Banagher Church and Dungiven Priory – a reminder to all of us of the transient nature of human civilization

An effigy of Cooey-na Gall, (Cú mhaigh na Gall - Dog of the Plain of Strangers), at Dungiven Priory.
An effigy of Cooey-na Gall, (Cú mhaigh na Gall – Dog of the Plain of Strangers), at Dungiven Priory.

Dating back to Roman times, there is nothing like it 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 favorite places are the old church in Banagher near Feeny and the priory in Dungiven. Both were built around the 12th century and would have been the marvel of the era when they were built.

They are solid stone structures whereas almost all buildings before this time were made of wood. Banagher has a small mortuary house dedicated to the holy founder Murdoch O’Heaney. The sand under this miniature church is said to bring good luck, especially in court cases.

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The church was surrounded by four stone crosses which served as a place of sanctuary. The Annals of Ulster reports that this was gleefully ignored by the locals who slaughtered one of their leaders in the sanctuary in 1121. Politics has always been a difficult game.

Dungiven Priory is now approached via a new intelligent bridge crossing the still 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 temporary relative St. Nechtan, but no trace of this original church exists outside the circular enclosure in which the last priory is located. .

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 that appears almost as high as it is long.

I am sentimentally attached to this church as an effigy of Cooey-na Gall, (Cú mhaigh na Gall – Dog of the Plain of Strangers), a famous O’Cahan chieftain who died in 1385.

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

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

He put an abrupt end to the work of the brothers: papist religion, education, medicine and hospitality. Obtaining knights for questionable transactions is still common practice today.

Donal O’Cahan, the last leader of the O’Cahans, died in the Tower of London in 1626. Danny Boy’s aria was originally a harp tune composed as a song, Caoineadh, composed in honor of Donal O’Cahan, a particularly poignant Lament for Donal was the last of his kind.

Banagher and Dungiven Priory are two of Ireland’s oldest stone buildings.

I imagined that every village in England would have its Saxon church. This is not the case. There is only a handful. The Saxons used to build wood which has not survived. A few years ago, I made a pilgrimage to see the best-preserved “Saxon” church at Escomb in County 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 navies of Victorian England and the McAlpines Fusiiers that followed them contributed so much to Britain’s infrastructure. St. Columcille, St. Aidan and the other Irish monks over a thousand years ago had done their part in the building.

The recently discovered mosaic in Rutland depicts scenes from Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad.

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

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

In a short time, lifestyles and the economy have shrunk by 400 years. Saxon England was not much different from the Iron Age that existed before the Romans arrived.

My own connection to the Roman Empire is that I grew up in a town called Wallsend next to Newcastle. Wallsend, or as the Romans called it Segedunum, got its name from the fact that it stood 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, but it marked the extent of the entire Empire.

Perhaps the last Legionaries to leave the Wall were delighted to be leaving such a distant post.

They too have their modern counterparts as thousands of people leave Newcastle Airport for Mediterranean hot spots.

Roman Segedunum was buried in the 19th century under coal mines and the huge Swan Hunter shipyard. These vast industries are nothing more than memories.

“Sic transit gloria mundi”, “thus passes world fame” is a Latin adage which applies not only to the brothers at Dungiven or the owner of the mosaic in Rutland or a welder at Swan Hunters in the 1970s, but to all of us.

Has any of them seen their lifestyle completely swept away?

In her poem Ozymandias, Shelley sums up the transient nature of all great historic endeavors.

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

“And on the pedestal appear these words:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look at my works, mighty, and despair!

What about our time? A civilization based on complicated technologies, endemic consumerism and contempt for the poor, whether at home or in parts of the world exploited by historic and current colonialism.

The exact nature of the future is a foreign land for all of us, but one thing is for sure, if all previous historical experiences are something to follow, they will not last forever.

Empires collapse for a number of reasons, pressures outside, barbarians outside, corruption inside and natural pressures.

We are facing the persistent problem of COVID-19. Experts warn us that if it is not defeated around the world, it will persist indefinitely.

The latest threat is the southern African variant where hardly anyone has been vaccinated.

Twenty-seven refugees drowning in the chain will soon make the news last week, but the problems they represent will remain.

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

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

Africa is within sight of the beaches of the Costa Del Sol. Climate refugees in the arid Sahel region are already beginning to look to Europe for safe refuge.

We have the expertise and the money to address all of these issues. Vaccinate the world. Sort out poverty at home and around the world. Reduce harmful emissions to 1.5% or less. Otherwise, we can be like the owner of the Roman villa sliding on his new mosaic in his sandals and his toga passing over the newly installed underfloor heating for a hot bath and a cold dip.

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.


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