Early medieval Canovee

Early medieval Canovee (c.400c.1200 A.D.)

Bernadette McCarthy, August 2014


The early medieval period is generally defined as beginning around 400 with the introduction of Christianity in the early 5th century, and concluding around 1200 following the arrival of the Normans. With the spread of Christianity, a large number of ecclesiastical sites were founded throughout Ireland. At least 5,500 ecclesiastical sites dating to the early medieval period are known to have existed based on archaeological or historical evidence. It can be expected that further ecclesiastical sites would have left no obvious archaeological or historical trace. An early ecclesiastical site is generally defined as such if it is thought to have had an early medieval church, but churches only occasionally survive above-ground. Curvilinear enclosures are a key indicator of ecclesiastical settlement, while historical evidence and placename evidence, and the presence of cross-sculpture, leachta and round towers, can also allow identification of a site as early ecclesiastical.

Canovee graveyard is located within a large curvilinear enclosure in Bawnatemple townland, through the centre of which the later road to the graveyard passes. Ecclesiastical enclosures can vary in size from 25m400m in diameter, with an average diameter of between 90120m, compared with an average diameter of 30m for a ringfort, the predominant secular settlement type. The enclosing feature frequently takes the form of an earthen bank, as at Bawnatemple, while it can also take the form of a stone bank, a drystone bank, ditches, or a combination of these. The original banks/ditches/walls that mark the enclosure do not usually survive unchanged, but their original course is often indicated by the construction of later earthen banks (the Irish ‘ditches’) and field-walls, while later roads and pathways can follow the curvilinear kink of the enclosure. Townland boundaries can also follow the curve of the enclosure, as at Canovee graveyard, located at the meeting of three townlands. The bird’s eye view provided by aerial photography is helpful in identifying early ecclesiastical enclosures, as are the Ordnance Survey maps (www.osi.ie).

These enclosures may have had limited defensive value but their primary function is generally considered to have been the delineation of sacred space, for both ideological and legal reasons. Measuring 210m N/S x 280m E/W (Power 1997), from E to SW the curvilinear enclosure at Canovee takes the form of an earthen ‘ditch’ or field fence built atop the remains of an earlier earthen bank. From SW to NE a partially collapsed stone wall marks the boundary, in places built atop rock outcrop (Power 1997). The townland boundaries of Bawnatemple with Coolnacarriga and Classes follow the curve of the enclosure from SE to NE. Enclosures were also a sign of status and wealth in early medieval Ireland. The particularly large example at Bawnatemple indicates that Canovee was a powerful and wealthy site in regional terms in the early medieval period. Canovee would have been located within the local kingdom of Uí Flainn Lua by the end of the early medieval period, which was located in turn within the regional kingdom of Uí Echach Mumhan, also known as Eóganacht Raithlind (MacCotter 2008, 153). The River Lee to the north likely formed a border between the kingdom and Muscraige Mittine. Like many important early ecclesiastical sites, Canovee would therefore have been located on a border, which may in turn have been an important routeway.

While smaller sites such as Reask, Co. Kerry, tend to have a single enclosure, many larger sites display evidence of concentric enclosures. For example, Glendalough, Co. Wicklow has two identifiable concentric enclosures while Nendrum, Co. Down has three identifiable concentric enclosures, though two concentric enclosures appear to be more common than three. A recurring feature of all sites with concentric enclosures is the concentration of ritual activity within the central enclosure, and Canovee graveyard is located at the centre of the surviving outer enclosure, suggesting that it may have been surrounded by an inner enclosure which no longer exists. The rectilinear stone walls around the graveyard date to the modern period; when Bishop Dive Downes visited the site in 1700 he noted: ‘Bounds of the churchyard uncertain whether an inward or out(ward) ditch’ (Brady 1863, I, 56). However, it seems likely based on comparison with other sites that there was some form of early medieval enclosure such as a bank surrounded the central ritual area marked by the later graveyard.

