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Art and Culture


Architecture in Ireland has been strongly influenced by stylistic developments originating in Britain or continental Europe, but Irish building has many distinctive features. For example, the medieval round towers with their conical caps have become an emblem of Irishness. The array of prehistoric monuments and medieval fortified structures is extraordinary, while the town and country buildings of the Georgian era are particularly fine.

Prehistoric Era

Although the first traces of human habitation in Ireland date from c 7,000 BC, the first people to leave structural evidence of their presence were Neolithic farmers who lived in Ireland from their arrival c 4,000 BC, until 2,000 BC. Traces of their huts have been found at Lough Gur.

Megalithic Tombs

The most visible and enduring monuments of these people are their elaborate burial mounds .

The most impressive are the passage tombs at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth in the Boyne Valley, on Bricklieve Mountain, at Loughcrew, at Fourknocks and Knockmany. Each grave consisted of a passage leading to a chamber roofed with a flat stone or a corbelled structure, sometimes with smaller chambers off the other three sides and sometimes containing stone basins. It was covered by a circular mound of earth or stones, retained by a ring of upright stones. Passage graves date from 3000–2500 BC.

The earliest Megalithic structures, court tombs , consisted of a long chamber divided into compartments and covered by a long mound of stones retained by a kerb of upright stones. Before the entrance was a semicircular open court flanked by standing stones as at Creevykeel and Ossian’s Grave.

A third style of Megalithic tomb is known as the portal tomb ; like Proleek , they are found mostly near the east coast of Ireland. The tomb consisted of two standing stones in front with others behind supporting a massive capstone, which was hauled into place up an earth ramp long since removed. They date from c 2,000 BC.

Bronze Age Structures

Stone circles, which date from the Bronze Age (1750–500 BC), are mostly found in the southwest of the country The circle at Drombeg seems to have been used to determine the shortest day of the year.

Single standing stones probably marked boundaries or grave sites. Some were made into Christian monuments with a cross or an Ogham inscription.

Of similar antiquity is the cooking pit (fulacht fiadh), which was filled with water; hot stones were placed in the water to bring it to boiling-point.

Iron Age Dwellings

By the Iron Age, men were living in homesteads , approached by a causeway. A ringfort was enclosed by an earth bank (ráth or dún) or by a stone wall (caiseal) and was surrounded by a ditch. An artificial island (crannóg) was formed by heaping up stones in a marsh or lake. Many such dwellings were in use from the Iron Age until the 17C. There is a replica at Craggaunowen. Stone forts (cashels) like Dún Aonghasa and Grianán of Aileach, although restored at various periods, illustrate the type, built on a hill with massive walls and mural chambers.

Within the homestead individual huts were built of wattle and daub or of stone with a thatched roof. In the west, beehive huts (clocháin) were built entirely of stone using the same technique of ­ corbelling inwards to form a roof that was used in the passage graves. Similar stone huts are also found in the monastery on Great Skellig and at Clochan na Carraige on the Aran Islands. They demonstrate the use of drystone construction in a treeless land.

At the centre of the homestead there was often an underground stone passage, called a souterrain, used for storage or refuge.

Irish Monastic Settlements

Little remains of most early Christian settlements, as the buildings were made of perishable material – wood or wattle and daub. The records describe beautiful wooden churches made of smooth planks constructed with great craft and skill. Unfortunately none has survived.

Early monasteries consisted of an area enclosed by a circular wall or bank and divided into concentric rings, as at Nendrum, or into sectors assigned to different uses. The most important sector was the graveyard, since it was seen as the gateway to heaven.

Round Towers

The sites of early monasteries are marked by slender tapering round towers, just as much a symbol of Ireland as the high crosses. Almost unique to Ireland, they were built between about AD 950 and 12C as bell-towers where hand bells, the only kind available, were rung from the top floor to announce the services. The towers were also used to store treasures and possibly as places of refuge; in almost every case the entrance was several feet (10ft/3m) above ground level.

Intact towers vary in height (from 50ft/17m to over 100ft/30m). All were surmounted by a conical cap, sometimes replaced by later battlements. About 65 survive in varying condition, with 12 intact. Most were constructed without foundations and all are tapered.

Tomb Shrines

Some saints’ graves are marked by a stone mortuary house , which resembles a miniature church. These structures, such as St Ciaran’s at Clonmacnoise, are among the earliest identifiable stone buildings in Ireland.


Most early stone churches consisted of a single chamber with a west door and an east window; churches with a nave and chancel date from the 12C. None of the surviving churches are very large, but there are often several churches on one site. The very large stones employed accentuate the smallness of the churches. The roofs would have been made of thatch or shingles.

The rare stone-roofed churches, an Irish peculiarity, employ the corbelling technique. The simplest is Gallarus Oratory; St Doulagh’s near Malahide is a 13C church still roofed with stone slabs; St Columba’s House, St Mochta’s House, St Flannan’s Oratory and Cormac’s Chapel have a small room between the vaulted ceiling and the roof. The earliest examples are devoid of ornament; an exception to this rule is found on White Island in Co Fermanagh, where seven figurative slabs are attached to the walls —these may be later insertions.

Middle Ages

Norman / Romanesque

The first church in the Romanesque style introduced from the Continent in the 12C, was Cormac’s Chapel of 1139 at Cashel. In Ireland Romanesque churches are always small; their typical features, to which carved decoration is limited, are round-headed doorways, windows and arches. Ornament includes fantastic animals, human masks and geometric designs such as bosses, zigzags and “teeth”. Cormac’s Chapel has fine carvings, several series of blind arcading, painted rib vaults and the earliest extant frescoes.

Profusely ornamented west doorways are perhaps unique to Ireland, exemplified by Clonfert (after 1167), Ardfert and St Cronan’s in Roscrea.

Norman Castles

The first castles built by Normans were of the motte and bailey type. The motte was a natural or artificial mound of earth surrounded by a ditch and usually surmounted by a wooden tower as at Clough in Co Down; the bailey was an area attached to the motte and enclosed by a paling fence. From the start of the 13C, the Normans built more solid stone donjons (keeps), which were square with corner buttresses, as at Trim, Carrickfergus and Greencastle, polygonal as at Dundrum and Athlone or round as at Nenagh. During the 13C entrance towers became more important and barbicans were added for additional defence. In the latter half of the 13C a new symmetrical design was developed consisting of an inner ward with four round corner towers and a combined gatehouse/donjon in the middle of one wall, as at Roscommon.

Gothic Churches

Gothic architecture, introduced to Ireland in the late 12C, is on a much smaller scale than elsewhere and few examples have survived. Most cathedrals show English and Welsh influences, whereas monasteries, founded by Continental monastic orders, are built according to their usual plan of a quadrangle enclosed by cloisters bordered by the church on the north side, the sacristy and chapter-house on the east, the refectory and kitchens on the south and the store on the west, with dormitories above the east and south ranges.

Early in the 13C many cathedrals were remodelled; the two Anglican cathedrals in Dublin underwent building works in this period, although they have been much altered since. St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, completed in 1254, to which a tower was added in 1372, is very English in its form and decoration.

A second period of building occurred in the 15C and coincided with the construction of many Franciscan houses in the west. Most existing churches were altered to conform to the new fashion. Broad traceried windows were inserted, which let in more light and provided the stonemasons with opportunities for decoration. There is a distinctive Irish character to the capitals and high relief carving in the cloisters at Jerpoint (15C).

Tower Houses

After the Black Death (1348–50) building resumed on a more modest scale. In 1429 a £10 subsidy was offered by Edward VI for the construction of a castle or tower. Over 70 per cent of tower houses, which were erected by native and settler alike, are south of the Dublin–Galway axis.

