Wicklow's Medieval Churches

There are 157 ‘church’ sites in listed in the SMR files for County Wicklow, of these 56 are described as having church ruins which are upstanding. Over the coming weeks I will be sharing images of  an array of these site which illustrates the wealth of early medieval archaeology in County Wicklow over on Facebook so make sure to follow Wicklow Community Archaeology | Facebook. For now, here is a background on the early medieval churches in Ireland.

The earliest churches were small timber structures. They were founded in the period 500–800 AD and were built primarily of timber frames with post-and-wattle walls and clay (O Sullivan & Downey, 2017, p. 18). Only twenty timber churches have been identified to date. Mortared stone churches may have replaced an earlier wooden church in many instances. There are approximately 140 churches in the country which were built between the tenth and mid-twelfth centuries (Ibid.).

These early church sites were defined by one or more curvilinear enclosing elements which could comprise ditches, banks, stone walls and palisades. Recent research suggests that there are approximately six thousand ecclesiastical sites in Ireland which is on average, one for every ten townlands (Ibid., p. 44).

Many small early medieval church sites contained a church and cemetery on the eastern side with domestic and craft areas in the western part of the enclosure (Ibid.). The innermost core was called a vallum in which the church and graveyard were located and this was considered scared (Noonan, 2015, p. 5). Carved stone crosses often mark the boundary of this sacred area defining it from the outer enclosed areas where craft, domestic, agriculture, cereal processing and iron working were carried out (O Sullivan & Downey, 2020, p. 46). Some people also lived in and around the monastic sites, either as monks living within the enclosure or workers on the monastic estate living in the area outside the enclosure. A range of features are associated with these sites comprising the church and graveyard, dwellings, various ovens / kilns, wells and mills as well as field systems, although some of these would have been located outside the ecclesiastical enclosure.

Preban Graveyard reconstruction drawing by Sara Nylund.

The three main farm animals on early church sites were cattle, sheep/goats and pigs. Barley was the dominant cereal, followed by oats and occasionally wheat and rye. Mills were often erected near the church sites, with corn-drying kilns typically within the outer precincts. Church reforms in the twelfth century and the arrival of the Anglo-Normans saw the building of larger churches in the Gothic style, which were internally divided into different sacred spaces like those of today.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 AD and 1541 AD by Henry VIII ordered the closure of Catholic monasteries, priories, convents and friaries and transferred their lands to those loyal to the king. This policy of dissolution was intended to increase the crown’s income and to fund military campaigns. When Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne in 1558 AD, she continued the policy of a re-conquest of Ireland that would eventually result in the completion of the Dissolution in Ireland and introduced the Act of Uniformity of 1560, which made all church worship formally Protestant and all churches and lands were now part of the Anglican Church (Noonan, 2015, p. 26).

Church sites were either refurbished or else left in ruins and a new Protestant church built in its place elsewhere or within the grounds of the churchyard. However both Catholics and Protestants continued to bury their dead within the old parish church grounds.

Below is Killegar an early medieval church site (WI003-028003-), near Enniskerry which has a fabulous collection of Rathdown slabs, so called because these distinctive graveslabs are only found in the Barony of Rathdown. The artwork on the slabs is similar to art featured on bone and antler artefacts found on Viking excavations in Ireland.

From west Wicklow in the village of Donard, townland Donard Lower (WI021-005001), a fifteenth or sixteenth-century nave and chancel parish church with a bellcote covered in ivy on the west wall.

Church in Donard Village (WI021-005001).

The Wicklow Community Archaeology Project is funded by The Heritage Council and Wicklow County Council through the County Heritage Plan Fund.

Noonan, D., 2015. Heritage Churches of County Cork. Cork: Heritage Unit of Cork County Council.

O’ Brien, E., 2020. Mapping Death Burial in Late Iron Age and Early Medieval Ireland. Dublin: Four Courts Press Ltd.

O’ Sullivan, M. & Downey, L., 2017. Early Churches- Agriculture and Food. Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 31(1), pp. 18-21.

O Sullivan, M. & Downey, L., 2020. Early Ecclesiastical Sites in Ireland. Archaeology Ireland, Summer, pp. 43-46.

The Wicklow Community Archaeology Project is funded by The Heritage Council and Wicklow County Council through the County Heritage Plan Fund.

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