‘Oratory’ is another word for a small church.The church at Gallarus is a mainly dry-stone building, the only one of its kind surviving almost completely intact on the mainland of Ireland (a gable finial is no longer in place) – there are two on the World Heritage Site of the island of Skellig Michael. It is built using the corbelling technique, where one stone is placed on top of another, always with a slight internal overlap, so eventually just one stone (or in this case a line of them) finally completes the roof.
It is situated within a monastic enclosure, the line of which can best be seen to the back (east) of the building. The wall in front of the church divides the enclosure into a sacred area (in which are the church and burial ground, marked by a cross-inscribed stone and ‘leacht’ feature, probably marking a special burial) and a secular area, where, if excavation was to take place, one would expect to find the round houses (clocháin) and workshops of the monks. A similar monastic site is to be found at An Riasc, nearby, which was excavated during the 1970s, and one would expect similar findings here at Gallarus.
The church building is aligned east-west, with the door to the west. Inside above the round-headed window are three projecting stones, which may have been used for hanging a lamp or book, or maybe were part of a canopy over a now-missing altar. The simple lintel-headed doorway has two holed stones projecting above it, for a form of door closure.
It is impossible to accurately date this building, but modern scholars tend towards a 10th or even 11th century date, although others prefer to place it somewhat earlier.
An inscription on the bottom right-hand quadrant of the cross, which stands to the north of the church, has been read as COLUM MAC DINET; today only the COLUM is clearly visible.
This site, a National Monument in state care, can be accessed either for free down a short path off a side road (where there is very limited parking), or by going to the Gallarus visitor centre where there is ample parking space, as well as café and toilet facilities, and a video show, all for a small charge.