Royal and monastic island of early medieval Corcu Duibne by Dr Tomás Ó Carragáin

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Skellig Michael (SkelligIslands.com)

The Centre started the New Year in continuing the seminar series Islands with a talk by Dr Tomás Ó Carragáin, an expert in early medieval archaeology of Ireland and lecturer at the University College Cork, Ireland, Department of Archaeology. He presented an overview of landscape research on the islands in the early monastic regional kingdom of Corcu Duibne, situating church sites in their contemporary political landscapes. Corcu Duibne is a case study of the Making Christian Landscapes project. The project looked at multiple areas across Ireland investigating the impact of conversion and consolidation of Christianity in different parts of the country. Dr Ó Carragáin presented several case studies from that region adopting a comparative approach to islands in this landscape.

Dr Ó Carragáin began by highlighting that Corcu Duibne has the richest settlement evidence in Ireland from the early medieval period. This rich landscape makes it possible to explore issues of interaction between churches and other settlements in the landscape, land-tenure, ecclesiastical estates, and changes after AD 800. The talk focused primarily on the west end of the Iveragh peninsula in the south of Corcu Duibne. This area was substantially monastic, represented mainly by islands of Inis Uasal in Lough Currane, two off-shore islands Skellig Michael and Gair Meic Mogha, and Valentia, the island most associated with royal power. The work presented was based on a collaboration, in which Paul MacCotter carried out the historical research.

Inis Uasal was among the most important sites in Corcu Duibne by the ninth century. This was a major site with royal associations, believed to have been founded c. AD 600 and represented by Saint Fínán as patron. The positioning of monuments in the landscape suggests that the area around Lough Currane was re-centred on the holy island of Inis Uasal.  A constellation of lesser churches and crosses delimited zones of diminishing sanctity. In the wider landscape, there is also evidence for continuing engagement with the pagan past. For example, excavations by Dr Michael Connolly found that the stone alignment in Eightercua was incorporated into a new platform delimited by a ditch in the later sixth or seventh century. Dr Ó Carragáin then discussed the other two island monasteries, Skellig Michael and Gair Meic Mogha, founded on offshore islands which had been outlying possessions of Eoganacht Loch Lein, kings of western Munster and overkings of Corcu Duibne. Offshore islands were places where the interests of kings and monks coincided. For kings, they were of both strategic and symbolic importance – the ultimate in boundary markers. For monks, they were staging posts between this world and the next, and places where a different kind of dominion could be proclaimed by establishing Christian communities at the ends of the earth. Rather than reiterating on the widely-recognised prominence of Skellig Michael, Dr Ó Carragáin brought attention to Gair Meic Mogha, a church site on Scariff island, that was only recently identified in historical sources. Like Skellig Michael, this was a substantial site with a drystone church, large enclosure and a potential satellite hermitage. In the later medieval period there were only two monasteries in this whole landscape: Balinskelligs abbey, successor to Skellig Michael, and Aghavore abbey, successor to Gair Meic Mogha.

The main royal associations in this landscape were centred around Valentia (Dairbhre) harbour and island. In the mainland next to Valentia island are three impressive cashels, and the excavator of one of them, Cahergal, has argued it was a venue for royal ceremony. In contrast, despite its royal associations, there is little evidence for potentially royal settlements on the large island of Valentia. Instead, the most prominent settlement signature is ecclesiastical: several churches, ogham-inscribed stones, cross markings, holy wells. Dr Ó Carragáin concluded that Valentia, therefore, presents a case of strong ecclesiastical imprint on royal lands and suggested that lesser churches rather than major monastic sites had an important role there. Smaller islands in Valentia Harbour also became ecclesiastical. Church Island had elite associations, contained E-ware pottery and had a potential subsidiary lesser church existing in tandem on Beginish island. Another example he presented was Illaunloughan, a strongly ascetic monastic community site with a small number of mainly male burials, positioned in a balance between insular separation and visual accessibility from Valentia harbour. Corcu Duibne was a notable naval power with a strong royal identity associated with the sea and Valentia harbour was the main access point to the kingdom. Therefore, the lesser churches in this landscape had a prominent role in projecting an image of cosmopolitan Christian kingship engaged in international politics with access to exotic goods, an image amplified at a greater remove by the major monastic islands in the wider landscape.

Valentia Island (megalithicireland.com)

Towards the end, Dr Ó Carragáin turned to consider changes between the 9-11th centuries, commenting on the variety of trajectories the lesser church sites took in their later development. While Skellig was raided, building activity continued into the Viking Age. Inisdaslevoc and Illaunloughan presented a clear contrast: the former was renewed and expanded while the latter fell to decline. Inisdaslevoc demonstrated a strong indication of royal support with one of the largest drystone churches incorporating Valentia slate and a bronze-coated iron bell, an unusual possession for a lesser church. Additionally, expansion in burial continued into the later medieval period. In contrast, burial in Illaunloughan ended after the ninth century and the site probably ceased to function by thetenth century. This was part of a wider pattern, for there is evidence that some other lesser churches also fell out of use at this time. Adapting to political changes, a rural Hiberno-Scandinavian settlement established on Beginish became a Viking way-station between Limerick and Cork that provided economic trade benefits and alliances for the local royal elite.

Dr Ó Carragáin concluded by highlighting the variety of islands in this landscape, the diverse ways in which the elite interacted with them, and the role of these sites in communicating royal identity and authority. He also emphasised the early monastic interest in the past, changing perceptions of prehistoric monuments from the sixth century onwards, and the varied development trajectories of lesser churches during the Viking Age and beyond. Finally, he emphasised the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in researching this landscape, highlighting the fact that historical research by Paul MacCotter has facilitated new interpretations of the archaeological evidence.

Aurime Bockute

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