The original Early Christian Ireland website was developed as a gift by Athanasius (Barney) Blalock for Father John Musther as a place to showcase his large collection of photographs of Irish sites, and a way for him to express his enthusiasm and knowledge of the visible heritage of the Early Saints in Ireland.
Athanasius designed a beautiful website and it has stood the test of time and attracted thousands of visitors.
The website hosts over 3500 photographs, and documents over 650 archeologically significant sites spread over all 32 counties of Ireland, both in the Republic and in the Six Counties of Northern Ireland. It is an invaluable tool for both Early Christian research and Pilgrimage.
During 2011 – 2012 it became clear that there were far more changes needed to the database than had been anticipated. I became involved when Athanasius’s circumstances changed, and I took over the maintenance. My expertise is not in design, but in the underlying technology of the internet, so I decided to invest in a replacement website – copying Athanasius’s design, but expressing it in a more managable technology. This evolved over the new year 2013/14 and this is the result, we shall see if it succeeds as well as the original.
Although the database changes, it doesn’t change fast. Day by day the site remains broadly the same, a few photos get added, perhaps a mistake in the text is noticed and corrected, but by and large it evolves very slowly. Athanasius was right to build the website as a static site, and not build it with Wordpress or Drupal or one of the other dynamic systems that generate the pages on-the-fly.
So we want a system of building the site where we can change things easily, but it doesn’t matter much how long it takes to turn those changes into a new website – a few extra hours isn’t going to hurt. This is a clear lead to using an off-line static website generator, and I chose Nanoc, by Denis Defreyn, because I have used it before (for The Synaxarion of British and Irish Saints), and the generator will run on all the usual platforms – Windows, Mac, and Linux.
The source files for the site are held in Dropbox and both I and Fr John share access, and can edit it. This considerably lightens the load of maintenance. It takes about 1 minute on my Linux desktop to compile the site, and a further 15 minutes or so to upload the files to the webserver.
The advantage of compiling the site is that we don’t need to worry that all the internal links work, all the menus of sites are kept in synchonism, or that the sitemap needed by Google will be updated – this all happens automatically.
Each Irish site in this website has a selection of photos, mostly taken by Fr John on his travels, but some from other websites (with permission) and some from other contributors. Our build system turns these photos into a little, and sometimes not so little, photo album.
The technical challenge is to get the webpage to your browser as quick as possible, and then to show you at least one photo, while the others are loading. If we wait for all the photos to load, you would say the website is very slow. What we do is to load the text first, then load photo number 1, then load all the others in sequence and build a little album.
We have tested the website extensively, but our resources are not infinite, and your system may not be as well supported as we would like. If this is so, please get in touch and tell me about your problems, I’ll do my best to find a solution.
Richard A Downing
29th January 2014