The Gallarus Oratory in the Dingle Peninsula is an early medieval stone church in the shape of an upturned boat. Overlooking Smerwick Harbour, also known as Ard na Caithne, and about two miles from the village of Ballyferriter, the Oratory is the best example of an unusual architectural style that was once common in this region of County Kerry. The Gaelic name for the Oratory is Séipéilín Ghallarais (Shay-pay-leen Gah-lah-rass), meaning "The Church of the Place of the Outsiders" -- outsiders being people who were not from the Dingle region.
The oratory had long been dated to the 6th century to the 9th century. More recently, archaeologists have argued that the 12th century is a more likely date, due to the design of east window. The oratory would have been a place of Christian worship for local farmers.
Nice little 1-minute home-made video of tourists at Gallarus Ossary
Architecture and Features
Along with its unusual shape, what's impressive about the Gallarus Oratory is that it appears to have built without any form of cement -- just stones packed tightly together. Traces of mortar have been uncovered, however, suggesting that the interior may have been plastered. The entrance doorway is 5 feet 5 inches high, which suggests that Irish people were shorter in early medieval times than they are today! The oratory remains firmly intact today, despite the hundreds of years of strong winds from the Altantic, and its unusual V-shaped structure remains.
Carved Celtic Cross
Another interesting feature of the Gallarus Oratory is the small stone slab, about a metre tall, that stands facing the structure. Carved into this slab is a Celtic cross -- a cross enclosed by a circle. This is one of the earliest, and most rudimentary, Celtic or Gaelic crosses found in Ireland. A similar example, carved into a slab, can be found at Killaghtee in County Donegal, which is more advanced in design. Later Celtic crosses tended to be tall structures, called "high crosses", and were finely sculpted rather than carved on a slab.
Meaning of the Celtic Cross Symbol
The Gallarus cross points the the origin of the Celtic cross symbol. In the pre-Christian era, Ireland's inhabitants worshipped many gods, including a sun god. The Celtic cross may be appropriating the symbol of the sun god, overlaying it with the Christian cross. Irish Christianity appropriated many popular symbols and traditions, enabling it to spread so successfully.
Also on the cross, in old Latin form of writing used between the 5th and 10th centuries known as Unical Script, a name is inscribed. Some of the inscription has become very weather-worn, making it difficult to decipher, but scholars' best guess is that it reads "Colum Mac Dinet".
Tip - The Visitor Centre is Not Mandatory
As you travel along the road leading to the Oratory (the R559), you will see a sign for the Gallarus Oratory Visitor Center pointing left up a driveway. Here, where you will pay a small fee both for parking and to watch a 15-minute video about the Oratory. There is also a gift shop. From here, you will cross a private field to view the Oratory. Many visitors enjoy the video and want to buy gifts. You are NOT obliged to stop at this private car park / visitor centre -- the Gallarus Oratory is 100% FREE to visit.
How to Visit Gallarus Oratory For Free
If you prefer not to pay a fee, simply continue past the sign for the Visitors Centre
- Look for the next sign, which says 'Gallarus Oratory Public right of way' -- this laneway leads directly to the Gallarus oratory
- There is a small free car park beside the oratory
- Cyclists consult a map at Gallarus Oratory. Image by Randy Durrum.
- Carved Celtic cross at Gallarus. Image by Jody Halsted.
- Gallarus Oratory signpost -- this leads to the free car park! Image by Caitlin.