Knockroe Passage Tomb December 21st winter solstice observances

Knockroe Passage Tomb near Windgap in County Kilkenny was only rediscovered during the 1980s. Like Newgrange, the dawn light on the Winter solstice aligns with the structure, but unlike Newgrange so does the sunset  on the same day.

Both sunrise and sunset (and indeed all day) gatherings at Knockroe seem to have become common if this article from TheJournal.Ie is anything to go by.

Unless things have changed the site isn’t signposted from the main road, if anyone reading this is seized with an urge to visit.


Here is the 2015 sunset on Youtube:

Here’s a video of Knockroe set to the music of Philip Glass:


Architectural urban myths: mixing up the plans in Dungannon and Enniscorthy

Reading the Wikipedia page on Dungannon, Co Tyrone I came across this:

An interesting feature of the town is the former police barracks at the top right-hand corner of the market square which is quite unlike any other barracks of a similar vintage in Ireland. A popular but apocryphal story relates that the unusual design of this building is due to a mix-up with the plans in Dublin which meant Dungannon got a station designed for the Nepal and they got a standard Irish barracks, complete with a traditional Irish fireplace.

There’s a picture here at Geograph (the project to photograph every OS grid square):


The plans-mix-up story rang a bell, for I have heard the same said of St Senan’s Psychiatric Hospital. Supposedly somewhere in the Raj an asylum designed for County Wexford was erected. The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage is having none of it:

A lunatic asylum erected to a design by James Bell (1829-83) and James Barry Farrell (1810-93) representing an important component of the nineteenth-century built heritage of County Wexford with the architectural value of the composition, one unusually deviating from the Tudor Gothic standard seen across the country, confirmed by such attributes as the near-symmetrical footprint centred on an elegant arcade; the construction in a vibrant red brick offset by silver-grey Kiltealy granite or yellow brick dressings producing a lively polychromatic palette; the slight diminishing in scale of the openings on each floor producing a feint graduated visual impression; and the Osborne House (1845-51)-like Italianate towers embellishing the roofline as prominent eye-catchers in the landscape: meanwhile, aspects of the composition clearly illustrate the continued development or “improvement” of the lunatic asylum to designs by Charles Astley Owen (c.1855-1922) of Marlborough Street, Dublin (Irish Builder 15th September 1895, 218; 15th August 1900, 451). Having been reasonably well maintained, the elementary form and massing survive intact together with substantial quantities of the original fabric, both to the exterior and to the interior, thus upholding the character or integrity of the composition. Furthermore, adjacent outbuildings (extant 1903); a chimney (see 15604055); and a nearby burial ground (extant 1903), all continue to contribute positively to the group and setting values of a self-contained ensemble making a dramatic visual statement overlooking the River Slaney. NOTE: The firm attribution to Bell and Barry puts to rest the local legend that the designs for the lunatic asylum were mixed up with those for an army barracks in Pretoria or a palace in India during, variously, the Crimean War (1853-6) or the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1).

Hmmm, I wonder where else this urban legend has spread? Perhaps any unusual building from a certain era was assumed to be incongruous to the locality .. and I note were buildings linked with social control in different ways, so perhaps this allowed a certain mockery of intimidating local institutions (and linking them with Imperial power)

I wonder if it ever worked the other way and local traditions in India of in South Africa claim a building was “actually” intended for far off Ireland.

On a less exotic scale there is an (uncited) story of a Newry-Dundalk mix up:

Incidentally, Thomas Duff also was the architect for the Cathedral in Dundalk, a town just over the border in County Louth, and it is said that he mixed up the plans for both cathedrals and sent Dundalk Cathedral to the builders in Newry, and Newry Cathedral to the builders in Dundalk.

Perhaps Newry and Dundalk are more foreign to each other than Enniscorthy and the Raj after all…Something not dissimiliar is reported in “local tradition” in Lincolnshire



Emma Holland on the resurgent popularity of pilgrimage

Emma Holland on the resurgent popularity of pilgrimage

On the website Thinking Faith, Emma Holland has an interesting piece on the resurgence of popularlity of pilgrimage. I’ve blogged a lot here about Peter Reason’s “In Search of Grace” a book which is particularly good on the messy human reality of pilgrimage. Indeed, it is good to recall the messy human reality of all sorts of monastic, mystical and otherwise otherworldly enterprises.