The most distinctive feature is their verticality, one room on each of four to five storeys, sometimes with a hidden room between two floors.

Defences consisted of corner loop holes, battering at the base, double-stepped merlons, known as Irish crenellations , and external machicolations over the corners and the entrance. Most such towers, which were built between 1450 and 1650, were surrounded by a bawn , an area enclosed by a defensive wall. Only in the later and larger castles is decoration evident.

Plantation Period

Plantation Castles

As the country came more firmly under English control in the late 16C, more luxurious rectangular houses were built with square corner towers, as at Kanturk (c 1603), Portumna (c 1618), Glinsk (c 1620) and Ballygally (1625). Often an existing tower house was extended by the addition of a more modern house, as at Leamaneh, Donegal and Carrick-on-Suir. These buildings show a Renaissance influence in plain and regular fenestration with large mullioned windows.

Planter’s Gothic

This style was introduced in the early 17C by settlers from England and Scotland who built many parish churches throughout Ireland, a few of which survive unaltered; one of the best examples is St Columb’s Cathedral in Londonderry.

Coastal Fortifications

In the Restoration period several important towns were provided with star forts; the most complete surviving fortification is Charles Fort in Kinsale (from 1671). Signal towers were built on the coast after the French invasion of Bantry Bay in 1796 and Killala in 1798. The building of Martello towers began in 1804; about 50 of these squat structures with very thick walls punctuate the coast from Drogheda to Cork and along the Shannon estuary. The so-called Joyce Tower in Sandycove, built of ashlar granite, is typical.

18C–19C Classical

Country Houses

Between the Battle of the Boyne (1690) and the Rebellion (1798) there was a period of relative peace and prosperity during which most of the important country houses were built. While Dutch gables and red brick are attributed to the influence of William of Orange, in general English and French inspiration predominated in the late 17C. In the 18C the influence was mainly Italian sources, often distilled through England and latterly Greek-inspired architects, while in the 19C the English Gothic and Tudor revivalists were influential. Most country houses were built of local stone.

The most popular style in the 18C was the Palladian villa , which consisted of a central residence – two or three storeys high – flanked by curved or straight colonnades ending in pavilions (usually one storey lower) which housed the kitchens or stables and farm buildings.

The major architect of the first half of the 18C was Richard Castle (originally Cassels) (1690–1751), of Huguenot origin. Castle’s many houses – Powerscourt, Westport, Russborough, Newbridge – tend to be very solid. He took over the practice of Sir Edward Lovett Pearce , who had the major role in designing Castletown and who built the Houses of Parliament (from 1729), now the Bank of Ireland in Dublin.

The influence of Robert Adam (1728–92) arrived in Ireland in 1770, the date of the mausoleum he designed at Temple­patrick. Sir William Chambers’ work in Ireland is exemplified by The Casino, Marino (1769–80), an expensive neo-Classical gentleman’s retreat cum folly.

James Gandon (1742–1823) was brought to Ireland in 1781 to design Emo Court. His Classical style is well illustrated by the Customs House and the Four Courts in Dublin.

The chief work of James Wyatt (1746–1813) was at Castle Coole but he also contributed to Slane Castle.

One of the best known Irish architects was Francis Johnston (1761–1829), an exponent of both the Classical and the Gothic styles, the former exemplified by Dublin’s General Post Office, the latter by Dublin Castle’s Chapel Royal.

Interior Decoration

Many interiors were decorated with exuberant stuccowork executed by the Swiss-Italian Lafranchini brothers, one of whom executed the stairwell plasterwork at Castletown. Contemporary work of similar quality was carried out by Robert West and at Powerscourt House in Dublin by Michael Stapleton , the principal exponent of Adam decor.


Classical details began to be used in the 17C. St Michan’s in Dublin (c 1685) and Lismore (1680) by William Robinson retain some details of 17C work. The early Georgian St Anne’s in Shandon, Cork, has an imposing west tower with an eastern flavour.

The neo-Classical rectangular building with a pillared portico, inspired by the Greek temple, was popular with all the major denominations: St Werburgh’s (1754–59), St George’s (1812), St Stephen’s (1825) and the Pro-Cathedral (finished after 1840) in Dublin, St John the Evangelist (1781–85) at Coolbanagher by Gandon and St George’s (1816) in Belfast.

Revival Styles

The Gothic Revival style first appeared in Ireland in the 1760s at Castle Ward and at Malahide Castle where two tall Gothic towers were added to the medieval core. At first Gothic features and intricate stuccowork vaulted ceilings were added to buildings that were basically Classical and symmetrical, such as Castle Ward. In addition to crenellations, machicolations and pointed arches, one of the key features of the Gothic style was asymmetry. Existing medieval castles or tower houses or Classical mansions, such as Kilkenny Castle (c 1826) by William Robertson, and Dromoland Castle (1826) by George and James Pain, were enlarged and reworked in Gothic or Tudor style. Johnstown Castle and Ashford Castle are later examples of such Gothicising, which was romantic in flavour but distinctly Victorian in convenience.

Some new houses were built entirely in an antiquated style; Gosford Castle is neo-Norman; Glenveagh was designed in the Irish Baronial style; for Belfast ­Castle, Lanyon and Lynn chose the Scottish Baronial style, which was also used for Blarney Castle House.

Gothic Revival Churches

Many early 19C Gothic churches, such as the Church of the Most Holy Trinity (formerly the Chapel Royal) in Dublin Castle, are filled with ornament, with decorative galleries, plaster vaulting and rich oak carvings. Later the influence of Augustus Welby Pugin, who practised widely in Ireland, and JJ McCarthy, promoted antiquarian correctness, as at St Fin Barre’s in Cork (1862) by William Burges. McCarthy’s greatest achievement was probably the completion in Decorated Gothic style of the great new cathedral at Armagh (after 1853). This was only one example, albeit an outstanding one, in the spate of building that followed the Emancipation Act when many Roman Catholic cathedrals and parish churches were constructed in eclectic Gothic variations.


The Gothic style was often used in the second half of the 19C for civic buildings as well as detached houses and mansions; Trinity College Museum (completed 1857) by Deane and Woodward is a classic of the Venetian Gothic revival. The Arts and Crafts movement did not find much architectural expression in Ireland; Cavan Town Hall (1908) by William Scott is a notable exception with expressive use of planes and textures. University College Dublin in Earlsfort Terrace (1912) by RM Butler and the College of Sciences in Upper Merrion Street in Dublin (1904–13) by Sir Aston Webb exemplify the Classical revival. Perhaps the most grandiose structure of this period is the huge City Hall (1906) in Belfast, a “great wedding cake of a building” (J Sheehy) with a dome and corner towers. The young Free State restored with admirable promptness the bombed General Post Office, the Four Courts and the Custom House, but the record of new design is relatively poor.


Architectural Modernism was slow to come to Ireland but an early and very striking example was the Church of Christ the King (1927) at Turner’s Cross in Cork by Barry Byrne of Chicago. The changes in practice introduced by Vatican II favouring worship in the round, have inspired many exciting church designs, some of which reflect local physical features – St Conal’s Church, Glenties, Co Donegal; St Michael’s Church, Creeslough, Co Donegal; Dominican Church, Athy; Prince of Peace Church, Fossa, near Killarney; Holy Trinity, Bunclody. Modern civic architecture arrived in Ireland with the construction of the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric plant in 1929 and the Dublin Airport terminal building of 1940.

