On a recent sojourn in the Boglands, I detoured to this wonderful little church just a short distance from the mighty Shannon.
The townland was Clonfert, three miles west of Banagher and just inside the Galway county boundary. Once the centre of a monastic settlement of some three thousand monks, nowadays it’s a sleepy little backwater.
The monastic settlement was founded by St Brendan in 577AD. A much-travelled fellow and no stranger to the high seas, some people believe he was the first mariner to traverse the Atlantic to America’s shores.
Nothing remains of St Brendan’s settlement now, though a gravestone marks was is believed to be his burial place in the church grounds.
Centuries later, in 1167, the Cistercian abbot, Petrus O Mórdha, built the stone church which is now known as Clonfert Cathedral.
The Romanesque doorway is the most outstanding feature of this church and the main reason for my detour.
Made largely sandstone, it is now in an extremely delicate state. There have been some efforts made to address that, in recent years, but, encrusted as it is with lichen, and braving all the elements, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps a perspex enclosure of some sort might be in order to help preserve this wonderful structure.
The carvings depict all manner of creatures, including cats, and other creatures reminiscent of some Polynesian totem pole carvings.
The limestone jamb was a later addition to the seven sandstone orders.
In reference, most likely, to Brendan`s sea voyages, it included a carving of a mermaid at it’s apex who didn’t seem in the least bit pertubed to be some forty miles away from the sea.
This more modern arch has not suffered as poor a fate as its sandstone neighbours but I puzzled over the carvings at eyelevel on either side of the doorway.
Could this shamrock-bearing person be St. Patrick, perhaps?
And is this St. Brendan?
One of the joys of history lies in teasing out such puzzles.
The church itself, once a bastion of Catholicism, has been in Protestant hands since the time of the Reformation. And the graveyard displays the best aspects of ecumenism with Catholics and Protestants, tenants and landlords buried side by side.
And yes, that is a fallen tombstone you see there.
Inclement weather in recent times included a mini cyclone which hit Clonfert with full force. Indeed, rambling around the graveyard, it appears as if a dervish has been let loose on the place as several gravestones had been felled, along with trees, and a considerable chunk of wall.
Which brought home to me once again, how delicate a structure the Romanesque doorway is and how exposed it is to the ravages of time, climate and, indeed, curious visitors like myself.
The Heritage Council have surveyed it and made recommendations for it’s upkeep. Here’s hoping some decent funding follows as an investment in such treasures from our past will be a wonderful investment for our future generations.
Craftsmen astound me. They had a real talent. I bet there is a whole load of history and stories that are told there without us having any idea!
This is wonderful, RH. I particularly love the stone carvings – and they are reminiscent of totem poles – great post. 🙂
What a beautiful church!
Beautiful! I would love to travel there and see all those amazing yet often unknown out-of-the-way places.
That’s really intriguing RH. What a doorway! I don’t suppose the architect thought 900 years ahead when choosing his materials. There’s no doubt that the damage would be far worse at this stage if it had been subject to city pollution. Try finding a stonemason with that sort of skill these days. The Middle Ages must have been full of them.
It has been years since I’d last seen that doorway Roy and it was just so wonderful to photograph it now. I hope you’re getting plenty of use out of your camera in Jersey. Photography-yes, even my very untutored use of it-really has helped me observe and appreciate everything a whole lot more.
And yes, it’s always interesting to think about the people who built these wonderful buildings so long ago and imagine what their perspective might have been on everything.