Monday, November 10, 2014

Derry Churches, Co. Down

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The Chapple family recently went on an excursion, down through Downpartick, across on the ferry from Strangford to Portaferry, into the Exploris Aquarium (a perennial favourite), and home along the Ards peninsula. In fairness, Portaferry isn’t a huge place … there are only two roads leading out of it that head up the peninsula … there’s the Coach Rd/Deer Park Rd (A20) and the Cloughey Rd (A2). For quite some time now, I’ve wanted to visit the Derry Churches just outside Portaferry … and I’ve always managed to take the wrong road. This time I wasn’t leaving anything to chance, and went off with maps, memorised directions, and a GPS … and still managed to drive past it! The entrance to the lane that brings you to the site is through a small gate on the side of the road, and the site itself is quite a way in through the field, so you’re liable to miss it if you’re not paying attention/driving with enough care and attention to ensure you don’t careen off the edge of these twisty roads. There’s no particularly good/safe place to park around here, so (out of necessity) I parked on the verge at the junction of the Tullymally and Cloughey Rds and walked back to the entrance. Although I still see myself as a ‘country boy’ at heart, I appear to have become too integrated into city life and found the lack of footpaths somewhat more terrifying than I should have! Once over the fence and along the giant zig-zag path through the fields, you are brought to two beautiful ruined churches. In their time, they would have been the twin focus points of a bustling monastery, but today they are a place of peace and tranquility removed from the noises of the outside world.

A view of the Derry Churches site from the road
The church site is associated with Saint Cummain and is believed to have been a thriving pre-Norman establishment. Of the two churches, the southern, smaller one is the older structure. Opinions vary, but it has been argued that this structure dates to the 12th century, or as early as the 10th to 11th centuries. It has a west door and windows in both the east and south walls. It also has projecting antae (walls ends) to both the east and west ends. Small rectangular ‘putlog’ holes are visible in the walls from where integrated scaffolding was used in its construction. The original material used to bind the stones together was mud, rather than mortar. Indeed, in its original condition, the only mortar used in the structure was associated with the medieval alterations to the door and the east window. The northern church is larger, but it too was bonded with earth, rather than mortar. This church has a south door, an east window, and is thought to have had tower at its west end. In terms of date, it is unlikely to be earlier than the 12th century, and is probably the later of the two structures. Within the church, by the east wall, there is an early grave slab decorated with a simple cross formed of three lines of three parallel grooves.

Getting closer - walking up through the enclosed path to the site
In 1959 the site passed into State Care and was partially excavated by Dudley Waterman in 1962 (Waterman 1967). The excavations were necessary as the north wall of the south church was in danger of collapse and to provide structural data in advance of conservation of the site. The excavation uncovered portions of an earlier building with drystone foundations below the south church. Both of the standing churches post-dated a large inhumation cemetery, some of which were placed in long-cist graves. Although the burials were generally of adult males, there were some children and, possibly, women interred there too. Waterman (1967, 68) sees this as evidence that it was ‘not the cemetery of a communal hermitage but rather a burial ground for the local Christian population.’ The finds from the site included a bronze buckle with enamel and millefiori decoration of the 8th century, if not slightly earlier. Waterman’s excavations indicated that the northern church went out of religious use by the late 13th or 14th century and had been used as a dwelling or workshop from iron smelting. Similarly, the southern church was abandoned for clerical use and was eventually given up to secular occupation. However, the site continued to function as a children’s burial ground (CBG) or Cillín up until relatively recent times. When I visited, the east wall of the northern church was enclosed in scaffolding and wrapped with tarpaulins. It appears that it is part of ongoing conservation work, but the worn and ragged condition of the tarps indicate that it has been in position for some considerable period. Interestingly, a large sheet of plastic film held in a wooden frame was noted at the back of the southern church. This was used to number and trace the outlines of the stones in a portion of walling. It is a simple device, but one that is rarely seen outside the realm of building conservation!  

The south church (right) with projecting antae and the larger north church under conservation
As always: if you’re planning to get away from it all, consider coming to Northern Ireland … maybe even to see this little gem of a site for yourself! If you’re lucky enough to live here already, get out from behind your computers and go see these churches for yourself! For you delight and delectation, I have placed a couple of 3D (anaglyph) views of the site: here. To view these images, you’ll need to buy a set of the red/blue kind (or make your own).
Map of location. Derry Churches (Circled); entrance to site from
Cloughey Rd (Red dot); parking on corner of Tullymally Rd
(Red square)(
Source)
Artist’s impressions of how the churches may have looked in their heyday (Source)
The simple early grave marker in the north church
Exterior view of the north wall of the south church.
Note the putlog holes that once held wooden scaffolding
Panoramic view of the site with the north church on the foreground
A sneaky-peek under the wrappers - the east wall during conservation
The conservators tracing panel
Panorama across the site with the south church in the foreground
Overview of the south church from the north-west.
Note the putlog holes on the inner face of the east wall
Overview of the north church from the south-west
Selection of finds from the excavation of the site I (Waterman 1967)
Selection of finds from the excavation of the site II (Waterman 1967)
< 3D Images

Suggested Reading
Edwards, N. 1990 The Archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland. London, p. 123.

Rees-Jones, S. G. 1967 ‘Appendix: report on skeletal remains from Derry, Co. DownUlster Journal of Archaeology 30, 3rd Series, 70-75.

Waterman, D. M. 1967 ‘The Early Christian churches and cemetery at Derry, Co. DownUlster Journal of Archaeology 30, 3rd Series, 53-75.