Irish Distinction

Towns and Cities

Early Irish villages (clachans) were formed of clusters of wattle-and-daub cottages arranged in a haphazard manner. The first towns were founded by the Vikings, invariably on estuaries; among them were Drogheda, Dublin, Waterford and Wexford. Most such places had a Tholsel (toll stall), often an arch or gateway several storeys high, where payment for rights of privilege or passage was made. Norman settlements were mostly confined to the south and east of the country. Towns were often enclosed within town walls, parts of which have survived at Athenry, Kilmallock, Youghal, Fethardand Londonderry.

The first widespread foundation of towns occurred in the late 16C and 17C during the plantations of Ulster, Munster and some parts of Leinster; they consisted of timber-framed houses, which have not survived, set out round a green or lining a street. The green was often known as “The Diamond” although rarely a true diamond shape; many such “Diamonds” survive in Ulster. In many Irish towns one of the most elegant buildings is the market and the courthouse, sometimes combined in one structure.

Town Planning

In the 18C and 19C many country landlords indulged in town planning, setting out wide streets as in Strokestown and Moy, tree-lined malls as in Westport, Birr and Castlebar, unusual formal street plans, such as the X-shape in Kenmare, rows of cottages built of local stone as at Glassan, northeast of Athlone, and Shillelagh in Co Wicklow or the picturesque thatched houses of Adare.

In the major towns elegant terraces of houses of Classically inspired design were built of local stone or red brick, some of which was imported from Somerset via Bristol. In 19C Dublin the materials used were grey brick from local clays, local limestone and grey Wicklow granite. Although most terraces were erected piecemeal and lack a unified aesthetic, the influence of the Wide Streets ­Commissioners (in Dublin from 1758) led to distinctly Irish Georgian doorways – usually flanked by columns – and ordered fenestration. The tallest windows are on the principal floor, decreasing in size towards the roofline parapet. Some later terraces by the Wide Streets Commissioners and others were more standardised – Fitzwilliam Street and Square (south side) in Dublin, and Pery Square in Limerick. Internal decoration was often of a very high standard, with Classical motifs common in chimneypieces, plasterwork and timberwork.

20C town planning in Ireland has had few notable successes. Grandiose plans for the reconstruction of Dublin following the devastation of 1916 were drawn up but never implemented. Many of the close-packed terraced streets of late 19C Belfast have been replaced by planned housing schemes of various kinds, the least succesful of which consisted of Brutalist blocks of flats. The attempt to create the “New Town” of Craigavon on the British model, based on the existing urban areas of Lurgan and Portadown, has only been partially realised. In the South, rural prosperity and lax planning controls have led to the abandonment of the picturesque but sub-standard cabin with a scatter of comfortable but visually inappropriate houses and bungalows.

Vernacular Houses

The Irish countryside is full of buildings and other structures of traditional vernacular architecture – not only dwellings and outhouses but also structures such as sweathouses and forges.

The small stone sweathouse, was used to treat pleurisy and other ailments and also as a type of sauna. A fire was lit inside and, when the interior was hot, the ashes were raked out and a layer of rushes placed on the floor to protect the feet from the heat.

The 1841 Census identified four grades of housing, of which the most modest was a windowless one-room mud cabin with a thatched roof (bothán) , a type of dwelling that predominated west of a line from Londonderry to Cork. Such houses contained little or no furniture; more windows or rooms meant higher rents. The half door, which is to be found all over Ireland, allowed in light while keeping out animals.

The middle grades of house, single- and two-storey farmhouses, have survived in greater numbers, with glazed windows, hearths and a hierarchy of rooms for distinct social uses.

The Irish long house , in which all the rooms were interconnecting with the stairs at one end, was a style that lasted from the Middle Ages to the 18C; the one at Cratloe is a rare survivor.

The box-style Georgian house with symmetrical elevation, some Classical detailing such as Venetian or Wyatt windows and a fanlit and columnated doorcase, was very popular with people of more substantial means.

Simple dwellings were often destroyed during evictions or fell into decay. Some have been discovered under layers of modernisation; others, threatened with demolition, have been reconstructed or recreated in Bunratty Folk Park, Glencolmcille Folk Village, the Ulster-American Folk Park and the Ulster Folk Park near Bangor.

Stained Glass

No medieval stained glass has survived in-situ in Ireland but there was a revival of interest in this craft in the 1770s with the enamelling work of Thomas Jervais and Richard Hand, much of which was secular. The fashion for the neo-Gothic style of architecture in the 19C for both churches and houses created a great demand for stained glass; good examples from this period are St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Dundalk, which has glass by Early of Dublin, Hardman of Birmingham and Meyer of Munich, the east window of St Patrick’s Anglican Church in Monaghan by the German FS Barff, and the altar window of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Tuam by Michael O’Connor (1801–67).

The outstanding contribution made by 20C Irish artists in this field was nurtured by the foundation of An Túr Gloine (the Tower of Glass) (1903–63) at the instigation of Edward Martyn and Sarah Purser.

The portrait painter Sarah Purser did designs for several windows including Cormac of Cashel in St Patrick’s Cathedral, and another founder member was Michael Healy (d 1941) whose work can be seen in Loughrea Cathedral.

Wilhelmina Margaret Geddes worked for An Túr Gloine from 1912 to 1925 and works by her can be seen in the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin – Episodes from the Life of St Colman (strong black line used) and in the Ulster Museum – The Fate of the Children of Lir (1930).

Evie Hone joined An Túr Gloine in 1934. Her work, which was often inspired by Irish medieval sculpture, includes The Ascension (1948) for the Roman Catholic church in Kingscourt, Co Cavan, and The Beatitudes (1946) for a chapel in the Jesuit Retreat House at Tullabeg near Tullamore.

Harry Clarke (1889–1931) developed a distinctive personal style as early as 1915, drawing from iconography and legends in a symbolist manner. His first public commission, 12 windows for the Honan Chapel in University College Cork, is one of his greatest works. His “Geneva Window” (1928) is in the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin. Just before his death he executed his most important ecclesiastical commission The Last Judgement with the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Paul for St Patrick’s Church in Newport.

A current revival is headed by James Scanlon and Maud Cotter, both based in Cork.

Irish Art

Constantly receptive to influences from Britain and the rest of Europe and often giving them a specifically local flavour, Irish art was unsurpassed in its originality and creativity in the Early Christian era, when sculptors, jewellers, illuminators and other artists found inspiration in the country’s glorious heritage of Celtic arts and crafts. A fainter echo of Celtic achievement came in the paintings and graphic arts associated with the Gaelic revival of the late 19C and early 20C, but before this, Ireland, quite as much as England, had become a stronghold of the arts and crafts of the Georgian era; the brilliant and sometimes eccentric life of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy is reflected in the painting of the time as much as in architecture and the decorative arts.

Celtic Art

Circles are an integral part of Celtic art; the outline of the design was marked out on the piece to be decorated with an iron compass. Other decorative motifs were S-and C-shaped curves, spirals and swirls and zig-zags, with intricate, interlaced patterns in the interstices. Similar designs, identified by archaeologists as La Tène (after the continental Celtic centre found at La Tène which flourished during the last five centuries BC), are found on two granite monuments – at Turoe and Castlestrange – which date from the 3C BC. They are the only two such monuments to have survived in Ireland and were probably used in religious ceremonies. They resemble the Greek omphalos at Delphi, a site raided by the Celts in 290 BC.

The finest Celtic pieces are designed in gold. In making a torc (a neckband), the goldsmith stretched the metal into long narrow strips and then twisted them around each other to make a golden rope which was then shaped to fit around the warrior’s neck. The Celts made personal ornaments – brooches, horse harnesses and sword sheaths – which they often decorated with enamel favouring the colour red but also using blue, yellow and green. A regular motif in Celtic design is the triskele, a figure with three arms or legs, symbolising earth, fire and water.

