Banagher church and the priory at Dungiven - a reminder to us all of the transitory nature of human civilisation

A fantastic mosaic was recently unearthed in a field in Rutland in the midlands of England.

By Mick Conway
Thursday, 23rd December 2021, 10:03 am
An effigy of Cooey-na Gall,(Cú mhaigh na Gall - Hound of the plain of the foreigners), at Dungiven Priory.
An effigy of Cooey-na Gall,(Cú mhaigh na Gall - Hound of the plain of the foreigners), at Dungiven Priory.

Dating from Roman times there is nothing to match this in Ireland. The Romans never settled in Ireland.

Local places of interest are on a more modest scale but are well worth a visit. Two of my favourite places are Banagher Old Church near Feeny and Dungiven priory. Both were built around the 12th century and would have been the wonder of the age at the time of their construction.

They are solid stone structures when almost all buildings before that time were made of wood. Banagher has a small mortuary house dedicated to the founding saint Murdoch O’Heaney. Sand from beneath this miniature church is said to bring luck especially in court cases.

The church was surrounded by four stone crosses which acted as a place of sanctuary. The Annals of Ulster record that this was cheerfully ignored by the locals who slaughtered one of their chiefs within the sanctuary in 1121. Politics has always been a rough game.

Dungiven Priory is now approached by a smart new bridge crossing the yet unfinished Dungiven bypass.

The priory is not the first church on the site. Tradition has it that the original monastery was founded by St. Patrick or his close temporary St. Nechtan but no trace of this original church exists apart from the circular enclosure in which the later priory stands.

The existing church was built by the Augustinian order who replaced the monks of the Celtic tradition. The oldest part of the priory is the chancel which is a narrow building which appears to be almost as tall as it is long.

I am sentimentally attached to this church as an effigy of Cooey-na Gall,(Cú mhaigh na Gall - Hound of the plain of the foreigners), a renowned O’Cahan chief who died in 1385.

Like many Irish chiefs he imported mercenaries from Scotland to fight for him. These foreigners were known as gallowglasses. My own tenuous connection with him is that the’ Cú mhaigh’ name was changed to Conway, as Cú and Con translate from the Irish as hound.

The O’Cahans were dispossessed during the Plantation. The chief tenant of the Skinners Company Sir Edward Donnington built a fortified house abutting the priory.

He brought to an abrupt end the work of the friars: papist religion, education, medicine and hospitality. Getting knighthoods for dodgy dealing is still a common practice today.

Donal O’Cahan, the last chief of the O’Cahans, died in the Tower of London in 1626. The air of Danny Boy was originally a harp tune composed as a keening, Caoineadh, composed to honour Donal O’Cahan, an especially poignant lament as Donal was the last of his kind.

Banagher and Dungiven Priory are two of the oldest stone buildings in Ireland.

I imagined that every village in England would have its Saxon church. This is not the case. There are only a handful. The Saxons built in wood which has not survived. A few years ago I made a pilgrimage to see the best preserved ‘Saxon’ church at Escomb in Co. Durham. I was amazed to see the same similarities with the Priory. The same circular enclosure and the same basic design of the church.

The building itself may be Saxon but its foundation was obviously Celtic. The Irish navvies of victorian England and McAlpines Fusiiers who followed them contributed so much to Britain’s infrastructure. St. Columcille, St. Aidan and the other Irish monks over a thousand years before had done their share of construction.

The mosaic recently found in Rutland depicts scenes from Homer’s epic poem the Iliad.

Three cartoon-like panels show the fight between Achilles and Hector, Achilles dragging the body of Hector behind his chariot and King Priam paying a ransom for his son’s corpse: scenes imagined from a time in the bronze age a thousand years before the mosaic was constructed.

The owner of the magnificent villa housing the the mosaic must have been delighted with his new home. He could not have imagined that within 100 years in 406 the emperor Honorius would refuse help to Britain against the invaders from all sides - the Saxons, Picts and Irish.

Within a short period lifestyles and economy regressed 400 years. Saxon England was not much different from the Iron age that had existed before the Romans arrived.

My own connection with the Roman empire is that I was brought up in a town called Wallsend next to Newcastle. Wallsend, or as the Romans called it Segedunum, gets its name because it was at the end of Hadrian’s wall which stretched from near Carlisle in the west to the Tyne in the East. Not only was Wallsend the terminus of the wall it marked the far reach of the whole Empire.

Perhaps the last legionnaries to leave the wall were pleased to be leaving such a remote posting.

They too have their modern equivalent as thousands leave Newcastle airport for the Mediterrean hotspots.

Roman Segedunum was buried in the 19th century under the coal mines and huge Swan Hunter shipyard. These vast industries are only memories now.

‘Sic transit gloria mundi’, ‘thus passes worldly renown’ is a Latin adage that applies not just to the friars at Dungiven or the owner of the mosaic in Rutland or a welder in Swan Hunters in the nineteen seventies but to all of us.

Did any of them see their way of life being completely swept away?

In his poem Ozymandias, Shelley sums up the transitory nature of all great historical undertakings.

The poet looks at a huge statue of Ozymandias or Ramesses II, the greatest of the pharoahs, half buried in the Egyptian sand:

‘And on the pedestal these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias,King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty,and despair!’

What of our own times? A civilisation based on complicated technologies, rampant consumerism and a disregard for the poor be it at home or in those parts of the world exploited by colonialism historic and current.

The exact nature of the future is a foreign country to us all but one thing is certain, if all previous historic experience is anything to go by, it will not last for ever.

Empires crumble for a number of reasons, external pressure, barbarians without, corruption within and natural pressures.

We are faced with the ongoing problem of COVID-19. The experts warn us that if it is not defeated worldwide it will persist indefinitely.

The latest threat is the Southern African variant where almost no one has been vaccinated.

Twenty seven refugees drowning in he channel will soon be last week’s news but the problems they represent will remain.

Refugees from wars, in which Britain and the other Western powers fully participated, might be held back temporarily.

Global warming will affect the developing countries of the world far more than ourselves.

Africa is within sight of the beaches of the Costa Del Sol. Climate refugees from the parched Sahel region are already beginning to look to Europe for a safe haven.

We have the expertise and the money to address all these problems. Vaccinate the world. Sort out poverty at home and globally. Cut harmful emissions to 1.5% or less. Otherwise we may be like the owner of the Roman villa gliding across his new mosaic in his sandals and toga passing over the newly installed underfloor heating to a hot bath and a cold plunge.

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.