Riasc Monastic Settlement - Dingle Peninsula's Early Christian Site
An Early Christian Site
The Dingle Peninsula attracts visitors from all over the world, who come to take in the beauty and history of the region. Pilgrimages to the area are not a recent phenomenon though; the peninsula is the home of numerous early Christian sites of great significance. Throughout the centuries, visitors have come to find a place closer to God in this sacred landscape, with pilgrimages continuing into the present day.
Approximately 2km east of Baile an Fheirtéaraigh (Ballyferriter), a town on the north west tip of the peninsula, Mainistir Riaisc (Reask Monastic Settlement*) can be found. A little off the popular Slea Head Drive, the site gives the visitor a chance to view the ruins of the corbelled stone structures along with a collection of decorated stones, carved by hands centuries ago.
Hauntingly beautiful, the site is set against a backdrop of heath covered mountains to the south, with the cool waters of the Atlantic to the north.
*Although Reask is the Anglicised spelling, Riaisc has been adapted to Riasc which I shall be mostly using in this article.
Collection of Inscribed Pillars
The remoteness of the location appears to have preserved the site from serious damage. Whilst only the footings of the buildings remain, one can get a good idea of the layout of an early Christian monastery.
The site is home to ten inscribed stones, including the world famous Reask Stone, a pillar measuring 1.64 metres tall. It is decorated with a stylised Greek cross and spirals, along with an inscription of DNO, which is believed to be an abbreviation for "D(omi)NE - o Lord" . This is the only stone that remains in its original position; the rest being moved to place them in more secure positions.
Other pillars around the site feature a stylised bird, crosses, and other inscriptions. One of the stones can be found in the Músaem Chorca Dhuibhne (Museum of West Kerry) in nearby Baile an Fheirtéaraigh (Ballyferriter).
Some of the inscriptions can be a little hard to make out, particularly on an overcast day. If you intend to photograph the stones, it is worth taking a torch and an assistant with you to hold it at an angle to capture the shadows within the carvings.
Dry Stone Structures
The structures and surrounding wall are made using a technique known as corbelling. Similar to the making of a dry-stone wall, a corbelled building is made without any cement or other material, between the rocks. Only the weight of the stone holds it up. It is possible that turf was used over the tops of the structures to insulate them.
Riasc contains the remains of two groups of double clocháns (more commonly known as beehive huts), whereby two huts are each inter-connected. A square shaped clochán is also found among the ruins. These dwellings are dated as being later in build than the rest of the monastic settlement, and may have been erected by pilgrims to the area.
Further examples of these huts can be found around the Dingle Peninsula, notably at Fán (Fahan), and also on Skellig Michael, off the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula.
Roman Origins of Christianity Discovered?
Riasc was excavated and studied in the 1970s by Tom Fanning.
The excavations revealed that the oratory was originally built from wood, before being constructed from stone. A kiln for drying corn, and shards of Roman amphorae (jugs), were also found, which resulted in the site being dated to the 5th or (more likely) the 6th Century AD. The Roman finds suggest that Christianity was imported to Ireland by the same people that imported their wine and oil. This is consistent with the theory that Christianity was spread through interactions with Roman Britain from just before the 4th Century AD onwards.
Besides the oratory and clocháns, a graveyard was found. Burials continued at Riasc as the site became a children's burial ground (ceallurach) after the oratory was abandoned. Many of the graves were built from box-like stacks of stone, with some lovingly decorated with quartz and other pebbles from the seashore.
Reasc is a National Monument  and is maintained by public funding. It is located near the Gallarus Oratory, a few kilometers from the town of Dingle.
To find it, follow the R559 east from Baile an Fheirtéaraigh (Ballyferriter). After passing a turning for Ballinrannig on your left, look out for a right turn. There is a signpost for the monastic site, but it is hard to spot. Follow this road, and the site is on your right, straight after a sharp bend towards the left.
A site of great significance, it is surprising that it receives so few visitors. The ruins are kept in good condition, with an information board in situ to explain the history.
Entrance to the site is free, but it is worth noting that the road leading to the settlement is not suitable for larger vehicles. There is free parking in a small lay-by outside the site, and entry is through a gateway that leads straight into the Monastic Settlement.
Reask (centre of map) is approximately 2km east of Ballyferriter, near Dingle, Co. Kerry, Ireland
 Archaeological Survey of the Dingle Peninsula, Judith Cuppage - ISBN 978-0906096062
 Guide to the National and Historic Monuments of Ireland, Peter Harbison - ISBN 978-0717119561
© 2014 Pollyanna Jones