Some early sculptures display a nude (and often very lewd) female figure with open legs, known as Sheila-na-gig , which owes much to pagan traditions but is usually found in or about churches. Many interpretations have been given to these often grotesque carvings which were probably linked to a fertility cult.

A Golden Age

The first important example of an illuminated manuscript is a copy of the Psalms dating from around AD600 and traditionally attributed to St Columba. Compared with later achievements, it is relatively simple, its principal feature being a large decorated initial at the beginning of paragraphs. Its ornamentation of Celtic spirals and stylised animals is further developed in the course of the 7C in the Book of Durrow, where a variety of coloured inks is used as well as the black of Columba’s manuscript. Whole “carpet pages” are given over to decoration rather than text, and the characteristic motif of interlaced bands makes its appearance. Over the next century and a half, the scribes’ increasing skill resulted in ever greater intricacy and exuberance, culminating in the sublime achievement of the Book of Kells dating from around 800. Of equal virtuosity are a number of products of the metalworker’s and jeweller’s art. The almost monumental Ardagh Chalice (c 700) is a masterpiece of colourful decoration; its extraordinarily elaborate base, with three friezes in gold around a central rock crystal, would have been visible only briefly when raised during Mass. In a similar way, the splendid ornamentation of the underside of the renowned Tara Brooch (also c 700) would have only been seen by its owner.


When Gaelic culture waned in the 17C the chief influences on art in Ireland were English and European. A guild of painters was founded in Dublin in 1670, but there was little development until the Dublin Society’s Schools were set up in 1746 to promote design in art and manufacture. The first master, Robert West (d 1770), and his assistant, James Mannin (d 1779), had trained in France. The School’s most outstanding pupil was probably Hugh Douglas Hamilton (1739–1808), who excelled at pastel portraits; in 1778 he visited Italy and while in Rome developed as a painter in oils.

Susanna Drury (1733–70), whose paintings of the Giant’s Causeway are in the Ulster Museum, was a member of the Irish school of landscape painting, which emerged in the 18C. George ­Barret (c 1732–84), who moved to England in 1763, introduced the Romantic element into his landscapes. Several Irish artists travelled to Italy. Thomas Roberts (1748–78), a pupil of the Dublin Society’s Schools and a brilliant landscape artist, was familiar with Dutch and French painting and exhibited several works in the style of Claude Vernet. The dominant figure of the 18C is James Barry (1741–1806), who produced large-scale works in the neo-Classical tradition. He travelled widely, including in Italy, studying painting and sculpture. Joseph Peacock (c 1783–1837) from Dublin was famous for his outdoor fair scenes.

Among the visitors to 18C Dublin were Vincent Valdré (1742–1814), who painted three ceiling panels for Dublin Castle, and Angelica Kauffmann (1741–1807), who was the guest of the Viceroy, Lord Townshend for several months in 1771.

In 1823 the Royal Hibernian Academy was incorporated by charter to encourage Irish artists by offering them an annual opportunity to show work.

After the Act of Union in 1800 many Irish artists moved to London: Martin Archer Shee (1769–1850), who became President of the Royal Academy in 1830, and Daniel Mac Lise (1806–70), a popular historical painter. Nathaniel Hone (1831–1917) spent 17 years in France painting outside like the painters of the Barbizon school. Roderic O’Conor (1860–1940) studied in Antwerp and in France where he met Gauguin, whose influence, together with that of Van Gogh, is obvious in his work. Sir John Lavery (1856–1948), who also studied in Paris, is known for his portraits, although he also painted scenes from the French countryside. Another artist who studied abroad is Sarah Purser (1848–1943), a prolific portrait painter and a founder of An Túr Gloine .

The 20C has produced several artists of note. Jack B Yeats (1871–1957), brother of the poet, painted his views of Irish life with bold brushstrokes in brilliant colours. Paul Henry (1876–1958) is known for his ability to represent the luminous quality of the light in the west of Ireland. William Orpen (1878–1931), who trained at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin and the Slade in London, became a fashionable portrait painter and an official war artist; among his Irish pupils were Seán Keating (1889–1977) and Patrick Tuohy (1894–1930). Cubism was introduced to Ireland by Mainie Jellett (1897–1944) and Evie Hone (1894–1955), who is better known for her work in stained glass.

In 1991 the National Gallery and the Hugh Lane Gallery were joined by the Irish Museum of Modern Art at Kilmainham, all in Dublin.


Cross-slabs and pillar-stones

Among the earliest stone monuments are the slabs laid flat over an individual grave between the 8C and the 12C. The largest collection is at the monastic site at Clonmacnoise. Of somewhat earlier date are cross-decorate pillar-stones, some set up as grave markers. A number of them may be recycled prehistoric standing stones.

High Crosses

One of the great symbols of Ireland, the free-standing highly-decorated crosses are most numerous in the east of Ireland but they are also found in western and northern Britain. The best groups are at Monasterboice, Clonmacnoise, Kells and Ahenny. It is thought that high crosses are the successors to small painted or bronze-covered wooden crosses used as a focus for kneeling congregations. Most stand on a pyramidal base; the head of the cross is usually ringed and surmounted by a finial often in the shape of a small shrine.

The early carving on late 8C crosses is mostly decorative consisting of spirals and interlacing. In the 9C and 10C, panels of figures appear illustrating stories at first from the New and then from the Old Testament; interestingly, such biblical figures or scenes are rare in early Christian art. Animal scenes are often executed on the base.

The 12C crosses are not a direct continuation and often lack a ring. By this date the figure of a bishop or abbot in the Continental style predominates.

Middle Ages to the Renaissance

A distinctive feature of the medieval period is the box tomb found in the chancel of many churches. These often have lids bearing a carved effigy of the deceased and sometimes that of his wife; while the sides are decorated with figures of the Apostles and saints. In the 15C and 16C, figures and scenes from the crucifixion were carved in high relief. Although predominantly religious, 17C sculpture, such as the Jacobean Segrave or Cosgrave stucco tableaux in St Audeon’s Church in Dublin, widened in scope to include stone and timber carved chimneypieces; there are two fine examples of the former in the castles in Donegal and Carrick-on-Suir. Renaissance-inspired 17C tombs are to be found in St Mary’s Cathedral in Limerick, St Nicholas’ Church in Carrickfergus and in Youghal Parish Church. Carvings from the Restoration period – fine wood relief and stone – survive, especially at the Kilmainham Hospital.

18C to the Present

A spate of building in the 18C provided much work for sculptors. The figures of Justice and Mars above the gates of Dublin Castle are the work of Van Nost as is a statue of George III, now in the Mansion House. Edward Smyth (1749–1812), who was a pupil of the Dublin Society’s Schools, created the riverine heads on the keystones of the arches and the arms of Ireland on the Custom House and also worked on the Four Courts under James Gandon and on the Bank of Ireland; he had been apprenticed to Simon Vierpyl (c 1725–1810), who worked on the Marino Casino. Vierpyl’s work at the Casino includes the urns flanking the external steps; the lions adjacent are the work of the English sculptor Joseph Wilton.

