, which evolved into the Inner Temple and Middle Temple, named after the grounds they occupied (did the Hospitallers themselves occupy the “Outer Temple”?). King Henry VIII, in turn, dissolved the English chapter of the Hospitallers in 1540, and in 1608 King James I granted the church to the lawyers on a permanent basis, on the condition that they maintain it. This they have done ever since.

This is a device used by the church, showing both the Agnus Dei and the Pegasus, separated by a musical staff (in medieval notation), in honor of the musical tradition at the Temple Church.

Of course, following the appearance of the Temple Church in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, it has become rather popular with a certain type of tourist, and the church sells a pamphlet addressing the issues raised by the book. But I was far more interested in their display about Magna Carta.

Newgrange and the Giant’s Causeway

While in Ireland we got to see two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Newgrange (in the Republic, and a “cultural” site), and the Giant’s Causeway (in the North, and a “natural” site). I would have loved to have seen the third, Skellig Michael in Co. Kerry, but access is strictly limited and entails a boat ride across an often choppy sea, and a perilous climb up steep and slippery steps – not ideal for a tour group of 35!

1. Newgrange is the largest monumental structure at Brú na Bóinne (“Palace of the Boyne”), a complex of tombs, stone circles, and other manmade features just north of the River Boyne in County Meath, north of Dublin. Drogheda (the site of a frightful Cromwellian massacre in 1649, and also the site of the famous Battle of the Boyne in 1690) is about ten kilometers to the east of Brú na Bóinne, but we were there to see something much older: a neolithic passage tomb dating from c. 3200 BC, and thus predating Stonehenge and the Giza pyramids. 

From the outside, it’s really just a large earthen mound, with a retaining wall on the front made up of white quartz cobblestones. This wall is the work of one Michael O’Kelly, the main twentieth-century archaeologist for the site and is based on his “best guess” of what it might have looked like in the neolithic. Needless to say, this feature is somewhat controversial.

Things get really interesting, however, when you enter the doorway shown above. You squeeze down a dry stone passageway for about twenty meters, and arrive in a corbeled interior chamber with three side “chapels,” each with its own stone “altar” (designated a basin). The guide claimed that this passageway is original and was never reconstructed – in fact, the entrance was covered and hidden until AD 1699, when a local landowner found it and brought it to the attention of antiquarians.

No photography was allowed inside, so I scan some illustrations.

From George Eogan and Peigin Doyle, Guide to the Passage Tombs at Brú na Bóinne (2010), 2.

This is a view from the interior chamber looking back towards the entrance. The spiral motif is common at the site, but what it actually means is anyone’s guess.

From George Eogan and Peigin Doyle, Guide to the Passage Tombs at Brú na Bóinne (2010), 17.

This is a view of the right-hand side chapel, with basin stone. Apparently cremated human remains were discovered on these stones, but the cremations did not take place in the chamber itself. This has given rise to the theory that bodies were cremated outside, and the remains brought into the chamber for a special ceremony, most likely at the Winter Solstice, then taken out and interred elsewhere (plenty of smaller burial tombs have been found at Brú na Bóinne).

From a postcard.

Why the Winter Solstice? Because that’s when sunlight penetrates to the interior. Here is another view of the entrance – note the “roofbox” over the door.

From George Eogan and Peigin Doyle, Guide to the Passage Tombs at Brú na Bóinne (2010), 20.

And here is how it works: note the upward slope of the passageway, which blocks out light from the doorway, and allows only the shaft of light from the roofbox to reach the central basin stone. The slight zigzag of the passageway also ensures that the light is focussed by the time it gets to the interior. Our guide turned out the lights in the interior chamber and then lit one that simulated the solstice effect, but she said that it was a poor substitute for the real thing. But to experience this, you have to apply for it. The sunlight gets in for a few minutes a day over a period of about five days, roughly Dec. 19-23. They let ten people in per day, and you can bring a friend, meaning that 100 people can experience the Winter Solstice at Newgrange every year. The trouble is that some 32000 people apply! So the odds really aren’t in your favor, although they have started live streaming it over the Internet.

Brú na Bóinne is by no means the only such neolithic site in Europe. All along the west coast, from Spain to Scandinavia, one finds the remains of these monumental structures, usually circular and astronomically aligned, indicating surplus wealth generated by agriculture, political organization to order them constructed, and far-flung communication networks to spread knowledge of building techniques, and trade networks to import construction materials (Brú na Bóinne contains material from as far south as the Wicklow Mountains, and as far north as Slieve Croob in County Down). Alas, they are definitely prehistoric, in that nothing resembling a script has ever been discovered at any of them, so much of our knowledge of this period must remain speculative. 

