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.