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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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!