Built entirely of local gray stone in a peculiar shape with slightly rounded sides and a pointed roof, the Gallarus Oratory is a small chapel in County Kerry, Ireland. Located on the western tip of the Dingle Peninsula, the church offers more questions than answers.
The history of the Gallarus Oratory is slightly mysterious. Over the years, it has been believed that the Gallarus Oratory was an early Christian church, or a 12th-century chapel, or possibly a shelter for people on a pilgrimage, or even a burial place. While it is still impossible to say for sure, it does seem that the stone structure was indeed built over a grave. It was probably constructed sometime around 700-800 AD.
The Gallarus Oratory was discovered by Charles Smith in 1756. In 1758, an English visitor named Richard Pococke mentioned that he had visited the Gallarus Oratory in a letter. When he saw the site, he also heard a local legend about its history, writing:
"Near this building they show a grave with a head at the cross of it and call it the tomb of the Giant; the tradition is that Griffith More was buried there, & as they call'd [it] a chapel, so probably it was built by him or his family at their burial place."
Some of the confusion about the history of the Gallarus Oratory stems from arguments over the Irish-language origins of “Gallarus.” Some say that it comes from Gall Aras, meaning “house of the foreigners” and supporting the theory that the building sheltered pilgrims who came to Ireland. However, others insist that the name comes from Gall-iorrus, which translates to “rocky headland” and would accurately describe the landscape in this part of the Dingle Peninsula.
What to See
The Gallarus Oratory resembles the upside-down hull of a boat with two slightly curved sides meeting at the apex of the roof.
The inside measures approximately 16 feet long by 10 feet wide, which is why it is more fitting to call the building an oratory (chapel) than a church. It is still possible to walk inside, but expect the interior to be dimly lit. This is because the building has only one small, round window in the east wall and the main door in the west wall, so daylight barely filters inside.
Aside from the two small openings, one of the only other features inside the chapel is a three-foot tall stone which reads “COLUM MAC DINET” and is topped with an encircled cross. This slab is often interpreted to be a gravestone.
When visiting the chapel, take time to admire the masonry. The rocks, which were all likely brought from cliffs along the sea, have been cut on every side. The large stones fit perfectly together and were clearly shaped and assembled with great care. This sturdy construction is what has allowed the structure to stand over the centuries with very little damage. It also made the building completely waterproof – allowing that Irish rain to run right down the sides.
There is a privately-run visitor’s center with more information about the Gallarus Oratory which you can explore for a small fee and watch a video presentation about the site. The visitor’s center has parking lot and a gift shop.
Location and How to Visit
The Gallarus Oratory is located in the County Kerry countryside on the Dingle Peninsula. The chapel is free to visit, but the optional visitors center charges an admission fee to see the exhibits. The oratory is open all year, but the center closes during the winter.
Because the chapel is outside and free, you can visit the Gallarus Oratory any time, but it is best during daylight hours because there is no electricity to illuminate the old chapel.
The chapel can be found five miles outside of Dingle town and can be reached via the R559. It is located off of the Wild Atlantic Way and is a popular stop with tour buses in the area.
From the visitor’s center, there is a path that leads you approximately 200 feet to reach the actual Gallarus Oratory.
What Else to Do Nearby
Not far from the oratory are the ruins of Gallarus Castle. The castle was built in the 15th century, and all four stories of the fortified tower are still standing. Restoration work is ongoing, so it is not possible to go inside, but it is a good, quick stop if you are already walking in the area.
The Gallarus Oratory is very close to Dingle Town – one of the most charming villages in west Co. Kerry. The town has a lovely harbor and is well known for its excellent restaurants and charming pubs. If you have time to take a boat tour, you may even spot the town’s most famous resident, Fungie the dolphin, who has lived in the area for decades.
To best explore this scenic part of Ireland, drive the circular route at the end of the peninsula known as Slea Head Drive. There are sheer cliff drop-offs but also incredible views. You can take a small detour to see Minard Castle as well.