Terracotta Angel, c.1896
Watts Chapel, England

 Photo ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos



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The Labyrinth in Ireland - by Jeff Saward

Modern turf labyrinth,
St. Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg, Co. Donegal, Ireland

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The Hollywood Stone, Co. Wicklow, Ireland

Photo ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

Cobblestone Labyrinth, Bridgetown House, Castletownroche, Co. Cork, Ireland
 Plan ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

Labyrinth door handle, Church of St. Regnus, Burt, Co. Donegal, Ireland.

 Photo & sketch ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

In a country so steeped in history and with an artistic heritage famously decorated with swirling and spiraling art forms, from the time of the earliest Neolithic rock art through to the Celtic masterpiece of the Book of Kells, it might seem logical to find the labyrinth symbol also abundant in Ireland. Instead there are only a handful of historic examples known, most in connection with churches and monastic locations, but each is quite unique and a good example of their use as a multi-faceted symbol.

A Historical Aside

The story of how the labyrinth symbol came to occupy the grand naves of the greatest Christian monuments of the Middle Ages and gain acceptance with the Church is long and tortuous. It took nearly a thousand years for this episode in the history of the labyrinth to unravel.

The first example of labyrinths in a Christian setting is to be found in Algeria, North Africa, and provides an illuminating insight into how the labyrinth may have been visualized by the early Christian mind. It is a mosaic pavement labyrinth of typical Roman style, but laid in the floor of the Basilica of St. Reparatus, founded in 324 AD in Al-Asnam (Orléansville) 100 miles west of Algiers. At its centre is a word square comprising the words “Sancta Eclesia” (Holy Church) repeated over and over. Such word squares, or letter labyrinths, were popular with the Romans, and this example, enclosed within a physical labyrinth, has been interpreted by scholars as a depiction of the Civitas Dei (City of God, i.e. the church) surrounded by the Civitas Mundi (city of the world), as later outlined by St.Augustine in his De Civitate Dei.

A labyrinth graffito on a piece of tumbled masonry among the ruins of the Roman town of Knidos, in south-west Turkey, provides another interesting example of early Christian usage of the labyrinth. Accompanied by an inscription in Greek text, KYRIE BOETHEI (Lord help (us)), it may be an appeal for protection from a threat at the time; but could also be a prayer for the soul. The labyrinth is surrounded by depictions of crosses, the style of which dates the carving to the 6th or 7th centuries AD, a palm tree and a twining plant issuing from a pot. This fascinating combination of the labyrinth and other Christian imagery suggests that the walls of the labyrinth may have been viewed as providing the protection that the unknown carver of the inscription was seeking.

It seems likely that the preserved written works of Roman and earlier Greek authors, Pliny, Homer and others, which mentioned the legends of the labyrinth, were instrumental in the acceptance of the labyrinth within the early Christian Church. These writings, combined with the widespread recognition of Christianity throughout the Roman territories following the conversion of the Emperor Constantine and his hosting of the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, allowed the labyrinth symbol to be absorbed into later Christian symbolism, philosophy and architecture, despite its pre-Christian origins.

From the 9th century onwards, labyrinths begin to appear frequently in manuscripts, produced at monasteries and scriptoriums throughout Europe, attesting to the obvious acceptance of the labyrinth into early Christian symbolism. Surprisingly, perhaps, at first the majority are of the ancient Classical design, the form that could be carried around in the mind without recourse to instructions for their construction.

The development and introduction of the familiar Medieval design, epitomised by the labyrinth in the nave of Chartres Cathedral, did not take place until the 10th century and it did not appear in churches as an architectural feature until the 12th century. This ‘Christianised’ form of the labyrinth symbol subsequently entered popular use throughout Europe, not only in ecclesiastical settings, but also cut into the turf or formed of low hedges in late mediaeval gardens. It would go on to become the root of the hedge puzzle mazes that are recognized almost universally today, whenever the word maze, or labyrinth, is mentioned.


The Labyrinth in Ireland

As the Romans never colonised Ireland, there are no mosaic labyrinths, widespread elsewhere in Europe, to be found. Likewise, despite the abundance of prehistoric rock art, which in Spain and Italy contains labyrinths amongst its circular and spiraling forms, to date, no example of the symbol has been reported in this context in Ireland. However, there are several important historic examples of the labyrinth, surviving or recorded, in Ireland which deserve attention.

