Christianity came to Ireland in the Fifth Century AD and many of the stories related to St Patrick, credited with converting the island, are based in Ulster. He was enslaved on Slemish Mountain near Ballymena, engaged with the king of the Ulliad at Eman Macha near Armagh, and reputedly founded churches at Armagh and Downpatrick, and also seven churches along the Foyle Valley in the territory of the Ui Neill. These would have been in timber and this remained the material of choice until around the tenth century. Then, the Annals record the clearly unusual sight of St Malachy building a stone church at his abbey in Bangor (Co. Down).
Such stone churches mirrored the form and detail of their predecessors with steep pitched roofs and projecting side walls at corners in imitation of timber columns. They also reproduced in stone the crossing of the timbers at the ridge. O'Heaney's tomb in Banagher is a small reproduction of the type.
These buildings would have been located within circular enclosures like their secular counterparts. The surviving remains of the great monasteries of Devinish in Co Fermanagh and Nendrum in Co Down, illustrate that there were sometimes a number of rings. The inner ring housed the sacred buildings with more secular accommodation and services outside.
Crosses are associated with many ecclesiastical sites. Early examples are simple stone slabs. Then, the slabs are carved as at Fahan in Co Donegal. By the Ninth century the crosses were quite sophisticated with wheels supporting the arms and detailed biblical scenes. These structures were often sited on the entrance route to the monastery or church in similar relationship to the one found at Tynan today.
The development of churches, within circular enclosures is common across Ireland and also in some parts of Scotland where migration from Ireland from the 6th century produced a kingdom in Argyll. The mission of St Columba, originally from Co Donegal, but based on the Scottish island of Iona, also converted the wider Scottish population to Christianity and introduced Irish forms.
Round towers are another ecclesiastical feature found in this area. These can be seen across Ulster in various states of preservation. The towers at Devinish and Antrim are the most complete. These are associated with the coming of the Vikings. Much damaged was caused by these raiders from the Seventh to the tenth century, but unlike in the other provinces of Ireland no permanent settlement was created in Ulster.
O'Heaney's Tomb, Banagher, Co. L'derry
Devinish Monastery, Co Fermanagh.
St Mura's Cross, Fahan, Co. Donegal, late Seventh Century.
High cross, Tynan, Co Armagh.