2. The Giant’s Causeway is a volcanic formation of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns on the north coast of Northern Ireland. Similar sorts of formations may be seen elsewhere on the Earth (the one I’m most familiar with is Devil’s Tower in Wyoming), but they are rare and distinctive enough to be intensely captivating.

The standard theory is that the columns were created some sixty million years ago, when a large and thick lava flow cooled very slowly and, due to the chemistry of the basalt, formed regular polygonal columns. These were hidden deep underground, as the top layer of the basalt, exposed to the air, cooled much more rapidly and thus did not develop the distinctive pattern. Successive Ice Ages, however, stripped away those top layers, revealing the basalt columns and creating what, to a human, is a bizarre, ethereal sight.

But our tour guide, Jamie Kerr of EF Tours, mockingly denigrated this theory. She preferred the original, mythological explanation, and the reason why it bears the name “Giant’s Causeway.” A similar basalt formation may be found in Scotland on the Isle of Staffa, which gave rise to the idea that:

Finn McCool was a giant who, for the most part, lived a quiet life with his family here on the Northern Irish coast. But there were rivals, other giants, and perhaps to pre-empt a challenge from his Scottish neighbour, Benandonner, Finn laid down the gauntlet and then built the Giant’s Causeway so they could meet and do battle.

However, on his way over to Scotland, Finn spied Benandonner in the distance and realised that his rival was much bigger, taller and stronger than he had appeared from across the water. Finn decided he didn’t want to fight Benandonner any more and ran back home as fast as he could – so fast that he lost his boot on the shore.

Finn found his wife Oonagh and explained the terrible mistake he had made. Oonagh, being the brains of the pair, devised the plan of dressing up Finn as a baby and putting him into their son Oisin’s cot, covering him with blankets and wrapping a shawl around his head.

Just then there was a loud banging at the door – Benandonner! ‘Where’s Finn?’ he demanded, ‘I want to fight him!’

‘Calm down!’ said Oonagh, ‘Finn’s out herding the cows… but while you’re here why don’t you let me introduce you to our son Oisin?’

When Benandonner saw the giant baby in the cot he got scared. He thought, if that’s the size of the baby, how big is the father?

Benandonner immediately ran out of the house and home across the Causeway, tearing it behind him to make sure Finn couldn’t follow him.*

The current visitors’ center, which opened in 2012, is architecturally very well done (more at dezeen – check it out). It lies unobtrusively low to the ground, but its walls reflect the Causeway’s geological formation.

After our visit I kept seeing references to the Giant’s Causeway all over the place, and it seems to me it’s a symbol of Northern Ireland. This is a memento on display in the Belfast City Hall Museum. A bonus is that the six-sided columns (and in this case, six columns) can refer to the six counties of Northern Ireland.

I never made this connection, but the Giant’s Causeway is the setting for the cover of Led Zeppelin’s fifth studio album Houses of the Holy (1973). I loved this record in high school! Where’s that confounded bridge?

* From Anna Groves, A Souvenir Guide to the Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim (National Trust, 2016). The funny thing is that in recent times there really was a science vs. mythology dispute at the Causeway: some of the exhibits in the new visitors’ center, when it opened in 2012, gave a Young Earth creationist view of the site, soliciting praise from Answers in Genesis, and condemnation by Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins, et al. (Following a review, the creationist interpretation was downplayed.)

Cathedrals

A cathedral, of course, is nothing more than a church building where a bishop has his seat – his cathedra, hence the name. But usually, much attention and expense is lavished on cathedrals, making them aesthetically pleasing and architecturally and historically significant. I do enjoy visiting a cathedral when I get a chance. Here are some of the ones I got to see in Ireland.

