Gems of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula: The Ancient Gallarus Oratory, via @TravelLatte

The Ancient Gallarus Oratory

On Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way is a small stone building that’s been watching over the western edge of the island for more than a thousand years: The Gallarus Oratory, a true gem of the Dingle Peninsula.

Ireland is heavy with history; laden with ancient sacred sites, Medieval castles and abbeys, and Celt and Viking origins. The island is also rich in natural beauty, from the famous Cliffs of Moher and Giants Causeway, to the rolling hills and valleys of the Boyne River Valley. Weaved among the history and beauty is Ireland’s renowned culture. These are the jewels of Ireland, and we will highlight some of the nation’s gems in this ongoing series, Gems of Ireland.

Gems of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula: The Ancient Gallarus Oratory, via @TravelLatte

The ancient Gallarus Oratory sits serenely at the foot of Mount Brandon, the highest peak on the Dingle Peninsula.

Ireland’s Ancient Gallarus Oratory

The small stone building is truly a mystery. Archaeologists cannot agree on its age or purpose, or even who built it. Nonetheless, it is one of the iconic attractions of the Dingle Peninsula. It’s stone construction and sweeping views of the western coastline are the perfect representation of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. So just what is the Gallarus Oratory, and why is it not just worthy of a visit, but as one of the Gems of Ireland?

The Mystery of Who, What, When and Why

The truth of it is, not much is known about Gallarus Oratory. Certainly not enough to answer the classic questions of who, what, when nor why. Research has put the stone hut’s construction somewhere between the 5th and 12th Centuries. Many believe the Oratory is an early Christian church built between 600 and 900 AD.

Nearby are the ruins of Kilmalkedar Church, known to have been built in the 12th Century. It’s believed that Gallarus Oratory was built sometime prior to the church, lending credence to the idea that Gallarus was a small church, replaced by the larger church. However, there is no evidence that the building was ever used as a church.

Gems of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula: The Ancient Gallarus Oratory, via @TravelLatte

The 12th Century Kilmaldedar Church and graveyard are an easy addition to your visit to the Gallarus Oratory.

A large rocky grave site and Cross Stone (often mistaken for an Ogham Stone) engraved with the name Colum Mac Dinet (Colm, son of Dinet) has led to speculation that the building was a private funerary chapel. One local legend tells of a giant buried in the oversized grave. Just as there is no indication the building was ever a church, no giant remains have been found either. (Hard to fathom a giant having such a small house/church, anyway.)

What’s in a Name?

Wondering if the name Gallarus gives any clue to the building’s purpose? That’s not likely because, again, researchers disagree. Some argue that the Irish name, Séipéilín Ghallarais, means “Church of the (Place of the) Foreigners.” Others believe it simply means “house or shelter for the foreigners” (Gall Aras in Irish). One argument goes that foreigners landed in nearby Smerwick Harbour and sought shelter here. Another is that people came from all over Ireland and surrounding islands on a pilgrimage to honor St. Brendan. The Oratory sits just off what was called The Saint’s Road, which led up Mount Brandon, just behind the Oratory. Having a shelter near the base of the 3,000-foot climb seems like a good idea. Either way, the hut provided either housing or a place of worship for these foreigners.

At odds with both theories is a third. Linguistic expert (and local County Kerry lad) Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha said everyone had it wrong. The name, he claimed, is actually derived from the Irish Gall-iorrus, which means “rocky headland.” Looking at the Dingle landscape, you couldn’t describe it any better than that!

Gems of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula: The Ancient Gallarus Oratory, via @TravelLatte

A giant’s grave? Not likely, but it shows how small the Gallarus Oratory actually is.

The building’s small size (16 feet by 10 feet) is thought too small to be a church, anyway. However, it is just the right size for a small chapel, or oratory. So at least that part of its name is sorted. We couldn’t help but notice that it’s also the perfect size for today’s architectural buzzword: Tiny Home.

The Remarkable Building

For such a small building, Gallarus Oratory is remarkable in many ways. The mere fact that it has stood, intact, on Ireland’s western coastline for more than 1,000 years is nothing short of amazing. It’s not called the Wild Atlantic Way for nothing. This area withstands harsh conditions and fierce storms on a regular basis. And yet, this building is in near-original condition. It has not been refurbished or renovated, simply because it has not been needed.

