But some of the old stonies will hold their heads high, and carry with them to the grave the feeling that they have left their mark on many a church, and on many a building, and that in the years to come, there will be people to admire the work they have left behind them …
Seamus Murphy, Stone Mad, 1950.
Have you ever wondered what lies behind the railings of the church in the main street of Callan? Or wondered about the Augustinian Friary, the Abbey in the Meadow, beside the KCAT building by the river? Would you like to know more about the building of those churches – who paid for them, who did the building work and who cut the stone for the elaborate traceried windows? Would you like to know more about Callan at the time?
Would you like to learn about the sculptors whose graveslabs and altartombs and other carved work lie all around us in medieval churches and graveyards – in the two churches in Callan, in Jerpoint, Kells, Newtown, Kilree, Sheestown, Thomastown, Burnchurch, St Canice’s Cathedral, St John’s, St Mary’s and St Patrick’s in Kilkenny to name but a few in Co Kilkenny? Where did the stone come from? How was it transported to the building site? Did a workshop of stonecarvers consist of a master and apprentices? Did they work onsite? Were they well paid? Were they paid by piece work or by the hour? In what sense were they literate? Did some do the lettering and others the figures (gisants or effigies) and the saints around the sides? Were they specialists or did they do also do building work? (Probably).
What happened if the master died suddenly – did the atelier collapse? As medieval masons were itinerant – they travelled to where the work was – there is plenty of stone farther afield, some of it carved by Ossory men. Can we identify individual craftsmen from their masons’ marks eg in Holycross Abbey? There was a remarkable flowering of building and sculptural work in the 15th and 16th centuries all over the country. There has long been much interest in the stone carving of this area in particular as Kilkenny has the greatest number of 16th century funeral monuments of any county.
Did you know that Callan was home to a great workshop of sculptors in the 1500s whose work – regarded as the finest in the country – has left an enduring mark on the churches and funeral monuments of not only Callan but as far away as Kilcooley Abbey, Co Tipperary, Abbeyleix Co Laois and – one scholar says – Devenish, Co Fermanagh. Both metaphorically and literally they have left their mark as the O’Tunneys are among the first artists to sign their work. We know of at least four O’Tunney sculptors from their signed tombs – Rory, Patrick, William and James – and can thereby get a little closer to them than to other medieval sculptors whose work will probably remain anonymous.
But can we isolate characteristic/ archetypal motifs of particular hands so that we can airily say “That’s Rory.” About thirteen signed funeral monuments are known, one in Callan St Mary’s and there is much speculation and no agreement in attributing other work to them. This is where it gets really interesting! Little enough is known about the O’Tunney family – they crop up as office-holders in Kilkenny Irishtown in the 1500s. Fascinatingly a man who was robbed of cows in 1578 was one Donagh Tonne, Mason, of Mallardstown (nr Callan). The only other artist family of the time who also signed their work is the Kerins whose work is also represented in Callan in St Mary’s maybe by as many as five monuments, as well as from Newtown (nr Callan) to New Ross and from Kilree, Kells to Kilkenny city. The Kerins may also have been from Callan and there is undoubtedly a connection between the two workshops. The O’Tunneys featured in a Nationwide tv programme earlier this year.