“Voyagers in the Vault of Heaven: The Phenomenon of Ships in the Sky in Medieval Ireland and Beyond” – a paper by Michael McCaughran links the Kilnaruane Pillar, Françoise Henry and Seamus Heaney

Via Medievalists.Net, I came across this paper from 1998
this paper (on page 175 of the PDF):

Abstract :

This paper explores the phenomenon of ships voyaging in the sky. Such fantastical sightings are considered primarily in an early medieval Irish context, but evidence from places as widely separated in time and place as thirteenth-century England and eighteenth-century Canada is also addressed. The earliest material representation of an Irish currach (skin boat) being rowed heavenwards is on an eighth-century carved stone pillar.

By connecting this iconographic evidence to the appearance of ships in the sky above a Celtic monastery, a framework is established from which to investigate the “airship” mirabilia. Understanding the cultural gulf that exists between medieval and modern thinking is central to the concept of “ships in the air.” The paper addresses the significance of the ship as an enduring cultural metaphor and religious symbol and affirms these meanings.


The paper begins:

The glories of early Christian Irish art are manifest
in preserved illuminated manuscripts,
intricate metalwork and the monumental carved
stone crosses, pillars and slabs that still survive
today in the countryside, churchyards and
monastic ruins of Ireland. While the richly
carved high crosses of the ninth and tenth
centuries, with their emphasis on figuration, are
the fullest expression of representational art,
earlier carved and incised stoneworks are no
less significant in terms of their iconography,
decoration and symbolism.’

The eighth-century Kilnaruane pillar stone
(Fig . 1), overlooking Bantry Bay in County Cork,
is of particular interest to maritime archeologists,
historians and ethnologists, because its
Christian-theme carvings include a unique preViking
depiction of the Irish skin-covered boat
known as a “currach.” Prior to the arrival of the
Vikings in the ninth and ninth centuries with
their advanced wooden boatbuilding technology,
the skin-covered currach was the common
seagoing craft of Ireland. It was of key importance
to the sea-connected Celtic Church and
figured prominently in the “immrama” or mystical
voyage tales of early Christian Ireland,
together with the story of St Brendan’s voyage
to the Promised Land, which achieved great
popularity in medieval Europe . Today the
currach, in its canvas-covered derivative form,
is still in use on the Atlantic seaboard of western
Ireland, where material remnants of the
European past often have found their last resting place.

The Kilnaruane pillar stone is new to me (I have only been to Bantry once, I am sorry to say) Here is an MA Thesis by Vanja Stojanovic from 2015 (from the University of Guelph in Canada) on the stone:

This thesis considers the iconography and site of the last-surviving (fragmentary)
standing cross in south-west Ireland: the Kilnaruane High Cross. Overlooking Bantry Bay atop a
hill in west Cork, this monument is situated within a rectilinear earth enclosure among a number
of stone fragments, including four corner posts of a tomb-shrine, two bullaun stones, and a
perforated pivot-stone. In addition, the following study reassesses the iconography on the northeast
and south-west faces of the high cross as well as the high cross itself in light of other
monumental high crosses, with a particular emphasis on its stylistic qualities, construction, and
dating. The results suggest that both the iconography and location of the Kilnaruane high cross
and site allude to a potential pilgrimage round located in the Bantry Bay area – situated, as it
were, on the periphery of peninsular Kerry and the thriving culture of seafaring voyage in the

Stojanovic provides a detailed review of the literature on this cross, relatively neglected. It features in the work of Francoise Henry:

Some fifteen years later, Françoise Henry would mention the high cross in her 1932
doctoral thesis La Sculpture Irlandise Pendant les Douze Premiers Siècles de l’ètre Chrétienne
which was subsequently published in 1933.16 In her 1940 book Irish Art in the Early Christian
Period, Henry would again include the high cross in a short paragraph.17 While Crawford
describes snakes and sea-horses in the upper-most part of the south-west face, Henry suggests “snake-like beasts arranged swastika-fashion,” and curiously enough, would completely omit the
Greek cross where Crawford had accurately recognized it.”
18 Alternatively, the orans figure does
not go unnoticed, but is described as a familiar image of early Christian iconography found
abroad and in various mediums, including the Roman catacombs and some sarcophagi, but
Henry does not offer any specific examples in this regard.19 In addition to the descriptions,
Henry also provides some brief iconographic interpretations. For example, the cruciform above
the rudder “can leave little doubt that we have a representation of the boat of the church,” and
Crawford’s ‘two figures holding an object between them,’ Henry corrects as a “crude
representation of St Paul and St Anthony kneeling on both sides of the wafer-shaped bread
brought to them by the bird.”20 It is clear that Henry was familiar with the iconography of Saint
Jerome’s (c.347-420) fourth-century Vita Pauli from which the story of the two saints originates.

Henry was also the first to recognize the weathered image of the boat and five oarsmen
on the north-east face where Lewis, Windele, and Crawford had not. The uniqueness of the
image is clear in Henry’s commentary: “The unexpected thing about it is that it shoots straight
upwards amidst a sea of crosses…very literally portrayed as sailing to Heaven.”21 Additionally,
other significant contributions by Henry include: the observation of two ‘incisions’ on top of the
shaft and the suggestion of an eighth-century date of origin based on stylistic and iconographic
affinities to comparable examples, particularly to the realism of the Ahenny Cross, Co. Tipperary

Ahenny was Henry’s introduction to High Crosses, when a friend from the area brought her to the crosses there.

