A Quirky Case of Early Medieval Ecclesiastical Propaganda [Part 2]

(Continued from Part 1)

My last post examined a recent reference to early medieval hagiographical material by modern ecclesiastical figures. Divorced from its original setting and ecclesiastical milieu, the episode in question ended up losing much of its intended meaning by being ‘lost in translation’ on many levels. A particular irony was that, in attempting to emphasize the historical nature of a recent ordination, the uncritical use of hagiography as ‘history’ inadvertently served to underplay the actual historical and archaeological importance of the original ecclesiastical site of Fuerty, Co. Roscommon.

So what we can say or surmise from the seventh century reference to Fuerty by Tírechán?

Early Contemporary Reference

First of all, the very fact that it was mentioned at all is important. In terms of Irish history, it ranks amongst one of the earliest contemporary references to churches that we have. If you consider that the oldest Irish writing that survives dates from c.600 AD,while the earliest contemporarily written annal entries were being entered by about c.650 AD; then Tírechán’s mention of the church in 660s-680s AD puts it in a remarkable position by virtue of the survival of its early contemporary attestation.

The fact that Tírechán found it a suitable venue to include in his pseudo-historical account  suggests that it was already considered old enough to qualify as one of his so called  primitiuae aeclessiae hiberniae (‘Primitive Irish Churches’). The use of the term ‘primitive’ should not be read in its modern sense. Tírechán’s use of the phrase was intended to refer to those  churches which were believed to be among the oldest strata of Irish churches.

Fuerty’s inclusion in such a grouping attests to its antiquity. As discussed in the last post, none of Tírechán’s propaganda concerning its origins would have worked or have been believed in the seventh century without some semblance of chronological nobility behind it. Tírechán could not have claimed it as being old enough to have witnessed Patrician activity if it did not enjoy a similar position in the landscape of local folk memory. It is extremely likely then, that Fuerty’s true origins, whatever they may have been (and they were nothing to do with the historical Patrick or young wandering deacons), lie in the sixth century AD and perhaps even earlier. This alone marks Fuerty out as an important early ecclesiastical site known to have been considered so, and described as such by early medieval contemporaries; regardless of the more colourful details concerning its ‘past’.

The site was undoubtedly a leading church associated with a major ruling dynasty of the day. Despite being situated in rival ecclesiastical territory, it nevertheless merited referencing and inclusion in Patrician propaganda. This was based partly on its antiquated presence in a contested contemporary landscape; and partly based on the availability of what seems to be existing traditions and relics of a distant figure. Not only do we have an important dynastic church, already considered old in the seventh century; but we have contemporary evidence for an early and localised cult of relics and their veneration within.

Finally, we have the Ciaran connection. Although Clonmacnoise is an equally venerable ecclesiastical site, its own surviving hagiography concerning its saint dates from a much later period. Fuerty’s inclusion in the earliest phases of patrician hagiography, intertwined with that of Ciaran provides us with one of the earliest contemporary witnesses to the rise and power of the Cult of Ciaran in the seventh century AD.

Modern day Fuerty

The modern-day site of Fuerty is located just outside Roscommon town, a few km west along a quiet road (R366) that leads to the River Suck at Castlecoote. Typical of a certain type of dispersed rural settlement in Ireland, one can usually get a few minutes of utter quietness in-between passing cars.  The silence and lack of built up housing does little to suggest the once busy nature of the little nineteenth century village that once occupied the location.

The area around the church is immaculately kept by the local community; and certain architectural relics of yesteryear are still preserved. The site of an old fair green just across the road is particularly colourful in the summer months. The remains of an old forge complete with millstones and wheels can also be seen. A few meters down the road, adjacent the local pub (in what once was the local RIC barracks) is an old-fashioned post box built into the wall. Despite the green paint, its original Edwardian inscription can still be made out; a timely reminder that archaeological stratigraphy can sometimes only be a layer of paint deep.

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Fuerty: An Archaeological Palimpset

The church site itself (SMR: RO039-063001) stands on a small but prominent rise at a bend in the modern road; a topographical position that matches its original placename: Fiodharta > Fíd Ard > Fíodh Ard; ‘High Wood’. To get an approximate perspective on just how prominent it would have appeared, have a look at the site on google streetview, as you approach it from the east.

A secondary road running along the western side curves slightly around the irregular internal wall; indicating the approximate position of an earlier medieval curvilinear boundary of a type commonly enshrined in the vicinity of such early church sites. One only needs to look at modern aerial views of the site to appreciate the visual echo of past enclosure. The recent eastward rectangular extension to the graveyard is in stark contrast to the irregular, slightly curved shape of the original church graveyard (SMR: RO039-063002). Although slightly realigned and re-landscaped in recent years, the curved nature of the pre-modern road is apparent from its earliest recording on the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey Map.

Perhaps the best vantage point is just outside the church itself. Standing at a small distance, one gets a particularly good indication of the extent of the curvilinear boundary; as well as a three-dimensional stratigraphic clue to its antiquity. One of the more paradoxical characteristics in Irish landscape archaeology, particularly those of old churches, is that age can sometimes be indicated by height above the ground and not below.

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This is a result of centuries of occupation and burial continuity, one on top of the other, resulting in a significant rise of internal ground level within the original enclosure. Church sites such as Fuerty represent an enshrined palimpsest of a landscape constantly maintained and replaced within a defined ecclesiastical enclosure.

