The Stealth Sheep

Monday, 22 September 2003
Malin, Inishowen Peninsula, Co. Donegal – Boyle, Co. Roscommon

It was significantly cooler in the morning, windy, blustery, and raining off and on—which it continued to do all day, although it might be expected in late September that far north, eh? However, I’d come to judge how serious the rain was by whether the windshield wipers had to be run on intermittent, regular, or fast … and this was just an intermittent day. 🙂

We retraced our route south through Carndonagh, and I began telling Gerry the story of my search for the seventh-century cross the day before. I’d found the brown sign the previous day, and we found it again; the cross was allegedly on the highway we would travel to leave the peninsula. I was moaning about having driven up and down “this very road” several times looking for it, when Gerry interrupted me. “It’s just there,” he said, pointing. It was one of those Aaaaaaaaargh moments, because the cross was not but a block from the turn indicated by the brown sign, in plain sight! I do know how I missed it: it’s right on the sidewalk, in the middle of “everyday life,” and the town has built a little roof over it, to protect it from the elements. It wasn’t what I was expecting.

Irish high crosses are beautiful and moving, and the original ones—we’ve visited a few on this trip, and will see more before it’s over—are a thousand years old. Just saying that makes me catch my breath. But this humble stone cross in Carndonagh—as you approach it, it looks like nothing more than a rough, flat, red/tan sandstone slab with a short crosspiece—is four hundred years older than that, has stood in (or near) this spot, a momument to Christ and a memory of the passionate early Christians, since the mid seventh century!

But draw close, there’s more. It’s known, actually, as St. Patrick’s Cross, and is widely regarded as the earliest known high cross, although it is ring-less. The cross represents a transition in design in that it is one of the earliest stone cross sculptures to break free from the slab: earlier cross monuments were carved on slabs (we’ve seen several of those too) but the Carndonagh slab is actually cut out in the shape of a cross. It stands ten or so feet high, and is accompanied by two short pillars, which are also carved. The photos in the link above are better than mine, because I believe the photographer must have brought a spotlight to cast shadows, which would then make the detail more visible.

Carndonagh Cross, east face. Can you see Christ’s face?

Carndonagh Cross, east face. Can you see Christ’s face? It’s about halfway down.

East face again, different angle. Here you can see the east side of both of the small pillars.

East face again, different angle. Here you can see the east side of both of the small pillars.

The east face has what you might call a Celtic knot in the center of the crosspiece area, and in the “armpit” on each side are three birds. Underneath this, on the main body of the cross, is Christ, but whether it is the crucified Christ (common on later high crosses, including the one we saw at Kilfenora two days past) or “Christ in Glory,” it’s difficult to tell; both versions would show him with his arms outstretched. On either side of his head are angels. Below him are three human figures; perhaps they are apostles or perhaps they are “three holy women walking toward the tomb,” a scene which was in those days intended to represent the resurrection. Again, it’s very hard to tell, and different articles I researched said different things.

Have I mentioned that high crosses were originally painted? St. Patrick’s Cross at Carndonagh was almost certainly painted; the fact that the carving on it is very shallow bolsters the argument that color may have been an important part of the original decoration. At any rate, over the years detail has been lost that would possibly make the meaning of the figures more clear.

Carndonagh Cross, west face.

Carndonagh Cross, west face.

West face, with the pillars.

West face, with the pillars.

The west side of the slab is totally covered in that interlacing pattern that we call Celtic knotwork, although it was actually introduced to Ireland from eastern Europe, and was simply improved upon by the Irish. 🙂

So we left the peninsula, finally, and the rainy day, following the same road we took there, since there is very little in the way of an alternate route through that mountainous terrain.

Leaving the rain behind. Oh look! A rainbow!

Leaving the rain behind. Oh look! A rainbow!

At one point (still in County Donegal), I took a wrong turn, and in getting back to the main road we stumbled across one of those brown markers that I’d come to love. This one said “Beltany Stone Circle, 2km,” and that was all the encouragement we needed.

There were several twists and turns involved, but always a sign leading us on, until finally the road just ended, with no clear way to go. So we parked and got out and wandered around a bit, until a nearby farmer hollered across the field, “Looking for the stones?” He directed us up a tree-shaded lane, and off we went, experienced hikers we, haha. That little lane, however, was steeper than it looked, and pretty soon we were huffing and puffing with no end in sight; ten minutes later we glimpsed the stones on the other side of the fencerow we’d been walking along, out in the center of a field with a herd of sheep for companions.

