Romanesque Churches

Irish stone churches before the year 1100 show few if any traces of carved decoration, and the interiors were probably so dark that it is unlikely that they would have been enlivened with frescoes  within. It is only after that date that we encounter churches which bear carving in the Romanesque mode, a name deriving from the ancient Romans who used the rounded arch in their buildings. It was probably first introduced at Killaloe in County Clare by Muirchertach O'Brien who initiated an ecclesiastical reform movement to bring the Irish church more into line with Roman practice where it was to occupy a appropriate place in the international episcopal pyramid with the Pope at its peak. This system was to have a devastating effect on the old Irish monasteries which were drained of their lifeblood in order to finance the setting-up of a new diocesan system in Ireland.

The church which Muirchertach built around 1100 was St. Flannan's oratory which has a round-headed doorway and chancel arch, together with a barrel-vaulted roof of stone which is one of only half a dozen or so examples in the country forming a peculiarly Irish contribution to European architecture. One of these was Cormac's Chapel built on the Rock of Cashel between 1127 and 1134, which has more highly carved sculptural decoration (including masks and human faces), as well as recently-revealed frescoes - the earliest known from any Irish church. Romanesque decoration included chevrons and zigzags, as well as floral and geometrical decoration, which are likely to have been influenced more from England than from the Continent, where the style originated in the eleventh century.

There are, fortunately, many Romanesque churches surviving in various parts of Ireland, usually not much bigger than their predecessors, but often enlarging the space within by the addition of a chancel. The Nuns' Church at Clonmacnois is a good example of the style, with its doorway and chancel arch both richly embellished with geometrical ornament as well as human and animal masks. The style reaches its high point in two Cathedrals near the Shannon's western banks - the tangent-gabled portal at Clonfert, Co. Galway, and the doorway inserted into the western end of St. Flannan's Cathedral at Killaloe, which must have belonged originally to an immediate forerunner on the site.

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