Weekly Gem #220, A puzzling oratory, near "the little dairy place"

Published 1/12/20

Location: This Weekly Gem is located about three miles east of Ballyferriter, aka Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, aka An B[h]uailtín, in County Kerry, Ireland (see the Clue Me! Map).

The Gallarus Oratory is puzzling in many ways. 

Let’s start with the obvious. How is it still standing, after hundreds of years, without mortar to hold those rocks together?

The answer is of course also a (partially interlocking) puzzle, one which uses both the shapes and the weights of rocks for stability. The rock is ‘old red sandstone,’ a type of stone found across much of Ireland and the UK, which has been used as building stone for thousands of years because it is relatively easy to cut and shape, but then extremely durable. 

You will notice that there are stones of many sizes and shapes. The non-uniformity is actually a key to this type of construction, because each rock is well supported all around, and as the structure gradually settles, the rocks snuggle in even more tightly together.

Also puzzling is when it was built. There are solid arguments for everything from 400 AD to 1200 AD. This type of stone construction was used for so long, with essentially no changes over centuries, that there are no visible indicators of the oratory being built at a certain time. Lacking any records, all we can tell you for sure is that it has been standing here for between 800 and 1600 years.

There is also uncertainty about why it was built. It is often referred to as a ‘church,’ although there’s no evidence that it was built as a church, or ever used as a church. It may have also been a temporary residence for pilgrims. However, some residents remember an agricultural use ... specifically, it may simply have been living quarters for poultry or other farm animals, or even for the person tending those animals.

A very durable chicken coop?

Lastly, what is the name of that town off to the west? If you look on the map, you see a tiny village that is 'officially' called Ballyferriter, named after a family that settled here in the 1300’s, give or take. But the locals have long memories. Very, very, long memories. They're still in the habit of using the original village name, from before the Feiritéar family arrived from Normandy. Way back then, and still today, it was simply “the little dairy place” (An B[h]uailtín).

Long memories, indeed.


Here's the hidden gem entry from our Clue Me! map.


Look for the hull of a boat, that would sink like a rock!


Gallarus Oratory

Why It's Interesting

This building is hundreds of years old, built of rock, without mortar. It uses a very old technique (a ‘corbel arch’) whereby flat stones are stacked, gradually closer to each other, but remaining horizontal, with another horizontal cap stone. Clearly a very stable construction technique!

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