Thursday, October 23, 2008
The great duns of the west coast such as Dun Angus and Dun Conor on the Aran Islands in Galway Bay. They date from around 0 to 300 AD. They consist of enormously thick walls of stone so cleverly put together that even without cement they are impregnable. They are so thick that there are sometimes passages inside them. They surround an amphitheater 1000 feet in diameter. In the amphitheater there are small stone huts, some bee-hive shaped and some shaped like an upturned boat. They are said to be the homes of the Firbolgs  who were driven out of the western islands of Scotland, (to which they had been driven many centuries earlier from Ireland) back to Ireland and unwelcome there they were eventually driven farther and farther west until they settled off the coast in Aran and around the coast of the mainland.
The structural antiquities which we can still observe in Ireland arrange themselves under five heads : cromlechs, tumuli, the great duns of the west, ancient churches, and round towers.
The cromlechs, sometimes called dolmen, are each composed of three great standing stones, ten or twelve feet high with a great flat slab resting on top of them, and always inclined towards the east. Sometimes these are surrounded by a wide circle of standing stones. The cromlechs are of such very remote antiquity - ancient - at the beginning of the Christian era - that all legends of them are lost. The invariable inclination to the east of the covering slab suggests altars dedicated to sun-worship. The name cromlech may mean either bent slab or the slab of the god Crom. And this latter derivation suggests to some that they were sacrificial altars used in the very ancient worship of that god.
But some of the best authorities have concluded that they were tombstones - because beneath every one of them under which excavations were made, were found the bones, or the urns and dust of the dead. From this, however, we cannot necessarily conclude that they were erected as tombstones - any more than we should conclude that the various Christian temples and altars under which honoured ones have been interred were only intended as monuments to the dead beneath them.
The tumuli or enormous burial mounds found in the Boyne section of eastern Ireland show the race in a much more advanced stage of civilisation. These tumuli, as proved by the decorative designs carved upon their walls, were erected at least before the Christian era - and maybe many centuries before it. They are great stone roofed royal sepulchres, buried under vast regularly shaped, artificial mounds. Every one of the tumuli so far explored has shown urn burial. The greatest, most beautiful, of these royal tombs are those as Knowth, Dowth and New Grange, on the Boyne.
After the tumuli, the next structures in order of time are the great duns of the west coast, such as Dun Angus, and Dun Conor, on the Aran Islands in Galway Bay. The great duns were erected sometime during the first three centuries of the Christian era. They consist of enormously thick walls, of stone, which, though built before the discovery of any kind of cement, are of marvelously fine, firm and impregnable construction. These great walls, in the interior of which are sometimes chambers and passages, surround an amphitheatre of about a thousand feet in diameter. In the amphitheatre are stone huts, the residences of the dun - some of them are bee-hive shape, some of them are of the shape of an upturned boat. Tradition says that these great duns were erected by the Firbolgs who maintained themselves along the western fringe for long centuries after the Milesians possessed themselves of the land.
About the round towers, the antiquarians are now pretty generally agreed that they are of Christian origin always built as adjuncts to churches, and erected after the marauding Danes had shown the harassed ecclesiastics the need of some immediate, strong, and easily defended place of refuge for themselves, and of safety for the sacred objects, and the rich objects of church art which the Northmen constantly sought. The round towers of Ireland range in height from about a hundred to a hundred and twenty feet; they are from twelve to twenty feet in external diameter at the base, and a little narrower at the top. They are of six or seven storeys high; with one window usually to each floor - except in the upper most storey which has four. The lowermost of these openings is always about ten feet or more from the ground - giving good advantage over attackers. The walls are usually three and a half to four foot thick.
There are still eighty round towers in Ireland, twenty of them perfect. They are always found in connection with churches - and almost invariably situated about twenty feet from the north west corner of the church - and with the door or lowermost window facing the church entrance. Almost all of the earliest Irish churches were of wood. It was practically in the tenth century that the use of stone for building the large churches began. And it was only in the eleventh and twelfth centuries that it became general. In these last named centuries the Romanesque style was introduced, and some beautiful churches erected, like that of St Caimin at Inniscaltra by Brian Boru, and Cormac’s chapel at Cashel. In the decorating of doorways and windows, sculpture began to show in the churches of the tenth century. But Irish sculpture is best exemplified probably on the high crosses of the tenth, eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries. There are some forty five of these high crosses still remaining, most of them very beautiful There was an Irish cross, having the circle of the Greek cross placed upon the shafts of the Latin. The sculpture on the high crosses include carvings of the saints, scriptural scenes, judgment scenes, royal processions, hunting scenes, stags at bay, horsemen, chariots etc
The sculpture of the Irish at this period was infinitely superior to that produced by their neighbours, the Welsh, the Anglo Saxons and the Scottish. But the soul of the artist breathed through the work of the Irish sculptor.
Aengus M'Uathamore, a distinguished Firbolg chief of the 1st century, who after the battle of Moytura, where the Firbolgs were defeated by the Tuatha-de-Dananns, took refuge in the Aran Islands with his brother Conor. Meave, Queen of Connaught, granted them the islands. He is generally reputed to have been the builder of Dun Aengus, the great fort on Aranmore, upon the summit of the southern cliffs, 300 feet above the sea. Its sea front measures about 1,150 feet. The walls are some 13 feet thick and 18 feet high. The land approaches are defended by rude chevaux-de-frise of splintered rocks. Sir William Wilde characterized this fort as " the greatest barbaric monument of its kind in Europe." A fort on Inismaan is called Dun Conor, after Aengus' brother Conor; while the name of his brother Mil is associated with the strand of Port Murvey, known in Irish as Muirveagh Mil, or " The sea-plain of Mil."