Churches in Early Medieval Ireland: Architecture, Ritual and Memory

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Churches in Early Medieval Ireland: Architecture, Ritual and Memory. By Tomás Ó Carragáin. (New Haven: Yale University Press. 2010. Pp. xvi, 392. $100.00. ISBN 978-0-300-15444-3.)

This is a marvelous book. It is big and beautiful, with many full or half-page photos of churches and other monuments (obviously taken on Ireland's few sunny days). Although there are plenty of archaeological and architectural details in its pages, the text is no mere catalog of digs and ruins. Instead, in a persuasive and lively analysis of Christian architecture in early-medieval Ireland, Ó Carragáin fearlessly tackles some of the big questions of Irish medieval history- the kind that used to cause fistfights at Celtic studies conferences. One of the biggest is: Why did the Irish build the same kind of tiny, primitive-looking houses of worship over seven centuries? Tomás Ó Carragáin not only answers this question but also explains how the Irish built their religion, why they chose to build and practice as they did, and how their version of Christianity changed in some ways but not in others during the early Middle Ages.

Ó Carragáin begins in the fifth century when Britons such as St. Patrick first began to preach in Ireland. Previous scholars assumed that the earliest founders of Irish ecclesiastical communities relied on indigenous technologies such as the drystone corbelling used in prehistoric tombs, to build sturdy little stone churches in native style. For instance, the strangely boat-shaped Gallaras oratory in County Kerry, well-known to tourists and recipients of their postcards, was assumed to be a relic of the earliest days of Christianization. As Ó Carragáin shows, however, Christian builders first peppered the island with wood, turf, and wattled churches that they constructed in (what they imagined to be) Roman forms and according to (what they interpreted as) biblical principles. Then, beginning in the seventh century or so, the most prosperous and powerful church settlements (such as Armagh and Kildare) replaced wood churches with mortared stone structures or added new stone churches to the collection of monuments already standing within their circular enclosing walls. Yet even when working in stone, builders stuck to the same familiar rectangular shape, adding steep roofs and old-fashioned antae, because these features recalled the golden age of conversion and saintly foundation. Although other European Christians constantly updated their church architecture, the Irish remained stubbornly attached to their small, unicameral, rectangular buildings well into the second Christian millennium. …