Bearing this in mind, as Holland points out, the Camino de Santiago in particular has had a massive surge in popularity:

The statistics about the number of people walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in 1986 point only to the sparseness of a forgotten trail. A low pilgrim population in the 80s turned an ancient path into more of a medieval legend. Rather than a well-known travel destination, the ancient ‘Way of St James’ was then little more than a dusty relic of Christian, and pagan, history. However, 21 years later, statistics show that 301,036 pilgrims received their Compostela certificates in 2017. [1] The powerful resurgence in the popularity of pilgrimage, particularly of the Way of St James, is undeniable. Is pilgrimage providing the perfect nourishment for the ritualistic needs of a spiritually hungry generation?

The concept of ‘going on pilgrimage’ has traditionally evoked many ideas: undertaking a journey to serve a personal purpose; giving expression to a difficult situation through bodily action, in the hope of securing an outcome; following in the footsteps of many who have walked the same path before; fulfilling a religious obligation. The idea of pilgrimage has over time evolved to meet the expectations of a 21st century world and yet still, whether the hope is for healing, miracles, peace, or even weight loss, people choose to walk the gruelling 500 miles of the Camino, with the bare minimum of possessions, more than a thousand years after the first pilgrims.

I didn’t realise that in the 80s the numbers were so starkly low. one of the topics Adam DeVille touched on in his blog post which I cited the other day was the faslity of the lazy use of the term secular:

Fong’s book is worth it if only for this central insight, which comes almost exactly half-way through: “there is perhaps no more confused assertion, for a critical theorist, than that capitalist society is becoming increasingly ‘secular’.” Why churchmen and others insist on using this term or its even more fatuous variants (“secular humanism”) has never made sense to me–except, of course, to flog their hideous books.

(he’s talking about Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option)

Holland goes on to consider various frameworks for thinking about this:

Biblical and anthropological insights could shed some light on why this might be. The God of the Old Testament provided the people of Israel with ritual instruction, intending to show them how properly to praise their creator and provider. Rituals were the intended outlet for the heart, reinforced with a physical action. One such example is fasting. As Karen Eliasen describes: ‘Fasting as a ritual act is not merely a symbol or a metaphor for some other-worldly activity. It is an experience of concrete, this-worldly changes.’[3] Eliasen continues to say that these physical changes are part of a communication and dialogue between God and the people. In a similar way, pilgrimage is a way of physically enacting and embodying a conversation with God. It encompasses all manner of the human being: it is spatial, physical and it speaks to the inner emotional and spiritual dynamics of a person. To provide an example of this in another cultural context, anthropologist Catherine Allerton studied the padong journeys undertaken by the brides of Manggarai of Eastern Indonesia, whereby brides would walk long distances from their kin towards their spouse’s family, wailing on the way as a fully embodied image of the journey the heart is also taking.[4] Such pilgrimage rituals witness to an important inner journey and to the importance of documenting emotions through physical manifestations.

However, it is the anthropological theory of ‘liminality’ developed by Victor Turner that might be the most important lens through which to study the contemporary allure of pilgrimage. Liminality can be described as the ‘in-between’ place whereby one has crossed a threshold but has not yet arrived at a final place, communitas, a place of completion. Turner suggests that ‘pilgrimage provides a carefully structured, highly valued route to a liminal world where the ideal is felt to be real, where the tainted social persona may be cleansed and renewed’.[5] In other words, it is a place to forget socially-structured life before the pilgrimage and move towards the place of communitas. In a society seemingly more polarised than ever, the idea of being somewhere outside of the socio-political realm where one is equal with fellow pilgrims could be a highly appealing prospect. Pilgrimage almost has the ability to create a microcosmic utopian society, in which one bonds along the way with all those who are on the same inner and outer journeys.



Tipperary’s Pyramid


Kilcooley Abbey, near Gortnahoe in Tipperary is part of the Kilcooley Estate. One of the most striking features of the estate is tthe pyramid shaped mausoleum of the Barker family:

This pyramid shaped mausoleum is a very significant monument and measures 12ft by 12ft at its base. We understand it contains 7 coffins of the Barker family – original owners of the Kilcooley Abbey Estate . It was sealed up some years ago, as evidenced in photo, after it was vandalised.

