Well Protected


At the end of the sixth century a holy man called Fintán but now better known as St Munna, established a religious settlement at Taghmon, County Westmeath (Teach Munna: St Munna’s church). This flourished, and came to boast some 230 monks, but the present building on the site dates from the mid-15th century. This may have been before or after the place was ransacked in 1452 by Farrell MacGeoghegan in whose family territory it lay. The need for security explains the church’s most striking feature, the fortified tower at its west end where a resident priest could be safe from attack. This is of four storeys and configured like many of the tower houses then being constructed across the country, with a store on the ground floor and living/sleeping quarters on the upper levels.



In the 16th century St Munna’s church passed under the control of the Nugent family but had become ruinous within 100 years. However, by 1755 it was being used by the Church of Ireland for services and in 1843 extensive restoration work was carried out under the supervision of Joseph Welland, head architect for the Board of Ecclesiastical Commissioners: it is no longer in use for services. Aside from the tower, the building’s other notable feature is a sheela-na-gig above a window on the north wall.

Angelic Beauty



A pair of angels executed in mosaic line a portion of wall in what was once the chancel of a chapel in St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin. Established in 1875 as a Roman Catholic teacher training college, St Patrick’s was once the country’s largest such institution. Its chapel dates from the end of the 19th century when designed by the popular church architect George Ashlin. The lavish interior decoration dates from the early 1900s when a number of different companies worked on the site: the mosaics came from the Manchester-based company of Ludwig Oppenheimer Ltd. Like many other such buildings, this one underwent alterations following the Second Vatican Council, when a new chapel was designed for the college by Andy Devane. Many of the features of the old one were removed (its Stations of the Cross are now in a church in Tullamore, County Offaly) and the space was converted into a reading room. St Patrick’s College is now part of Dublin City University.



More on Dublin City University and its historic properties in due course…

Scattered Remains


Lough Ree has been mentioned here on a couple of occasions (see With Advantageous Views, September 19th 2018 and Well Lodged, October 15th 2018). The second-largest lake over the course of the river Shannon (and the third-largest lake in Ireland) Lough Ree is some 28 kilometres long and borders on three counties: Westmeath, Longford and Roscommon. Across its length can be found many islands of differing sizes: until the 1950s many of these were inhabited by farmers: the last man to live on a Lough Ree island only died in February 2018. Lough Ree appears on the map derived from Ptolomy’s second century Geographia where it is called Rheba, indicating awareness of its existence beyond the shores of Ireland. Most likely Rheda is a corruption of Rí, the Irish word for King, whence derives Lough Ree. However, while this might be designated the Lake of Kings, for a long time it was better known for the monastic settlements that were once widespread on the islands here.




Inchcleraun derives its name from Clothru, according to ancient legend the sister of Queen Mebh of Connacht: the latter is said to have retired to the island where while bathing she was killed, seemingly by her nephew (the story is exceedingly complicated). A monastery was founded here around the year 530 by St Diarmaid: a little church, the oldest on the site, is known as Templedermot. By the eighth century Inchcleraun was home to a number of religious settlements, but over the course of the next 500-odd years these were subject to repeated attack and plunder. Today there are the remains of some seven churches, the largest of which is called Templemurry: according to old lore, any woman entering this building would die within a year.




Running to just over 132 acres, Inchmore is the largest of the islands on Lough Ree and lies inside the borders of County Westmeath. The first religious settlement here is said to have been made in the fifth century by one St Liberius. However, in the second half of the 12th century, a priory of the Canons Regular of St Augustin was established here: it is the remains of this establishment – perhaps with later embellishments – which can be found on the island today. Like all such houses, the Augustinian priory was closed down in the 16th century, in 1567 Inchmore being granted by the crown authorities to Christopher Nugent, Baron Delvin.




