JTS wrote: ‘Has Ardristan been included on any heritage preservation list? If not why not? Does the standing stone have a view on this?’
All archaeological sites in Ireland are protected under the National Monuments Acts of 1930 and 2004. If an owner of an archaeological site wishes to interfere with or carry out work near that site 2 months notification must be given to the relevant Minister and the National Monuments Service will assess if and how this work can be carried out. Unfortunately this doesn’t protect a site from simply falling down which is sadly the case at Ardristan. There are four basic strategies that are employed when dealing with historical sites.
1. Restoration – This is probably the best option even if the real motivation is earning money from tourism. It ensures that work is carried out to make a place safe and stable and we get a fairly accurate glimpse of a place as it once was.
2. Conservation – This makes a place safe and stable with no rebuilding being carried out. It preserves places in their current state for future generations.
3. Ignore the site – This is the most common practice and is exactly what is happening to Ardristan.
4. Demolition – The site is destroyed. Fortunately this costs money so doesn’t happen too often. Road building is mostly to blame for sites being destroyed.
I would like to see more done for sites. We are fortunate to have so much archaeology in Ireland left for us today but it is rapidly disappearing from our landscape. Basic conservation work could stop a lot of this but it is, of course, a costly exercise. Most restoration that is carried out is done to sites in private ownership. For example, there is the trend in Ireland to convert castles into hotels. However tasteless this may appear it does prevent further destruction to the site. I have been told by many sites owners, who are seeking to carry out restoration or conservation work, that it is very hard to get permission to do so because of the amount of ‘red tape’ that has be worked through. In recent years it has become easier to restore and conserve sites because of the involvement of the EU who are keen to preserve sites in Ireland for tourism.
I apologise for the lengthy answer.
Random Thinker wrote: ‘Looks like an unspoilt site. Is it just a good camera angle or is this really a site that is not under threat from development?’
As far as I am aware there are no plans to develop near Ardristan. It is largely farm land surrounding the site. There are two standing stones to the North of the church and one to the south so I would imagine that developing anywhere in the area would be difficult.
Alice W wrote: ‘Do you take a view on the preservation of these sites and their relevance to the modern inhabitants to them? Clearly there is some ambivalence in the modern attitude to them, possibly informed by increased materialism/secularism/distance from a common rural heritage. At the same time, it doesn't appear that the Irish have embraced such sites even after emancipation from penal oppression. In fact, it would appear that there was a flight from associations with oppression from early on in the Roman Catholic revival in 19 cent. Ireland. Any views?’
In regards to the preservation of sites please read the answer I gave to JTS above. I totally agree that there is ambivalence in the modern attitude. Modern materialism may have something to do with this as you suggest. We have gone through such a rapid change in the past 30 years that we may have become too obsessed with being modern and this has come at the expense of our history. I don’t believe secularism has had a negative effect on historical sites because the ambivalent attitude you mentioned is not confined to ecclesiastical sites. Castles, churches, ancient tombs and more modern fortified houses are victim to the same attitude. Secularism has allowed for a plurality of views and attitudes when dealing with historical sites. The lack of a rural heritage amongst communities may be part of the problem as people no longer feel any connection to a site whether it be positive or negative. These places have now just become part of the scenery so to speak. Maybe in time as the memories of oppression fade people will begin to find a new found interest in these sites. Hopefully it will not be too late.
I hope I didn’t spend too long on these questions and that I answered them sufficiently for you. I look forward to your response.
Please enjoy this week’s article which deals with the fascinating site of Clonenagh in Co. Laois.
Location – On the N7 between Mountrath and Portlaoise. The church is located on one side of the road while the cross slabs are on the other. Parking is easy here. The church is located at OS: S 387 956 and the cross slabs are located at OS: S 389 958.
Description and history – Little remains now of this once important ecclesiastical site. Now divided by the N7 this is all part of the one complex allegedly founded in 548 by St. Fintan. Nothing remains of the original structure which was destroyed in 838 by the Vikings. The site was plundered again in 937 by the King of Cashel and the Danes of Waterford. Legend says that 7 churches have been located at this site in its history with the remains of one still there and archaeological evidence for 2 others. The present remains are of a 16th century church which was later used as a Protestant church and the graveyard is still used. A holy well, now destroyed, was associated with the site as is a holy tree located there. Before the tree collapsed some years ago, the water that collected in the trunk was thought to have healing properties. The tree collapsed due to severe metal poisoning. It was traditional to hammer coins into the tree as a votive offering. Fortunately new branches have started to grow from the remaining stump, but the coins still persist. I would advise that you don’t hammer coins into the tree and pull out any that you can.
As you would expect of an important site there are many stories surrounding the complex. One interesting story is about a Protestant minister, Rev Sandys, who, after appearing drunk in the pulpit was expelled from the Church of Ireland. He, however, convinced his parishioners that he was still the serving minister and began to offer marriages at any time for the price of 1 pound. He didn’t even require witnesses in order to write out a marriage certificate. Eventually, nearby ministers made sure that Sandys was found out and he was sentenced to death which was reduced to a short term of imprisonment. He was forcibly removed from Clonenagh. As a form of revenge on the Church of Ireland he eventually became a Catholic priest.
Two interesting stories involve St Fintan himself. One tale is that St Fintan would quarry the sand for the building of the church late at night from the Downs in Portlaoise. The local people wondered where he got the sand from and one man set to find out. One morning he saw Fintan returning from the Downs with his horse who he was guiding with a stripped holly branch. The man asked Fintan where he got the sand from. Fintan was so angered at this display of mistrust that he turned the horse into stone and threw the holly stick down which grew into a holly tree. The location of this stone horse is rumoured to be between Clonenagh and Ballyfin but locals who know of its location will not divulge its location to others.
The second tale is that one day Fintan was returning from the Downs once again with his cart full of sand and met a woman who was building a house. She asked for some sand but Fintan refused saying he needed it for his church. She asked if he would give a thimbleful to her and he agreed and when the thimble was full all the sand was gone.
Onto the church and cross-slabs...
Church – Dating to the 16th century, little now remains of this sandstone and limestone building. It is roughly 9m in length and 6.5m wide. Around the arches there are some fine examples of hammer-dressed limestone. In the surrounding churchyard is a stone carved with a human face and another with a skull and crossbones. I was unable to locate these two stones because of the long grass.
Cross Slabs – These recently discovered stones are a wonderful sight and give you a glimpse into the art of the early church in Ireland. These stones date to the 6 and 7th centuries and have a variety of decoration on them. On some stones there are some more modern designs carved onto the early stones and these designs date to the 17th century. These stones are rare in Laois and are important for the county. However, there are fast eroding and when compared to photographs taken only 15 years ago the amount of erosion is shocking. As a matter of conservation they need to be removed to the safety of a museum. The graveyard in which they are kept is poorly maintained and the stones are surrounded with rubbish that had been thrown in by people stopping in the car park. These stones will not be around much longer unless conservation work is carried out.
Difficulty – These two sites are easy to get to and are located directly on the N7. Be careful of the traffic as cars race around this area. The graveyards are poorly maintained and there are many low grave markers that can be easily tripped upon.
This post appeared originally on 'The Standing Stone' and can be found here.
This is the 16th century church. It is in a poor condition with a lot of rubble inside.
This window is in the East end of the church. It was added in the 17th century and is a nice example of a standard Gothic revival window in Ireland. We have little genuine Gothic architecture in Ireland.