There are other pyramids in Ireland – this page has a comprehensive list (including the Met Eireann Office in Dublin).  David Winpenny’s “Up To A Point” claims to be the only book on British and Irish pyramids. There is lots of information on the estate at David Hicks’ blog here. As well as the Village Magazine article linked to above, the conclusion of Hicks’ post gives a grim view of how Ireland treats its heritage:

When the house appeared on the market in 2003 it had been in the same family since 1770. Locals had hoped that the estate would be purchased by the State but they were to be disappointed. The house was purchased in 2008 but was back on the market again in 2011 with an asking price of €2.75 million which included the eighteenth century mansion, five staff houses, outbuildings 313 acres together with 950 acres on lease to Coilte. Over the years a number of items from Kilcooley have appeared at auction in England and Ireland. In September 2013 a number of portraits from the collection that Sir William, the fourth Baronet had started at Kilcooley Abbey appeared for auction in Christies in London. Today the house and its grounds have become neglected and down at heel with mobile towers of security cameras providing protection. It was recently revealed that Kilcooley has been sold, so one hopes that this great house will now be restored and saved. However as of October 2015, Kilcooley is back on the market once more with the estate lands inflated to 1,200 acres through purchases of the current owner. Despite the expense incurred on the estate lands, the house and stable yard remain in a perilous state of decay. The Kilcooley estate now has a price tag of €8 million.



”the most sane fringe phenomena.”

The current New Yorker features a piece by Brooke Jarvis on the maybe-extinct, maybe-not Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine.

About fifteen years ago I had a cryptozoological phase, with occasional relapses. However, I can rarely get past the minimum viable population problem. Jarvis’ article is a witty and rather wise piece. The Tasmanian tiger’s continued existence is not that unlikely, and Jarvis cites the many examples of Lazarus species:

Tiger enthusiasts are quick to bring up Lazarus species—animals that were considered lost but then found—which in Australia include the mountain pygmy possum (known from fossils dating from the Pleistocene and long thought to be extinct, it was found in a ski lodge in 1966); the Adelaide pygmy blue-tongue skink (rediscovered in a snake’s stomach in 1992); and the bridled nailtail wallaby, which was resurrected in 1973, after a fence-builder read about its extinction in a magazine article and told researchers that he knew where some lived. In 2013, a photographer captured seventeen seconds of footage of the night parrot, whose continued existence had been rumored but unproven for almost a century. Sean Dooley, the editor of the magazine BirdLife, called the rediscovery “the bird-watching equivalent of finding Elvis flipping burgers in an outback roadhouse.” The parrots have since been found from one side of the continent to the other. Is it more foolish to chase what may be a figment, or to assume that our planet has no secrets left?

But there is also something to be said for the impatience expressed by Anna Povey here:

But some people erupted in frustration at the mention of the tiger. “We killed them off a hundred years ago and now, belatedly, we’re proud of the thylacine!” Anna Povey, who works in land conservation, nearly shouted. She wanted to know why the government fetishizes the tiger’s image when other animals, such as the eastern quoll—cute, fluffy, definitely alive, and definitely endangered—could still make use of the attention. I couldn’t help thinking of all the purported thylacine videos that are dismissed as “just” a quoll. “It does piss us off!” Povey said. “It’s about time to appreciate the things we have, Australia, my God! We still treat this place as if it was the time of the thylacines—as if it was a frontier and we can carry on taking over.”

Bob Brown, former leader of the Australian Greens, expands on this;

In the nineteen-seventies, Bob Brown, later a leader of the Australian Greens, a political party, spent two years as a member of a thylacine search team. He told me that although he’d like to think the fascination with thylacines is motivated by remorse and a desire for restitution, people’s guilt doesn’t seem to be reflected in the policies that they actually support. Logging and mining are major industries in Tasmania, and land clearing is rampant; even the forest where Naarding saw his tiger is gone. Throughout Australia, the dire extinction rate is expected to worsen. It is a problem of the human psyche, Brown said, that we seem to get interested in animals only as they slide toward oblivion

The whole thing is worth reading – it is a classic of a kind of New Yorker piece; erudite, witty, slightly detached but unexpectedly moving.

“Voyagers in the Vault of Heaven: The Phenomenon of Ships in the Sky in Medieval Ireland and Beyond” – a paper by Michael McCaughran links the Kilnaruane Pillar, Françoise Henry and Seamus Heaney

Via Medievalists.Net, I came across this paper from 1998
this paper (on page 175 of the PDF):

Abstract :

This paper explores the phenomenon of ships voyaging in the sky. Such fantastical sightings are considered primarily in an early medieval Irish context, but evidence from places as widely separated in time and place as thirteenth-century England and eighteenth-century Canada is also addressed. The earliest material representation of an Irish currach (skin boat) being rowed heavenwards is on an eighth-century carved stone pillar.

By connecting this iconographic evidence to the appearance of ships in the sky above a Celtic monastery, a framework is established from which to investigate the “airship” mirabilia. Understanding the cultural gulf that exists between medieval and modern thinking is central to the concept of “ships in the air.” The paper addresses the significance of the ship as an enduring cultural metaphor and religious symbol and affirms these meanings.


