Book Review

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TOMÁS Ó CARRAGÁIN. Churches in Early Medieval Ireland: architecture, ritual and memory. xvi+392 pages, 298 colour & b&w illustrations. 2010. New Haven (CT) & London: Yale University Press; 978-0-300-15444-3 hardback £40.

Review by Christian Sapin
CNRS, Auxerre, France
(Translated from the French by Reviews Editor)

Sapin image

To find a book as rewarding as the architecture it describes is a real pleasure. Its author, who teaches at University College Cork, goes back to the origins by setting out the foundations of the built landscape of Ireland, too often reduced to a few dry-stone walls or crosses inscribed on stone. Tomás Ó Carragáin invites us to assist at the birth of a true architectural tradition, using written sources such as the writings of Bede and, even better, archaeological evidence. Though excavations have not been as numerous as in Germany or Switzerland, the oldest testimonies of wooden churches bear witness, as is the case in France too, to a building tradition that is well established before the tenth century AD and expressed in diverse ways. Yet the originality of these early Irish buildings resides precisely in an architectural adjustment and realisation, not in wood but in stone, shown for example by the roof of St MacDara's Church, Co. Galway, or the carefully executed quoin work at Kilmakedar, Co. Kerry. The author rightly examines the functional relationships that could have existed between the high, steep roofs of structures built of wood and those made of stone, and the impact of rainwater drainage.

This functional dimension is also pursued in the examination of the spatial organisation of buildings, which is not entirely devoid of influences from the Continent transmitted by the exchange of ideas and pilgrimages. This architecture in stone, using centuries-old techniques such as dry-stone corbelling well-known at Skellig Michael, constitutes, together with the elements derived from a building tradition in wood described above, the foundations of an original architecture which will in turn allow more complex structures using mortared stone to be invented after AD 900. The author systematically searches the evidence for clues that could illuminate his subject, for example the varied forms of openings (supported by interesting maps) or the freestanding circular towers, for which he finds echoes in structures as distant as the round towers of St Michael of Hildesheim in Germany. While noting in passing that he could also have illustrated the coclae of the St Gall plan, the main point is that what he perceives as reminiscences or references, which he tracks back as far as Ravenna, does not reflect purely chronological relationships as one might be tempted to expect, but a contemporary fascination with the great centres of Christendom. We also discover mixtures of traditions, which can occur as late as the twelfth century, such as the tradition of double stone vaults, which some authors have considered 'reliquary buildings' protecting sacred treasure; the difficulty of access to these structures suggests to Ó Carragáin that they were spaces for recluses, thus making a link with another tradition, asceticism.

The variously preserved buildings, the remains of an architecture of memory as much as of the sacred, are thus examined under multiple angles, with the emphasis always on function rather than on style, rightly leaving aside a now outdated preoccupation of architectural studies. The excellent line drawings and graphics support the argument well, but the archaeologists amongst us might have hoped for more complete plans and scale elevations of buildings; perhaps they do not exist yet as the sites are very numerous.

Ó Carragáin has managed to compile a vast corpus of pre-Romanesque church sites, with details, such as location or dimensions, assembled at the end of the volume constituting a most valuable resource. This corpus wears its achievements lightly: too often, seen from the Continent, has this architecture been reduced simplistically to dark stone vaults and high round towers. The author, thanks to his maps and many illustrations, but above all through his research into building traditions and concepts of remembrance and the sacred, and by placing his findings in a European perspective, has given us multiple keys to understand in all its complexity the built landscape of Ireland before AD 1100.