1. The “Rock of Cashel,” Cashel, Co. Tipperary

This is essentially a ruin atop a hill, but it has a very rich history, and it is one of the more popular tourist attractions in Ireland (the Queen visited in 2011). The hill itself is associated with one of St. Patrick’s conversions, and was the seat of the kings of Munster until 1101, when King Muirchertach Ua Briain bequeathed it to a resurgent and reorganized Church (meaning that the Church would now take his side in his disputes with others). Cashel was established as an archbishopric at the Synod of Ráth Breasail in 1118, and shortly thereafter a chapel for Cormac McCarthy, king of Munster, was constructed on the rock, a small but handsome building of German influence, complete with a characteristically Irish round tower (pictured) some distance away. The cathedral itself was built over the course of the thirteenth century, connecting the chapel with the tower. Given the cathedral’s strategic location, the west end of the nave was enclosed and fortified as a residential castle, a feature I have never before seen. Alas, it was not enough to save the people who had taken shelter there during the Confederate Wars, when in 1647 Parliamentarian troops sacked it and massacred the royalists within. In the eighteenth century, the Rock ceased to act as the cathedral for the archdiocese (the seat was moved to the Church of St. John the Baptist and St. Patrick in Cashel, which we did not get a chance to see), and the archbishop, who was somehow connected with the Guinness family of beer fame, removed the roof for reasons known best to himself, rendering the building liturgically unusable. People are still interred in the graveyard, however.

Here is a better view of the Rock of Cashel, and on a nicer day, scanned from a postcard I bought.

2. Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Seat of the Archbishop of Dublin and Glendalough. The church dates from 1028 when Sitriuc Silkbeard, the “Hiberno-Norse” king of Dublin, and Flannacán Ua Cellaig, king of Brega, returned from a pilgrimage to Rome. The Synod of Kells in 1152 elevated Dublin to the status of an archbishopric, joining Cashel, Armagh, and Tuam. Laurence O’Toole, the second archbishop of Dublin (1162-82), was canonized in 1225 and became the patron saint of the city; a relic of his heart was stolen from Christ Church in 2012. Most of the church fabric dates from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but it was extensively renovated in the nineteenth, so there is a great deal of Victorian gothic as well (e.g., the floor tiles). The church is also known for hosting the grave of Richard de Clare, the second earl of Pembroke (commonly called “Strongbow”) who, allied with Dermot MacMurrough, was the first Englishman to invade Ireland in 1170, and for being the venue for the coronation of Lambert Simnel, an anti-Tudor pretender to the English throne in 1487. Also, the crypt housed an interesting exhibit on Magna Carta Hiberniae, that is, an issue of Magna Carta (1215), but for Ireland, with the appropriate substitutions (“Irish Church” for “English Church,” “Dublin” for “London,” etc.)

I scanned this view of the interior in from the visitor’s guide I bought.

The seal of the cathedral chapter illustrates that its formal dedication is to the Holy Trinity, thus the depiction of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

3. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin

Just down the street from Christ Church, another cathedral, this one dedicated to St. Patrick. Why does Dublin have two cathedrals, both elaborate and within a short walking distance of each other? A good question! In the thirteenth century, this collegiate church was somehow elevated to cathedral status, and it may have been that someone was hoping to replace the monastic Christ Church with the secular St. Patrick’s. Many years of bickering produced an accord between the two in 1300, with Christ Church retaining supremacy, but St. Patrick’s having certain privileges including full cathedral status, and both cathedrals committing to work together if need be – like when the choirs of both churches combined to perform Handel’s Messiah at its debut in Dublin in 1742.

Since the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1871, St. Patrick’s has been designated the “national cathedral,” while Christ Church remains the cathedral for the diocese of Dublin and Glendalough.

One distinguishing feature of St. Patrick’s is that it acted as the chapel of the Order of St. Patrick, which is technically still in existence, although no new members have been admitted since the 1930s. (The Republic of Ireland may have continued to grant coats of arms through a Chief Herald, but it has no interest in maintaining an order of chivalry.) On display: the banners of arms the knights as they were at the time of disestablishment in 1871.

The most famous dean of St. Patrick’s is of course the great Jonathan Swift, who held the office 1713-45 and who is memorialized and buried in the church.

The rose, royal arms, and portcullis of the cathedral seal mark it as particularly Tudor. I’m not exactly sure what the other symbols are supposed to mean, although I assume that’s St. Patrick in the base.

4. St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Dublin

Still in Dublin, on the north side of the River Liffey, we find yet another cathedral, or rather a “pro-Cathedral,” dedicated to St. Mary. It is now that I must mention a central fact of Irish history: King Henry VIII (1509-47) tried to impose the Reformation on Ireland as he did on England, but he had much more control over the latter than the former. As a consequence, most English people accepted the Reformation, however grudgingly; only eccentrics like Thomas More held out, and paid for it with their lives. In Ireland, by contrast, there are parallel church organizations: Henry’s Church of Ireland, until 1871 the established church and to this day a member of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and the Roman Catholic Church, obedient to the Pope. The Church of Ireland took over all the extant church buildings and diocesan structure, but the Roman Catholic Church, despite all the government’s penal laws and other knavish tricks, retained the loyalty of most Irish people and did not go away. The Catholic church presumed to continue its own diocesan structure, a copy of the Church of Ireland’s, and to claim legitimate descent from the pre-Reformation church. Of necessity the Catholics were compelled to build their own church buildings, thus St. Mary’s, which dates from 1825 and is classical in form, predating the gothic revival by a few years. That it’s a “pro-Cathedral” (i.e., an acting cathedral) is a cheeky way by the Catholics of saying that they would like Christ Church back. (And why not, really? Let the Church of Ireland have St. Patrick’s, and let the Catholics get Christ Church. If nothing else it would make things simpler.)

