Gallarus Oratory

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Gallarus Oratory
Séipéilín Ghallarais
Gallarus Oratory.jpg
Gallarus Oratory is located in Ireland
Gallarus Oratory
Gallarus Oratory
LocationDingle Peninsula, County Kerry

The Gallarus Oratory (Irish: Séipéilín Ghallarais, Gallarus being interpreted as either "rocky headland" (Gall-iorrus) or "house or shelter for foreigner(s)" (Gall Aras), is a chapel located on the Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry, Ireland. It has been presented variously as an early Christian stone church by its discoverer, antiquary Charles Smith, in 1756; a 12th-century Romanesque church by archaeologist Peter Harbison in 1970; a shelter for pilgrims by the same in 1994. The local tradition prevalent at the time of the oratory's discovery attributed it to one Griffith More, being a funerary chapel built by him or his family at their burial place.

The oratory overlooks the harbour at Ard na Caithne (formerly also called Smerwick) on the Dingle Peninsula.


There exist several interpretations as to the origin and meaning of the Irish placename Gallarus. Archaeologist Peter Harbison ventures the meaning to be something like "the house or shelter for foreigner(s)" (Gall Aras), the said foreigners being possibly "these pilgrims that have come from outside the Peninsula."[1]

However, according to lexicologist Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha (aka An Seabhach), the name does not refer to a foreign settlement but to a rocky headland (Gall-iorrus).[2]



The oratory is built of large cut stones from the Dingle Beds of the Upper Silurian Old Red Sandstone. Charles Smith, who discovered the edifice in 1756, described the stone as "a brown free-stone, brought from the cliffs of the sea shore, which cuts readily and is very durable."[3]


The stones are cut on every side and end so as to fit perfectly together. They exhibit smoothly finished outside facings that follow the slant of the wall.

The edifice is usually thought to have been built without mortar, but there is evidence that even if mortar "was never visible in the wall facings it was used as a structural medium for the interior of the wall at least."[4] A thin layer of lime mortar is used to bond the stones together and to fill in small hollows in the inner faces.[5]


The oratory’s shape has been compared to that of an upturned boat because of its sloping side walls. The edifice uses corbel vaulting. The stones are positioned on each course with their edges projecting inward by a small increment as the wall rise. Besides, they are laid at a slight angle, lower on the outside than on the inside, thus allowing rainwater to run off. Both techniques can still be seen in the modern agricultural clocháns of the Dingle peninsula.

The edifice has two side walls and two end walls, sloping and converging at the top, each of one piece, playing a dual role as load-bearing wall and corbelled half-vault. Some slight sagging has occurred across the length of the northern roof slope.


The interior room is approximately 4.8 metres (16 ft) by 3 metres (10 ft), a size that befits more an oratory or a small chapel than a church.

It is dimly lit, with only a tiny round-headed window in the east wall, opposite the entrance door. The window splays more widely towards the inside of the wall.

The doorway is 1.67 m (5.5 ft) high. It has a flat lintel. On the inside over the lintel, two holed stones project out from the wall, possibly for the attachment of a wooden door.

Dates and uses[edit]

Minor trial cuttings carried out at Gallarus in November 1970 yielded no finds or evidence of features or activity which might shed light on the period of construction and use of the oratory.[6]

An early Irish stone church[edit]

Antiquarian Charles Smith[7] is the originator of the claim that the building is an early Irish stone church although no historical information is available prior to 1756 regarding its use.[8]

A Romanesque Church[edit]

In 1970, archaeologist Peter Harbison argued that the oratory might have been built as late as the 12th century for a number of reasons, mainly because the east window has a rounded top made of two carved stones (not a true arch).[9]

A private funerary chapel[edit]

Harbison also produced some evidence pointing to a later date and a different use: a letter by English traveller Richard Pococke who visited the oratory in 1758, two years after it was discovered by Charles Smith:[10] "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."[11]

A shelter for pilgrims[edit]

In 1994 and 1995, Peter Harbison gave up the hypothesis of a 12th-century church and claimed that the placename Gallarus meant "the house or shelter of foreigner(s)" (Gall Aras), the said "foreigner(s)" being pilgrims from outside the peninsula.[12] However, this does not accord with lexicologist Padraig O Siochfhradha's translation of the name as "rocky headland" (Gall-iorrus).[13]



  1. ^ Harbison, Peter (1995). Pilgrimage in Ireland: The Monuments and the People. Syracuse University Press. p. 77. Various suggestions have been made to explain the Irish name, Gall Aras. If slightly ungrammatical, perhaps it is simplest to take it as meaning something like 'The House or Shelter for Foreigner(s'); we might not go too far wrong in seeing the foreigners as being those pilgrims who had come from outside the Peninsula.
  2. ^ T. J. Barrington, Discovering Kerry: Its History, Heritage and Topography, Collins Press, 1999, 336 p. (originally published in 1976), p. 247: "The name does not, according to An Seabhach, refer to a foreign settlement but to a rocky headland}."
  3. ^ Charles Smith, The Antient and Present State of the County of Kerry, Dublin, 1756, p. 191.
  4. ^ H. G. Leask, Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings, vol. I, Dundalk, 1955, p. 22: “Though Gallarus is built without mortar as a structural medium, mortar is not entirely absent from the building; very fine lime mortar has been found filling the internal joints here and there: an internal pointing to the stonework. It has also been observed filling small hollows in the inner faces of the vault, faces which were brought to a fair smooth finish with pick or punch by the builders.
  5. ^ Peter Harbison, How Old is Gallarus Oratory? A Reappraisal of Its Role in Early Irish Architecture, in Medieval Archeology, N. 14, 1970, p. 34-37.
  6. ^ Peter Harbison, How old is Gallarus oratory?, op. cit., pp. 57–58: "Finally it should be mentioned that minor trial cuttings carried out by T. Fanning at Gallarus in November 1970, on behalf of the National Monuments Branch of the Office of Public Works, preparatory to drainage works on the site, yielded no finds or evidence of features or activity which might shed light on the period of construction and use of the oratory".
  7. ^ C. Smith, Antient and Present State of the County of Kerry, Dublin, 1756, p. 191.
  8. ^ The Grove Encyclopaedia of Medieval Art and Architecture, vol. 2, Colum P. Hourihane (ed.), OUP USA, 2012, 677 p., pp. 635–636.
  9. ^ Peter Harbison, How old is Gallarus Oratory?, op. cit.
  10. ^ also the "discoverer" of Skellig Michael monastic stone huts
  11. ^ Peter Harbison, How old is Gallarus oratory?, op. cit., p. 36.
  12. ^ Peter Harbison, Pilgrimage in Ireland: The Monuments and the People, Syracuse University Press, 1995, 256 p., pp. 77–78.
  13. ^ T. J. Barrington, Discovering Kerry: Its History, Heritage and Topography, op. cit., p. 247.
  • O'Sullivan, Aidan (September 1998). Appreciation and History of Art. Gill & Macmillan Ltd. ISBN 0-7171-1666-2.

Coordinates: 52°10′21″N 10°20′58″W / 52.17250°N 10.34944°W / 52.17250; -10.34944