Like Inchcleraun, Saints Island lies inside the boundaries of County Longford but is not strictly an island since a narrow causeway connects it to the mainland. A monastery was established here in the mid-sixth century by St Ciarán who would later go on to found a more famous house at Clonmacnoise. In 1089 Saints Island was attacked and plundered by Murkertach O’Brien and a large number of Danes. However around 1244 Sir Henry Dillon caused the settlement of Augustinian canons in a Priory of All Saints to be settled on the site of St Ciarán’s earlier foundation. As with all other such establishments, it was closed down in the 16th century but the main part of the church with its fine east window, clearly subject to alterations 100-odd years earlier, survives as do a few portions of the priory buildings.

Historical Recollections


‘Ferns. A small town in the county of Wexford, Ireland. The history of this town commences with that of its religious establishments. It is said that in the year 598, an Irish king, named Brandubh, gave to St Maodhog, or as he is sometimes called St. Aedan, the lands of Ferns, where he founded an abbey and was consecrated bishop.’




‘The rising consequence of Ferns was interrupted early in the ninth century, by the incursions of the Danes who plundered and burned the abbey in the years 834, 836, 838, 917 and 928. By the same marauders it was, for the sixth time, consumed by fire A.D. 930; and the town was accidentally destroyed by conflagration in 1165. In the following year the town and abbey were reduced to ashes by the celebrated Dermod Macmurrough, king of Leinster. As some atonement for the crime of burning the ancient monastery of Ferns, he afterwards founded at this place a new abbey for canons regular of the order of St. Augustin, under the invocation of the Virgin Mary, which he richly endowed with lands.’




‘The remains of the abbey still excite great interest by their historical recollections. It was here that king Dermod was secreted and entertained, whilst waiting in the early part of 1169 for the arrival of his British allies; – a period pregnant with the future fortunes of Ireland! The remains of the fabric consist chiefly of two sides of a cloister, or of a narrow chapel, having two rows of tall windows, of the lancet form. The windows and the piers are uniformly of an equal breadth. Adjoining this architectural fragment is a church, the steeple of which is on a very unusual plan. The lower part represents an oblong square of confined proportions, the dimensions being about eleven feet by eight. At the height of twelve or thirteen feet from the ground, the steeple assumes a round form, seven feet in diameter and twenty in height. The whole is constructed of a reddish stone and, withinside, a flight of steps leads to the summit whence is obtained a delightful prospect over an immense extent of landscape.’

From The British cyclopaedia of the arts, sciences, history, geography, literature, natural history, and biography, London, 1838.

In Indifferent Repair



The former church of St John the Baptist in Stonehall, County Westmeath. Built in 1809 thanks to a grant of £600 from the Board of First Fruits, the building was described by Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) Samuel Hall as ‘a plain, badly constructed edifice, in indifferent repair.’ Nevertheless it survived to serve its purpose until taken out of service in 1962: since then the church has fallen into its present ruin.


A Pre-Eminent House


‘Pre-eminent among the Augustinian houses stands the Abbey of Clare. It was one of a group of monasteries founded by the able but unscrupulous Donald More O’Brien, the last King of Munster. To it in vivid dread of a future retribution for his bloodshedding, cruelties, and perjuries he granted many a fair quarter of land. The fortunate preservation of his foundation charter enables us to some extent to create an estates map of the abbey lands “from the ford of the two weirs” at Clare Castle, “even out to the Leap of Cuchullin” in the edge of the Atlantic…We only possess this charter in a copy made in 1461 for Thady, Bishop of Killaloe. The only other documents of Donald More are not foundation charters, but mere grants of land to Holycross Abbey and Limerick Cathedral, so they are not capable of comparison. Donald More appears in them as “Donaldus Rex Limericensis,” and “D. dí grá Limicensis,” and we find the “appurtenances,” “fields, woods, pastures, meadows, waters, &c.,” and “for the welfare of my soul and the souls of my parents” in the undoubted charters. It is true that the king’s epithet “magnus” is suspicious, but the coincidence of the presence of the bishops of Kilfenora and Limerick, whose rights were touched at Caheraderry, Iniscatha and Kilkerrily, and of the chiefs MacMahon and O’Conor, in whose territories certain lands were granted, favours the genuineness of the document. We may also note the inclusion of Killone and Inchicronan, the sites of the other Augustinian houses among the possessions of the abbey of “Forgy.” We next hear of the abbey in 1226. Pope Honorius III wrote from the Lateran to his son “T,” abbot of the monastery of SS. Peter and Paul, “de Forgio,” directing the judges to proceed against Robert Travers, who had “unjustly and by simony been made Bishop of Killaloe” by the influence of his uncle Geoffrey de Marisco, the justiciary, and the connivance of Donchad Cairbreach O’Brien, chief of Thomond, in 1217. The abbot took much trouble in the matter, and even went to Rome to inform the Pope as to the facts of the case, for which labour his expenses are directed to be paid by the bishopric…’






