Inishmurray: monks and pilgrims in an Atlantic landscape

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2009), Medieval History (pre-1500), Reviews, Volume 17

Inishmurray: monks and pilgrims in an Atlantic landscape
Volume 1: Archaeological survey and excavations 1997–2000.
Jerry O’Sullivan and Tomás Ó Carragáin
(Collins Press, €49.95)
ISBN 9781905172474

The remains on Inishmurray, described by Lord Dunraven as ‘the most characteristic example now in existence of the earliest monastic establishments in Ireland’, consist of a central cashel containing an important early church and a constellation of ten smaller monuments around the rim of the island. In this superbly written work, Jerry O’Sullivan and Tomás Ó Carragáin, very experienced archaeologists with exemplary publication records, present the archaeological, architectural and textual results of a series of surveys and excavations carried out between 1997 and 2000. The work deals with the ecclesiastical history of the island, the 1998–9 survey and the excavations between 1997 and 2000, with a final chapter on interpreting the ecclesiastical landscape as well as a postscript on the management of the site. The last chapter is essential reading for anyone with an interest in Irish pilgrimage, demonstrating the medieval origin of both the pilgrimage round and the tradition of the ‘cursing stones’.
Six separate archaeological excavations were conducted, all to the highest standards, between 1997 and 2000. Four sites, a leacht at Trahanareear, a cemetery at Templenaman, a double enclosure at Relickoran and a leacht and enclosure at Ollamurray, were dug or partially dug as a result of erosion and to facilitate later reconstruction, while a collapsed leacht at Laghta Patrick and a suspected horizontal mill site at Fál an Mhuilinn were dug for research purposes. It seems that the leachta are contemporaneous and were all originally built as part of the penitential circuit around the island. Relickoran, the cemetery of Odrán, proved to be a unique site containing two phases of burial. One of these pre-dated the enclosure and, although undated, may relate to the earliest phase of monastic settlement. In an example of good practice, some areas of the site were left unexcavated for future scholars. More questionably, however, the excavated sites were rebuilt out of harm’s way. The rebuilding process was not fully recorded and the new Ollamurray in particular bears little or no resemblance to the original site.
The book’s main weaknesses are to be found in the survey section and the postscript on heritage management. From the authors’ notes and a close inspection of the available photographs it is clear that many monuments have been substantially rebuilt quite recently by the architectural branch of the OPW, compromising the value of the survey. The authors mention the damage but do not show which elements of the monuments have been rebuilt, and two separate photographs of the leacht (pp 13 and 104) known as Clocha Breaca (with the famous speckled stones) show that the outer skin of the monument has been rebuilt without the authors noticing. It is not clear to which version (old or new) their diagrams and descriptions refer. The postscript should also have highlighted the need to guarantee that all work is fully recorded. The book’s mission statement is to provide a baseline survey for future heritage management, and the quality of the research and presentation in the current volume will make the Inishmurray monuments into ‘anchor sites’ for the study of medieval monasticism, so these are major omissions. Investigating previous interventions and conservation work is now a normal part of international best practice.
The authors note that the monuments enjoy the highest level of statutory protection, but this does not protect them from ill-thought-out interventions by the state bodies charged with their care. Textual scholars would not consider allowing original sources to be ‘restored’ without any public record of the process, and unrecorded reconstruction can compromise entire areas of research in the same way as the destruction and rewriting of an early manuscript. In an important discussion on leachta the authors use the relationship between the main leacht and the main oratory on Skellig Michael as an example. Sadly, the monuments were ‘conserved’ in the 1980s and no detailed information is available on the reconstruction, so we can’t usefully compare them to anything. Diagrams from the 1950s and a photograph in the recently published Cambridge History of Ireland show the area before ‘conservation work’ and there have clearly been major changes, but we can’t tell how extensive these have been.
This issue isn’t new, even on Inishmurray. Wakeman’s original survey of the island was a response to an early bout of ‘restoration’ in 1880–1. Anderson, commenting on Inishmurray in the Archaeological Review of May 1888, noted that ‘Misapplied zeal in “restoration” is fatal to the interest of such structures, either as national monuments or materials of science’. The lesson was not learned. The same mistakes have since been repeated on Skellig Michael, at Cormac’s Chapel and hundreds of other monuments around the country. The only change has been in the approach taken by modern archaeologists and academics, who seem far less willing to confront the state than their predecessors of 120 years ago. HI

Michael Gibbons is a member of the Institute of Irish Archaeologists and a former coordinator of the OPW’s Sites and Monuments Record Office.

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