Document Type

Theses, Ph.D


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Publication Details

Successfully submitted for the award of Doctor of Philosophy to the Technological University Dublin, October, 2009.


This thesis looks at the origins of the curvilinear plan-form in ecclesiastical sites in Ireland, through the detailed examination and comparative analysis of a selection of field study sites in Ireland, Wales and France. It asks the fundamental question: is the concept of the curvilinear plan-form in Ireland home-grown or an import? Curvilinear ecclesiastical settlements that appeared to be originating in the Early Medieval period in Ireland, conform to what looks like a universal pattern. The characteristics of this pattern commonly include an inner and outer curvilinear enclosure, with a church, burial ground and other ecclesiastical structures and features (for example the round tower and high crosses) located within the inner enclosure. Swan had proposed that these curvilinear Irish ecclesiastical sites had evolved in a unique manner and the pattern found at Irish ecclesiastical sites is commonly viewed as different to the rest of Europe. In 1989, Swan attended a conference at which there was a presentation of research undertaken on a group of villages in Languedoc (southwestern France). These villages bore a remarkable similarity to the Irish 'pattern'. To date there has been no investigation of these apparent similarities. There is a lack of knowledge with regard to the origins of these sites - how such similarity in plan evolved and when - and there has been no examination of the physical characteristics and plan of ecclesiastical settlements in France or elsewhere in relation to the Irish sites. The lack of comparative archaeological and documentary investigation in this area provided an opportunity to offer a real and significant contribution to the study of the evolution of Irish ecclesiastical sites, the origins of the curvilinear plan-form and its role in the formation of settlement. There are known trade and communication links between Ireland, Britain and the Continent (including southern France) in the prehistoric and Early Medieval periods. As Ireland's closest neighbours, it was considered most likely that if this curvilinear ecclesiastical settlement pattern was not unique but had spread either to or from the Continent, it should manifest in these areas. Could the pattern of ecclesiastical settlement in Ireland be a product of a non-Roman non-urban environment, in other words, a localised phenomenon? In order to identify any potential differences or shared characteristics a detailed study was undertaken of curvilinear settlements with ecclesiastical origins in Ireland, in the thoroughly Romanised southern France (to include those sites noted by Swan in Languedoc) and in south Wales, an area on the margins of the Roman Empire but which came under substantial Roman influence and later Irish monastic influences. Where urban centres grew up around the Irish ecclesiastical foundations, the lines of the original enclosures are often still visible in the property boundaries and street-plan of the modem town or village. Once laid down, property boundaries and streets are rermirkably resilient to change and as such they represent a significant category of evidence for the curvilinear plan-form. For this reason it was decided to examine field study sites where the ecclesiastical site was incorporated within a modem town or village. The investigation uses a multi-disciplinary approach, with each site examined using a combination of detailed historical investigation, available archaeological evidence, field survey and plan-analysis. The results of the investigation demonstrated that while the Irish ecclesiastical 'pattern', with all its components was a product of a native settlement layout, the concept behind its most recognisable element, the curvilinear ecclesiastical enclosure, was not. The curvilinear ecclesiastical enclosure was almost certainly a product of the cross-cultural transference of ideas, notably those of asylum, sanctuary and the symbolic importance of the circle. The use of the curvilinear enclosure in the context of ecclesiastical settlements also appears to have been a deliberate act, rather than a convenient re-use of existing settlement or burial forms. In conclusion, it can be stated that ecclesiastical sites had a profound influence on the formation of settlement in all three of the study areas. It is clear that the church played a significant role in the genesis of Early Medieval and Medieval settlement in all three study areas, perhaps even in the sense of a nascent 'town planning', with the curvilinear plan-form being part ofa pan-European movement. iv


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