Multiple enclosures were a sign of status and wealth in early medieval Ireland. For example, Garranes ringfort near Cloughduv, a major royal site of the Eóganacht Raithlind in the early medieval period, had three concentric enclosures. Ringforts with multiple enclosures differ from ecclesiastical sites in the landscape, however, in that the enclosures are spaced very closely together while there is more room for various activities between the enclosures in ecclesiastical sites. Scholars generally consider concentric enclosures to define areas of differing holiness. The innermost enclosure where the main church was located would have been considered the most sacred part of a site, while outer enclosures were deemed more suitable for domestic activities. Excavations at Nendrum, a site with three stone-banked enclosures, in conjunction with examination of the surviving plan confirm that the central area was where the main ritual buildings were located, that is, the principal church and round tower, while the middle enclosure contained houses as well as evidence for craftworking. Little evidence was revealed in the outer enclosure for structures or craft-working, and it was suggested that agricultural activity took place in this area; perhaps animals were kept here or crops were grown here (McErlean and Crothers 2007). Similarly, it is likely that domestic activities occurred in the outer enclosure(s) of Canovee while the inner enclosure was preserved for religious activities. The local laity who were Christian, and who may also have been tenants of the ecclesiastical site, are likely to have been allowed into the inner enclosure in order to attend Mass. However, outside of this it is possible that access to the inner enclosure was restricted to the clerics/religious of the community.

The early Irish monastic lifestyle varied from site to site, but at Canovee it may have involved the singing of prayers and psalms at various points of the day as part of the divine office, while Mass would have been celebrated at least once a week by the whole community and probably local laity (it was celebrated by the community at Tallaght twice a week in the 9th century). Excavations indicate that many early medieval churches were constructed of wood, wattle and turf before the 10th century, while in western areas such as the Dingle and Iveragh peninsulas they were built of drystone. It is likely that Canovee had a timber church in this period. After the 10th century, mortared stone was used for the building of churches (Ó Carragáin 2010). The medieval church which existed in Canovee until the 18th/19th century may possibly have incorporated early medieval material (See Late Medieval Canovee); at any rate it would have marked the site of the early medieval church, towards the centre of the present graveyard. Early medieval churches generally had only one chamber and a western doorway; from the 11th/12th centuries nave-and-chancel churches with south doorways became standard.

While some prominent but topographically isolated sites such as Skellig Michael, Co. Kerry, are likely to have been exclusively monastic foundations, large early Irish ecclesiastical sites such as Canovee were major centres of population in the Irish landscape, which had no towns or villages (aside from the Scandinavian port towns that developed from the 9th century). Their populations did not only include monks and nuns, but other religious, such as priests and other clerics, as well as craftworkers and labourers who were not necessarily religious under vows and who may have married. Important clerics are likely to have had their own households with servants, and some bishops and priests had their own wives and families, though celibacy was regarded as the highest state for religious. Students also formed part an important part of the population of the ecclesiastical site. Some were the children of ecclesiastical tenants, who may have been expected to return to farm their lands after their education, others may have been given as oblates, destined for a religious lifestyle. On some important sites, noble children were fostered by senior clerics. Penitents also formed part of the population on some ecclesiastical sites, undertaking a strict monastic lifestyle temporarily to atone for past sins. Occasionally, aristocrats retired to ecclesiastical sites once their political careers had ended.

It is likely that domestic houses were situated within the outer enclosure of the ecclesiastical site at Canovee. Judging by excavations from other sites, these houses would generally have been round in plan before the 10th century and may have been post-and-wattle, turf or stone structures; stone structures are generally more common in certain western regions such as Dingle and Iveragh. These houses may have been used for both sleeping and cooking/eating, though refectories and dormitories are referred to in some early Irish texts. After the 10th century, houses that were rectilinear in plan appear to have become more common on early medieval sites.

Agriculture would have been an important part of life at Canovee. While there is a rocky area of land north/northwest of the site, fertile pasture and arable land surrounds the enclosure to W, S and E. This good agricultural land would have made the island of Canovee, as it was known in many medieval texts, an attractive place to found an ecclesiastical site. Dairying was a very important part of life in early medieval Ireland, and dairy products in the form of milk, cheese, curds, whey, buttermilk and butter were a staple part of the diet. However, other domestic animals such as pigs and sheep came to play a more important role in farming and diet from the ninth century (McCormick and Murray 2007). Porridge was also central to the early medieval diet (Sexton 1998) and grain production seems to have increased from the 9th century (McCormick and Murray 2007). Bread was a staple monastic food judging by surviving monastic rules (Ó Maidín 1996) and the level of toothwear apparent on some skeletal remains from early Irish monastic communities. Horizontal mills, such as that found at Mashanaglas near Macroom (Fahy 1956), have been associated with early ecclesiastical sites such as Bawnatemple. Crafts and industry were also an important part of life on early medieval sites. Iron-working was common; bone-, antler- and horn-working, leather-working, wood-working and stone-working were also common activities, while non-ferrous metalworking and glass- and enamel-working could be conducted on sites which produced fine metalwork. Spinning and weaving of wool would also have been practiced in the production of textiles. Spindle-whorls are typical finds from early medieval sites.