Finally the lane itself ended at a farm-gate, and next to it, on the outside, stood a large sheep, bleating its frustration at finding itself on the wrong side of the fence from its fellows. It looked at us warily as we approached, then skittered away as we got closer. Beside the larger gate was one of those turnstile-type gates I’ve previously referred to as a “kissing gate” (there was one at Glendalough); these gates are designed to keep livestock in while allowing free access to hikers here to see the stone circle, and while also keeping the hikers from either climbing (and potentially damaging) the fence or opening the farmer’s gate (and possibly not shutting it properly). In other words, the kissing gate allows humans free access, but sheep—in theory, anyway—stay safe inside their field.

Our Stealth Sheep, in front of the kissing gate.

Our Stealth Sheep, in front of the kissing gate. Don’t forget, you can click any photo to enlarge it and zoom in.

“Sheep may safely graze and pasture …” as the song goes.

So we passed, one at a time, through the ’stile, and the minute we did, our buddy the sheep moved right back to the gate and continued to cry to be let back in. Gerry will attest to the fact that I was quite distraught by this; I imagined that it saw us as shepherds, and wanted us to help it return to the bosom of the herd, which had stood near the gate on the other side, in sympathy. Once we were in the field, the herd moved off, and we proceeded to do our Sound of Music reenaction.

Standing in the center of the Beltany Stone Circle, high on a hill. What a view!

Standing in the center of the Beltany Stone Circle, high on a hill. What a view! (Click to enlarge.)

The view from the top of that hill was just incredible, and the stone circle was huge, larger than any other circle I’d seen (which, after all, is only Drombeg in County Cork, and Stonehenge, in England).

Another view from inside the circle. The stone in the distance is separate from the circle, though it certainly had some function in relation to ceremonies carried on at the circle.

Another view from inside the circle. The stone in the distance is separate from the circle, though it certainly had some function in relation to ceremonies carried on here.

This megalithic monument dates from 2000 BC; the Irish name Beltany is from “Baal Tine” which means “Baal’s fire” and suggests that the pagan practice of sun worship was celebrated here. It’s 145 feet in diameter, by the way, and contains 64 stones, although there were probably many more originally.

Here you can get a feel for the entire circle. And its guard sheep.

Here you can get a feel for the entire circle. And its guard sheep.

I took several photographs, and we just enjoyed the view for awhile, before we picked our way back across the field (verrrrry carefully) to the kissing gate and the little lost sheep. I wanted to help the poor thing regain its promised land, but Gerry, the voice of reason, reminded me a sheep that feels threatened might charge me and knock me down, and the resulting damage to my old self might well ruin my trip. We did try to open the farmer’s gate—precisely what he wouldn’t want us to do—but failed to budge it, so we left the sheep, still distraught, at the top of the hill and started the (blessedly downhill) hike back to the car.

About halfway down—we were chatting, deciding that we’d about had enough of climbing hills—we were startled to hear an indignant “BAAAaaa!” right behind us (I could have touched him, that’s how close he was): that sheep had followed us stealthily down the hill when he saw we were not going to solve his problem! I can hear him now: “Where do you think you’re going!” Oh, my friends, Gerry and I both must have jumped a foot straight up, and in the process lost ten years off our lifetimes and gained a load of grey hair! Gerry then remarked that he wasn’t sure which had been harder on his heart, the climb up that hill, or the shock the sheep gave us—and at that point we both laughed until we we were hysterical. For the rest of the day, all Gerry had to do to make me howl was to softly “baaa.”

We did quite a bit of driving that day, back down through Counties Donegal, Sligo, and into Roscommon, headed for Boyle, which was to be our stopping place. We were listening to RTE talk radio, as we had throughout the trip. The three big stories of the week were the big brawl at the end of the Manchester United / Arsenal game, which happened the previous day (and which took fully six weeks to be put to rest, by suspending two Arsenal players and fining four others, and I believe two Man-U players will be fined, as well), and the bin tax fracas (Dubliners are up in arms because the city has decided to charge them for garbage pickup), and the ban on cigarette smoking in pubs, bars, and restaurants, due to take effect on New Year’s Day, 2004.

We were nearing Boyle, but as we passed a sign for Riverstown, Gerry said, “Let’s turn off here”—and so we did. A couple years ago, the ESB Archives set up one of their historical displays here, at the Sligo Folk Park. The ESB have produced several of these displays, for different occasions and organizations across the country. The general theme of each is always the electrification of rural Ireland … but they always search their archives to find documents pertinent to the specific area, so each presentation is personalized, and sheds light on the neighborhood, and what life was like there in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and so on.

