A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter V: Early Irish Dials."
From: The Book of Sun-dials. By Mrs. Alfred Gatty [aka Margaret Scott Gatty] (1809-1873). Enlarged and re-edited by H. K. F. Eden (1846-) and Eleanor Lloyd (fl.1900). London: George Bell & Sons, 1900. Fourth edition. pp. 82-87.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom


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"In the evening and the morning and at noonday will I pray." – Ps. lv.

THE early dials described in the previous chapters have been roughly called Anglo-Saxon, and considered in their relation to the different day-divisions which prevailed amongst the tribes of the conquering race. There are also certain sun-dials in Ireland which seem to belong to the same period, and to be relics of the old Celtic Church. They are cut on upright stones in old graveyards, and were first noticed by the late Mr. Du Noyer. His notes were included in a paper written by Mr. Albert Way for "The Archæological Journal." 1 The dials are, as a rule, semicircular, and follow the octaval division of the day. The first was found at Iniscaltra, or Holy Island, in Lough Derg. "It is on the top of a slab, measuring 5 feet in length by 16 inches in breadth; and intended to be placed erect in the ground. The semicircle is divided into four parts by five lines deeply cut; the perforation at the top is large, and intended possibly to receive a gnomon of wood, which, being shaped to a point, threw a slender shadow on or near the circumference of the semicircle beneath." Each of these lines has lateral branches to right and left, where it touches the semicircle, excepting that at the western end of the horizontal line, which has only one branch. Mr. Du Noyer assigns this dial to the time of St. Camin (who died in A.D. 658, after having founded the abbey of Iniscaltra), on account of the similarity of its style of workmanship to that of the ancient sculptured stones of Kerry, one

1 Vol. xxiv., p. 213.


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of which has also dial lines cut upon it. This is at Kilmalkedar, and is a thick slab of grit, standing about 3 feet 8 inches from the ground. The semicircle, or rather horseshoe (for the height is 15 inches, and the width at the top 21), rests on a shaft 5 inches thick, 11 inches wide at the top, and 10 inches at the base. This shaft is ornamented with a Greek fret, but the bottom ornament, as shown in a sketch in "The Journal of the Irish Society of Antiquaries" (1892), is not visible in our illustration.

The day-divisions are given by double lines, the ninth hour, or 3 p.m., being indicated by three lines. "All these branch off into small semicircles, touching the outer rim of the dial. The reverse of the dial is ornamented by the interlacing of four parts of circles, indicating a flower-like cross, but if we look at the spaces between the segments we get a cross of eight points of the form recognized by Irish antiquaries as characteristic of periods prior to the tenth century. The old church of Kilmalkedar is assigned to the early part of the twelfth century, and the graveyard is full of imitations of the old dial, which now serves as a headstone." The branch lines have a curious resemblance to the half moons which are sometimes found attached to the spokes of the sun-wheel symbols described by Professor Worsae, 1 but Mr. Du Noyer regarded them as marking certain times before and after the five chief canonical hours, which he believed to be indicated by the great dividing lines.

In a dial of the same character at Monasterboice, co. Louth, the

1 "Industrial Arts of Denmark."


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hole for the gnomon was found to be of a peculiar funnel shape. Mr. G. J. Hewson 1 writes that on putting in his finger he "found that the hole widened within to fully one and a half diameter of the narrowest part, and then narrowed again till it came to a blunt point at the bottom"; the hole in the stone at Kilmalkedar was precisely the same shape. It had been previously suggested that the Kilmalkedar stone was a "chalice cross," and the hole a betrothal or swearing hole, and this discovery seems to confirm the supposition. In former days, when a priest could not be had, it was a common practice amongst the Irish for the bride and bridegroom to put each a finger in the hole, and pledge themselves in the presence of witnesses. This engagement held good till a priest was procured to solemnize the marriage. The hole at Kilmalkedar is 1 3/4 inch in diameter. One might suggest that the gnomon hole was turned to this use after the disappearance of the gnomon.

Dr. Haigh gives an illustration of a dial with the horizontal line branched at the end, and the other lines dividing the day into three parts, found on a stone slab at Kilcummin, co. Mayo. St. Cummin or Camin, who founded, as already mentioned, the abbey of Iniscaltra, and was afterwards Bishop of Clonfert, was buried at Kilcummin, his cell, his church, and his burial cairn all being in the same inclosure with the dial, which is apparently of the same age. Shortly before his death Mr. Du Noyer saw another specimen at Saul, co. Down, in the churchyard. The church stands on the site of one founded by St. Patrick, on the ground given to him by his first convert, the chieftain Dichu, and

1 "Journal Soc. Ant. Ireland," 4th s. viii. 249; 5th s. ii. 438.


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it was to the monastery of Saul that the saint, after his many wanderings and labours, returned to die This dial is shaped like a shield, and the spaces between 9 a.m., noon. and 3 p.m. are subdivided, but the first morning to the latest evening hour seem to correspond with the hours of 7 a.m. and 5 p.m., and the 6 o'clock horizontal line is wanting.