The paper begins:

The glories of early Christian Irish art are manifest
in preserved illuminated manuscripts,
intricate metalwork and the monumental carved
stone crosses, pillars and slabs that still survive
today in the countryside, churchyards and
monastic ruins of Ireland. While the richly
carved high crosses of the ninth and tenth
centuries, with their emphasis on figuration, are
the fullest expression of representational art,
earlier carved and incised stoneworks are no
less significant in terms of their iconography,
decoration and symbolism.’

The eighth-century Kilnaruane pillar stone
(Fig . 1), overlooking Bantry Bay in County Cork,
is of particular interest to maritime archeologists,
historians and ethnologists, because its
Christian-theme carvings include a unique preViking
depiction of the Irish skin-covered boat
known as a “currach.” Prior to the arrival of the
Vikings in the ninth and ninth centuries with
their advanced wooden boatbuilding technology,
the skin-covered currach was the common
seagoing craft of Ireland. It was of key importance
to the sea-connected Celtic Church and
figured prominently in the “immrama” or mystical
voyage tales of early Christian Ireland,
together with the story of St Brendan’s voyage
to the Promised Land, which achieved great
popularity in medieval Europe . Today the
currach, in its canvas-covered derivative form,
is still in use on the Atlantic seaboard of western
Ireland, where material remnants of the
European past often have found their last resting place.

The Kilnaruane pillar stone is new to me (I have only been to Bantry once, I am sorry to say) Here is an MA Thesis by Vanja Stojanovic from 2015 (from the University of Guelph in Canada) on the stone:

This thesis considers the iconography and site of the last-surviving (fragmentary)
standing cross in south-west Ireland: the Kilnaruane High Cross. Overlooking Bantry Bay atop a
hill in west Cork, this monument is situated within a rectilinear earth enclosure among a number
of stone fragments, including four corner posts of a tomb-shrine, two bullaun stones, and a
perforated pivot-stone. In addition, the following study reassesses the iconography on the northeast
and south-west faces of the high cross as well as the high cross itself in light of other
monumental high crosses, with a particular emphasis on its stylistic qualities, construction, and
dating. The results suggest that both the iconography and location of the Kilnaruane high cross
and site allude to a potential pilgrimage round located in the Bantry Bay area – situated, as it
were, on the periphery of peninsular Kerry and the thriving culture of seafaring voyage in the

Stojanovic provides a detailed review of the literature on this cross, relatively neglected. It features in the work of Francoise Henry:

Some fifteen years later, Françoise Henry would mention the high cross in her 1932
doctoral thesis La Sculpture Irlandise Pendant les Douze Premiers Siècles de l’ètre Chrétienne
which was subsequently published in 1933.16 In her 1940 book Irish Art in the Early Christian
Period, Henry would again include the high cross in a short paragraph.17 While Crawford
describes snakes and sea-horses in the upper-most part of the south-west face, Henry suggests “snake-like beasts arranged swastika-fashion,” and curiously enough, would completely omit the
Greek cross where Crawford had accurately recognized it.”
18 Alternatively, the orans figure does
not go unnoticed, but is described as a familiar image of early Christian iconography found
abroad and in various mediums, including the Roman catacombs and some sarcophagi, but
Henry does not offer any specific examples in this regard.19 In addition to the descriptions,
Henry also provides some brief iconographic interpretations. For example, the cruciform above
the rudder “can leave little doubt that we have a representation of the boat of the church,” and
Crawford’s ‘two figures holding an object between them,’ Henry corrects as a “crude
representation of St Paul and St Anthony kneeling on both sides of the wafer-shaped bread
brought to them by the bird.”20 It is clear that Henry was familiar with the iconography of Saint
Jerome’s (c.347-420) fourth-century Vita Pauli from which the story of the two saints originates.

Henry was also the first to recognize the weathered image of the boat and five oarsmen
on the north-east face where Lewis, Windele, and Crawford had not. The uniqueness of the
image is clear in Henry’s commentary: “The unexpected thing about it is that it shoots straight
upwards amidst a sea of crosses…very literally portrayed as sailing to Heaven.”21 Additionally,
other significant contributions by Henry include: the observation of two ‘incisions’ on top of the
shaft and the suggestion of an eighth-century date of origin based on stylistic and iconographic
affinities to comparable examples, particularly to the realism of the Ahenny Cross, Co. Tipperary

Ahenny was Henry’s introduction to High Crosses, when a friend from the area brought her to the crosses there.