The Hollywood Stone, Co. Wicklow

On current evidence, the earliest example of the labyrinth symbol known in Ireland would appear to be the Hollywood Stone, a large boulder decorated with a Classical labyrinth design, 29 inches (73 cm) in diameter, discovered in 1908 at Lockstown Upper, near Hollywood, County Wicklow, by a group of men chasing a Stoat. When they turned over the boulder, under which their quarry had hidden, it revealed the carving on the underside. Soon confidently identified by the archaeologists of the time to be of probable Bronze Age origin (Bremer, 1926), and therefore roughly contemporary with other prehistoric rock art in Ireland, the stone was removed in 1925 to the National Museum in Dublin, where it was on display alongside other neolithic and bronze age artefacts and carvings until the late 1980’s, before being placed in storage. Removed from its original find location, its  purpose and origin were thus difficult to appreciate and few questioned the original interpretation of its origin, made at the time of its discovery, until relatively recently.

The important clue is the stone’s original situation, located beside a branch of St. Kevin's Road, an ancient pilgrim's paved trackway, which starting at Hollywood, lead through the Wicklow Mountains to the famous monastery at Glendalough, founded by St. Kevin in the mid-6th century AD. While the age of the labyrinth carved on the boulder is difficult, if not impossible, to prove, the combination of the sharpness of the carving and its former location, strongly suggests that it was a marker stone for the start of the long winding pilgrims road through the rugged Wicklow Gap.

As such it probably dates from the early Christian or Mediaeval period, c.550 - 1400 AD, possibly toward the earlier end of this range (Harbison, 1991). The choice of the labyrinth to decorate the stone was surely a commentary on the tortuous path that lay ahead for the pilgrims on the trackway. Had the stone been left where it was found the connection would be more apparent, but fortunately in 2005 it was returned to Co. Wicklow and placed on display at the Glendalough Visitor Centre, where its context is explained alongside other stones and finds from the complex of monuments at Glendalough.

St. Michael’s Cross, Cashel, Co. Tipperary

First noted in 1998 (Harbison, 1998), the labyrinth carved on the north side of the base of St. Michael’s Cross at the monastic complex on the Rock of Cashel has now been moved into the Hall of the Vicars’ Choral for protection. The carving, 29 inches (73 cm) in diameter, was originally interpreted as a series of concentric circles and is badly weathered, especially on its lower half, but with controlled lighting these circles can be seen to form the remains of a complex medieval-style labyrinth, probably originally of 15-circuit form, with the entrance to the left. A small carved figure at the centre of the design is surely a representation of the Minotaur. Assuming the carving is contemporary with the construction of the cross, a dating from somewhere in the early 12th century is likely, and therefore before the influential labyrinths were laid in the floors of the Gothic Cathedrals of France, but at the same time that they were appearing in Italian churches and cathedrals and in many manuscripts. Indeed, the form of this labyrinth at Cashel suggests influence from a contemporary copy the Liber Floridus of Lambert of St. Omer, likewise created in the early 12th century.


The Church of St. Lawrence, Rathmore, Co. Meath

Another carved stone, but this time with the standard 11-circuit mediaeval design, of the type found commonly in churches and cathedrals across Europe during the Middle Ages, is to be found in the ruined church of St.Lawrence at Rathmore in County Meath, alongside the road between Athboy and Navan.

Found in 1931 amongst rubble on the floor, it is now set into the interior wall near the doorway into the church (Leask, 1933). The labyrinth, 14 inches (36 cm) in diameter, is finely carved, but its original purpose and location within the church are unknown. It was surely a decorative item, possibly a corbel from high on one of the walls and clearly dates from the mid-15th century, when the church was built by Sir Thomas Plunkett, who lies buried with his wife in a tomb within the church.


Bridgetown House, Castletownroche, Co. Cork

A further example of an ancient labyrinth design in Ireland comes from Bridgetown House, a large farmhouse to the south of Castletownroche in County Cork. It is formed from river worn pebbles laid as a cobblestone floor in the kitchen of the farmhouse. Only 5½ by 4½ feet (1.68 x 1.37 m) in diameter, the 'walls' of the labyrinth were created by laying larger, flattened, stones at an angle to the smaller stones that form the 'pathway.' Its design is of the widespread Classical type, with seven concentric paths surrounding the goal. The story of how this little labyrinth came to be created is quite remarkable.

The farmhouse was built in 1782 and sometime in the 1790's a family wedding party was held at the house. At the height of the festivities, the assembled folk were dancing in the kitchen when the original wooden floor collapsed, sending everyone tumbling into the cellar beneath! Apparently nobody was seriously injured, but to avoid a repeat of this unfortunate incident, it was decided that the cellar would be filled in and a local paver, Joe Knott, laid the cobblestone floor. Presumably he chose the labyrinth motif as a good luck charm, or maybe as a way of commemorating the unusual circumstances that lead to the construction of the floor (Saward, 1984).

