Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Clonfert Cathedral, County Galway

For daily updates on Ireland's wonderful heritage please follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Instagram

Clonfert Cathedral in County Galway is probably best known for its amazing doorway, the finest example of Romanesque architecture in Ireland. The Romanesque style of architecture was influenced by classical Roman and Byzantine architecture, and generally dates to the early medieval period, some time between the 8th - 11th Centuries AD across the continent. It appears a little later in Ireland, and seems to coincide with large scale reforms of the Irish church in the twelfth century. The Irish builders incorporated their own styles with Romanesque to create a hybrid of the two, which is known as Hiberno-Romanesque architecture. 

A close-up of the carved heads

The doorway at Clonfert is in six ‘orders’ and has inclined jambs. Above the doorway, a steep triangular pediment is covered with Romanesque decoration showing animal heads, foliage, zig-zags, chevrons, but most striking of all are the individually carved human heads.

The wonderfully ornate Romanesque decoration
However striking, the Romanesque doorway was a late addition onto a church that was already famous in Ireland. It is referred to in the annals before 1050 as one of the four largest churches in the country (Annals of the Four Masters, Annals of Inishfallen, Chronicon Scotorum). Clonfert is associated with Saint Brendan, he is said to have founded a monastery here in the sixth century. Brendan is known as The Navigator, and is one of the most famous of Ireland’s monastic saints. 

A ninth century book The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator records his legendary journey to ‘The Isle of the Blessed’, a journey that involves sea monsters, strange islands and their inhabitants and that some people even believe to suggest that Brendan was the first European to discover America! There are no remains of Brendan’s monastic site visible at Clonfert, though a gravestone in the churchyard marks the spot where he is allegedly buried.

15th Century sculpture, note the mermaid at the base
As you pass through the doorway into the cathedral you can notice that the innermost part of the doorway is a later medieval (around the fifteenth century) addition, carved of grey limestone in contrast to the sandstone of the flamboyant Romanesque door. Much of the fine carvings and archway in the interior are also of fifteenth century date, and see if you can find a charming carving of a mermaid dating to this period too. She is similar to that at nearby Clontuskert.  
Clonfert is certainly worth a visit to see the spectacular Romanesque doorway and the wealth of later fifteenth century sculpture inside. You’ll find it around 15km south-east of Ballinasloe, when you get to Laurencetown it is signposted down a minor road to the east off the R355 (Ballinasloe – Portumna Road). At co-ordinates 53.240651, -8.058621.

You can find more information about Clonfert from their website http://www.clonfertdiocese.ie


The interior of Clonfert

If you have a suggestion for a site I’d love to hear it, please let us know by dropping us a line at info@abartaaudioguides.com or on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Instagram where you can keep up with daily pictures and information about Ireland's wonderful heritage sites.If you'd like to support us please consider downloading one of our audioguides from www.abartaaudioguides.com, they are packed with great facts, information, stories and legends from Ireland's iconic sites. They are designed to be fun and informative whether you are visiting the sites or from the comfort of your own home, so if you are looking to escape to the Court of Brian Boru the next time you are doing household chores download one of our guides and let us whisk you off to ancient Ireland!