The Corpus of Early Medieval Architecture of Ireland (CEMAI)

About 180 pre-Romanesque churches survive in Ireland: c.40 of drystone construction and c.140 of mortared stone. These buildings are remarkable for their simplicity and uniformity: though they vary in size and window position they are all unicameral with a single doorway in the west wall. This was not due to ignorance of contemporary architecture elsewhere in Europe, but rather because of an imperative to remain true to models, of ultimately Roman origin, which had become associated with the founding saints. These churches are an outstanding example of the tenacity of tradition in pre-modern societies and a reminder that it is only in recent centuries that societies in Europe have decided that ‘progress’ is the ultimate measure of cultural achievement. They have been overshadowed in the scholarly and popular imagination, as well as in fact, by the round towers which often stand next to them, and were relatively neglected until recently. Careful survey and analysis of their form and position in relation to each other and to other monuments can illuminate a range of important issues. These include the nature of the ritual practices which took place within and between them; the varying functions and character of the ecclesiastical sites at which they occur, from minor proprietary establishments to centres of pastoral care to major civitates; and the particular European models which Irish clerics and patrons had in mind when they laid out their important establishments. These and other issues are explored in detail in the forthcoming book, Churches in Early Medieval Ireland. Architecture Ritual and Memory (Yale University Press). This also incorporates a descriptive list of all known examples, but not a full-scale survey. Following the template established by the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture of Britain and Ireland, much more detailed descriptions and an archive of high quality images will be curated at UCC and published online as the Corpus of Early Medieval Architecture of Ireland.

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