The 19C saw the dominance of a taste in Greek Revival detailing; in St Patrick’s Church in Monaghan there is a good collection of monuments, notably the one to Lady Rossmore (c 1807) by Thomas Kirk (1781–1845). John Hogan (1800–58) is acknowledged as a most distinguished sculptor – see his fine plaster The Drunken Faun in the Crawford Art Galley in Cork. Among his contemporaries, two stand out: Patrick MacDowell (1799–1870) who carved the group of Europe on the base of the Albert Memorial in London, and John Henry Foley (1818–74) who sculpted the bronze figure of Prince Albert; Foley’s best work in Dublin is the O’Connell Monument and the statues of Burke, Goldsmith and Grattan on College Green. The best work of Thomas Farrell (1827–1900) is the Cullen Memorial (1881) in the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin.

The Wellington Testimonial (c 1817) in Phoenix Park in Dublin by English architect Sir Robert Smirke, has bronze reliefs on the base by the sculptors Joseph Robinson Kirk, Farrell and Hogan. The work of Oliver Sheppard (1864–1941) is strongly influenced by the Art Nouveau style. The Parnell Monument in O’Connell Street in Dublin was designed by Augustus St Gaudens in 1911. The portrait sculptor Albert Power (1883–1945), a resident of Dublin, was elected Associate of RHA in 1911; there are examples of his work in Cavan Cathedral, Mullingar Cathedral and in Eyre Square in Galway. The Belfast sculptor FE McWilliam (1909–92) is represented by a series of bronze figurative sculptures in the Ulster Museum.

More recent work of note includes the Children of Lir by Oisin Kelly (1916–81) in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin. A pleasing aspect of contemporary urban renewal is the placing of sculpture in places where it is readily encountered by the public, who have often responded with affection and amusement.


Irish men and women of letters have made a significant contribution to English literature through poetry, novels and drama. Poetry was an art form practised by the Celtic bard and medieval monk, but theatrical performances were unknown to Gaelic society. The Irish brought a talent for fantasy, wit, satire and Gaelic speech patterns to the English language. Four Irish writers have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature: William Butler Yeats (1923), George Bernard Shaw (1925), Samuel Beckett (1969) and Seamus Heaney (1995).

Celtic Influence

The Celts may not have left a written record but their oral tradition has bequeathed a rich legacy of myth and history to inspire later generations.

The work of the monks in the scriptorium of a Celtic Church was to copy biblical and other religious texts and to write their own commentaries. They decorated their work, particularly the first capital letter of a chapter, with highly ornate Celtic patterns. Several of these illuminated manuscripts , of which the most famous is the Book of Kells, are displayed in the Old Library of Trinity College in Dublin.

One account from this early period is Navigatio , written in medieval Latin, an account of the voyage from Ireland to America made by St Brendan in the 6C .

Anglo-Irish Literature

The first flowering of Anglo-Irish literature came in the late 17C and 18C when George Farquhar (1678–1707) wrote his stage works, Oliver Goldsmith (1728–74) composed poetry, novels and plays and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816) published his satirical comedies – School for Scandal .

The major figure of this period was Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) who was born in Ireland, studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and spent many years in England before being appointed Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin where he stayed until his death. Gulliver’s Travels is the most famous of his satirical writings on 18C Irish society. His friend and fellow student, William Congreve (1670–1729), meanwhile, wrote witty costume dramas, such as The Way of the World , which inspired Wilde and Shaw.

After spending his early childhood among his mother’s relatives in Ireland, Laurence Sterne (1713-68), made his name in England as an innovator among novelists with Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey ; he is also seen as a forerunner of the stream of consciousness technique practised by James Joyce.

Many Irish writers who achieved success and fame moved to London, where they made a significant contribution to English literature and theatre. The name of the novel Dracula is better known than its author Bram Stoker (1947-1912), who worked for several years as an Irish civil servant, writing drama reviews, before moving to London as Henry Irving’s manager; only his first novel, A Snake’s Pass , is set in Ireland. George Moore (1852–1933) described high society in Dublin (Drama in Muslin) and introduced the realism of Zola into the novel (Esther Waters) . Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) achieved huge success in the London theatre with his poetry, comic plays (Lady Windermere’s Fan, The Importance of Being Earnest) and in society with his distinctive dress and style, his disgrace and prison term in Reading Gaol. George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) commented on the Anglo-Irish dilemma in his journalism and his play John Bull’s Other Island and explored the contradictions of English society (Pygmalion) .

Irish Themes

Several successful authors chose Irish themes for their work. Maria Edgeworth (1767–1849) achieved international fame and the admiration of Sir Walter Scott with her novels Castle Rackrent and The Absentee ; William Carleton (1794–1869) wrote about rural life in County Tyrone. The theme of the novel The Collegians by Gerald Griffin (1803–40) was reworked by Dion Boucicault for the stage as The Colleen Bawn and by Benedict as an opera, The Lily of Killarney . Anthony Trollope (1815–82), who began his literary career while working for the Post Office in Ireland, wrote several novels on Irish themes. Canon Sheehan (1852–1913) was admired in Russia by Tolstoy and in the USA for his novels about rural life. Somerville and Ross, a literary partnership composed of Edith ­Somerville (1858–1949) and her cousin Violet Florence Martin (1862–1915), whose pen-name was Martin Ross , produced novels about Anglo-Irish society, The Real Charlotte and the highly humorous Experiences of an Irish RM , adapted for TV in the 1980s.

Irish Literary Renaissance

At this time, as part of the Gaelic Revival , a literary renaissance deeply rooted in folklore was taking place in Ireland. One of its early influential figures was George Russell (1867–1935), known as AE, mystic, poet and painter, economist and journalist. The leader of this literary movement and the dominant writer of traditional Irish myths and legends, was William Butler Yeats (1856–1939), who established his name as a poet and playwright and was a founder member of the Abbey Theatre. He lived for a number of years in County Sligo and came to recognise the power of the native imagination in Irish oral tradition, especially in the heroic tales and in mythological material, which greatly influenced his writing. His own understanding of the occult influenced his involvement in and interpretations of Irish lore. His Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry , first published in 1888, was followed by Irish Fairy Tales in 1892. Here he made the distinction among folktale, legend and myth; he was among the first writers to interpret Irish folklore. He admired Douglas Hyde because of Hyde’s honest commitment to the Irish language and to native Irish lore. Yeats was part of a group of people who associated Anglo-Irish writing as part of a revival of a culture that was in danger of disappearing, to a large extent owing to social development. Another leading light in this movement was ­ Isabella Augusta , Lady Gregory (1852-1932), who lived in County Galway and became friendly with Yeats. They were much influenced by one another and collected folklore together. Among her best-known works is Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920), which is based on 20 years of work in this area with Yeats.

The Kiltartan History Book (1909) contained, for the first time, accounts and descriptions of many aspects of historical lore, unchanged from the oral narration of local people. She was one of the first to publish unedited folklore material faithfully reproducing what she had collected. In common with Yeats, she recognised the richness of folklore among the “farmers and potato-diggers and old men” in her own district, the unbroken chain of tradition and the wealth of ballads, tales and lore that played such an important part in the everyday life of the ordinary people around her in County Galway.

Some of the greatest successes written for the Abbey Theatre were the plays of John Millington Synge (1871–1909). These included Riders to the Sea and Playboy of the Western World , inspired by the Aran Islands, and The Shadow of the Glen , inspired by the Wicklow Mountains, where language dominates in the bleak landscape; and the pacifist plays of Sean O’Casey (1880–1964), The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars , written in the aftermath of the First World War.

