One of the most remarkable buildings I’ve ever been in was this small ancient church on Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula, said to be the best preserved early Christian church on the Emerald Isle.
The Gallarus Oratory was built between the seventh and eight century A.D and is exclusively made of layered angled stone — no mortar was used. The process is known as dry-stone corbelling and is based on a building technique used in Ireland for thousands of years. The angled stones allow water to run off and to keep the interior dry. The technique results in thick heavy walls and a building shaped like an upside down boat; it’s obviously effective because over 1200 years later the church is still standing and still water-tight. This style of oratory is unique to County Kerry. The church has a single door facing the west, and a single window facing the east (rising sun) where the altar would have been.
You can walk into the church, well worth your time to do so but duck your head — folks are definitely taller now. Let your eyes adjust to the low light and imagine a group of monks worshiping in here. The space is fairly small, maybe with room for a dozen or 16 men. These monks had literally moved to the farthest corner of the known world, then Western Ireland, where they spent their lives in prayer, worship and work. Most people don’t know that these Irish monks preserved the writing and higher education. They meticulously crafted books in this region that were works of art, like the Book of Kells (which you can still see in Dublin). After the continent emerged from the Dark Ages, Irish monks were brought to the European continent by Charlemagne to reintroduce writing and reading.
A small slab with an emblazoned cross stands at the east end of a bed of stones adjacent to the oratory. It’s purpose is not fully understood. But it adds to the great experience of visiting the Gallarus Oratory.
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