'One Great Irish Spot': Gallarus Oratory on the Dingle Peninsula

I knew it was somewhere on the mountain, part of a ruined monastic site. It’s a tiny, boatshaped, Celtic Christian church. I set out on a damp day to find it, climbing the narrow roads above  Smerwick Harbour. I was seventeen then, on a scholarship to the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht to learn Irish. There’s a coach park below the oratory now, and loos and a shop, and marked paths leading to a restored enclosure. But on that first day I found it in a high, boggy field with long grass growing round its walls.

It’s entirely made of stone. The doorway looks out to the ocean. The curved walls rise to a low ridge, running from front to back, like the keel of an upturned boat. The corner stones of the walls are neatly angled and jointed, narrowing from the base to the smooth line of the roof. The doorway’s in the west gable, narrowing from the base to the heavy stone lintel. The threshold’s a stone flag. That day, as I waded towards it through wet grass, it seemed dank as a cave. The walls were speckled with grey and yellow lichen. Heavy, grey clouds hung over the mountain. The ocean was a dull, pewter colour and the air I breathed was thick with moisture.

Inside the oratory the weight of the stone roof and walls seems to hold you fixed against the earth. As you stand on the threshold, light slants down onto your face through a single window high on the opposite gable. There’s no evidence of an altar. On the east gable are mounts for a hanging lamp or a book. On the inner face of the doorway the stones are grooved to hold a door frame. When the heavy, timber door was closed the space would have felt smaller still. I don’t know if one monk or nun lived in it, or if it was used as a church. But whoever prayed there would have been utterly focused on prayer. And intensely aware, at the same time, of light rippling on the ocean beyond the enclosing walls.

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Tags: Corca Dhuibhne, Dingle, Gaeilge, Gallarus, Kerry, St. Patrick's Day

Comment by Gerry Regan on March 24, 2014 at 3:48pm

I've often found myself wondering about the geography -- and geometry -- of intense and contemplative prayer, as found in the many makeshift -- and sometimes more permanent -- hermitages described in ecclesiastical biographies. With this, Felicity, I finally feel able to understand the nature and appeal and mindset of such solitude. Go raibh maith agat!

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