Friday, April 17, 2015

Dungiven Priory, Co Derry±London

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During the spring of last year (April 2014) I was coming home from a work engagement in West Ulster. The early evening was bright, the skies were blue, the weather was just lovely – hardly a breath of wind in the air. I was contemplating that the next town on my drive would be Dungiven. It then struck me that in all my time as a professional archaeologist, I’d never stopped to see Dungiven Priory. At one time my work would frequently take me out this direction, but I was always in too much of a rush to get there in the morning, or get home at night, to stop. Confirming in my head that I didn’t need to be back at any specific time, I took the turning onto Priory Lane (map). After only a short distance Priory Lane stops being a lane and becomes instead a rather overgrown farmer’s track. There didn’t seem to be much space for parking here, so, with growing trepidation, I carried on down the track. It’s not a particularly well cared for stretch of road and has grass growing up the centre, and briars gently tapping off the wing mirrors as I went along. Thankfully, there was a very small parking area at the end – sufficient to turn only one car, but it was enough! I’m just including this as a word of warning if you visit the place yourself and are, like me, not particularly adept terrible at reversing along narrow lanes!

The North wall of the Nave
There is believed to have been an Early Christian monastery on this site, high above the river Roe, associated with St Nechtán (d. 679). However, even if true, no trace of this survives today. The earliest visible remains today are associated with the 12th century priory of Augustinian Canons. Of the standing structures, the nave is the oldest, dating to the early- to mid-12th century. The chancel is slightly later, dating to the 13th century. In the period after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the site – long associated with the ruling O’Cahan/Ó Catháin clan – was reused as one of their castles. This was probably in the tower constructed at the western end of the church, which collapsed in 1784. In 1602 the site was garrisoned by Elizabethan forces and by 1611, following the conclusion of the Nine Years’ War, the lands and buildings  passed to Sir Edward Doddington, who created a house and bawn on the site. This appears to have become derelict and burnt down by the end of the 17th century. By the 20th century little evidence of the house survived above ground, though excavations in the 1980s revealed some of the foundations.

The graveyard with the church buildings in the distance
By far the finest piece on the site is the tomb, reputedly, of Cooey-na-gall (‘Terror of the Foreigners’), the local O'Cahan Chief, who died in 1385. The tomb is built against the south wall of the chancel and shows a figure in effigy below an open work tracery based on five roundels within a gothic, pointed arch. The bench on which he lies is decorated with six arched niches, each with a figure thought to represent a Scottish Gallowglass mercenary. However, it is also argued that the style of the tomb is of the late 15th century and is likely to be the work of a western Scottish sculptor. In this case, the tomb may belong to a later Chief, Aibhne O'Cahan, who was murdered in 1492. Whoever the tomb was commissioned for (and I make no pretense at being an expert in this form of monument or historical period), it is considered by many to be the very best example from this period in west Ulster – a true masterpiece. What I did not know, as I made my way towards the Priory was that to provide security and shelter for this tomb, the chancel has been reroofed and is not open to visitors without a key. For this reason, my photographs – taken through the bars of the grille – were less than adequate (the best of them is below). As luck would have it, a few days later I was talking to a Facebook friend, Mr Ed Feeny. He said that he was planning to visit Northern Ireland later in the year and wanted to know if there was anything off the beaten track in that part of Ulster that was worth exploring. Still being on some form of natural high from my visit to Dungiven, the Priory was the first thing I told him to go see, but I added the warning about parking that I mentioned above, along with the disappointment at not being able to get as close as I’d have killed to the O’Cahan tomb. I could hear the chuckle in his reply when he said that he’d visited the site on a previous trip and had even gotten inside the chancel in the company of a guide. With no small hesitation, I mentioned that I was (eventually) hoping to do a blog post on the site and wondered if he’d taken any decent photographs of the tomb that I might be able to use. In an act of huge generosity, he has given me permission to reproduce a selection of his excellent images. I thought they were so lovely, they should have their own blog post (here)!

The graveyard
The lancet windows in the east gable
The O’Cahan tomb, viewed through the grille
The Nave looking towards the chancel arch and reroofed chancel
Foundations of Sir Edward Doddington’s house uncovered in the 1980s
Panoramic overview of Doddington’s house & the church buildings
The Priory buildings from the north-west
The graveyard from the top of the hill, looking towards
 the church buildings
Panoramic overview of the graveyard and buildings, looking towards Dungiven Castle and town
Decorated portion of a graveslab in the graveyard
As always, I hope that readers of this blog enjoy the photos, and that they act as a little inspiration to come see Northern Ireland in person and sample some of these wonderful sites!

NI Sites & Monuments Record contains some original excavation drawings, finds illustrations, etc.
Boyle, E. M. F.-G. 1903 The castle and bawn of Dungiven. Ulster Journal of Archaeology 9, 2nd Series, 127-130.

Brannon, N. F. 1988 ‘A lost 17th-century house recovered: Dungiven, Co. Londonderry’ in Hamlin, A. & Lynn, C. Pieces of the past: archaeological excavations by the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland 1970 -1986. Belfast, 81-84.

Brannon, N. F. & Blades, B. S. 1980 ‘Dungiven Bawn re-edifiedUlster Journal of Archaeology 43, 3rd Series, 91-96.

Brannon, N. F. & Hamlin, A. 1986 Dungiven Priory & Bawn. Historic Monuments & Buildings Branch, DOENI. Belfast

Davies, O. 1939 ‘Dungiven PrioryUlster Journal of Archaeology 2.2, 3rd Series, 271-287.

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