Gems of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula: The Ancient Gallarus Oratory, via @TravelLatte

The cut stone walls of the Gallarus Oratory have kept out water for more than 1,000 years!

The hut itself is made of simple Dingle Red Sandstone. The building of it, though, is ingenious. Each course of rock is sloped; the inside is higher than the outside. The result is that water runs away from the building, instead of into it. To this day, the building is nearly waterproof. (The door and window do let some rain – and floodwaters – in.)

The corbel vaulting (as was used at Newgrange thousands of years earlier) rises to a single row of rock capping the shape. This gives the building the look of an upside-down boat. What’s more, each stone is cut with such precision that they fit perfectly together. There is no mortar in the construction; simply stone on stone on stone. The exception is the front entrance, where hinge stones once supported a wooden door. You will see some mortar on the inside; it’s believed a thin lime mortar was used as an interior lining.

Gems of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula: The Ancient Gallarus Oratory, via @TravelLatte

Whoever built Gallarus Oratory certainly knew how to frame a view!

Luxury Rental Cars

When You Go

Gallarus Observatory is easily one of the top attractions along the famed Slea Head Drive. Happily, it’s easy to get to, and well maintained. From Dingle, it’s about 6km out along R559, and not far off of Slea Head Drive. It’s a bit tricky, as R559 makes a loop around the Oratory and church, but signs along the road will point the way.

In addition to the Oratory and Church, there is a Gallarus Castle. If you follow the local road west past the Oratory, you’ll come across the remains of the four-story, 15th Century tower castle in less than half a kilometer. Aside from the name and location, there is little connection with the Oratory.

Gems of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula: The Ancient Gallarus Oratory, via @TravelLatte

The Gallarus Oratory Visitor’s Center welcomes visitors from Easter through October. There is a large, free parking lot here.

There is a Visitor’s Center for the Gallarus Oratory, which includes restrooms, a small café and gift shop, and a building with an audio-visual presentation on the archaeological heritage of the Dingle Peninsula. Note that the Oratory itself is not at the Visitor’s Center, but rather about 200m away, across a field. The site is administered by the Office of Public Works, and has a €5 admission fee. However, the Visitor’s Center is closed in the winter, and you don’t necessarily need to start your visit here.

Roughly 200m east of the Visitor’s Center (opposite direction from the castle) is a small parking area. A well-kept path leads directly to the Oratory, with no admission fees. So it is possible to see the church, oratory and castle all for free. You can easily visit all three sites in about two hours.

If you’d like to spend a little more time in the area, the bay that Gallarus Oratory overlooks has a beautiful stretch of sand called Ballinrannig Beach! It’s just two kilometers away on R559, so why not? If you have a day or two to explore the Dingle Peninsula, you’ll find hotels and B&B accommodations throughout the region. You just can’t stay at the Oratory. (We know. We wanted to, too!)

Gems of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula: The Ancient Gallarus Oratory, via @TravelLatte

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Have You Been?

We were moved by the thought of solitary meditation at the tiny home/church, with views of Mount Brandon, green Irish fields, and the beautiful coastline. It would be easy to spend too much time absorbing the peaceful surroundings. There is a lot of Ireland to see. Gallarus Oratory is just one of many gems, and we are glad to have taken the time to visit.

If you’ve been to Gallarus Oratory, we would love to hear your thoughts about it. If you haven’t visited, have we inspired you to include this stop on the Dingle Peninsula? Either way, please let us know your thoughts in the comments! Feel free to ask any questions; if we don’t know the answer, we can find it!

23 comments on “The Ancient Gallarus Oratory

  1. This looks like such a great stop on the Dingle Peninsula. I’ve seen a lot of Ireland posts these past few months from TBEX attendees and this is definitely one of the more interesting ones. It’s so interesting and love the mystery surrounding it. It is incredible to see how these structures have withstood the elements of time and weather for hundreds of years. I’d love to visit this whenever we return to Ireland.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mary. We thought it was very interesting and unique as well. We had first learned of the Oratory several years ago, so when a chance to visit Ireland came up, this was a must do. We are so glad to have had the opportunity, and to share it with everyone. Glad you like it – it’s even better in person! Thanks for comment.

    • So amazing, isn’t it? Clonmacnoise is another great Irish gem! Gosh, there is just so much to see and write about…this Gems of Ireland idea is going to take some time to get through! 😉 Thanks for yoru comment, Jessica!