Back to McCaughran:

In charting the Irish phenomenon of “ships
in the air,” the first task is to assemble core
accounts and descriptions from documentary
sources. References in the Annals of Ulster
(quoted above) and the Annals of Ireland, otherwise
known as the Annals of the Four
Masters, are characteristically brief. The latter
records that in “The Age of Christ 743 ships
with their crews were plainly seen in the sky
this year.”” Allowing for historical disparity
this entry may well be referring to the same
event that the Annals of Ulster record as having
occurred over Clonmacnoise in 749. Early
Christian and medieval Ireland was particularly
rich in miraculous happenings and the
appearance of airships was only one example
of a large number of wonderful events recorded
in the annals and other primary sources. Many
of these “wonders” of Ireland, or “mirabilia,”
were sky-related and included a steeple of fire
in the air, a cross raised up in the air, together
with showers of silver, honey and blood.
12 In
the ninteenth century and early years of the present
century, Kuno Meyer and other Celtic
scholars researched the primary sources of the
Irish “mirabilia” and published annotated translations
of these accounts of wonders, including
the sighting of ships in the air.
13 It is clear from
this material that airships made appearances at
two key locations, namely the monastery of
Clonmacnoise and the important gathering fair
of Tailltenn, now Teltown, in County Meath.

McCaughran , as Vanja Stojanovic, ultimately focuses on literary rather than archaeological sources, and links the mirabila to a mindset we find difficult to enter into. McCaughran cites Seamus Heaney’s work as something of an exception, suggesting perhaps that this “medieval” mindset is not so far away as all that:

Despite their variations, these chronicles
have common characteristics and share a number
of features that are readily identifiable :
” Extraordinary happenings are regarded
as actual historical events and are transmitted
during the Middle Ages as fact, not fiction,
despite their supernatural dimension.
” The events are witnessed by numerous
people, both secular (Teltown) and religious
(Clonmacnoise) .
” Seen from the ground, vessels are floating
in the air above.
Seen from the vessels, the air between
them and the ground below is perceived as
water in which fish swim and which enables
the vessels to float above a submarine world.
” This air/water is life-giving oxygen to
the people on the ground, but is lifethreatening
water to the swimming aircrew who
almost drown.
” Air/water is the common element, which
envelopes both ground people and sky people,
as the heights above and the depths below.
Essentially the central theme of the “airship”
mirabilia is that, not only is an inversion
of the natural order of things possible, but that
the natural order of things can be perceived
from complementary perspectives and that
simultaneously the marvellous is both in the
world and out of the world.

A modern Irish reworking of this medieval
wonder theme can be located in the luminous
poetry of Seamus Heaney, who draws on the
experience of living in Ireland, past and present,
and imagines it into the universal. More than
twenty years before he was awarded the Nobel
Literature Prize in 1995, Heaney wrote: “I have
always listened for poems, they come sometimes
like bodies out of a bog, almost complete,
seeming to have been laid down a long time ago,
surfacing with a touch of mystery . . .my quest
for definition, while it may lead backward, is
conducted in the living speech of the landscape
I was born into. “19

The dualism of much
of Heaney’s poetry, the imaginative tensions
between what is and what might be, is manifest
in a wonderfully fluid poem that navigates
the marvellous encounter between the monks
of Clonmacnoise and the airship that appeared
above them while at their prayers .20
After telling how the ship’s anchor hooked
itself by accident into the altar rails of the oratory
and “the big hull rocked to a standstill,” a
crewman came down from the ship to free the
anchor, but it was no good. The abbot said “this
man can’t bear our life here and will drown,”
so the monks helped to release him and the
ship . As the fantastic ship resumes its aerial voyage,
our world view is transfigured by the poet,
for “the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed
back/Out of the marvellous as he had known it .”

The twentieth-century mindset, cultured in
post-Enlightenment quasi-rationalist and scientific
thinking, often has difficulty in comprehending
the cultural frames of older, simpler societies,
where the distinctions between reality and the
marvellous are blurred and where transitions
between them are normal and natural. In a
recent investigative journey through the European
Middle Ages, Christopher Frayling has delineated
the great gulf between modern and
medieval thinking. “Today,” he writes, “there is
an assumption that beneath the surface things
are fundamentally incoherent (part of a chaosmos),
whereas then there was an assumption that
beneath the surface things were fundamentally
coherent (part of a cosmos) – a reflection of the
will of God.

1121 In this earlier world, a symbolic
framework of order and structure was predicated
on belief and faith in the transcendent
God. The medieval view of the universe was
essentially Platonic and Biblical in origin . In it the
heavens, the earth and all creation were ranged
in an unalterable, hierarchical and interlocking
system of order, from the angels down to man
– for whom the world existed – and thence
to the flora and fauna and all living things

The Heaney poem quoted is from his sequence Squarings, specifically the eighth poem of the section “Lightenings”:

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.