Secret Stones of Annaghdown

The stone walls and ruins of east Galway are famous all over the world. They record the graft and skill of former generations who knew from the feel and heft of a stone precisely how to place it in a wall that would withstand generations of wind, rain, ivy, livestock and farm machinery.

Annaghdown has some of the most beautiful walls and ruins in Ireland, and they are an important part of our history and heritage. Previous generations, who cleared the land and drew out the fields and laneways of Annaghdown with simple stone walls, have left us a remarkable legacy. Though we are in awe of the world’s great monuments like Newgrange and Stonehenge, the pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, the largest and most significant monument on the face of the earth is the mosaic of farms and farmland that stretches right across the globe: agriculture has literally changed the surface of the planet and is testimony to what can be achieved by even the smallest of communities.

Every stone wall in Annaghdown has its own history. This is not about the walls however. It is about things that have been added to them that open windows onto other aspects of the history and heritage of Annaghdown. From hand-made bricks to curious polished pebbles, a wall-chamber with a wine glass, and the simplest of crosses, some pretty interesting things can be seen if you take the time to look.

We hope that you will enjoy the stories, correct us where we have gone wrong, and, most importantly, tell us about things you have noticed in the walls. We will be happy to add them!

Spolia: an early example of recycling

Stones from older buildings re-used in newer ones are called spolia, which is an old Latin word meaning “spoils”. Spolia is usually just rubble but, occasionally, pieces that can be recognised as windowsills, edging stones, bits of arches, door and window surrounds, pillars, columns and so on, can be spotted.

Sometimes these decorative pieces are carefully placed in quite prominent positions or in special places in the walls of buildings. For instance, a few years ago a piece of plaster fell away from around the door of the Medieval church at Kilnaboy, Co. Clare, only to expose a carving of a fiercesome beast. It was probably always hidden behind the plaster but nevertheless it was probably put there deliberately to guard the door.

There are good examples of spolia in the walls of the abbey church at Annaghdown, and it can be fun to try and spot them. Sometimes you need the right light, but mostly you just need to look closely. The majority occur where the nave meets the chancel, specifically in the projecting walls that sort of separate the nave from the chancel. These walls are all that remain of a chancel arch. You can tell that some of the pieces were originally from an elaborate door-surround or archway of an earlier, Romanesque church. The chancel arch of the abbey church was far plainer: the clergy had grown wary of decoration that might distract the congregation! There are virtually no spolia anywhere else in the abbey.

In case you are wondering, strictly speaking, the sculpted pieces stacked in a blocked-up door in the monastery are not spolia. They are, in fact, fragments of a highly ornate door surround or archway from a disappeared 12th century church that were gathered together when the ruins were being tidied up.

The carvings on them are in a style known as Romanesque. When the light is right you can make out beastly heads, as well as some not-so-beastly human faces, and diamond-shaped patterns. Like the Kilnaboy monster, these carvings at Annaghdown are from a time when people believed that fierce-looking creatures carved into the walls of churches would frighten away the devil! They were used around windows and doors, and on the archway dividing the nave (where the congregation sat) from the chancel (where the altar was), which was considered the holiest part of the church. One of the most famous Romanesque chancel arches in Ireland is in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Tuam. There is no doubt that Annaghdown had a Romanesque sculpture of the same calibre.

Cross stone at Pier

As the summer sun sinks down behind Moycullen, bathing Annaghdown in a warm evening glow, the raking sunlight reveals a small cross on one of the edging stones on the pier, near the changing area.

One possibility is that it is a ‘mason’s mark’, a sort of signature that stonemasons carved into the stones they had shaped ―based on these marks the boss would know how many stones a particular mason had worked on and pay them right amount at the end of the week. Stonemasons were employed to work on buildings like churches, monasteries and castles. Most of their efforts went into carving the architraves for windows and doors, as well as corner stones (known as ‘quoins’), in other words the fancy bits that finish out a building and make it look smart and distinguished.

