Patrician and Early Christian Architecture

c. 450 to 1111 CE

The earliest architecture in Ireland is that associated with the Celtic church, established by St.Patrick about the middle of the fifth century, which flourished for over 600 years until the early 1100s. Written records testify to the existence of at least 103 monastic and other Christian communities throughout the country. At the Synod of Rathbreasail in 1111, the Irish decided to adopt continental patterns of service and church administration which though they brought the Celtic church into line with Europe also meant an end to its independence.

Though modest in scale, early Irish monasteries were normally formed out of a combination of four distinctive architectural elements: a small single-cell, stone-built church; a detached round tower; a monumental high cross; and an enclosing wall or ditch of oval or circular form.

In Ireland a large circular enclosure, a cashel, rath or ring fort, had provided the characteristic form for any settlement from the Bronze Age onwards. The Celtic church simply took over this form for its own use. An important monastery might include several individual churches and crosses. Monasterboice founded by St. Buite in Co. Louth is a fine example. Glendalough, founded by St.Kevin in Co. Wicklow, and Clonmacnoise, founded by St.Ciaran in Co. Offaly, are among the most impressive.


Glendalough Village

This photo shows the remains of the early Irish religious community in Glendalough in Co. Wicklow. This monastic site includes a round tower in the centre of the photograph and chapel to the left of the graveyard which was founded by St. Kevin in the sixth century. The round tower was a defensive monument in that it served as a look out for the danger of the Norsemen and a safe keep for valuable religious artefacts. At the same time it was a monument of pacifism and retreat. Glendalough monastery was founded by St. Kevin in the 6th century. As this time the valley would have been a place of complete retreat and isolation from the outside world.

Glendalough Village -

Oratory of Gallarus

A photograph of the Oratory of Gallarus located on Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry

Oratory of Gallarus -

Staigue Fort

This is one of the best examples of a cashel even though there are many larger ones to be found around the country. It is called the Staigue Fort and it is situated in Co. Kerry. This structure is almost round and is about 114 feet in diameter. The walls of the fort reach 18 feet high in some places. What is most notable about this cashel is the design in which the ring has been constructed. There is a double series of zig-zag steps up along the inside walls of the fort. These dwellings were used to defend the inhabitants from oncoming attack.

Staigue Fort -

St. Kevin's church, Glendalough

St.Kevin's church and, in the background, the Round Tower at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow

St. Kevin's church, Glendalough -

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