Literary Exiles

The narrow-mindedness of Irish society is expressed in the drama and fiction of George Moore (1852-1933), who spent part of his early life in Paris, and even more so in the work of James Joyce (1882-1941), often considered to be the greatest and certainly the most innovative of 20C writers in English. The appearance of his short story collection, Dubliners, was long delayed because of the publisher’s attempts to impose cuts. Joyce’s anti-clerical and anti-nationalist views led him to leave Dublin in 1904 for exile, first in Trieste, then in Zürich and Paris. His most influential work, the vast novel Ulysses, recounts a day in the life of Jewish Dubliner Leopold Bloom as he moves around the city in a strange reprise of the wanderings of Homer’s hero. The novel revels in the English language and pushes it to its limits, exploiting the devices of interior monologue and stream of consciousness to extraordinary effect. Dwelling on the most intimate details of everyday life, it was banned not just in Ireland but in Britain and America as well. The even more monumental Finnegan’s Wake takes these developments even further, exploiting not just the potential of English but of scores of other languages and delighting in word-play and paradox of the utmost complexity.

Much influenced by Joyce, and an associate of his during the older writer’s sojourn in Paris, Samuel Beckett (1906-89) is remembered mainly as one of founders of the Theatre of the Absurd. Like Joyce, Beckett found life in Ireland unbearably constricting and spent most of his life in France, being decorated for his work in the Resistance in the Second World War. Unlike Joyce, Beckett honed his language to the bare minimum required to convey his grim vision of human life as an “intolerable existence not worthwhile terminating”. His best-known work is the play En Attendant Godot/Waiting for Godot , written in French and then translated by the author himself. First produced in 1953 and provoking acclaim and bafflement in equal measure, it is the austere and apparently inconsequential tale of two tramps waiting in vain for a mysterious being who never makes an appearance.

Modern Writing in Ireland

The early 20C produced the bleak realistic poetry of Patrick Kavanagh from Monaghan (1904–67 Ploughman and Other Poems ) – whose influence can be seen in the work of John Montague (b 1929 Poisoned Lands and Rough Field ) and Northern poet Seamus Heaney (b 1939 The Death of a Naturalist ) – and of Louis MacNeice (1907–63), who was a member of Auden’s circle and an early influence on the poet / playwright Derek Mahon (b 1941 The Hudson Letter ). Novelists included Flann O’Brien (1911–66, real name Brian O’Nolan), who wrote a famous newspaper column as Myles na Gopaleen.

The theme of the Big House survives in the work of Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1973 The Last September ), Molly Keane (1897-1974) writing as MJ Farrell (1905–97 The Last Puppetstown ), Aidan Higgins (b 1927 Langrishe, Go Down ), Jennifer Johnston (b 1930 The Illusionist ) and Woodbrook (1974) by David Thompson.

Influential writers include John B Keane (1928-2002), whose work is firmly set in Co Kerry – his first play Sive won the all-Ireland drama festival; The Field was made into a film in 1990 and his best novel is The Bodhran Makers ; also Edna O’Brien (b 1932 The Country Girls ), whose frank accounts of female sexuality in the 1950s were banned in Ireland on first publication and publicly burned in her home village in Co Clare, and the highly acclaimed short-story writer John MacGahern (1934-2006 Amongst Women ) who grew up in Co Leitrim. Troubles by JG Farrell (1935-79) brings rare humour to the grim reality of the War of Independence. Maeve Binchy (b 1940) writes in lighter vane about episodes in Irish family life. Brendan Behan (1923-64), who was involved in IRA activity at an early age and imprisoned in both Britain and Ireland, made use of these experiences in the vivid and humorous writing of the plays The Quare Fellow and The Hostage (the latter originally written in Irish) and in his autobiography Borstal Boy.

Northern Irish writers Brian Moore (b 1921 The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne) , Patrick McCabe (b 1955 Butcher Boy ) and Eoin MacNamee (b 1960 Resurrection Man ) have all seen their work quickly turned into films, as have many writers from the south, including Roddy Doyle (b 1958 The Commitments and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha , which won the Booker prize) andColin Bateman (b 1962 Cycle of Violence, Belfast Confidential ), or from outside Ireland such as Frank McCourt , who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 with Angela’s Ashes , about his childhood in Limerick.

Among the established pillars of Irish drama are Brian Friel (b 1929 Dancing at Lughnasa , adapted as a film in 1998), Thomas Kilroy (b 1934 The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde ), Thomas Murphy (b 1935 A Whistle in the Dark, Bailegangaire ) and Frank McGuinness (b 1956 Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme ). Alongside them a new wave of young Irish writers is making an international impact. Encouraged by the Abbey and the Gate Theatres in Dublin, the Royal Court in London and independent theatre companies, such as Rough Magic in Dublin, the Druid Theatre Company in Galway and Red Kettle in Waterford, this new wave includes Martin McDonagh ( The Leenane Trilogy ), Conor McPherson (b 1971 The Weir ), Marina Carr (b 1964 The Mai ) and Enda Walsh ( Disco Pigs ).

The Gaelic Revival at the end of the 19C was responsible for the rescue of writing in Irish, which, at the start of that century had fallen to a very low point indeed. An important figure was Peter O’Leary (tAthair Peadar) (1839-1920); his folk-tale Séadna of 1910 eschewed archaic literary convention in favour of the vigour of the contemporary spoken language, as did the short stories of Pádraig O’Conaire (1882-1928).

Among the best-known authors is the Connemara-born Máirtín O Cadhain (1906-70), former professor of Irish at Trinity College, whose novel Cré na Cille (The Clay of the Graveyard – 1949 ) is the best-known prose writing in recent times. Those who lived and worked on the Great Blasket Island, off the coast of Co Kerry, have produced several works describing island life before the people left in the early 1950s. Modern Irish poetry, composed by Seán O Ríordéin, Máirtín O Direáin and Nuala ní Dhomhnaill among others, has appeared in a number of languages.


Ireland is unusual in having a musical instrument – the harp – as its national emblem. Music plays a very important role in Irish life. Traditional music, song and dance are among the most vibrant aspects of Irish culture. Performances take place frequently and spontaneously in all parts of the country, and it is this very unpredictability which is responsible for much of its attraction. New songs and tunes are constantly being composed.

The harp dominated the musical scene from the Middle Ages until it was proscribed by the English because of its nationalist allure. It was used to accompany the singing or recitation of poetry. Irish harpists, who trained for many years, were admired for their rapid fingerwork and their quick and lively technique; they enjoyed high social status. Turlough O’Carolan (Carolan) (1670–1738) started too late in life to reach the highest standard of skill but he was an outstanding composer, much in demand; he left over 200 tunes, which show remarkable melodic invention and are still played today.

The first documented mention of mouth-blown pipes in Ireland occurs in an 11C text and the earliest depiction dates from the 15C; these pipes appear to have been primarily for entertainment purposes. The particularly Irish form of pipes, the uilleann (elbow) pipes , which have regulators and drones operated by the fingers, emerged in the 18C. These pipes are renowned for the unique sound produced by highly skilled musicians and are closely identified with Irish traditional music, which in recent years has become an important industry.

Traditional Music Today

During the 20C traditional Irish music, which formerly had been played as the accompaniment to dancing, came to be valued in its own right, and is no longer confined to isolated regions. Nowadays, traditional musicians come together in pubs throughout the country for sessions that may be formal, commercial and structured, while others are informal and free of charge. Apart from the pipes, the most popular instruments tend to be the fiddle, flute, tin whistle, accordeon, concertina, melodeon, banjo, guitar, bodhrán, keyboard and the spoons.

Schools and festivals are held throughout the year with people coming from far and wide to learn an instrument or study some other aspect of Irish music. Several schools celebrate the name of a local musician, the best known being the Willie Clancy Summer School, which runs in early July in Milltown Malbay in County Clare. Specialist classes in regional styles of instrumental playing are also held at many schools, such as the fiddle classes in Glenties, Co Donegal, each October.