Another primary indicating feature of early ecclesiastical settlement is cross-sculpture. A cross-slab was recovered during ploughing immediately northwest of the graveyard and is now kept in Canovee National School. The sandstone slab (42cm L.) is incised with a cross of arcs comprising four heart-shaped depressions within an almost complete circle (running from 7 o’clock to 5 o’clock in a clockwise direction), similar to an example from Ballyvourney (Hurley and O’Flaherty 1981). Cross-slabs can date from the 6th century onwards and may have marked graves or commemorated individuals though sometimes they may simply have formed points of devotion on the site. Hurley and O’Flaherty (1981) suggest that the Canovee cross-slab was displayed in an upright position, as it is thicker towards the base, which is less carefully crafted than the upper part.

Souterrains are commonly found in association with early medieval settlement, whether secular or sacred, and comprised underground earth-cut or rock-cut creep-ways, passages and chambers. These underground structures may have been used to hide both people and goods from attackers, and it has also been suggested that they were used for the refrigeration of dairy products. Two earth-cut souterrains have been identified in the early ecclesiastical enclosure at Bawnatemple. One of which there is now no surface trace was located in the southern part of the enclosure and its sides were clad with stones (Harnett 1940; Power 1997). Another souterrain was discovered in 1999 in the southwest part of the enclosure when ground-collapse allowed access to a small oval earth-cut chamber .6m below ground- level. Two creep-ways extend from the chamber, one of which leads to a passage that leads in turn along another creepway to a large oval chamber with a bedrock floor. From this chamber, another creepway leads into an area filled with collapsed material (www.archaeology.ie).

Bullaun stones, stones with one or more circular depressions, are another indicator of early medieval settlement, which tended to be venerated as holy wells in later centuries as at nearby Cappanagroun. They are found at both ringforts and ecclesiastical sites, but more commonly on the latter. Some bullauns are thought to have been used for grinding food while it is also thought that some of them may have been fonts for holy water. A bullaun is located in pasture c. 90m west of the ecclesiastical enclosure. The large smooth boulder contains a circular hollow that fills with rainwater, known locally as a cure for toothaches (Power 1997).


Ordnance Survey of Ireland: www.osi.ie
Record of Monuments and Places of Ireland: www.archaeology.ie Printed Sources:

Brady, W.M. 1863. Clerical and Parochial Records of Cork, Cloyne and Ross. Volume 1. Dublin (Available online at www.corkpastandpresent.ie).

Fahy, E. M. 1956. ‘A horizontal mill at Mashanaglass, Co. Cork', Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 61.

Harnett, P. J. 1940. The holy wells of East Muskerry. Béaloideas: the journal of the Folklore of Ireland Society 10(1-2).

Hurley, V. and O’Flaherty. B.D. 1981. ‘A cross-inscribed stone from an early ecclesiastical enclosure at Bawnatemple, near Macroom, County Cork’, Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 86.

MacCotter, P. 2008. Medieval Ireland: Territorial, political and economic divisions. Dublin.

McCarthy, B. 2014. ‘Living as a monk in early medieval Ireland’. In In O. Delouis and M. Mossakowska (eds) La Vie quotidienne des moines en Orient et en Occident (ive-xe siècle), 1. Les Sources. 

McCormick, F. and Murray, E. 2007. Knowth and the zooarchaeology of Early Christian Ireland. Dublin.McErlean, T. and Crothers, N. 2007. Harnessing the tides: The early medieval tide mills at Nendrum monastery, Strangford Lough. Belfast. 

Ó Carragáin T. 2010. Churches in early medieval Ireland: Architecture, ritual and memory. London and New Haven.

Ó Maidín, C. 1996. The Celtic Monk: Rules and Writings of Early Irish Monks. Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Power, D. 1997. Archaeological Inventory of County Cork. Volume III: Mid-Cork. Dublin.

Sexton, R. 1998 ‘Porridges, gruels and breads: the cereal foodstuffs of early medieval Ireland’. In M. Monk and J. Sheehan (eds), Early medieval Munster: Archaeology, history and society, 76-85. Cork.