ARCHITECT, Irish
(active 9th century in Ireland)

Exterior view

9th century
Photo
Gallarus Oratory, Dingle Peninsula

Gallarus Oratory is the most perfect of the Irish 'boat-shaped' oratories, so named because the form resembles that of an inverted boat. Approximately 30 other examples, almost all in ruins, are concentrated along the Atlantic coasts of Kerry, Clare, and Mayo.

The chapel at Gallarus stands in a stone-walled enclosure, which also contains a rough slab inscribed with a cross. The building is an outstanding example of a corbelled structure, in which horizontally bedded stones overhang in succession to form a graceful roof of stone. All four walls curve gently inwards to meet a horizontal ridge. Constructed of roughly coursed masonry, the individual pieces were carefully selected and fitted together with great intricacy. The experience of the masons is indicated by the slight outward angle at which the stones are bedded to ensure that water drains away from the interior.

Although frequently described as a 'dry stone' building, there is evidence that lime mortar was employed. The slight sag in the roof, visible on both the north and south sides, is the consequence of an inherent defect in rectangular corbelled structures, which are less stable than circular ones.

A series of triangular stones defines the exterior ridge; at least one end terminated in a stone finial. The interior, 4.65 x 3.15 m, is surprisingly spacious, reaching at the apex a height of 4.3 m. The west door has inclined jambs in the Irish fashion and it is surmounted by a single stone lintel. On the interior two stones project above the lintel, each pierced to facilitate some form of door mechanism. The east window, the only one in the building, has a wide interior splay and its rounded head is cut out of two to three stones. The smoothly dressed masonry visible here is also evident in the doorway and on the under surfaces of the vault.

No historical information survives concerning either Gallarus or the nature of the Christian settlement there. The ancient technique of corbelling has encouraged antiquaries to think of Gallarus as one of the first stone churches in Ireland and a landmark in the evolution of European architecture. Although it was once ascribed to the 6th to 8th centuries, the fine quality of the masonry, the use of an arch system in the window, and the hints of dressed masonry give the building a Romanesque veneer. It is now regarded not as a harbinger of Irish Christian architecture but as a late though highly accomplished version of a local building style. Even deprived of its historical status, it is still, with its pleasing geometry and superb masonry, a structure of uncomplicated beauty.




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