Mason’s marks are known throughout Medieval Europe and into the Near East. Dr Christy Cunniffe, the Galway Field Monument Advisor, ran a Community Archaeology Project on mason’s marks in south-east Galway, posting photos on the internet[1] of some from the Franciscan Friary at Kilconnell, near Woodlawn. Though they were meant to be plastered over, nowadays, with the plaster mostly gone, mason’s marks add a little ornamentation, and a human touch, to what are otherwise quite bare buildings. And yes, sometimes it is possible to follow the work of a mason from building to building if his mark is sufficiently idiosyncratic! Some mason’s made quite fancy marks, such as the leaf-shaped ones at Kilconnell, but most of them are very simple, like the cross at Annaghdown.

The stone on the pier, however, is not an obvious architectural fragment, which suggests we should consider other explanations as well. One other possibility is that it is a Mass Rock from Penal times (the 16th and 17th centuries), when the celebration of mass was effectively outlawed, and throughout Ireland Catholics were forced to gather outdoors in secret locations, with nothing more than a rock marked with a cross as an altar. The secrecy surrounding Mass Rocks has meant that many of them are unrecorded, and with each passing generation knowledge of them is lost. Dr Hilary Bishop from the University of Liverpool has been studying Irish Mass Rocks for a number of years and, so far, has recorded about thirty from Galway[2], the closest ones to Annaghdown being at Ballybrit, and across the lake near Moycullen. Another one, now lost, was known to have existed at Clonfert, the burial place of our own St. Brendan.

One other possibility is that the cross was carved there as a blessing on boats leaving from the pier, that they might return home safely. Though the pier was built around 1875, memory of the tragedy of September 4th 1828, when twenty people from Annaghdown were drowned on their way into Galway, was still fresh in the minds of the locals. (Did you know, Annaghdown Pier is listed in the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage?[3])

Pyrotechnology at Annaghdown

If you were to travel back in time to a warm summer night to Annaghdown about a hundred years ago, turf smoke and the sounds of conversations, music, laughter, and doubtless whispers and stolen kisses, drifting through the air might draw you towards the common between Annaghdown and Coteenty. There, by the orange light of big turf fires, you would be able to make out groups of people having the craic while they tended turf fires around huge stacks (‘clamps’) of handmade bricks.

That era is long-since passed but at various places along the roads leading to the pier, you can see flashes of ochre, red, orange and yellow bricks among the grey of the stone walls. These are virtually all that remains of a local “cottage industry” of brickmaking that took place on the bog across the road from the cemetery and at other bogs dotted around the parish.

Bricks made in Annaghdown were transported by boat to Galway. The going rate across the country was around 10 shillings a ton (about €7 in today’s money). Irregularly-shaped and colourful, these hand-made bricks add character to many a pub and restaurant in Galway city. Back in the day, however, this notoriously tough work, was an important part of the economy of Annaghdown. The bricks may also have been used locally, especially in chimneys and fireplaces. The chimney of Shaughnessy’s old house, next door to Conneely’s in Annaghdown, is made of hand-made bricks.

The ones dotted along the walls trace the journey of the bricks from the bog to the pier. Bricks that fell off the horse-drawn carts were simply picked up and placed on the walls. Others fell into the water while they were being loaded onto the barges at the pier, and you can see them on the bottom if you look carefully.

Sun-dried, mud bricks were being made for thousands of years before the Romans introduced the pyrotechnology of kiln-fired bricks to Britain around 2,000 years ago. Brickmaking enterprises sprang up in Ireland only in the 16th and 17th centuries. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, more and more town houses were made from brick instead of wood―it was less flammable―so brickmaking became a profitable industry! Sometimes we can tell from placenames where brickmaking occurred (e.g. Brickfields, Co. Limerick, and Brick (Ir. Bríc), Co. Tipperary). 

Though we don’t know when bricks were first made in Annaghdown, the process here was much the same as everywhere else. One record of early brickmaking is in Gerard Boate’s Ireland’s Natural History published in 1652. An even fuller account can be found in Jim Delaney’s article on Brickmaking in Gillen, near Ferbane, Co. Offaly; though the Gillen operations were possibly on a larger scale than at Annaghdown.[4]

Lake clay was dug out of rectangular ‘bog pits’ or ‘mines’―many of which are still visible out on the bog―and was left exposed over the winter months so the rain would wash out impurities (such as salts). This was known as ‘souring’. The rest of the work was done between mid-April and mid-September. The clay was kneaded like dough, and formed into bricks in wooden moulds on a “cuddy table” (often just a re-purposed door). Women usually had the job of sprinkling turf dust on the cuddy table to stop the clay from sticking to it, and children worked at pushing the bricks out of the mould, sort of like making sand castles. The bricks were fired in clamps plastered with mud, like an oven. Firing took several days, depending on the amount of bricks in the clamp, and it was important to keep the fires going 24/7. Extra bricks were made to allow for breakages and these were known as “dog-bricks” on account of the fact that lots of bricks were ruined by dogs stepping on them!