The surviving ruins are those of a 17th century Church of Ireland church with an adjoining 18th century roofless tower; representing the last architectural phases of formal church occupation on the site. As with any archaeological palimpsest however, there are several fragments of medieval artefacts to be found, including several examples of early cross slabs. Two such slabs (reddish sandstone) discovered within the graveyard during the nineteenth century were subsequently mounted in the wall of the tower; where they can still be seen today.

One of the slabs (SMR: RO039-063003) is incised with two-lined ringed cross, a fish motif and an inscription that reads ‘or ar anmain aidacain‘ (‘A prayer for the name/soul of aidacain’).  The other slab (SMR: RO039-063004) contains an incised five-line cross with expanded terminals and an inscription the reads  ‘or ar mor‘ (‘a prayer for the large/the many’). Another cross-slab (SMR: RO039-063005) which was decorated with a swastika cross symbol (a common early Christian motif) is known to have come from the site; while a further slab marking a grave (SMR: RO039-063009) in the churchyard contains a Maltese cross.

The two cross slabs mounted in the tower(Image: Author)

The two cross slabs mounted in the tower (Image: Author)

At the time of my last visit, the light was not very suitable for photographing the decoration on the slabs; but there are much clearer pictures available over on the excellent megalithomania; in addition to the original antiquarian sketches of the inscriptions highlighted above.

Slab (RO039-063004)

Slab (RO039-063004) colour adjusted to show incised decoration (Image: Author)

The archaeological information contained in these slabs is particularly impressive. In terms of art style, typology and morphology, they are very much of a type of cross slab design known from Clonmacnoise, and generally thought to range from the 9th-11th centuries. The inscriptions are rendered in insular half-uncial, again thought to date to the same approximate period (on stone, anyway). The presence of a fish design (another early Christian motif) is particularly unusual for Ireland. But it is the inscription commemorating the figure of Aidacain that is most intriguing. A similarly named ecclesiastical figure is listed in the Annals of the Four Masters under the year 865 AD:

Aedhacan, son of Finnsneachta, Tanist Abbot of Cluain (Clonmacnoise) and abbot of many churches, died on the first day of November.

AFM 865.8

This single cross slab, mounted on an 18th century tower in Fuerty, brings us back into archaeological contact with the early medieval period. The slab design itself, a product of the ‘Clonmacnoise school’, alongside a commemoration of a figure historically connected with the abbacy of Clonmacnoise itself; contained within a site already long associated with Clonmacnoise. Even if the Aidacain commemorated is not the same individual as that of the annal entry, it nevertheless points to early medieval Christian commemoration on site, utilising the same design and palaeography known to have been roughly contemporary with similar examples at Clonmacnoise. Such cross/grave slabs illustrate the continuing high status enjoyed by Fuerty throughout the early medieval period as a suitable place of burial; connected to, and no doubt because of, the ongoing traditional associations with Cairan and Iostus originally referenced by Tírechán.

Conclusion

As previous discussed, the secular dynastic inheritors of the church seem to have enjoyed a close alliance and relationship with Clonmacnoise, despite the early patrician infringement into its pseudo-history. Its initial 7th century depiction and association with Clonmacnoise is backed up by archaeological evidence of 9th-11th century occupation and activity. Further references in the 12th century Life of Ciaran suggest the Ciaran/Iostus tradition was still being celebrated alongside the existence of secondary relics. The church was still operating in the early 14th century, as listed in the ecclesiastical taxation of Elphin and presumably continued in operation until its destruction during the Cromwellian period. Even then, it seems, the site was soon rebuilt and reoccupied by the established church until well into the nineteenth century.

Today, although in ruins, the site continues to be a place of burial and commemoration. A silent witness to a remarkable continuity of Christian tradition, occupation and activity stretching back over thirteen hundred years and perhaps even further. Looking at such sites through an archaeological lens can reveal a wealth of information hidden in plain view; little nuggets of detail that both inform and reflect its parallel hagiographical traditions. The true value of such traditions lie not in the details they purport to represent, but the context in which they were created and appropriated. The maintenance of such traditions and their cultural transmission throughout subsequent centuries tells us more about actual medieval Christian expression and experience, then anything involving the uncritical reproduction of medieval tales without any appreciation of its original context.


Bibliography

Archaeological Survey of Ireland: Roscommon – SMR Record details – available at http://www.archaeology.ie, compiled by Michael Moore (August 2010).

Crawford, H. S. (1907) ‘Two early cross-slabs at Fuerty, Co. Roscommon’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland XVII, 417-419.

Herity, M & Kelly, D and Mattenberger, U. (1997) ‘List of Early Christian Cross Slabs in Seven North-Western Counties’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 127, 80-124.

Kelly, D.H. (1869) ‘On Two Inscribed Stones at Fuerty’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 8, 455-458.

Lionard, P. and Henry, F. (1961) ‘Early Irish Grave-Slabs’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 61, 95-169.

Swift, C. (1996) ‘Dating Irish grave-slabs: the evidence of the annals’ in: From the Isles of the North – medieval art in Ireland and Britain, C. Bourke (ed), Belfast, 245-249.

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One thought on “A Quirky Case of Early Medieval Ecclesiastical Propaganda [Part 2]

  1. Pingback: A Quirky Case of Early Medieval Ecclesiastical Propaganda [Part 1] | vox hiberionacum

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