Gallarus Oratory

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One of the most famous landmarks on the Dingle Peninsula and situated close to Gallarus Castle is Gallarus Oratory. 

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The Gallarus Oratory in IrishSéipéilín Ghallarais, Gallarus being interpreted as either "rocky headland" (Gall-iorrus) or "house or shelter for foreigner(s)" (Gall Aras), is a chapel completely made of stone and some way it resembles an upturned boat.

Various dates have been suggested for its construction but an exact date for same is not available.  It is extremely well preserved and several archeological artifacts are to be found on the grounds of the Oratory.

It has been presented variously as an early Christian stone church by its discoverer, Charles Smith, in 1756; a 12th century Romanesque  church by archaeologist Peter Harbison in 1970 and a shelter for pilgrims by the same in 1994.

A small structure, the interior of the church measures just 4.8 m long by 3 m wide. It is lit my a single, diminutive window, located in the eastern gable wall. 

A local tradition states that anyone who climbs through this tiny window is guaranteed access to heaven, a practise which is now frowned upon by the OPW.  

The entrance into the church is defined by a simple linteled doorway located in the western wall. This was originally sealed by a wooden door that was secured in place by two stone brackets. 

Outside the church, on its northern side, is a low rectangular stone setting, which may mark the location of a léacht or grave. It contains a simple cross slab at its head that bears an inscription in half unical script, ‘Colum Mac Dinet‘ (Colm son of Dinet).

An English traveller, Richard Pococke, who visited the oratory in 1758 recounts this interesting piece of local folklore concerning the stone setting, ‘Near this building they show a grave with a head at the cross of it and call it the tomb of the Giant; the tradition is that Griffith More was buried there, & as they call’d [it] a chapel, so probably it was built by him or his family at their burial place‘.

It was constructed of corbelled stone, a technique handed down, with only minor refinements, directly from the great passage tombs of the late Stone Age.

From Newgrange (c. 3200 BCE) to a beehive hut, or clochán (c. 500 BCE), to the modern stone outbuildings of the Dingle Peninsula, the Irish have been building these remarkably long-lived structures—able to withstand a thousand years of Atlantic storms—by this technique.

The stones are positioned on each course of the wall with their edges projecting inward by a small increment as the walls rise upward. Thus the walls curve together and meet at the top with large capstones. Each stone on the wall is laid at a slight angle, lower on the outside, so that water does not seep into the clochán.

Gallarus and others of the Dingle clocháin were also used as temporary housing for pilgrims arriving for visits to holy sites nearby. Gallarus is located close to the Saint’s Road pilgrimage path up to the summit of nearby Mount Brandon, signposted in the VR tour.

On the Dingle Peninsula, most notably in the townlands around Fahan, the beehive shaped clochán is still to be seen in many farmyards, some clearly used for habitation in a relatively modern era, with evidence of hearths and wooden doors. 

Gallarus Oratory has been, for generations, called “Ireland’s oldest surviving church,” or even one of the “oldest intact buildings in Ireland.” 

While there are many other examples of similar construction, all have collapsed at one time or another. Gallarus Oratory, with but a slight sag in its roof, is unique in its survival through the centuries. 

In his meditation on Gallarus Oratory poet Seamus Heaney explores its entranceway as a metaphorical “door into the dark,” which is also the title of his collection of poems published in 1969. He enters this ancient space and senses a kinship with the monks who may have prayed there a millennium earlier. 

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