Photo: Jerzy Strzelecki
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Nation 11th January, 1879 p5
A respected correspondent, writing over the initials J.A.F. sends us the following highly interesting communication:
It is to be regretted that some of the ancient churches which were grouped around the tower of Kilmacduagh have long since crumbled into ruin, leaving scarcely a trace behind to mark the sites on which they stood. Four of them, however, have fortunately survived the ruthless action of time and fanaticism. It will be gratifying to those interested in the preservation of our national monuments to learn that even those are now preserved to us through the action of the Board of Works. And I feel confident that the manner in which the restoration at Kilmacduagh has been hitherto carried out will meet with general approval. The crumbling cathedral doorways and decaying arches of St. Colman’s old cathedral are once more as they were designed by the intelligence of our pious ancestors. The sculptured mullions and elaborate tracery of the windows, lost for years beneath the mould of the cemetery or hidden by the rank grass, have been recovered, and replaced in their original positions.

And in the abbey church too, striking changes have been effected. Delicate mouldings and clustering columns, long hidden by the ivy, are now visible in all their original grace of outline and proportion. And beautiful capitals, wrought in the purest style of mediaeval Celtic art, are again placed as they had been centuries ago, when Bishop Ileyan restored the Abbey for the canons regular of St. Augustine. The Lady Chapel also is in process of restoration. And the rubbish by which the interior of those churches had been disfigured has been carefully removed – a course regarded by the peasantry of the district with extreme disfavour, involving as it did the necessity of interfering with many of their ill-kept places of interment. The attempt might have proved a dangerous one – certainly its success would have been extremely doubtful – were it not for the market interest in the improvement of the cemetery, as well as in the restoration of the ruins, manifested by the respected parish priest, the Very Rev. T. Shannon, V.G.

Photo: ralmonline alm
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I regret to say that the little church known as “St. John’s Oratory” is seemingly destined to be suffered to sink into total ruin. It is true that the southern side wall and part of the little church are the only portions of it which remain. Yet I respectfully submit that as a striking specimen of our ancient cyclopean churches, and as one of the most ancient of the existing ruins of Kilmacduagh, it is well worthy of preservation. I would also add that, as one of the extant ecclesiastical buildings at Kilmacduagh, its neglect would be strangely out of harmony with the liberal spirit in which the work of restoration has hitherto accomplished there.

But it is, perhaps, the complete restoration of the round tower which will elicit the most general interest. Though among the most perfect in Ireland, the round tower of Kilmacduagh was fast decaying. Within late years a great portion of its southern side had fallen, and there were ample evidence to justify the gravest apprehensions regarding a considerable portion of what remained. But the work of ruin is now arrested, and the tower, with cone complete, rises to its original height of one hundred and ten feet. The precaution of protecting the tower against electricity, by means of a conductor, has been wisely adopted, and it became necessary, in consequence, to excavate the interior in order to convey the conductor to the earth. It was this excavation which has led to the strange discovery of human remains below the level of the foundation.

This discovery possesses additional interest when considered in connection with a proof of the Christian origin or our round towers advanced by Miss Stokes in her able and interesting new work. It may be remembered that the proof to which I refer is based on a similar discovery made, not many years ago, in the round tower of Kilkenny by the Rev. Dr. Greaves.

The foundation of the round tower of Kilmacduagh is but a few feet beneath the surface level, and rests simply on the virgin earth. And this alone would, I thin,, sufficiently account for the well-known fact that the tower leans considerably from the perpendicular. I may here direct attention to a noteworthy feature in the internal construction of the basement story. From the surface level to the first internal offset, a height of six feet, the masonry is exceedingly massive, ragged, and irregular, and the internal area of the tower is consequently very limited, though its external circumference is about fifty-six feet. The remains were found at an average level of about eighteen inches below the foundation – not, as might be expected, in the centre of the area, but at either side, and partially under the foundation itself. Two skulls were found, seemingly in the same grave, though some feet apart. In connection with one, I saw the spinal column nearly perfect, and also some portions of the ribs and arms. This skeleton lay with the face due East. In connection with the second skull I saw no bones. Yet there may be some. I did not search, as it seemed to me to be dangerous to remove the earth in any considerable quantity from under the foundation. And, in addition, I was unwilling to disturb the earth, lest the remains might be thus changed from the position in which they were found. I regret to say that, in the slight effort we did make to remove the earth, some portions of the skulls…

At the opposite side and at the same depth, was a third skull, placed with the face looking north-east. As it was solidly embedded in the earth, we were careful to leave it undisturbed. I was informed by Mr. Scott – the intelligent and efficient superintendent of the works – that a portion of the skeleton had been found there also, but was unfortunately disturbed during the excavation. Near this, but deeper by a foot, we found other remains, which we believed to be human. Not knowing, however, with certainty, the part of the human frame to which they belonged, I could not undertake to say in what position the body had been placed. Close to where they lay my attention was directed to a cutting through the hard loam, easily traceable, as the loam was quite different in solidity and colour from the mould in which the bones lay. Probably this cutting showed the side of the original grave, and if so, its direction was from south-west to north-east.
And here it may be asked did those interments take place after the tower was erected? The excavation of the tower proves, as I think, that an interment within it after its erection would have been a matter of extreme difficulty. It was found that the basement storey was filled with fragments of stones and shingle well packed together – and in this respect quite unlike the loose strata by which the tower was filled to the doorway, a height of about twenty feet. It is also noteworthy that this packing was so weather-stained as to be quite similar in colour to that of the masonry where it had been found. It would seem, therefore, very probably that the basement storey had been thus completely filled up by the builders of the tower as a part of the original plan, and had never since been interfered with. Nor would this in this in the case of the Kilmacduagh tower have been contrary to the usual plan on which our irish round towers are constructed; as Petrie distinctly states that the basement storey of the round towers was commonly filled up with masonry.
And even though the entire internal area were quite open it seems too limited for an average grave; the diameter being only five feet. And finally, the soft and yielding nature of the foundation and the leaning of the tower itself, would suggest to the most thoughtless the danger of excavating there to such and extent as would have been necessary for the interment of four human bodies. I conclude, therefore, that the interments were prior to the erection of the tower.
As the complement of the same inquiry, one other question suggests itself – namely, were those remains Pagan or were they Christian? What we know of the mode of sepulture among the Pagan Irish makes it seem highly improbably that the remains are Pagan. On the other hand, the position of the remains seems a convincing proof of their Christian burial The practice of burying their dead in this eastward position is a well-known and time-honoured practice among the Christian Irish. Those conclusions, which would establish, if well founded, a Christian origin for the tower of Kilmacduagh, admirable harmonise with the well-defined local tradition, which ascribes the erection of the tower to the eminent builder Gobban, under St. Colman MacDuagh, in the beginning of the 7th century; and Colgan’s narrative of the life of Saint Colman would give them additional confirmation.
I may be permitted to express a hope that at least the facts which I have attempted to lay before the public, if not the conclusions which I have drawn from them, shall possess some interest for the many who have devoted time and attention to the interesting but vexed question of the origin of our round towers. The discovery at Kilmacduagh merits, I think,, close and careful investigation at their hands. To me it appears that the evidence adduced amply justifies the conclusion that we owe the beautiful tower of Kilmacduagh to our pious Christian ancestors.