Bernadette McCarthy


Bernadette McCarthy (PhD Candidate)

Monasticism and its limits: Rematerialising monastic space in Early Medieval Ireland

Supervisor: Dr. Tomás Ó Carragáin
Early Medieval and Viking Research Group


This research reassesses the role of monasticism in early medieval Irish culture from an archaeological perspective. It adopts an innovative approach in examining early ecclesiastical sites in their landscape setting, identifying the distinct forms communal religious settlement took in the early medieval Irish landscape and the extent to which monasticism figured in this life. Ireland has traditionally been portrayed as the ‘Island of Saints and Scholars’, where a golden age of monasticism produced metalwork such as the Ardagh Chalice, manuscripts such as the Book of Kells and monuments such as round towers and high crosses. However, our understanding of the organisation of the early Irish Church has undergone major revision in recent decades. Contrary to past representations, monasticism should be understood as just one strand of a multi-faceted early Irish Church. The identification of monasticism on the ground is no longer a straightforward process. A challenge now facing archaeologists is that of distinguishing between different types of early ecclesiastical settlement.  This research addresses the challenge, exploring the ways in which we can set material limits on the monastic phenomenon and distinguish it from other contemporary ways of living.

While there are limits to the extent monasticism can be identified from other Christian lifestyles, a theoretically-informed methodology that allows comparisons between sites on the basis on subtle differences enables identification of exclusively monastic sites. The evidence for early Irish monasticism does not always conform to modern expectations of its character and monastic space must be examined as a culturally unique setting in its own right. Scholarship from related disciplines including history, geography, and anthropology aids in the construction of an archaeological model for the monastic lifestyle. For the first time Irish monasticism is set within its European context, indicating that while regional differences are evident throughout the island, Irish monasticism was not as unusual or ‘Celtic’ as previously conceived. Space is understood as ‘meaningfully constituted’ in this research and the lived experience of the monastic is considered through examination of location, layout and the material culture of a sample of ecclesiastical sites located throughout Ireland.  Small case-study areas in mid-Western Ireland form the core of the thesis, and are examined in detail using GIS-based landscape analysis so as to illustrate how monasticism functioned on the ground in a specific area of early medieval Ireland. This research demonstrates that the complexities of monastic life are capable of archaeological definition in terms of both communal and personal lived experience.

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