  2. I love a good mystery! As human beings, we want to know details about a lot of things. However, there are some things we will never fully understand. Places like this one in Ireland are fun because you get to read and hear tons of stories and perspectives on who build it and why. As a traveler, I like to hear those stories! By the way, the shades of green you captured are gorgeous! #TheWeeklyPostcard

    • We love stories like that! And Ireland seems chock full of them. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the real stories are much more mundane than some of the fanciful stories we make up to explain things! And with the “Blessing of Blarney”…that’s probably even more true in Ireland. 😉 Glad you liked the photos. Aren’t those greens and countrysides wonderful? We were just amazed at every place we stopped. So green, and so beautiful, in every direction. We’re kind of smitten…can you tell? Thanks for your comment, Ruth!

  3. Pingback: #TheWeeklyPostcard – 2 February 2018 - TravelLatte

  4. I am exciting to read your ongoing series “Gems of Ireland”. This visit to the Ancient Gallarus Oratory is fascinating. In the cemetery the story that a giant was buried there in that small house. Love the green rolling hills and seeing the stunning photos reminds me of the journey of Vikings. Great transportation information, along with directions to the Visitors Center. Ireland is on my bucket-list and will pin this for later use. #feetdotravel

    • Thanks Stephanie! I think it may be slow going, since we’ll have other posts along the way, but there’s so much we want to write about! I was really excited to visit Gallarus Oratory because of the history and legends, but what I ended up loving was the view they had! Just so gorgeous – mountains, fields, seaside – what’s not to love? 🙂 As always, thanks for your comment – and we hope you get to Ireland soon!

  5. Wow, if all buildings were made this way there would definitely be less ruins around (although I kind of like ruins lol). I have been to Ireland but not to this part, as I’m from England, I crave warn weather when I go on holiday so didn’t make it to Ireland as much as I should (considering its “next door” lol). What a gem though! #feetdotravel

    • Ha – didn’t think of that. But we would have a lot of cool old buildings! Just amazing that it was still standing. We learned that there are similar buildings in the area, but they are ruins – the roofs have fallen in and the walls have tumbled. So whomever built the Gallarus Oratory did an exceptional job! Thanks for your comment, Angie!

  6. I love that there’s some mystery about who, what, when & why, making way for us to use our own imagination. I’m looking forward to reading your gems of island series and will be pinning in anticipation of a trip there eventually. Awesome shots. I can almost smell the fresh air through them!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Shona! We definitely like sites that have a bit of history and mystery to them! Ireland was a treasure chest, in that sense. Personally, my favorite part of this post was choosing the photos, for the exact reason you describe. They remind us of that cool day, with a sea breeze that mingled with the smell of grass. Sure wish we could have stayed longer – but they said we couldn’t use the Oratory as our new Tiny Home. 🙁

    • Yet is the operative word, right? If you like that mystery sprinkled in, there are several places in Ireland you’ll love! Ancient sites that were all but forgotten are big attractions now, even if scientists can’t quite figure out the who-what-why of it all. As they say, it’s grand! Thanks for your comment, Anna!

    • Hey Barry – We’d love to go back! You’re right, there is so much history in Ireland. We could probably visit for the rest of our lives and still not get to it all! Thanks for your commment!

  7. Very cool! I love historical structures, and when the true reason for it is a mystery, it leaves some room for imagination! It always blows my mind to see how clever people were when building back in the day. To think they made it pretty much weatherproof without the materials and technology that we have today!

    • We love them, too, and a good mystery only makes them better! We’re always amazed at the ingenuity in structures like the Oratory, and the time and craftsmanship that goes into them. Amazing! Thanks for your comment, Bryna!

  8. I love seeing stuff that is so old and has some much history, it is just mind blowing to me. Going to save this post for reference when I make it to Dingle. #TheWeeklyPostcard.

    • We know what you mean. The more we learned about this little hut – and the mystery around it – the more fascinated we became. So cleverly built…we were impressed! Thanks for your comment, Anisa!

    • I wonder sometimes what around us today will still be standing in a thousand years. I’d be willing to bet this little Oratory will still be there! I hope you’re pinning in anticipation of getting to Ireland – and I hope that happens sooner than later. You will love it! Thanks for the comment, Lolo!

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