On the south-east side of the old church of Clone, co. Wexford, there is a stone slab with a semicircular dial upon it. In 1895 it was described as lying on a small mound adjoining the churchyard. There are twelve hour lines, and the spaces between them were measured by Mr. Du Noyer, who found that they corresponded with the hours of 6, 7 1/2, 9, 10, 11, 12, 1 1/2, 2 1/2, 3 1/2, 4, 5, and 6. Above the gnomon hole there is another, which may have held a diagonal brace or support for the gnomon. If this was the case, and if the gnomon was inclined to the complement of the latitude, there must have been a great advance in knowledge before this dial was constructed. The remains of the church appear to date from the thirteenth century, and the dial would seem to belong to the same period.

The last dial described by Mr. Du Noyer is of later date, and is circular. It is cut on a slab of grit, which now serves as a headstone in the churchyard of Kells, co. Meath. It is divided into twenty-four equal parts, inclosed in a double circle. The four principal lines are elongated, and three of them end in crosses. They may have been intended to mark the points of the compass if the dial was originally placed horizontally. The letter R is carved on the stone, and resembles the capital letters of the sixteenth century. Part of the gnomon remains in the centre of the circle.

The practice of cutting sun-dials on tombstones continued in Ireland up to the eighteenth century. There are specimens in the churchyard of Clogher; and a fragment of a stone, which is now in the Dublin Museum, shows a horizontal dial of the old pattern, a double circle, with lines radiating from a central hole, and showing hours, which are numbered, from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. Beside it, roughly cut, are the words:

It came from the churchyard of Killbay near Kells.

Whether any of these tombstone dials are as ancient as Mr. Du Noyer supposed may, perhaps, be doubted, but they are certainly of singular interest. His view, that the canonical hours rather than the points of the "day tides" are marked by the radiating lines, gains confirmation from the drawing of a "horologium" in an eleventh century


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Saxon Psalter in the British Museum; each canonical hour is here marked by its initial letter; the hours for Tierce, Sext, and Nones are crossed, and the noonday line projects beyond the circle in an ornamental cross, not unlike those on the Kells stone. The lines are drawn for suggestion, not for use, and the hours of the day are numbered so as to bring the sixth to noon and the twelfth to eventide, after the ancient custom. The same use has been followed by D. G. Rossetti in his beautiful little sketch of an angel holding a vertical sun-dial, called "Dante's Amor." In this Saxon horologium there are seven circles; the hour lines stream down like rays from the higher circles of light, and on the third circle the fylfot is twice marked, possibly with reference to the two hours of prayer which are not included among the day hours. Durandus, 1 writing in the thirteenth century, states that the "Horologium, by means of which the hours are read, teacheth the diligence that should be in priest to observe at the proper time the canonical hours, as he saith, 'seven times a day do I praise Thee.'"

A Latin distich, which gives the reason for appointing these seven special hours for prayer, also accounts for each of them being marked on the dials with the sign of the Cross:

"At Matins bound, at Prime reviled, condemned to death at Tierce,
Nailed to the Cross at Sext, at Nones His blessed side they pierce.
They take Him down at Vespertide, in grave at Compline lay,
Who thenceforth bids His Church to keep His sevenfold hours alway."

A dial of much later date than any of the above is built into the east wall of the cathedral of Killala, co. Mayo. It is an "east declining dial," and shows the hour from 4 a.m. to noon. The gnomon is gone.

Two curious little detached dials belonging to an early period are described in the same archæological papers to which we have frequently referred. 2 The first was turned up by the plough in 1816 in the old fortress of Cleobury Mortimer in Shropshire. It was of shell limestone, flat on one side and convex on the other, about 3 1/2 inches by 3 1/4 inches in size, and about 1 5/8 inch thick. It was pierced through from edge to edge, as if intended to be strung on a cord, and with it were two beads or whorls with runes on them, evidently meant to be hung on the same string as the dial. The dial itself is circular, with hour lines radiating from a central hole, and below are some smaller

1 "Rationale Divinorum Officiorum," translated by Dr. Neale.

2 "Archæological Journal," v. 221; "Yorkshire Archæological Journal"; "Archæologia Cambrensis," 3rd s. xiv. 446.


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holes irregularly placed, but corresponding with some of the lines. Dr. Du Noyer believed the rays to mark the canonical hours, and the dial not to be of later date than the twelfth century, while Dr. Haigh thought that the lines indicated the decimal time-division of the Jutes, and agreed with Professor Stephens of Copenhagen in assigning a very early date, the fifth or sixth century, to the dial. Mr. Lewis Evans suggests that it may have been a nocturnal dial, to be used by means of the pole star and the pointers of the Bear (with which the small holes have been thought to correspond), at certain times of the year. Professor Stephens gave an interpretation of the runes, but the accuracy of this has been questioned. The dial is still in the possession of Dr. Whitcombe of Birmingham, but, unfortunately, it has not been possible to obtain a fresh examination of it.

A small pear-shaped stone, measuring nearly 3 inches by 2 inches, and 1 inch thick, was found in the moat of Stokesay Castle in Shropshire. It is of soft sandstone, with a central hole and six conical holes in the edge. It was exhibited at the Midland Institute in Birmingham in 1897. The surface is much worn, and it seems almost doubtful whether it is a dial at all, but Dr. Haigh found traces of cement round the central hole, as if a style had been fixed there, and there were faint remains of radiating lines which might have marked 9 a.m., 10 1/2 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom