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A Survey of Monuments of Archaeological and Historical Interest in the Barony of Bunratty Lower, Co. Clare by William Gerrard Ryan

Part 1: Commentary: Pre-Reformation church and monastic sites: Pre-Norman Church/Monastic Sites

As stated previously we do not know exactly when Christianity was introduced into south-east Clare. Present evidence suggests soon after 500 A.D. However it could even have been during the lifetime of Patrick. There is, however, no evidence to suggest the existence of a pre-patrician saint in the area.

Not only do we not know when Christianity reached the area, we are also faced with a problem as to the sites of the early churches and monasteries. We know of a couple but there possibly were others.

Therefore the early history of Christianity throughout this area is quite vague and there are many questions we cannot answer. Fortunately, however, we do have some limited information on pre-Norman ecclesiastical sites in the area.

On present evidence the site at Kilconry was one of the earliest Christian settlements in the Barony. It was founded by Saint Conaire some time around 500 A.D. (Frost, 1893, 189). The later fifteenth century Church is said to be on the site of the older building (Site catalogue 2.30 to 2.35).

By tradition contemporary sites to Kilconry are said to have existed on nearby Feenish Island, (Frost, 1893, 189-190). Saint Senan is said to have had a church there, while Saint Bridget presided over a convent of nuns. The site of both of these buildings is now unknown (Site catalogue 2.34).

Actual visible trace of an early pre Norman Church site existed in the Barony to recent times. O’Donovan (1839, 77-78) and Westropp (1900, 150) both describe a section of a wall south-east of the main Church at Tomfinlough. This sixth century site, Saint Luchtighern’s Oratory, survived in part to that date (Site catalogue 2.88 – 2.92). However fieldwork associated with this thesis found that the wall was levelled without trace during this present century.

In the centre of the Barony, on the banks of the Owenogarney river (north of Sixmilebridge) Saint Finaghta had a Church in the seventh century (Site catalogue 2.41). While no trace of this early structure now survives part of the present building is certainly pre-Norman in date (Site catalogue 2.36 – 2.45). However much of this site underwent restoration during the Norman late thirteenth century.

The only visible trace of a seemingly unaltered pre-Norman Church site is the ruins at Clonloghan (Site catalogue 2.14 to 2.18). This dates to the tenth century (Westropp, 1900, 150) and would seem to have gone out of use some time afterwards.

The impressive main Church at Tomfinlough (Fenloe) also yields some evidence of a pre Norman date though at a site that has seen considerable alteration and restoration. Here along the south wall, for a short distance east and west of the main door, are some large limestone blocks (Site catalogue 2.82; site plan). These would seem to have been associated with a tenth century Church on the site (O’Donovan, 1839, 75-79; Westropp, 1900, 149-150). Evidence of such a date is also supported by references in the Annals of the Four Masters (Site catalogue 2.88).

In the introduction reference was made to the possibility that the earliest Churches were of timber. Some of these may never have been replaced by a stone structure. However their site could have become a graveyard, being as it was ground that was already sacred. Thus there is the possibility that some of the many old graveyards throughout the Barony could mark old, pre-Norman, Church sites, e.g.:-

Killavoher, near Sixmilebridge: Site catalogue 2.54
Kilcredaunnadobe, Cratloe: Site catalogue 2.60

There are, at least, three other sites that may have been pre Norman Churches or Monasteries:

  1. Kilkieran, near Newmarket-on-Fergus. There possibly was, as the townland name suggests, a Church here dedicated to Saint Cieran (Westropp, 1900, 149). However no ruins survive and the possible Church site is unknown (Site catalogue 2.74).

  2. Kilnasoolagh, near Newmarket-on-Fergus. While this site had a Norman Church I feel it may owe its origin to pre Norman times. Certainly by 1312 A.D., when it was plundered during a dispute over the O’Brien kingship, it was already an established site (Frost, 1893, 190). The name “Kilnasoolagh” itself is interesting (meaning the Church of the religious people) as it is only a short distance from Ing Townland where the first Christians are said to have landed (Site catalogue 2.73).

  3. Cillin and Toberneevoge, near Sixmilebridge. The Cillin was formerly used for the burial of unbaptised children. The Holy Well is a short distance west of it. Is there a possibility that both of these were part of a Church/Monastic settlement in pre-Norman times? The later Cillin may mark the site of the old Church (Site catalogue 2.42-2.43).

From this evidence it seems clear that a number of Church/Monastic sites were in existence prior to the Norman period. Unfortunately visible evidence in the field is really restricted to one site, Clonloghan. Here only the south-eastern part of the site survives with its two plain sandstone windows (Site catalogue 2.14-2.18). This site, however, yields little evidence as to the size and shape of local pre-Norman Churches, number of windows, position of doors, etc. Much clearer evidence of these features is available from the next two periods but particularly from the post-Norman period.