The condition of one of the most interesting early Christian carvings located near Bantry was identified as a source of considerable disquiet and concern during a visit by members of the Group for the Study of Irish Historic Settlement and Bantry Historical Society. Jim Hourihane, who commented on the deterioration of the pillar in recent years, co-authored an article in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society in 1979 and compared the present condition of the iconography with photographs published by him in that article. He urged that some ameliorative treatment be considered and if some such work wasn’t carried there was a very real prospect of the pillar stone’s detail disappearing almost completely.
The pillar stone presents a fascinating insight into early Christian Ireland. The etymology of the place name – Kilnaruane – presents its own unique challenge. Some writers incorrectly associated it with St Ruadhán of Lorrdha, Co Tipperary. Linguistically this would be incorrect since the ‘na’ part of the place name is the genitive plural, not the singular structure which St Ruadhán would require. The most likely explanation is that the name means Church of the Romans – the people who adopted the Roman calendar after a dispute arose during the late sixth and seventh centuries over the placement of Easter in the calendar. This would support Francoise Henry’s suggestion of an 8th century date for the pillar based on its iconography.
The pillar is 2.13 metres in height, 28 centimetres in width and averages 14 centimetres in thickness, tapering gradually from base to top. The north-western face is decorated for approximately three-fifths of its height. There are four distinct panels on this side. The uppermost panel consists of an interlace with four terminals. Classically, this may be interpreted as the conflict between good and evil. The second panel consists of an orans or praying figure, with hands uplifted in prayer on either side of the body. The third panel is composed of an incised cross while the lower panel represents perhaps one of the most significant iconographic representations anywhere in Ireland. This represents St Paul and St Anthony in the desert, located on either side of a table, on which the bird which has brought the bread for the saints to share is also visible. The saints have their hands on the bread and thereby encompass the entire story in one panel, making it quite unique.
The south-eastern face is decorated for a little more than half of its length. The uppermost panel is very badly worn and the surviving elements suggest an interlaced spiral, again suggesting the conflict between good and evil. Below this is a panel which appears to consist of two pairs of four legged animals and it open to being interpreted as the passage in the Book of Revelations (4: 6-8), probably symbolic of the four evangelists. The third panel on this side is generally referred to as the Bantry Boat, with a coxswain and four oarsmen guiding the boat upwards through a sea of crosses. There is little doubt that it is based on a pre-Viking skin-covered boat, in all probability a currach.
The Bantry Pillar Stone is a unique part of West Cork’s heritage and its deterioration, undoubtedly caused by air pollutants, is very worrying and potentially irreversible. Now may be a timely point in its history to address its current state and future condition.
The Pillar Stone is on a drumlin in the townland of Kilnaruane to the SW of Bantry town. Access is off the Rope Walk road and the Pillar Stone itself is through a field and about 200 meters to the South of the Rope Walk road. It is marked on the Ordnance Survey maps as “Monumental Pillar”