The day I arrived in Ireland to teach at the recent writers’ tour and retreat, my host (the fabulous Fiona Claire of Ireland Writer Tours) and I stopped off at Killursa Cemetery, which lies between Galway and Headford near the Western coast of Ireland.
The cemetery lay on our way to Headford, where the retreat took place, and the afternoon light was perfect for seeing–and learning about–this lovely place.
Like many Irish historical sites, Killursa cemetery lies at the side of an “ordinary” road, surrounded by ancient stone walls but open for visitors to enter at will. Beyond the entrance, farmland stretches in all directions, complete with grazing sheep and cattle.
The cemetery remains in use today, though it dates to the seventh century–the time of Saint Fursa, whose name it bears. (Killursa is an Anglicized version of “Cill Fursa”–Fursa’s Church.)
A statue of Fursa sits just inside the entrance, watching over the cemetery, church and surrounding countryside:
Fursa (c. 584-650 A.D.) was famous for his visions, which apparently helped to inspire Dante’s Divine Comedy. His brothers, Enda and Cunna, were also priests and scholars–and also canonized after their deaths. (I visited St. Enda’s church on Inis Mor later in my trip, and will post about it in the next few weeks).
The ruined church on the cemetery grounds was probably built after the 13th century Norman invasion of Ireland, but sits atop an older ruin that historians believe was built either during or shortly after Fursa’s lifetime.
The church exhibits some curious features common to churches of its era. First, the presence of gravestones inside the church, marking the graves of important priests and parishioners who worshipped there:
Also, the church’s walls were built in a fortified style common to medieval structures. It’s easy to see the thickness of the walls in the window wells:
Finally, early Christians often built churches and other religious sites atop the sacred places worshipped by followers of indigenous religions. In Ireland, that often meant building atop the druids’ sacred sites.
Local histories claim this entrance to Killursa’s sanctuary is built directly atop a sacred well. Since druids do not tread on sacred sites, the placement was particularly disrespectful, because Christian worshippers stepped on or over the site of the well each time they entered or left the church.
Despite this less than diplomatic choice, the church–both Killursa and the larger Christian Church both grew and flourished in Ireland, and the ruins that remain are lovely, peaceful, and important parts of Irish history.
This one, in particular, started my trip to Ireland off with a bang–and I’m pleased to say the rest of the journey didn’t disappoint. In the weeks to come, my Monday posts will continue to share my Irish adventures–at least until we finish with Ireland and turn our eyes to the next exciting journey!
Have you ever visited Ireland? Where did your travels take you? If not–what’s your favorite traveling destination?