Glendalough, Priest's House

Feature Sets (3)

Description

The tiny roofless oratory, known as the Priests' House, lies to the SW of the cathedral. Its internal dimensions are 4.40 m by 2.33 m. There is a narrow door in the S wall and a curious blind arch in the E wall, the latter decorated with Romanesque ornament.  As Leask noted, except for the first two or three courses of masonry, the structure is a restoration. Unfortunately the Office of Public Works based their reconstruction in the 1870s on Beranger's drawing of 1779, which did not give an accurate impression of the medieval building.

Features

Exterior Features

Doorways

S doorway

The doorway has plain jambs which support a partially broken lintel, carved in shallow relief. The lintel is only 0.07m greater than the inner width of the door. The stone appears to have had a curved upper surface, but the top L section was broken away before it was set in its current position.

The carving depicts a seated figure in the centre, set frontally, holding an open book. The head is missing. A figure in profile approaches from the R, holding a bell. Another figure in profile is depicted on the L, holding a crosier or staff. The upper L section of this figure is lost. The exact interpretation of the panel remains unclear.

Dimensions
depth of lintel 0.23 m
height of lintel 0.23 m
width of lintel 0.62 m

Other

Blind opening (reconstruction)

A narrow, round-headed light is set within a complex opening in the exterior E wall.

The bases of the opening are decorated with foliate motifs, broader in conception on the N side than on the S. The jambs have an angle roll with a recessed central row of beading; fillets flank the roll. The lowest stone on the S side lacks beading.

The S capital is an undecorated block. On the N side a thin horizontal strip, 0.07 m high, survives from the bottom of the original capital. It includes the chin and moustache of a human head, set on the angle, with strap-like interlace on each side. On the E face there are traces of curled hair. The upper section of the capital is modern. A chamfered impost lies above.

The arch has seven voussoirs on the S, and six on the N. It is decorated with a single row of point-to-point chevron (formed by a fillet rather than a roll), meeting on a keeled angle roll. There are triangular compartments on the face and soffit which are filled with foliage (two or three simple leaves). On the S side the fifth stone from the bottom extends L into a more ornate pattern. The stones differ in width: some have one chevron per stone, others two, and one has three. The soffits have diagonal tooling.

The label has alternating thick and thin rows of directional chevron, pointing both up and down, depending on the location of the stone. 

Both the jambs and the arch have a diagonal splay, indicating that the stones came from the rear arch of a window.

Dimensions
maximum width of opening 2.16 m

Interior Features

Interior Decoration

Miscellaneous

Reset carved stone

On the E wall, to the L of the sill of the window, is a stone with incised foliage decoration, contained within a semi-circle.

Comments/Opinions

The function of the building has occasioned much argument. The colloquial name is not medieval in origin and is said to relate to the burial of clergy in or around the building in relatively modern times. Some authorities have claimed that the chapel was the burial place of St Kevin, others have described it as a mortuary chapel.

The 'lintel' stone has been the source of much confusion and argument. It was first recorded by the 18thc topographical artist, Gabriel Beranger, who drew the stone intact and gave it a triangular head. His drawing is inscribed 'Stone found on the ground at Priest church'. Beranger's drawing was copied by subsequent artists and it is not clear whether it was really intact at the time or whether he reconstructed the lost portions. The problem is discussed at length by both Barrow (34–6) and Moss. Given the slight curvature of the upper surface, it is possible that it functioned as a small tympanum. However, tympana are rare in Ireland and none has a figural subject of this type. If the stone was once triangular in form, it might have formed the end of a shrine or sarcophagus. Others have suggested it is a fragment of the base of a high cross.

In 1842 the stone was lying in a local farmyard and it was probably not set in place in the Priests' House until the 'restorations' carried out by the Office of Public Works in the 1870s.

It is by no means certain that the carving is Romanesque in date. Figures carrying bells and crosiers are found on a number of early crosses and slabs, for example, those at Kinnitty (Offaly) and Killadeas (Fermanagh). The latter provides a telling comparison. If it was carved in the 12thc, the style was very traditional.

The blind arch in the E wall was reconstructed in the 1870s, but as Rachel Moss has persuasively argued, it was almost certainly a concoction of the 18thc, using stones from a destroyed window (or windows). The radii of the individual voussoirs suggest that they come from two or even three different arches. When Beranger drew the arch in 1779 the rear wall was apparently built up against it. He commented: 'The front entrance built up latterly with stones in part'. Beranger also drew the capitals in an intact form, showing human heads on the angle and long hair extending into interlace. Again it is unclear whether these capitals were really intact at the time.

The stones clearly come from an unusually ornate rear arch or series of rear arches; to judge from the angle rolls with their row of recessed beading, a date of 1165–70 is probably the earliest that could be considered and they may be considerably later. There is no evidence to suggest the original location of the window(s): the arch is too broad for the Priests' House and, as the stone is not yellow oolite, it is unlikely to come from the chancel of the cathedral. Were the stones associated with St Saviour's Priory?

Bibliography

  • G. L. Barrow, Glendalough and Saint Kevin, Dundalk, 1972, 33–7.

  • Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, Official Historical and Descriptive Guide, Dublin, n.d., 18–20.

  • R. Moss, 'The Priests' House Glendalough', BA dissertation, Trinity College Dublin, 1992.

Location

Site Location
Glendalough, Priest's House
National Grid Reference
T 123 968 
Boundaries
medieval: Wicklow
now: Wicklow
Dedication
now:
medieval:
Type of building/monument
Oratory  
Report authors
Roger Stalley