Traditional to Pop

Traditional music was popularised through the recordings made by the Irish in America and the formation of Ceoltóirí Chualann by Seán O’Riada in the early 1960s. This group of the highest calibre of traditional musicians created a more formalised style and generated an appreciation of Irish music. Out of this group the Chieftains were formed and brought Irish traditional music to a worldwide audience. In the same decade in the United States the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem achieved the popularisation of the Irish ballad tradition. In subsequent years many traditional music groups emerged including the Dubliners , the Bothy Band , De Dannan , Planxty and Altan . Members of the Brennan family of the Irish-speaking region of Donegal penetrated the realm of popular music singing in both Irish and English as the group Clannad , while another member of the family, Enya , forged a highly successful international career as a solo artist.

During the 1950s and 1960s showbands entertained in ballrooms throughout Ireland. Musicians such as Rory ­Gallagher and Van Morrison began their careers in showbands before pursuing solo careers. Today showband members such as Joe Dolan still have a considerable Irish following among the over 50s age group. Country/Irish music has a large fan base in Ireland. One of the most popular singers is Daniel O’Donnell who has been recording since the mid-1980s.

Traditional Irish music has influenced the bands of recent decades, so much so that Irish rock has often been described as “Celtic Rock”. Thin Lizzy and Rory Gallagher were among the first to gain international celebrity. Van Morrison and U2 still continue to maintain their positions on the international stage, entertaining new generations with their brand of Irish music. More recent international celebrities The Pogues , The Cranberries , Sinéad O’Connor and The Corrs have created a worldwide interest in “Celtic” music. Bono of U2 and Bob Geldof , originally of the Boomtown Rats, have used their pop fame to espouse worthier causes and have become world famous for their statesmen-like approach to the issue of world poverty.

By contrast with the raw energy of Bono and Geldof, the rather bland Boyzone , B*witched and more recently ­ Westlife have had huge commercial success. Boyzone members have embarked on solo careers; Ronan Keating has the largest following to date.

Bands who came to the fore in the 1990s making the charts in both Ireland and the UK are Northern Ireland’s Divine Comedy and Ash. At the forefront of the Club Scene is David Holmes, a DJ turned Pop Star, who has gained a considerable reputation for his remixing and soundtrack work.

Many bands that have not yet entered the charts, nor ever will, still have many loyal fans who flock to their gigs – this underground music scene was brilliantly captured in Roddy Doyle’s book and subsequent film The Commitments .


Set dancing originated in Ireland in the 18C; it consists of figure dances, developed by travelling dancing masters, who adapted the original French dance movements to suit Irish music. Set-dancing is very popular and can be seen at many public venues; classes are held on a regular basis at hundreds of venues. Although it could not really be described as “traditional”, the phenomenon of Riverdance , created in 1994 and seen on five continents, has done for Irish dance what the Chieftains did for Irish music. Although Michael Flatly, the virtuoso American dancer and brilliant mind behind Lord of the Dance quit the show that he had devised and starred in after a contractual dispute, he has followed his original huge success in no small measure with Lord of the Dance and Feet of Flames .


Singing forms part of many of the music festivals held in Ireland, and at least one festival is devoted solely to this art and is held each June in Ennistymon, Co Clare. Traditional singing is usually called old style (sean-nós) singing, and is especially closely identified with singing in Irish; songs are also sung in English in this style. Traditional songs in Irish date for the most part from the last two or three hundred years, although some are older and the style is a good deal older still. Songs in English include recently composed songs and also many songs from the medieval ballad traditions. The style is individual, unaccompanied, free and ornate, with many regional variations. The Irish-speaking area of Rath Cairn, Co Meath, hosts the Irish-language singing festival Eigse Dharach Uí Chatháin in October each year.


Christianity was probably introduced to Ireland from Roman Britain or Gaul in the 4C. Palladius, the first bishop, was appointed in 431 by Pope Celestine I but his mission met with little success and it is Patrick, the country’s much-revered patron saint, who is held responsible for the country’s definitive conversion.

The majority (75 percent) of the population of Ireland is Roman Catholic but most of the country’s Catholic churches are of recent date; the traditional religious sites are usually occupied by Anglican churches, a reminder that for many years the Protestant Church of Ireland was the country’s established church. Many Catholic churches stand in new centres of population though others were built close to a ruined monastery where the faithful heard Mass in the Penal Days and where they continue to be buried.

National Saints

St Patrick

The patron saint of Ireland was born on the west coast of Roman Britain where he was captured as a young man by Irish raiders. After six years of slavery near Sliabh Mis (Slemish in Co Down), he escaped to France and then returned to his birthplace. Inspired by a vision that the people of Ireland were calling him, he went to France to study, possibly at the monasteries of Lérins, Tours and Auxerre. In 432 in middle age he returned to Ireland to convert the people to Christianity. He is thought to have founded his first church at Saul and then travelled to Slane where he challenged the power of the High King and his druids.

In 444, after a visit to Rome, he founded the cathedral church of Armagh, still the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, as well as many other churches. When he died, probably at Saul in 461, the country was organised into dioceses based on the petty Irish kingdoms.

Patrick is the subject of numerous tales and legends, according to which he banished monsters and drove the snakes out of Ireland.

On St Patrick’s day (17 March) people wear a sprig of shamrock (seamróg) , a comparatively recent custom, being first documented in the later part of the 17C; it is claimed that the saint used this trefoil plant to illustrate the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

St Bridget

Brigit was a Celtic goddess, whose name means “the exalted person”; it is significant that the same name is given to the most popular female saint in Irish tradition and second only to St Patrick among all the saints. This Leinster saint (“Bríd”), who died c AD 524, established a convent in Kildare ( Cill Dara meaning “the church of the oak tree”) and this may have been a sacred spot in pre-Christian times. Bridget is perceived to be the protectress of animals and crops, with which she is closely associated.

The most popular legend of St Bridget is associated with Kildare, where she wished to build a convent. The local king refused to grant her more land than could be covered by her cloak, but when she spread her garment it expanded to cover a vast area.

On St Bridget’s day (1 February) it is customary to honour the saint by making straw or rush crosses (Cros Bhríde) , which have numerous regional variations in design and form.

Celtic Church

As continental Europe was overrun by barbarians, the church in Ireland developed a distinctive form of organisation based on monasticism. In the mid 6C and 7C a great many monasteries were founded and by the 8C the administration of the church had been taken over by the abbots. Although bishops continued to perform the sacramental duties and new bishops were consecrated, they were not appointed to particular sees.

Some monasteries grew up round a hermit’s retreat but many were founded by the head of a clan; members of the family entered the religious life and filled the various offices, as abbot, bishop, priest, teacher or ascetic. The manual work was done either by the monks or by the original tenants of the land, married men with families, whose elder sons usually received a clerical education in the monastery school. Most monasteries were self-sufficient communities providing their own food, clothing, books, tools and horses. Some monasteries seem to have been founded on sites which had pagan religious associations; others were set up by the main highways, often on the boundaries of a kingdom.

The monastic libraries contained copies of the Scriptures, the early Fathers, some classical authors and some history; much early Christian scholarship was preserved in Ireland after the fall of the Roman Empire. In the scriptorium the monks made copies of existing texts or wrote their own learned works, using meticulous techniques which are well described and illustrated at the Colmcille Heritage Centre.

Irish monks developed a strong tradition of asceticism with a threefold classification of martyrdom. Ascetics seeking to contemplate the presence of God would form small monastic communities in remote places, particularly on islands like the harsh and remote rock of Great Skellig.


