Carrowntemple Grave Slabs are located in Gurteen, Co. Sligo. From Ballaghaderreen take the R293 towards Monasteraden. After 4km turn left for Gurteen. Turn left at the signpost marked Carrowntemple. Follow this road for 2km and the graveyard is located on your right hand side.
The Replica Grave Slabs at Carrowntemple, Echoes of Ballaghaderreen, 1992
Martin A. Timoney
Over the years fourteen stone grave slabs of the early Christian period have been found at Carrowntemple. In 1984 five slabs were removed from the graveyard. These were recovered in 1986 and later that year the remaining exposed slabs on site were taken into care by Sligo County Council. Between 1980 and 1992 Cillian Rogers made replicas for the Council. The finance for the replicas was provided by the National Heritage Council. The replicas were unveiled on September 7th 1992 by vice chairman of the County Council, Councillor Aidan Colleary in the presence of Co. manager, Paul Byrne, co. secretary Brendan Byrne, local and national politicians, Cillian and Imelda Rogers, Michael and Una Garvey of Ballaghaderreen, Martin and Mary Timoney, Canon Towey of Gurteen, several parishioners and children from the local school. It was Michael Garvey who in 1973 reported the partial destruction of a Bronze Age ring cairn at shrove which indirectly brought Patrick F. Wallace to Carrowntemple. During the excavations at shrove Joe Sweeney of Cloontia National School, told Wallace of the slab. Here we see how local interested people can be the very effective “eyes and ears” for the professional archaeologists.
There were two enclosures around Carrowntemple but both are now partly demolished. Only parts of them have been marked on the Ordnance Survey maps of the area, which dates from 1837, the walls of a rectangular church building, called “Abbey” is marked within the “graveyard”. Much of the land in the area was not parcelled out into fields, but, despite the presence of several nearby houses, there was no road leading into the area. Between 1837 and 1913 a road had been built passing to the south of the graveyard and much of the land in the immediate area had been parcelled into fields of all shapes and sizes. The levelling of the ground for the modern graveyard and for agricultural activities has destroyed above ground evidence for parts of the enclosure. However, it is faintly visible in places on aerial photographs. It would require excavation to reveal the nature and extent of the houses, workshops and gardens within the enclosure.
The stone and earthen bank was up to 6.60m in height and had a maximum width of 2.5m. There are indications that the site had a second curved enclosure. The line of this follows a stream, a curved laneway and curved field walls. This outer enclosure has an area of about 6 ha. (15 acres).
Besides this 6 ha. area the monastery also farmed over a much greater area, producing corn, cattle, dairy produce, vegetables, fruit, honey and nuts; no doubt the waters of Lough Gara were fished and wildfowl sought along its shores. Two souterrain chambers to the west of the church, both now sealed up, would have served for food storage and as places of refuge in times of temporary danger.
At the centre of the inner enclosure are the remains of a featureless medieval parish church, 9.40m by 6.40m and standing to 3.10m at present. This church is probably on the site of earlier wooden churches going back in time to the foundations of the monastery. Where churches on early monastic sites have been excavated it has been shown that the positon of the church generally remained the same over a series of successive building phases. The walls are between 70cm and 90cm thick and still stand to a maximum height of 3.10cm. The church had single-light east window. The featureless character of the masonry make it difficult to date the building. In a probability it was a medieval parish church, that is, one belonging to the period following that of the slabs.
Fourteen sandstone grave slabs were found mainly to the south and east of the church within the old graveyard. The actual source of the stone used has not yet been located but, as sandstone is native to the district, it may not have been far away. We do not know how long it took to work out the designs nor to carve them but certainly each of the more elaborate designs has years of skill behind them.
Between 1990 and 1992 Cillian Rogers made replicas of twelve of these for Sligo County Council and these were erected on site in 1992 by Dermot Lynch. I decided the order the order of the replicas were to be erected is based on type of design and left gaps to allow for further replicas, should other slabs be recovered, between the various groups. Brass number and title plaques have been fixed below the replicas and an information plaque was set towards the west end of the wall. Working from east to west the order of the replica slabs is as follows:-
- 9 Three linear crosses
No. 12 Single linear cross with pecked background
- 1 Single linear cross
- 2 Triskele in a circle
- 3 Triskele with interlaced knots
- 4 Double-band ellipses and circles
- 5 Triple-band ellipses
No. 11 Double-band ellipses
- 6 Double-band interlocking rectangles
- 8 Rectangular fret
No. 14 slab rough-out
No. 10 Human-like figure and cross and fret
Two slabs, No. 7, cross with handle, and No. 13 fragment of an inscribed slab bearing the letters SOR and N have not yet been replicated. Hopefully further portions of this inscribed slab will be found in the near future and will throw light on a historical person of the early monastery. It may seem that the crosses on No. 9, three linear crosses, was poorly replicated by Cillian Rogers but that is not so. The crosses on the original are very faint and may have been highlighted by paint, as could also have been the case with the other slabs.
The Carrowntemple slabs are surprising in two ways. Firstly, how so many superb slabs did not come to archaeological notice until 1973 is simply amazing. Secondly, some of the designs are outstanding, even unique, for many reasons.
Two, No.s. 2 and 3, bear art of the Early Christian period that is derived from the truly celtic art of the preceding Pagan Iron age. One of these is very close to a design in the book of Durrow fol. 192v datable to c. 650 AD. Several of the panels of the seventh century Moylurg Beltshrie, found only a few miles west of Carrowntemple, have this same mix of Pagan and Christian artwork. Several of the slabs are linked by their designs and so a 7th and 8th century date is acceptable for many of the slabs. On some slabs it is the band and not the groove that forms the design of interlaced ribbons. The slab rough-out bears a small ‘L’ design: this has been interpreted as indicating that the slabs were decorated on site and that the decorative work was done prior to the dressing of the slabs. Several slabs have frame lines around the designs.
One slab, No. 10, bears a figurative representational design. This slab is unique among the Carrowntemple slabs in that it has designs on both sides and we can say it was intended to be set upright. Half of a cylinder plinth stone with a rectangular mortise hole, presumably for setting this slab erect, was found close to where that slab was found. One face features a human-like figure while the other bears a cross with a fret pattern below it. I argue that the other slabs have only one extremely smooth surface which is the one with carving. It seems most likely that the main carving in this case would also be on the extremely smooth surface, i.e., the figure is primary. Furthermore the shape of the slab, particularly the ears, is more reasonably explainable in terms of having been cut for the figure rather than for the cross. The figure is not well proportioned. The head is not quite circular and has adjustments for the forehead and chin. Around the face is a border, perhaps representing a halo. The open hands face forward. Speculation as to who is represented includes God, the baby Jesus, a pagan deity, the beheaded St. John and a spaceman.
The other face bears a carved cross consisting of a pair of triple-strand ribbons forming a diagonal cross. The area below the cross was decorated with a rectilinear or fret pattern which has now flaked off.
Many of our early monasteries have a round tower and high crosses. Such are often reflective of the cultural wealth of the monastery. Carrowntemple has neither, though it could have had a wooden cross. However, the sum total of the Carrowntemple designs is certainly equivalent to at least one high cross! All this artistic work indicates a place of importance. Still, we have no history for the site and only a fragment of an inscribed slab, and not just the fragment, we wold get a personal name that might show up in the Annals or the Martrologies.
For more information you can also visit the megalithic Ireland website