Illaunloughan was a small monastery on the Atlantic edge of Ireland that lasted from the late seventh to the ninth century. The well-dated material evidence provides a chronological base for activities and customs that were previously of uncertain age in Ireland; it also revealed the penetration of Christian practice from other parts of the world into a regional Irish monastery. Evidence found here supports eighth-century construction of drystone oratories and leachta, as well as a large gable shrine and its mound. The complex reliquary structure was built to honour the corporeal relics of the Illaunloughan saints, but the community also used the eastern quadrant of its mound as their graveyard, an indication that the Christian custom of burial near the saints was active in Ireland then. The community also placed white quartz stones and scallop shells in with the bones of the saints, apparently for symbolic spiritual purposes.
White quartz stones are found on many early medieval Irish sites, but the unusual presence of scallop shells may reflect knowledge of a large scallop shell over the entry to the Tomb of Christ in Jerusalem. Excellent preservation of midden remains allowed the first detailed quantitative analysis of diet and economy in the region and showed that both wild and domesticated resources, including meat, oats, seabirds and fish, were eaten. The nature of the diet raised questions about the extent of mainland support of the monastery and the possibility that a marginal environment existed in the area at this time. Illaunloughan also revealed other new information, such as the construction of sod oratories, the casting and designing of fine metalwork on small sites and the fosterage of exceptionally young children on monastic islands.
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Date of Publication: 01/02/2005