5. St. Columb’s Cathedral, Londonderry

St. Columb’s is within the walls of the old city, perched atop a hill. It is Londonderry’s oldest extant building, dating from 1633. As you can probably guess this makes it Church of Ireland. I could not take any pictures inside but here is a scan of a postcard I bought:

Many regimental colours and flags are displayed within. The caretaker kindly showed me a 48-star American flag, kept in a display drawer, left by the US troops who were stationed at Londonderry during the Second World War.

The seal of the dean and chapter is emblematic, showing a dove of peace bringing an olive branch to a castle, under the watchful eye of God.

6. St. Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry

As you look out from the walls of the old city toward the Bogside, you can’t miss St. Eugene’s, which stands out above the residential streets. The Roman Catholic cathedral was begun in 1849, opened for business in 1873, and finished in 1903. As you can see, this was a time when the gothic revival was in full swing. Many Irish-American Catholics gave money to help build it.

I enjoyed visiting this handsome, peaceful church.

7. St. Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast

The distinguishing feature of the Church of Ireland cathedral is the tall, needlelike spire where you’d expect something a bit more substantive. This “Spire of Hope” looks like the Spire of Dublin and, as this one dates from 2007, may have been inspired by Dublin’s. The lady at the desk said that St. Anne’s is built on what was once a swamp, and that the church is subsiding; the weight of a traditional spire would have compounded this problem.

Within the church, a number of things, including the “science pillar,” a Titanic memorial pall, the grave of Edward Carson (founder of Northern Ireland), a labyrinth that leads nowhere if you follow “the path of sin,” and numerous interesting side chapels.

The Cathedral identifies itself with a display of four coats of arms, three of the amalgamated dioceses for which it is the cathedral (Connor, Down, and Dromore) and one of the city of Belfast.

8. St. Peter’s Cathedral, Belfast

Alas, I didn’t actually get into the Roman Catholic cathedral for Belfast, as I arrived too early. But I did find a postcard of the interior which I have scanned:

This church was opened for worship in 1866, and as you can see is another gothic structure, but it wasn’t named a cathedral until 1986. It is in the Divis Street area near the Falls Road, i.e. what was once Ground Zero for the Troubles, and I can’t help but think the decision to move the bishop’s seat here was political somehow.

Dingle Peninsula

The first stop on our tour of Ireland was the Dingle Peninsula in Co. Kerry. The famous Ring of Kerry is on the Iveragh Peninsula to the immediate south, but many people told me that the Dingle Peninsula is preferable in terms of history and natural beauty. I can’t make any comparisons, but I can say that it is very edifying indeed.

Upon our arrival in Dingle Town we were treated to a boat tour of Dingle harbor and got to see its most famous resident, Fungie the Dingle Dolphin. Our captain then took us out to sea and we got to enjoy the rugged beauty of west coast of Ireland.

The next day we took coach tour of the peninsula, which included stops at Inch Strand, St. Catherine’s Church in Ventry (resting place of the Irish scholar Pádraig Ó Fiannachta), a place to view the Great Blasket Islands, and the Gallarus Oratory (pictured), which I was very excited to see. There is a debate whether it is from the early or the high Middle Ages – I favor the latter interpretation, given that the beehive huts of the early-medieval Skellig Michael are round, and this one is longitudinal, and has a Romanesque-style window on the far end. But whether it was a chapel or a shelter of some kind (or both) remains a mystery. I admired the construction – each stone was shaped to fit, and as a consequence not much mortar was needed (it’s not quite a dry stone building). What is more, the cracks between the bricks slope outwards, so that water does not leak into the interior.