Labyrinth  inscribed on the base of St. Michael’s Cross, Cashel, Co. Tipperary, Ireland

 Photos ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

Labyrinth  inscription, Rathmore, Co. Meath, Ireland

The new floor was evidently sturdier than the original and was quite well known locally, but over the years the floor settled unevenly and during the 1960's the owners were forced to pour a new concrete floor over the original cobblestones. Fortunately they appreciated the value of the original floor and had the foresight to photograph the labyrinth and cover the cobbles with a layer of plastic sheeting and sand before the concrete was poured, so it should be possible to recover the labyrinth at some point in the future.


“Walls of Troy” Turf Labyrinth, Ballynavortha, Co. Wicklow

Formerly situated on farmland in the township of Ballynavortha, and certainly still visible in the late 1950’s, this is the only confirmed record of a turf labyrinth in Ireland, although an unconfirmed record of two examples at an unspecified location in Co. Derry also exists. Known locally as the “Walls of Troy” and roughly square in outline - 79 x 86 feet (24.4 x 26.4 metres) - a single sketch of the overgrown paths made in 1957 is difficult to interpret, but it seems to have had six or seven circuits (Manning, 2004). Its origin is uncertain, but it may have been constructed during the 18th or 19th century, originally as a landscape feature in connection with nearby Ballynavortha House.  

The Church of St. Regnus, Burt, Co. Donegal

A final example of the use of the labyrinth in Ireland, but from a much more recent time, is to be found at the unusual church of St. Regnus in Burt, County Donegal. Built in the early 1960's and consecrated in 1967, this striking circular church is modelled on the plan of an ancient Iron Age hillfort, the Grianan of Aileach, which overlooks Lough Swilly and the village of Burt. The concentric defensive walls of the fortress, the legendary seat of the O'Neills, the Kings of Ulster from the 5th to 12th centuries AD, and destroyed in 1101 AD by Murtogh O'Brien, the King of Munster, were restored in 1870 and the church is modelled directly on the reconstructed outer walls of the fortress.

The labyrinth appears several times within the structure of the church: as bronze door handles on the impressive copper-clad doors and on a plaque set into a wall in front of the church commemorating its dedication (Saward, 1985).

However, it is not clear why the architects who designed the church choose to use the labyrinth in this setting. Maybe they likened it to the concentric defensive walls of the fortress, a parallel that can be traced back to the stories of the Walls of Troy, first made apparent on an Etruscan vase from Tragliatella dating to the 7th century BC, where a labyrinth inscribed with the name Truia (Troy) is depicted with horsemen and soldiers. There is no trace of a labyrinth carved on the stones of the fortress, and no explanation is given at the church.

As with the earlier examples discussed above, an air of mystery surrounds even this most recent of additions to the fascinating collection of historic labyrinths to be found in Ireland.

Modern Labyrinths

Within the last decade, a number of modern labyrinths have been constructed in Ireland, often as part of the recent spiritually-orientated revival of interest in this most ancient of symbols. While a number are situated on private property, some are in connection with monasteries and retreat centres, as at St. Patrick’s Purgatory on Lough Derg, Co. Donegal (2004), at Art Centres and other visitor attractions, such as the turf labyrinth at the Glendalough Visitor Centre. Undoubtedly, more will follow to add to the labyrinths of Ireland.

Jeff Saward, Thundersley, England, February 2009.

References:

Bremer, W. “Note on the Hollywood Stone.” Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol.56 (1926), p.51-54.

Harbison, Peter. Pilgrimage in Ireland. Barrie & Jenkins, London, 1991, p.122-124.

Harbison, Peter. “A labyrinth on the twelth-century High Cross base on the Rock of Cashel, Co. Tipperary.” Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol.128 (1998), p.107-111.

Leask, H.G. “Rathmore Church, Co. Meath.” Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol.63 (1933), p.153 -166.

Manning, Conleth. “A former sod or turf maze at Ballynavortha, Co. Wicklow.” Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol.134 (2004), p.166-168.

Orpen, G.H. “Carved stone near Hollywood, Co. Wicklow.” Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol.41 (1911), p.183-185.

Orpen, G.H. “The Hollywood Stone and the labyrinth of Knossos.” Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol.53 (1923), p.177-189.

Saward, J & D. “Labyrinths of Ireland.” Caerdroia 14 (1984), p.4-9.

Saward, Jeff. “More Irish Labyrinths.” Caerdroia 17 (1985), p.28-29.

Saward, Jeff. Labyrinths & Mazes. Gaia Books, London, 2003.