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The Dungiven Tomb


This architectural element is brilliant!!! It is totally unique in all of Ireland and extremely aesthetically beautiful. But what I want to get across to you is what exactly it’s intentions were apart from it’s obvious function as a burial place. “What insight can it lend us of a time of little literary evidence about the Patronage of the Priory?”

It is assigned a date of 1384 and is said to be the burial place of the great Cooey na Gall O’Cahan. I am not going to dispute this fact as it has been his tomb for as long as oral history can remember, and tradition is often more truthful than we think. It is situated in the Chancel of the Abbey. Only the richest and most important people lay in Chancels as a rule, so Cooey has seen fit to make it so that he was buried here. He lies on the south wall with his head pointing west. The tomb in total consists of three elements: a *stone effigy, laid on a *tomb chest decorated with *several miniature figures the whole being set below a *traceried canopy.

This tomb is made up of many English , Scottish and Continental elements ; some as far reaching as Italy. Together with outside influences we see in the tomb, a clear message of ‘patronage’ and perhaps sheds further light on their attitude to the ‘patronage’ of the Augustinians!( as not the same effort or amount, financially, was put up for them)


The chest is made up of several gallowglass figures . Their dress can be described as the same for all the knights. A large *helmet, *chain-armour around the throat and shoulders, a huge *quilted shirt which reaches to below the knees , around the middle they have a *sword-belt, and finally *bare feet and legs. The folding and turning of the drapery is also evident at the bottom of Cooey’s dress.!!

These figures resemble tomb carvings in Athassel, Co. Tipperary. It is also an Augustinian Priory and served as the retirement and burial place of the deBurgh family, who were the Earls of Ulster. *This was perhaps an important element in the factors which led the O’Cahans to adopt the Augustinians and even perhaps the architectural carvings of the knights. This is an important and loaded statement as the O’Cahan’s are trying to emanate the deBurgh’s, a well known powerful family who were comfortable in the Royal Court. Links like these cannot be ignored when looking at the politics of the O’Cahan Lordship. Also we cannot ignore the fact that this must have been an expensive architectural association to make, yet the O’Cahans had the financial backing to see it through.


The gallowglasses are not the only Scottish aspect to this tomb, our effigy of Cooey O’Cahan lying on the chest, has sculptural similarities with Iona, in Scotland. The figure in the Iona monastery that I compare it with, itself represent s a chief called Bricrius MacKinnon. From the detailed study of it’s features the Royal Commission of Iona has stated that the “effigy must be assigned to the second half of the 14th century” . The strength and panache - and sometimes the ruthlessness ,- of medieval West Highland society have never been more effectively conveyed than in this powerful carving. The animal imagery heightens the semi-barbaric quality of the warrior.

In short, this is not a weak native imitation of an English model, but a work of art in it’s own right, and visually very satisfying . Carved new I am sure this tomb would have been 100 times as impressive. So much so that its style in carving and content has reached miles across the sea to reach Dungiven. In view of the close linguistic and family ties that existed between the Gaelic Scotts and Irish at this period, and of the traditional role as an artistic intermediary between the 2 countries, it is curious that the product of the Iona School do not appear to have been exported on a larger scale to Ireland, where in general late medieval monumental sculpture developed along independent lines.

Dungiven is one of the few places in N. Ireland which shows some affinity with those of the West Highland, yet could just be explained by the presence of gallowglasses. The effigy, however is portrayed

1) in the same attitude and
2) in the same type of body armour as the contemporary chiefs in the West Highlands (below right), yet also the same as the Burke tomb effigy in Glinsk, Co.Galway (below right)

On the other hand the figure is carved in a local freestone, and no tomb-chest in the West Highlands has an elaborate canopy or a frontal of this kind.

Q ; Is it possible that the influence of architecture is being transported from Dungiven to Iona and not the other way about?

Other aspects of the tomb are just as important when examining this subject. The Curvilinear Traceries in the canopy are unique in Ireland and show skilled craftsmanship During my summer holidays I was travelling around Europe and I was keeping my eye out for this design of tracery. I spotted it in Milan, Venice and Prague. I suppose basically the point that I wish to make is that with this source of the tracery is of continental origin.

This is compared, again, to Iona, the windows in the choir of the Church has the same curvilinear “coma” like design as in the canopy at Dungiven. This part of the choir is said to have been rebuilt in the 15th century. - a possible generation after our tomb. The name of the Iona mason is “O’Brochlain”- a Derry name; so it is definitely worth considering that Dungiven could be the source of Iona’s window and not the other way about !!! In short the idea of the effigy was being imported into Dungiven from Iona and the idea of the “coma-like design” was being exported . This statement by the O’Cahans must go hand in hand with patronage, they could not make such loaded statements without having the affluence to support such a venture.

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