We stopped for lunch across from Dunbeg Fort, an Iron Age promontory fort near Slea Head. Unfortunately, we only got to see it from the road: it was severely damaged in a storm in 2014 and has been closed to visitors since then. We did get to see a well-formed ringfort from the coach, and we stopped at Kilmalkedar, a ruined twelfth-century church that was once the center of a monastery founded by St Maolcethair. The church itself may have been modeled on Cormac’s Chapel at the Rock of Cashel (more on this later), and the yard features numerous interesting things like a medieval sundial, some Ogham inscriptions, and from a more recent time, the grave of one Lieut. Thomas Russell, Irish Volunteers, 8th Battalion Clare Brigade, “Murdered by English Forces, Carraigaholt, Co. Clare, 17 March 1918, Aged 21.” That would be before the Khaki Election and the War of Independence – I wonder what the story is there.

Nelson’s Pillar

The most distinguishing feature of Trafalgar Square in London is Nelson’s Column, put up in the 1840s to commemorate Admiral Horatio Nelson, the victor (although fatal casualty) of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. At that historic encounter, the Royal Navy defeated a combined Franco-Spanish fleet, thereby reasserting British control of the seas and foreclosing the possibility of a Napoleonic invasion.

Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square, London, June 2018.

Unfortunately for the Irish, it also foreclosed the possibility that the French would liberate them from the British, as Theobald Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet had hoped. The local authorities thus erected a pillar to Nelson on Sackville Street in Dublin in 1809, in celebration of this triumph of the British Empire.

Nelson’s Pillar, Sackville Street, Dublin, c. 1830. Wikipedia.

You could climb up it for a view of the city, but aesthetically it tended to dominate the street, and not in a good way, at least according to several people quoted in an interesting book I bought at the Hodges Figgis bookstore in Dublin.

As the twentieth century wore on and Ireland gained more and more independence, the prominent place of Nelson’s column in Dublin seemed anomalous, especially as it was right next to the General Post Office, the headquarters of the rebels during the Easter Rising of 1916. Some people were determined to do something about this deplorable situation, and in 1966, just prior to the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising, two IRA members managed to plant a bomb halfway up the column, which exploded and brought the top half crashing down into the street. The cover photo Fallon’s book illustrates their handiwork. The Irish Army then demolished the rest. Spokesmen for the IRA disclaimed the action, saying that they were interested in the actual governance of Ireland, not in symbols of the previous regime, although apparently President Éamon De Valera telephoned a newspaper and suggested a headline: “British Admiral Leaves Dublin by Air.”

I was interested to discover that, since 2003, the Nelson Pillar has been replaced with something designated the Spire of Dublin, a stainless steel pin-like monument that extends 120 feet into the air. This was part of a redevelopment for O’Connell Street (as Sackville Street was renamed in the 1920s); it is generally seen as a monument to the “Celtic Tiger” boom years of the 1990s and 2000s.

Spire of Dublin, O’Connell Street, Dublin, May 2018.

Sanctioned or not, blowing up pillars then became somewhat of an IRA tradition. Here is an engraving of “Walker’s Pillar” as it appeared in the 1830s, overlooking the walls of Londonderry. George Walker was an English soldier and Anglican priest who was killed at the Battle of the Boyne, when the Protestant William III defeated the Catholic James II, and secured Protestant supremacy and continued Protestant settlement of Ireland.

Walker’s Pillar, Londonderry. Nineteenth-century engraving. Ebay.

And here’s what it looks like today: nothing more than a plinth, with the remains of a paint bomb thrown at it for good measure. The IRA blew up the column in 1973.

Plinth of Walker’s Pillar, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, June 2018.

Interestingly, this custom was not shared by the members of the Front de Liberation de Québec, who left the Nelson Column in Montreal in its original state.

Nelson’s Column, Montreal, 2005. Wikipedia.

Guédelon Castle

Wikipedia.

Something interesting (hat tip: David Winter):

Guédelon Castle is a de novo castle construction project located in TreignyFrance. The object of the project is to build a castle using only the techniques and materials used in the Middle Ages. When completed in the 2020s, it should be an authentic recreation of a 13th-century medieval castle.

In order to fully investigate the technology required in the past, the project is using only period construction techniques, tools, and costumes. Materials, including wood and stone, are all obtained locally. Jacques Moulin, chief architect for the project, designed the castle according to the architectural model developed during the 12th and 13th centuries by Philip II of France.

Construction started in 1997 under Michel Guyot, owner of Château de Saint-Fargeau, a castle in Saint-Fargeau 13 kilometres away. The site was chosen according to the availability of construction materials: an abandoned stone quarry, in a large forest, with a pond close by. The site is in a rural woodland area and the nearest town is Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, about 5 km to the northeast.