‘In the Papal taxation of 1302-1306, the abbey “De Forgio” was assessed at two marks, and the temporalities of its abbot at three marks. No other record occurs for a century and a half. About the end of that century, to judge from the ruins, the long church of Donald More was divided into nave and chancel by the erection of a plain and somewhat ungraceful belfry tower resting on two pointed arches of much better design than the rest of the structure. On June 18th, 1461, Thady, Bishop of Killaloe, seems to have been called upon to examine and exemplify the ancient charter. At the present time it is impossible to discover the reason for the event, and the evidently contemporaneous repairs of the southern wing of the domicile. It occurred while Teige Acomhad O’Brien was prince of Thomond, but the annals of his not very eventful reign do not help us. We might at most conjecture that the prince may have undertaken some works on the abbey to ward off disease or unpopularity, for MacFirbis, in recording his death, says “ the multitudes envious eyes and hearts shortened his days.” “Know all”—writes the prelate—“by these letters and the ancient charter of Donellusmore Ibrien, King of Limerick, founder and patron of the religious and venerable house of canons regular ‘de Forgio’ ”—what are the possessions of the abbey and its rights and alms. The full copy of the older charter is given, compared, attested, and sealed by Eugene O’Heogenayn, the notary, in the monastery of Clare, July 18th, 1461, the third year of the bishop’s consecration. It is witnessed by Donat Macrath, vicar of Killoffin; John Connagan, cleric, and Donald MacGorman…’






‘The convent was formally dissolved by Henry VIII., and granted with other lands and religious houses, to Donogh, Baron of Ibracken, in 1543. The grantee was pledged to forsake the name “Obrene,” to use the English manners, dress, and language, to keep no kerne or gallow-glasses, obey the king’s laws and answer his writs, to attend the Deputy and succour no traitors. In 1573 and again on October 2nd, 1578, it was re-granted to Conor, Earl of Thomond. It was held by Sir Donnell O’Brien and his son Teige in 1584, and confirmed to other Earls of Thomond—to Donough on January 19th, 1620, and to Henry on September 1st, 1661. It was occupied by a certain Robert Taylor about 1635. Its monastic history had not, however, closed. Nicholas O’Nelan, Abbot of Clare, is given in the list of monks living in the diocese of Killaloe in 1613, seventy years after the dissolution. Teige O’Griffa, a priest, officiated at Dromcliff, Killone, and Clare Abbey in 1622. The Rev. Dr. De Burgho, Vicar-General of Killaloe, was its Abbot, 1647-1650, and two years later Roger Ormsby and Hugh Carighy, priests of Clare, were hanged without a trial by the Puritans. They were, however, possibly parish priests, and not monks. In 1681 Thomas Dyneley’s sketch of the abbey shows it as unroofed except the south-west room with its high chimney. A small chapel, its gables boldly capped with large crosses, adjoined the east end of the abbey church, and was evidently in use. Dyneley tells us that the building “was also thought to have been founded by the sayd Duke (Lionel of Clarence, 1361), for the love he bore and in memory of a priory of that name in Suffolk, where his first wife was buried.” Dyneley probably heard this unfounded legend from some English settler, who tried to account for the name, oblivious of the plank causeway across the muddy creek which, perhaps, for centuries before Duke Lionel’s time, had given the neighbouring village its name, Claremore, or Clar atha da Choradh…’


Extracts from The Augustinian Houses of the County Clare: Clare, Killone, and Inchicronan by Thomas Johnson Westropp (Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland vol. 30, 1900).