The folk park itself was quite charming, basically a collection of items from the locals, gathered together. It appears to be curated by the locals, too, and thus is very personal. The main attraction—aside from a large exhibition hall jam-packed with items portraying rural history and agricultural artifacts—is the Old Millview House, where twenty-first-century children can see how their great-grandparents used to live. Both Gerry and I are fascinated by this kind of thing, so we wandered every room and pondered Irish rural life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There’s also a thatched-roof cottage and some farm buildings, including a forge and a pig house (with live pigs!).

It being late September, the place was practically deserted, so we easily located the ESB’s two displays, one about the electrification of Riverstown, and the other in the main exhibition hall (which was made up to look like a village centre), which was a representation of an ESB office of the 1930s, showing those new-fangled electric stoves and refrigerators in the storefront window. My absolute favorite thing, though, was the vast treasure trove of miscellaneous household and farm items filling the exhibition hall … there was even a stuffed cow head. (I do understand, sort of, when a hunter kills a deer—well, no, I don’t get the killing thing at all, frankly, but—I get why he might have the head mounted, or have the antlers mounted. But this was a mounted head of a cow. Bossie. What’s up with that? I am giggling even as I write this. Moooo.)

Finally we found our way to Boyle, and checked in to our delightful B&B, which sat right across the road from Boyle Abbey, the very thing we’d come to see. Our hostess, Mary, was about my age, and she and I bonded quickly when we discovered we were both mothers of grown sons. After unloading the car—and taking a photo of the abbey from the room’s large window—we headed right across the street to the ruins. It was late enough in the afternoon that the place was remarkably tourist-less—we’d watched a tourbus depart just minutes earlier.

View of Boyle Abbey from our B&B.

View of Boyle Abbey from our B&B, 2003.

Boyle Abbey was founded in 1161 by the locally ruling MacDermott family, and was a sister house to the first Irish Cistercian monastery in Mellifont, County Louth. Finally consecrated in 1220, the abbey had survived years of attacks during feuds between the warring MacDermott and O’Conor clans, and would survive many more. For example, in 1235, English forces forcibly took possession of the abbey, seized all the goods, vestments, and chalices belonging to the monastery and stripped the monks of their habits in their cloister. Took their clothes, for heaven’s sake! In spite of this, the abbey survived until well past the Dissolution of the Monasteries, because the English Crown was weaker in Ireland, and the process took longer. Because of the remoteness of Boyle, the community lasted until 1584, when its abbot was executed in Dublin for refusing to renounce his allegiance to Rome.

Boyle Abbey, 2003.

Boyle Abbey, 2003. I love that tilting wall.

Though the buildings were mutilated during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when it was used to accommodate a military garrison (and later was used as an armory—surely the monks were rolling over in their graves about that!), the abbey continued to be subjected to raids, making its present well-preserved condition pretty remarkable.

In spite of its abuse, it’s still beautiful.

In spite of its abuse, it’s still beautiful.

We had a nice chat with the gentleman at the entrance gate, who, spying my camera, advised me to look up—at the capitals (the top of a column, a piece between the column and the arch), for which Boyle is especially known, particularly since the Cistercian tradition was for plain churches. “You’ll want to take pictures of those,” he said cheerfully, and so I did. The official guidebook says, “Some of the capitals have trumpet scallops, suggesting a West of England influence. However, the majority were decorated with an attractive range of floral motifs … [and others] were ornamented with animal and human figures. One particular design consists of little men standing between trees and holding on to the branches in a rather stiff fashion. Another depicts a confrontation of two dogs and a pair of cockerels.”

These are those dogs and chickens.

These are those dogs and chickens.

More lovely capitals.

More lovely capitals at Boyle Abbey, 2003.

Funny little men at Boyle Abbey.

Funny little men holding onto trees at Boyle Abbey.

Arch and capital at Boyle Abbey, 2003.

Arch and capital at Boyle Abbey, 2003.

Built between the Romanesque and Gothic periods, the Abbey exhibits features of both, the most notable being the row of rounded arches on one side of the nave which faces a row of pointed arches on the other side. The arches were particularly interesting, I thought, so I took a lot of photos of them, too!

Here you can see both round and Roman (pointed) arches. If you look carefully. :)

Here you can see both round and Roman (pointed) arches. If you look carefully. 🙂

Later we drove back into the town centre and had dinner in a pub, after which we enjoyed a stroll as Boyle began to close down for the evening. And so did we!


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