Monday, December 7, 2015

Carrowntemple - Early Christian Enclosure

Grave Slab 2 - Carrowntemple
My recent posts dealt with Boyle and Cloonshanville Abbeys so I thought I would continue the monastic theme by including the early Christian site at Carrowntemple, near the village of Gurteen, Co Sligo, in my blog. There is an excellent piece about this early church on the Lough Gara Lakes and Legends website.

There were originally two enclosures around the Carrowntemple complex but both are now partly demolished. The area of the inner enclosure is 0.4 ha. (1 acre) while the outer enclosure has an area of 6 ha. (15 acres). At the centre of the inner enclosure are the remains of a plain medieval parish church measuring 9.40m by 6.40m still standing 3.10m high. This church is probably on the site of earlier wooden churches going back in time to the foundation of the monastery. The church had a single-light east window.

Grave Slab 3 - Carrowntemple
Souterrains or underground chambers to the west of the church ruins would have been used for storage and refuge in times of trouble.

Over the years fourteen stone grave slabs, dating from the early Christian period, were found mainly to the south and east of the church within the old graveyard. In 1984 five of these slabs were removed from the graveyard. These were recovered in 1986 and, later that year, the remaining exposed slabs on site were taken into care by Sligo County Council.

Grave Slab 5 - Carowntemple
Between 1990 and 1992 Cillian Rogers made replicas of the slabs for the Council and these are well worth a visit. The finance for this project was provided by the National Heritage Council. Two of the original slabs have been on display in the National Museum of Ireland.

Martin Timoney, archaeologist, states that the Carrowntemple grave slabs are surprising in two ways:

“Firstly, how so many superb slabs did not come to archaeological notice until 1973 is simply amazing. Secondly, some of the designs are outstanding, even unique, for many reasons.”

Moylough Belt-Shrine
He points out that two of the slabs (No’s. 2 and 3), bear art of the Early Christian period that is derived from the Celtic art of the preceding Pagan Iron Age. One of these is very close to a design in the book of Durrow and is datable to c. 650 AD. Several of the panels of the seventh century Moylough Belt-shrine, found only a few miles west of Carrowntemple, have this same mix of Pagan and Christian artwork. Some of the slabs are linked by their designs and so a 7th and 8thcentury date has been accepted for many of the slabs.

Grave Slab 6 - Carrowntemple
Half of a cylindrical plinth stone, thought to have been used to hold erect the double-sided No 10 slab was found. The designs are considered to be much more elaborate than those of any other Co Sligo grave slab of the period with the exception of those on Inishmurray. On slabs 3,4,5,6,8 and 11 it is the band and not the groove that forms the design.

The Carrowntemple grave slabs raise interesting questions about the transition between pagan Ireland and the arrival of Christianity. Edel Bhreathnach’s excellent book “Ireland in the Medieval World AD 400-1000” provides some valuable insights into this period.

The coming of Christianity to the island is traditionally linked to St. Patrick, who is said to have converted the Irish during the early fifth century. However, Palladius was sent by Pope Celestine a year earlier in AD431, to minister as bishop ‘to the Irish believing in Christ’. Scholars believe that the existence of Christian communities in Ireland was known to Rome at this time.

Patrick left an account of his mission in two important Latin documents, his Confessio, which was a defence of his mission against critics in Britain, and his Epistola, a letter condemning a British king, Coroticus, for attacking and enslaving some of his newly converted Christian flock.

Christianity in early medieval Ireland was administered by bishops, priests and abbots, some in orders, others who were lay people. All kinds of church buildings were constructed from simple post and wattle structures to larger stone churches and monumental enclosures.

The two prevalent burial types in Ireland from the late centuries BC and early centuries AD were cremations and inhumations, with the former more prevalent in the early period and inhumation becoming common into the first millennium AD.  Interestingly, cremation did not become obsolete, and instances of this practice have been dated to as late as the eight century.

For Christian and non-Christians alike, death, burial, and the subsequent treatment of the dead, were purely matters for the family. The Christian clergy were not involved at all and pagans and Christians were buried alongside one and other in family graves.

However, during the fifth and sixth centuries, burial practices for the nobility - clerics, kings and other aristocrats – began to change. This was due to what has been described as the cult of saints. Early Christians believed that by being buried near a holy grave they could hope to stand beside the saint on the day of the resurrection. The practice of burying people inside city walls developed, so that they could rest near the altars of urban churches.

Grave Slab 10 - Carrowntemple
Irish society of the early medieval period very gradually progressed from ancestral and familial rites to rites and cemeteries controlled by the church. Often these practices were not mutually exclusive. Some non-Christian funerary customs continued to be practised, including burial in cemeteries not obviously associated with a church.

It is not until at least the eight century, when the church exerted its influence more widely, that it is possible to classify with some certainty the difference between a Christian and non-Christian burial or cemetery.

The Christian rituals most prominent in St. Patrick’s Confessio and Epistola are the rites of baptism and confirmation which were rites of passage and initiation. Christian baptism, conferred a new identity on Patrick’s followers that, in the fifth century, would have probably set them apart from their own society, thereby, creating a community within a community.

Scholars believe that wells were used instead of baptisteries in Ireland, which may explain the proliferation of holy wells throughout the country. Holy wells are thought to have been sacred places in pre-Christian times and may have continued to be associated with non-Christian rituals.
 St Attracta's Holy Well - Clogher

Carrowntemple, with its intricately carved Early Christian grave slaps derived from the Celtic art of the preceding Pagan Iron Age, offers a glimpse of the intersection of these two important periods in the history of Ireland.

For further information please see:
Bhreathnach, Edel, ‘Ireland in the Medieval World AD 400-1000’ (Four Courts Press 2014)

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