Still Standing


The western gable of old St Cronan’s church in Roscrea, County Tipperary. Cronan was a seventh century monk who founded a religious house, originally a short distance from Roscrea but in too remote a spot for pilgrims to find. So the monastery was re-established here and flourished for many years: the eighth century Book of Dimma, an illuminated set of the gospels now in the collection of Trinity College Dublin, was written here. Post-reformation the monastic site was used by the Church of Ireland until the early 19th century when the old church was demolished and replaced by the present building incorporating much stone from its predecessor. But the 12th century Romanesque gable was retained and for the past 200 years has served as an entrance to the churchyard.

Recalling a Young Man ‘of Good Character’


Down a narrow lane in North County Tipperary can be found Dorrha Church of Ireland church, which dates from the early 1830s and was built with help from the Board of First Fruits. Next to it are the remains of a much older building, now fallen into ruin. On the north wall is set  a large carved tablet commemorating Lord Bernard (died February 1705) together with his wife Eleanor and ‘my beloved son James Kennedy, a young man of good character, died 9 Jan. 1704…’

There are a number of fine tombstones in the surrounding graveyard, such as that above dating from 1778, and also on the east wall of the old church the remains of a blocked-up arched window (it looks as though a tablet immediately below has been removed), above which is a badly weathered carved head.

In Transition


Killaloe, County Clare derives its name from St Molua, a sixth century monk about whom – like many other religious of the period – relatively little is known. Believed to have been a contemporary of Saints Columba and Gall, and like them trained in the monastery at Bangor, County Down, his original name was Lughaidh, pronounced Lua, and it is from this that Killaloe – Cill-da-Lua , the Church of Lua – comes. Molua’s original church was on Friar’s Island nearby but at the end of the 1920s during the Shannon Electrification Scheme, water levels here were raised meaning the island was submerged. A little 10th/11th century oratory there which was associated with Molua was dismantled and moved to the mainland where reconstructed in the grounds of the local Roman Catholic church. Molua is said to have settled in what is now Killaloe on the western side of Lough Derg and a monastic community grew up around him. Among his foremost students was Flannán mac Toirrdelbaig, son of local chieftain Turlough of Thomond. Flannán became abbot of the house at Killaloe, and the cathedral there still bears his name.





The core of the present St Flannan’s Cathedral originates from the early 12th century when constructed on the instructions of Donal Mór O’Brien, descendant of Brian Boru and last claimant to the title of King of Munster. It will be remembered that O’Brien was also responsible for founding St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick which this year is celebrating its 850th birthday (see A Significant Anniversary, July 2nd 2018). However, this was soon replaced by another building, most of which can still be seen today and which represents the transition from Romanesque to Gothic architecture. The central arch of the great east window, for example, is round while those on either side are pointed. Unlike many other churches and cathedrals in Ireland, St Flannan’s seems to have survived relatively unscathed from the various upheavals that took place in Ireland over successive centuries: any changes that were made to the structure occurred during times of peace. The great tower was raised twice, in 1775 and 1892 and it was on one of these occasions that castellations were added to the roofline. The glazed oak screen dividing nave and chancel was constructed in the 1880s, primarily to conserve heat for the small local congregation.





St Flannan’s contains a number of fine features, not least a well-preserved Romanesque doorway dating from the 12th century: this may be a survivor from Donal Mór O’Brien’s original cathedral. This was not the doorway’s original location: it was reconstructed here in the early 18th century to mark the reputed burial spot of Muircheartach O’Brien, King of Munster, who died while on pilgrimage to Killaloe in 1119. The carving is especially fine, with chevron patterns on three of the arch rings, while others are decorated with fantastical animal and floral ornamentation. The nave also contains a 12th century High Cross; again this is not original to the building but was brought to this part of the county from Kilfenora in 1821 by Richard Mant who the year before had been consecrated bishop; a keen historian and archaeologist, he would go on to write a two-volume History of the Church in Ireland. Initially the cross stood in the grounds of the nearby Episcopal residence; it was moved to the cathedral only in 1934. The rectangular stone font is original to the building and dates from the 13th century. St Flannan’s is another of Ireland’s ‘pocket’ cathedrals, no larger than the average parish church in other countries but an important survivor from a time when there were many more bishoprics than is the case today: seemingly the Synod of Ráth Breasail (1111) was attended by more than fifty bishops, and it then determined that there should be 24. Today there are half that number in the Church of Ireland (the Roman Catholic church meanwhile has 26).