Magical stones from Woodpark

A visit to the doctor in the 13th century was a tricky affair. Medicine amounted to little more than alchemy and superstition, and you might very well find yourself leaving with a prescription for draconites with instructions to bind them to your left arm to guard against ailments like poison, phlegm and teething! Lots of different types of stones were, and still are, thought to be curative. In the Middle Ages this branch of medicine was known as ‘Lapidary Medicine’.

As the name implies, draconites (also known as dragon-stones; the Ancient Greek word for snake was ‘drakon’, hence ‘dragon-stones’) were believed to come from the heads of snakes, and are regularly described as being black, smooth and shiny.

The idea of magical stones goes back a minimum of 3,000 years to when they appear on Cuneiform clay-tablets from the great library at Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire (Cuneiform is a very ancient form of writing.) Knowledge of draconites and other magical stones was passed from generation to generation and from country to country, eventually making its way to Ireland. The oldest record we have of the tradition in Ireland is in a book called In Tenga Bithnua (The Ever-new Tongue, meaning a tongue or story that never grows old) written in the 9th/10th century. It is believed, however, that Lapidary medicine was practiced in Ireland long before this. According to the Irish tradition, draconites were red.  Cú Chulainn was said to have draconites in his eyes, and queen Medb gave him a goblet with eight of them around the bottom of it.  

There is no evidence to suggest that the Catholic church was concerned by people’s faith in such charms―even the Dominican Saint Albert of Cologne (Albertus Magnus) boasted about having a dragon-stone!―which makes the finding of two highly-polished black pebbles tucked under the wall surrounding the ruins of the medieval Bishop’s residence in Woodpark, Annaghdown very intriguing indeed.

Were they put there to bring good luck or bad? The probability is that they were placed there to bring good luck, or more precisely to ward off evil. Would the Bishop have put the stones there himself? Unlikely. It is possible that someone put them there to invoke a little bit of ancient, pre-Christian magic to help the wall do its job of offering a measure of protection to the bishop and keep him and his household out of harm’s way. Sometimes there’s no harm in hedging your bets!

Crow’s Feet at the Pier

As school children, we all learned about the contour-lines on maps measuring the height of hills and mountains above sea level. The accuracy of these contours relies on a network of fixed points known as benchmarks. Benchmarks look like crow’s feet. The height above sea level of every benchmark is carefully measured and recorded by the Ordnance Survey of Ireland at their offices in the Phoenix Park, Dublin. Sometimes benchmarks get moved by accident, which is sad given that most of them are almost 200 years old.  There is one on the pier at Annaghdown.

To appreciate benchmarks, you have to think about ‘sea level’, which is sort of obvious because that is where the land starts! However, with the tides going in and out twice a day, and at different times around the coast (e.g. today, for example, the tide was fully in at Salthill at 5 o’clock this morning but in Dingle it was about an hour earlier), sea level is a bit of a moving target!

After ten years of carefully measuring the rise and fall of the tides at Malin Head in Co. Donegal, the average height of sea level was finally agreed by everyone in 1958. This measurement is called Ordnance Datum (OD for short).

Nowadays, map co-ordinates and heights are all calculated with GPS, using signals from satellites. There are about 2,220 satellites orbiting the earth at the moment, so it’s not hard to spot them travelling across the night sky!

However, before GPS, map-making was done manually, with surveyors trekking across fields and bogs, up mountains and down valleys, with tripods, theodolites and even measuring chains―which were very heavy to lug around―and using a type of maths called trigonometry, which is all about triangles. These early surveyors established a network of fixed points, the National Grid, right across Ireland. Now, all a surveyor has to do is find the nearest fixed point and start from there.

