Architecture - Early Christian and Medieval Period


No wooden churches have survived from the early Christian period. On the rocky crag of Skellig Michael (see page 139) off the Kerry coast there is a group of oratories and beehive huts, all built according to the corbel technique, forming a primitive monastery. On the mainland in Co. Kerry, Gallarus Oratory is of a similar construction. While these buildings may be as late as the 12th century, their mode of construction still shows Stone Age influences. The earliest stone churches are small, simple structures, with little or no ornamentation. Very few of them date from before AD 900.

The Irish round tower is found in many parts of the country. These towers, built from the 10th to 12th centuries, are tall slender stone structures, tapering inwards at the top, with a conical roof. They are frequently more than 30 metres high. Round towers are found on monastic sites and their primary purpose seems to have been to serve as bell-towers. However, the raised level of the doorway indicates that they may also have had defensive uses.

The first examples of Romanesque architecture in Ireland date from the 12th century. Influenced by the highly decorated churches found elsewhere in Europe, this style of architecture reflects increasing contact with the outside world. The finest example is Cormacís Chapel on the Rock of Cashel in Co. Tipperary. Although Irish churches remained small in scale, they were renowned for the intricate sculpture found on the doorways and chancel arches. Much use is made of traditional motifs, such as interlace and animal patterns, both seen to full effect on the spectacular portal at Clonfert cathedral.

The new monastic orders which arrived in the 12th and 13th centuries - Cistercians, Dominicans, Franciscans - had a major influence on architecture. They built larger cruciform churches with side aisles separated by arcades. Adjoining the church, the domestic buildings were grouped around a cloister.

From the arrival of the Anglo-Normans onwards Irish architecture was strongly influenced by England. Great new cathedrals in the early Gothic style were constructed by the Normans in the main towns. These were distinguished by the use of pointed arches. Among the finest examples are the two Dublin cathedrals, Christ Church and St Patrickís (see page 11), both completed in the first half of the 13th century.

The earliest fortifications built by the Normans were earthen mounds with wooden fortifications on top. Within a short time they were building more substantial stone castles, such as those at Trim in Co. Meath and Carrickfergus in Co. Antrim, each having a massive rectangular keep. The 15th century castle at Cahir in Co. Tipperary, surrounded by high enclosing walls and defended by eight towers, is the most impressive of the surviving feudal strongholds.

The early 15th century saw the emergence of the tower house. This was a stone rectangular fortified residence of many storeys and there are hundreds of examples dotted around the countryside. A particularly elaborate example of the tower house is Bunratty Castle in Co. Clare, now completely restored. Tower houses continued to be built in great numbers throughout the 16th and early 17th centuries, a turbulent period in Irish history. There is also an impressive group of semi-fortified mansions, influenced by the architecture of Tudor England. Relatively few buildings of this period survive in Irish towns, but a well-preserved example is Rothe House in Kilkenny. It gives some idea of the fine merchantsí houses which must have lined the city streets of the period: it is a three-storey stone building fronting on to the street, with arcades leading into courtyards. The house reflects the English urban architecture of the period.


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