Following four synods held in the first half of the 12C the Irish church lost its distinctive character and was gradually reorganised on the Roman pattern. Four provinces and 33 new dioceses were created, each with a bishop. Some monastic churches became cathedrals, others were used as parish churches.

Monastic orders from the continent were introduced. The Augustinians took over earlier monastic centres to be near the people. The Cistercians chose new and remote sites in accordance with their ascetic rule, which attracted many Irish monks; by 1272 there were 38 Cistercian houses in Ireland. The Franciscans settled in the towns in the 13C; in the 15C the Observants spread to the west and north.

The Irish church was further diminished by the Normans with the encouragement of King Henry II and Popes Adrian IV and Alexander III so as “to extend the bounds of the Roman Church”. Under the Statute of Kilkenny (1366) Irishmen were forbidden to enter English-run monasteries, and English-speaking clergy were to be appointed to English-speaking parishes.


In the 16C the churches in England and Ireland were declared independent of Rome; the monasteries were suppressed. Trinity College in Dublin was founded in 1591 to provide Irish priests for the established church; although Roman Catholics were admitted to degrees in 1793, membership was confined to Anglicans until 1873. The 16C reforms were only intermittently enforced in Ireland; the majority of the people remained faithful to the Roman church and many monasteries continued until suppressed by Cromwell. Early in the 17C the Plantation of Ulster with lowland Scots introduced fervent Presbyterianism.

Penal Laws

Under the repressive measures introduced after the Battle of the Boyne (1690), Roman Catholics were barred from the armed forces, law, commerce, from civic office or office under the crown, from land purchase; Roman Catholic estates could pass in toto to an eldest son if he converted to the established church but otherwise had to be divided among all the sons. No Roman Catholic could attend school, keep a school or go abroad to school. Education was conducted in hedge schools , which taught Latin, Greek, arithmetic, Irish, English, history and geography; the masters, who were paid in money or kind, were respected members of the Irish community; several were poets. All Roman Catholic bishops and regular clergy were banished from Ireland, and Roman Catholic worship was forbidden. Roman Catholic priests travelled the country in disguise and said mass out of doors in remote places or in ruined monastery churches; they used sacramental vessels which could be dismantled to avoid detection.


Roman Catholics were not alone in suffering repression. The Scottish Presbyterians who had migrated to Ulster were frequently regarded with disfavour, though the Protestant Ascendancy could not afford to alienate them completely. The Toleration Act of 1719 granted them freedom of worship, but they continued to endure various disabilities and particularly resented the obligation to pay tithes to the established Church of Ireland; in the 18C many of them emigrated to America, though the majority remained. Their dissatisfaction with the existing order found expression in widespread support for the rebellion of 1798, when a large proportion of the membership of the United Irishmen was composed of Presbyterians. The English Quakers who came to Ireland during the Civil War period also faced discrimination of various kinds, though by the beginning of the 18C this had diminished. Like their counterparts elsewhere, and despite their generally humble beginnings, many Quakers later achieved prominence in commerce and industry.

Denominational Freedom

The Catholic Relief Acts of 1791 and 1793 finally allowed freedom of worship and education. In 1795 Maynooth ­Seminary was established for training Roman Catholic clergy. In 1820 Edmund Rice (1762–1844), a former pupil of a hedge school, obtained papal recognition of the Christian Brothers , an order that established many boys’ schools in Ireland. In 1831 the 18C hedge schools were replaced by the National Schools. In 1869 the Church of Ireland, a member of the Anglican Communion, was disestablished. Apart from Trinity College and two short-lived 16C colleges at Maynooth and Galway, Ireland had no medieval universities. In 1845 charters were issued to incorporate three colleges in Belfast, Cork and Galway but, owing to Roman Catholic opposition, only Queen’s College in Belfast thrived. The Catholic University, founded in Dublin in 1854 with Cardinal Newman as Rector, was incorporated as University College when the National University of Ireland was founded in 1908; two years later Maynooth was also recognised as a college of the National University.

Pilgrimages and Patterns

Since the 8C, by which time Ireland was an almost entirely Christian country, the lives of the saints have played a major role in popular devotion and also stimulated an entire body of related legends and lore. Saints were seen to be powerful in many spheres of life on earth and in the afterlife; in many instances, they were seen as popular heroes and heroines. Some were said to have had a miraculous birth; others wielded supernatural powers and could triumph against the enemy. Saints had healing powers and even their posessions or relics could effect a cure.

Oral tradition has been profoundly influenced by biographies of saints; the lore of saints is widespread throughout Ireland. Thousands of holy wells , many associated with local saints, are scattered throughout the countryside; they are said to have curative powers – of a general type or more specific – and are visited frequently, particularly on saints’ days.

People still observe the feast days of local saints and the pattern (modern Irish pátrún ; the word is a corruption of patron) when they make a communal visit to a holy well or other religious site under the protection of the local patron saint. In many places holy wells are associated with rag trees , named after the hundreds of coloured pieces of cloth attached to their branches,and used to invoke divine assistance, often of a curative kind.

Many traditional religious sites are still visited by pilgrims: Glencolumbkille on St Columba’s Day (9 June); Clonmacnoise on St Kieran’s Day (9 September); Croagh Patrick in July, when people climb barefoot to the summit. The most rigorous pilgrimage takes place at St Patrick’s Purgatory, an island in Lough Derg (southeast of Donegal) where St Patrick spent 40 days in prayer and fasting; during the season (1 June to 15 August) pilgrims spend three days barefoot, take part in an all-night vigil and exist on one meal a day of bread and hot black tea or coffee.

Myths and Lore

Some of the best sources for understanding the Celtic mind and imagination are the Irish myths and tales populated with colourful descriptions of gods and goddesses, and the fabulous exploits of mortal heroes and heroines. Although most of the earlier stories originated in Ireland, they were written down by Christian monks.


The Celts seem to have acknowledged many divinities – gods of war and hunting, goddesses of fertility, harvest and healing. Among those worshipped in Ireland were Brigit, Daghdha and Cernunnos – god of animals, plants and forests, whose emblem was a set of antlers. Different tribes each venerated its own tribal god or goddess who might reside in a special sacred well and hold the power to cure and protect people who regarded not only wells, but trees and certain springs and rivers – particularly the River Boyne – as sacred, indeed, they carved images of their gods on tree-trunks. Assemblies, at which games and races took place, were held at ancient royal or assembly sites, such as Tara and Tullaghoge. The Celts buried their dead, sometimes cremated, with offerings of food and ornaments; they believed that after death they went to join their ancestors, the gods of the Otherworld, who were thought to live in sacred mounds, now known to be prehistoric burial mounds such as at Newgrange, Tara and Rathcrogan.


The belief in the Otherworld is still an important factor in Irish tradition. This “Otherworld” may exist in a fort or in a mountain, under a lake or beneath the sea. Hundreds of tales and legends associated with the fairies and their world survive, as the landscape and its placenames bear witness. In Irish the fairies are called or na daoine maithe – the good people, or na daoine beaga – the little people. The fairies are said variously to be fallen angels, the ancient gods – the Tuatha Dé Danann or sometimes the community of the dead. These supernatural beings are invisible to mortals, inhabiting the earth, the air and water. The earthen tumuli – known as rath and lios – are often said to be fairy forts and sometimes fairy music can be heard to emanate from them. Many legends are told describing how the fairies “borrowed” or “stole” a mortal to assist them in some task of their own, such as nursing a fairy child or playing music at a fairy wedding. On occasions, fairies have been said to remove a mortal child, leaving one of their own in its place; when the unsuspecting parents returned from their chores, they would be shocked to discover a sick or dying child in the cradle, referred to as a “ changeling ”.

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