There are two types of ‘fixed points’. Trigonometrical Stations (Trig. Stations or Trig. Points for short) and Benchmarks. Trig. Stations are typically pillars of concrete with a brass disc set into the top. They are usually placed on the tops of hills and mountains so that the surveyors can see them from a long distance away and orientate their theodolites on them. There is one on Knockma.

Benchmarks, on the other hand were for measuring height above sea level. A benchmark looks a bit like a tripod with a horizontal line across the top, which is why they are nicknamed ‘crow’s feet’. They were chiselled into the walls of buildings or gate pillars; anything that was solid enough not to move! Ordnance Survey Ireland has a record of the exact height above sea level of the horizontal line on every single benchmark in the country, as well as a description of where it is, because sometimes they are not so easy to find. They are always on a vertical wall, near the ground. The one on the pier, however, is horizontal, so therefore it is not in its original position.

The job of mapping Ireland was started about one hundred and ninety years ago by the Ordnance Survey, and the National Grid was completed in 1843, which is more than a century before sea level was measured at Malin Head. Prior to that, the Irish sea level datum was measured at the lowest point of the Spring tide on the 8th of April 1837, at Poolbeg Lighthouse in Dublin. When the tide went out to its furthest limit that day, surveyors went out across the beach to the exact edge of the water and measured it. This means that, wherever it was originally, the benchmark at the pier in Annaghdown was originally measured relative to Poolbeg Lighthouse Datum, about 235km away!

Poolbeg datum is actually 2.7m lower than Malin Head datum. So, on the oldest Ordnance Survey maps of Galway (1837), the height of Knockma is recorded as around 185m above sea level, whereas nowadays it is marked down as around 183m.

On the same map, the field behind the monastery in Annaghdown is recorded at 46 feet (13.1m) above sea level. This measurement was probably made off a benchmark in the Annaghdown area. The problem is, we don’t know which one, and it’s not even sure if any still exist here. See if you can spot the one on the pier…but be careful not to fall in!

Pisróg in the Wall: an Antique Wine Glass

In 2001, Ray Cooke was in the midst of restoring Annaghdown Castle, including its surrounds. The lakeside wall, hundreds of years old, running from the castle to St. Brendan’s holy well had fallen down in places and needed to be built up again. 120 centimetres up from the ground and hidden in the centre of the wall, the landscaper Robert Lee discovered a compartment or box-like cavity, 20 x 20 x 30 centimetres in size. Out of the compartment Robert lifted an antique wine glass, lying on its side, with the open end facing out towards the lake.

Robert brought the glass to Ray, telling him that it was whole, but had a crack on the base. After a careful clean, the glass proved to be perfectly intact and made of white glass. The apparent crack was in fact the ‘pontil mark’ left on its base from the glass-blowing process. Ray consulted some glass experts who suggested that it might be Irish glass, or perhaps imported from England, from the first half of the seventeenth century, or even from the very end of the sixteenth century.  The glass is what is known as a ‘rummer’, and being handblown, it is a bit bocketty from every angle. It had clearly been sealed into the wall as an ‘offering’ during the wall-building, never intended to be seen again.

The castle was first built for the bishop of Annaghdown in the 1440s, but it was seized as part of Annaghdown monastery by the English Crown in the sixteenth century. Queen Elizabeth I granted it to the Earl of Clanricarde in 1570, who leased it to Nicholas Lynch fitz Stephen, the first Galway townsman to acquire lands in County Galway. Nicholas’ son, Henry, restored the castle in the early seventeenth century, and the Lynches lived there until the Civil War of 1641, after which they were deprived of all their lands in County Galway, and the castle fell to ruin. Because the experts dated the glass to the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, it was probably the Lynches who had it put in the wall.

Several of these offering places were discovered here and there in the walls surrounding the castle during the restoration, but they were all empty, having been re-opened in the past. These compartments, into which offerings, or pisróga, were sealed, seem to be traces of some kind of ritual to strengthen the power of the walls.

Antique wine glass
Antique wine glass




[4] J. G. Delaney “Brickmaking in Gillen”, Folk Life. Journal of Ethnological Studies, 28 (1989-90), 51-62.

Secret Stones of Annaghdown

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