The Dingle peninsula boasts a huge number of impressive archaeological sites. You can almost stand in one place and throw a stone to hit the next one. As you travel through them it is easy to become overwhelmed and unable to take it all in as you move from the Iron Age to very early Christianity to the Late Medieval period all in the space of about thirty minutes. It is part of the problem of trying to visit a place like the Dingle peninsula in a few short days. It rewards repeat visits and an opportunity to spend time lingering at sites, rather than rushing through them. I began my day at Gallus Oratory; a fine, stone-built church in the early Irish style and quite possibly Ireland’s most famous building. It is somewhat difficult to date for a number of reasons: excavation has uncovered no evidence regarding its possible use, mortar is entirely absent from the stones that form the building and nothing was found inside it, but estimates suggest that it was built at some point between the 6th and 9th century. The name is a little curious too - ‘Gallus’ can be translated as ‘place for the foreigner’ – but it may have been a stop for pilgrims as they made their way to the famous route towards the top of Mount Brandon.
The monastic site wall
Not far from here, although further in from the coast but not out of sight of it, is the monastic site of Reask (Riasc). This site was carefully excavated by Tom Fanning between 1972 and 1975. The outer walls of the site are still marked very clearly and there are a number of remains of beehive huts (Clochans) and a church. It’s not a huge site, but it is not insignificant either. It dates to around the 6th century, but we know absolutely nothing of its founder or occupants, other than they were Christian.
The large cross
Reask’s walls housed three crosses. One cross is on a stone slab in the Latin style with two small crosses either side of it; likely a reference to the two thieves crucified either side of Jesus. The other cross is very small and now quite badly weathered. On the front it has the letters DNO and on the back it has the letters DNI. The third cross is by far the most impressive being just over one and a half metres tall with a Mediterranean style cross inscribed and ending terminals in the famous La Téne form of Celtic art. It is suffering a little from its exposure to the weather, but none the less imposing for it. Down it’s side are the barely legible letters DNE, thought to represent the simple plea, ‘O Lord’.
The holy well
The whole site is slightly raised from the surroundings, but the whole area is generally quite flat. The site was abandoned quite early on and turned into a graveyard for children, whose graves are marked with quartz stones. Towards the back of the site is the holy well. Sadly, we know no saint associated with this site - in fact there may never have been one – but this well would have been used by the community for many purposes, both ritual and practical. Today sadly, it is dry.
The view from the site to the Three Sisters headland
Although it may have been a small site, maybe housing around ten monks, it is clear that they were not without ability. The largest cross is finely carved and archaeological evidence points to trade with the Mediterranean an a number of other cross inscribed stones are on display in the Músaem Chorca Dhuibhiine in the nearby village. I was able to spend a little time here in the heat of the summer sun and I could see why the monks settled this site. It was sheltered and incredibly quiet, disturbed only by the occasional bee going about his work.
Full view of the large cross
You are the peace of all things calm
You are the place to hide from harm
You are the light that shines in the dark
You are the heart’s eternal spark
You are the door that’s open wide
You are the guest who waits inside
You are the stranger at the door
You are the calling to the poor
You are my Lord and with me still
You are my love, keep me from ill
You are the light, the truth, the way
You are my Saviour this very day.
Early Irish prayer (oral tradition)
How to find it:
From the town of Dingle make your way along the Ring of Dingle and the site is clearly marked. You will travel inland a little from the Three Sisters headland and travel up a narrow track road. The site is hidden just over the rise.