Ireland’s Ossuary


One of the country’s best-known families, the Butlers originated with Theobald Walter who in 1185 was granted by Prince John (future King John) the title of Chief Butler of Ireland (his father had already held the same title in England). Theobald’s successors established themselves in what is now County Kilkenny, their stronghold being in Gowran where they built a castle that would remain their principle residence until they established a presence in Kilkenny City at the end of the 14th century. As a result, the church in Gowran was greatly enriched by the presence of the Butlers. The Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is believed to have been built on the site of an earlier religious settlement, possibly a monastery founded by Saint Lochan who was connected with the region: Saint Patrick is also said to have passed through here on at least one of his seemingly innumerable perambulations around Ireland. 





In its present form, St Mary’s was a collegiate church, built in the late 13th century and served by a ‘college’ of clerics who lived communally in an adjacent dwelling but did not follow any monastic rules, as was the case for the likes of the Benedictines or Cistercians. The presence of the Butlers greatly enhanced its status. In 1312, for example, Edmund Butler, Earl of Carrick and Lord Deputy of Ireland made a binding agreement before the Kings Justice in Dublin with the Dean and Chapter of St Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny to provide finance allowing four priests attached to St. Mary’s to say masses in perpetuity for himself, his wife Joan, his son James (future first Earl of Ormonde), his daughters, and other family members both living and dead. The church had a long aisled nave with substantial chancel to the east, the two parts linked by a great square tower, now taller than was originally the case. Inevitably it suffered onslaught over the centuries. In 1316 Edward Bruce and his army of Scottish and Ulster troops attacked and took the town of Gowran, with damage inflicted on the church. It suffered similarly during the Cromwellian wars of the early 1650s but by then, like many other religious buildings in the post-Reformation period, St Mary’s was falling into disrepair. Only at the start of the 19th century was refurbishment undertaken, with the chancel converted into a parish church for the local Church of Ireland community, access being directly beneath the great tower. The nave was left a ruin, as it remains to the present day. St Mary’s continued to be used for services until the 1970s, since when a series of further restoration programmes have been undertaken under the auspices of the Office of Public Works. 





The interior of St Mary’s today is notable for the number, and quality, of tombs displayed inside the former chancel. In some instances moved indoors from elsewhere on the site, these funerary monuments stretch across many centuries, the oldest being a partial slab carved with Ogham script. There are many slabs from the 13th and 14th centuries decorated with crosses and inscriptions in Latin. The central space of the chancel is dominated by two substantial table tombs, both early 16th century and perhaps carved by the O Tunneys, an important family of stone carvers at the time. One shows a single Knight, the other two Knights, all were members of the greater Butler clan. The entrance to the church is dominated by a vast classical memorial to James Agar, who died in 1733. Originally from Yorkshire, the Agars succeeded the Butlers as the dominant local family in the mid-17th century and remained so until the end of the 19th. It was James Agar’s widow who, one can read, ‘out of sincere respect to the WORTHY DECEASED has caused THIS to be ERECTED AS A MONUMENT TO HIS MERIT AND HER AFFECTION.’ Tributes to the deceased until relatively recently, one of the more recent being a stained glass window on the north wall designed by Michael Healy of An Túr Gloine (The Glass Tower) an Arts and Crafts studio established in Dublin in 1903: the window commemorates Aubrey Cecil White who died aged twenty at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The range of monuments inside St Mary’s, and their exceptional calibre, make this church worthy of being described as Ireland’s ossuary.