Back to McCaughran:

In charting the Irish phenomenon of “ships
in the air,” the first task is to assemble core
accounts and descriptions from documentary
sources. References in the Annals of Ulster
(quoted above) and the Annals of Ireland, otherwise
known as the Annals of the Four
Masters, are characteristically brief. The latter
records that in “The Age of Christ 743 ships
with their crews were plainly seen in the sky
this year.”” Allowing for historical disparity
this entry may well be referring to the same
event that the Annals of Ulster record as having
occurred over Clonmacnoise in 749. Early
Christian and medieval Ireland was particularly
rich in miraculous happenings and the
appearance of airships was only one example
of a large number of wonderful events recorded
in the annals and other primary sources. Many
of these “wonders” of Ireland, or “mirabilia,”
were sky-related and included a steeple of fire
in the air, a cross raised up in the air, together
with showers of silver, honey and blood.
12 In
the ninteenth century and early years of the present
century, Kuno Meyer and other Celtic
scholars researched the primary sources of the
Irish “mirabilia” and published annotated translations
of these accounts of wonders, including
the sighting of ships in the air.
13 It is clear from
this material that airships made appearances at
two key locations, namely the monastery of
Clonmacnoise and the important gathering fair
of Tailltenn, now Teltown, in County Meath.

McCaughran , as Vanja Stojanovic, ultimately focuses on literary rather than archaeological sources, and links the mirabila to a mindset we find difficult to enter into. McCaughran cites Seamus Heaney’s work as something of an exception, suggesting perhaps that this “medieval” mindset is not so far away as all that:

Despite their variations, these chronicles
have common characteristics and share a number
of features that are readily identifiable :
” Extraordinary happenings are regarded
as actual historical events and are transmitted
during the Middle Ages as fact, not fiction,
despite their supernatural dimension.
” The events are witnessed by numerous
people, both secular (Teltown) and religious
(Clonmacnoise) .
” Seen from the ground, vessels are floating
in the air above.
Seen from the vessels, the air between
them and the ground below is perceived as
water in which fish swim and which enables
the vessels to float above a submarine world.
” This air/water is life-giving oxygen to
the people on the ground, but is lifethreatening
water to the swimming aircrew who
almost drown.
” Air/water is the common element, which
envelopes both ground people and sky people,
as the heights above and the depths below.
Essentially the central theme of the “airship”
mirabilia is that, not only is an inversion
of the natural order of things possible, but that
the natural order of things can be perceived
from complementary perspectives and that
simultaneously the marvellous is both in the
world and out of the world.

A modern Irish reworking of this medieval
wonder theme can be located in the luminous
poetry of Seamus Heaney, who draws on the
experience of living in Ireland, past and present,
and imagines it into the universal. More than
twenty years before he was awarded the Nobel
Literature Prize in 1995, Heaney wrote: “I have
always listened for poems, they come sometimes
like bodies out of a bog, almost complete,
seeming to have been laid down a long time ago,
surfacing with a touch of mystery . . .my quest
for definition, while it may lead backward, is
conducted in the living speech of the landscape
I was born into. “19

The dualism of much
of Heaney’s poetry, the imaginative tensions
between what is and what might be, is manifest
in a wonderfully fluid poem that navigates
the marvellous encounter between the monks
of Clonmacnoise and the airship that appeared
above them while at their prayers .20
After telling how the ship’s anchor hooked
itself by accident into the altar rails of the oratory
and “the big hull rocked to a standstill,” a
crewman came down from the ship to free the
anchor, but it was no good. The abbot said “this
man can’t bear our life here and will drown,”
so the monks helped to release him and the
ship . As the fantastic ship resumes its aerial voyage,
our world view is transfigured by the poet,
for “the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed
back/Out of the marvellous as he had known it .”

The twentieth-century mindset, cultured in
post-Enlightenment quasi-rationalist and scientific
thinking, often has difficulty in comprehending
the cultural frames of older, simpler societies,
where the distinctions between reality and the
marvellous are blurred and where transitions
between them are normal and natural. In a
recent investigative journey through the European
Middle Ages, Christopher Frayling has delineated
the great gulf between modern and
medieval thinking. “Today,” he writes, “there is
an assumption that beneath the surface things
are fundamentally incoherent (part of a chaosmos),
whereas then there was an assumption that
beneath the surface things were fundamentally
coherent (part of a cosmos) – a reflection of the
will of God.

1121 In this earlier world, a symbolic
framework of order and structure was predicated
on belief and faith in the transcendent
God. The medieval view of the universe was
essentially Platonic and Biblical in origin . In it the
heavens, the earth and all creation were ranged
in an unalterable, hierarchical and interlocking
system of order, from the angels down to man
– for whom the world existed – and thence
to the flora and fauna and all living things

The Heaney poem quoted is from his sequence Squarings, specifically the eighth poem of the section “Lightenings”:

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

3 Thoughts

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