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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 3: Pre-reformation church and monastic sites
Chapter 32: Tomfinlough Parish

Tomfinlough Church; Saint Luchtighern’s Oratory (Site of); Tomfinlough Plague Stone


Nat. Grid. Ref: R435704; ½” Sheet 17

Photo 1: Tomfinlough Church, from the south
Photo 1: Tomfinlough Church, from the south

R.C. Parish : Newmarket-on-Fergus
Townland : Finlough
6” O.S. Sheet number : 42 (Co. Clare)
Reference : 20.1 cm South; 14.1 cm East
Height (G.L.) : 110’ O.D.
1” O.S. Sheet number : 133 (Sixmilebridge)

For information relating to this important site refer to: - (a) site plan (b) site description (c) series of photographs on the site.

Plan of Tomfinlough Church:

Tomfinlough Church:
The present structure, based on field examination and the works of O’Donovan (1839) and Westropp (1900), shows evidence of use over three quite distinct periods of time. Firstly there was the Pre-Norman site, possibly even tenth century, the remains of which consist of the large limestone blocks in the site’s south-western part (photo 1). Secondly, around 1300 A.D. the Norman De Clare’s had the site restored and this work also involved the incorporation of at least two sandstone windows in the south and east walls (photos 2 & 3). Finally around 1480 A.D. the site was again restored and this time a new limestone-cut east window was inserted (photo 4).

When dealing with this important site I intended to refer to each of the walls separately, noting their principal features and possible dates of erection.

The southern wall is probably the most important of the four containing, as it does, the original entrance area as well as three windows, two of which are now visible (photos 1, 2 & 3).
As the site plan shows the wall in the south-western corner area has a type of buttress. The idea of this was to strengthen the wall and it was especially important here as this part of the wall also supported a gallery, reference to which will be made later. This buttress, which extends 4.50 metres along the southern wall, is .40 metres out from the main wall (see site plan and photo 1). The doorway, which is unfortunately damaged, is quite close to the buttress (photo 2). Field examination showed that formerly it consisted of cut limestone, some traces of which remain, especially on top. It is 1.20 metres wide on the outside, 2.0 metres high and 1.50 metres wide on the inside. The wall here averages .87 metres in depth. The cut-stone surviving traces of this doorway suggest it possibly was of a pointed type, dating to the fifteenth century (Leask, type B). Such a door type obviously replaced the earlier tenth century door on the site.
Though field examination failed to find it, due to the depth of the vegetation cover inside and out, there is (was?) a small window east of the doorway. O’Donovan (1839) has a reference to it: “…There is a quadrangular window at the distance of twenty five feet from this (i.e. south door) measuring about 2 feet in height and ten inches in breadth in front, partly stopped up and covered with ivy…” (page 76).
About 10 metres further east is a second window. Though .95 metres wide on the inside the actual window is only .18 metres wide on the outside and 1.25 metres high. It starts 2.0 metres above ground level (photo 3). This window has, as the photo shows, a semi-circular top.

Though not clearly visible from the outside a second very interesting double light window occurs quite close to the previous one (see site plan). The reason why it cannot be examined from the outside is because, all but for a small section to the top, it has been blocked up (photo 1). On the inside, however, it can be examined along its 1.70 metre length. Westropp has given a very good description of this window and what he wrote in 1900 largely holds today: “…and a richly moulded pointed double-light south window, the capitals carved with leaves and the hood resting on faces, two pointed heads, and a central detached shaft with moulded bands (now fallen)…” page 149.

Photo 4 shows up these features and they are quite clearly visible at the site as they are carved on sandstone along a wall of limestone. (For an excellent description of this window, in 1839, refer to O’Donovan, page 76).
This window, as well as the previous one, is of an early fourteenth century date. They were presumably erected by the Norman De Clare’s when they restored the site around 1300 A.D.

Finally on the southern wall, in the area where it meets the eastern gable, is a second buttress. However this one, clearly shown on the site plan, is of a nineteenth century date. An examination of the wall, near this buttress, will show a plaque stating that the site’s wall was repaired and the buttress added by a John McNamara.
This south wall, according to O’Donovan and Westropp, yields evidence of a tenth century church on this site. The former states: “…About thirty feet in length and about nine feet in height of the south wall extending from the door eastward and including the little quadrangular window, appears to me to be as old, at least, as the early part of the tenth century…” (O.S. Letters 1839, page 77).
(The approximate extent of this wall is marked in on the site plan by a broken north-south line).
This southern wall now averages 4.75 metres in height.

The eastern wall along its 9.80 metres (external) length contains two windows, one of which is of particular interest. The first window, near the south-easterly corner, is of cut limestone and .90 metres wide. The actual opening, see site plan, is only .40 metre wide.
However, the next window is of more interest. What are its features as it survives to date (1979)? Again Westropp describes it quite well (1900):
“… a well-made fifteenth century (window) with semi-circular headed splay and two trefoil-headed lights (shaft intact), with a square hood…” page 149 (Leask, type G).
All of these features are quite visible especially from outside the site (photo 5).

A close examination of the area about this cut limestone window does show a deal of cut sandstone (photo 5). This, according to both O’Donovan (1839) and Westropp (1900), is the trace of a plain three-light early fourteenth century (Norman) window which was mostly removed when the late fifteenth century limestone window was inserted:-

“…This (limestone) window, which does not appear to be many centuries old, is inserted in another (sandstone) window, twelve feet one inch wide; the top, which reaches high up in the (east) gable, covered with ivy, so that its form cannot be ascertained. The sides of this window appear on the outside of the wall, all built up of the same sort of grit (i.e. sandstone) as that already mentioned…”
(Source: O’Donovan, 1839, page 77).
This eastern pointed wall reaches a maximum height of 9.0 metres at its centre.

The northern wall, in a poor state of preservation, does not contain any features of note along its 23.30 metre external length. As the site plan shows most of it is defined by only foundation blocks.

The west wall is likewise damaged at its centre (site plan). A very close examination of the area where it meets the south wall shows corbels (photo 6). These mark the position of a gallery which originally covered the western part of the site. By local tradition this was some 2.12 metres (7 feet) above the church floor. To get into this gallery one used a door in the north wall.

Fortunately O’Donovan left us with some further information on this particular wall: “…There is a pointed doorway in the west gable, nearer to the north than to the south side, measuring four feet nine inches in height and three feet six inches in breadth, the wall (is) broken a little over it, and at its sides.

There was a quadrangular window nearly over it which is now closed up with mason work. About four feet in height of the lower part of this gable appears to be much older than the other parts of it, and the little doorway does not appear to be of the same age with it…” (1839, page 76).
There is a large graveyard around this site.

Date of Church:
The site description over the previous pages has shown us that the church at Tomfinlough was used during the tenth, early fourteenth and late fifteenth centuries. There may have been other periods but these did not leave as clear a trace as the three above periods (see comments by Frost and Westropp in the following section under references).

Apart from visible remains the Annals of the Four Masters, cited by O’Donovan, 1839, pages 196/197 also have references to this obviously important site:

A.D. 944: Scannlan Abbot of Tuaim Fionnlocha, died.
A.D. 1049: Tuathal O’Muirgheasa, lecturer of Tuain-Fiondlocha, died.
A.D. 1054: Torlogh O’Brien with the Connacians went into Thomond, committed great depredations… and plundered Tuaimfionlocha.


1893, pages 191 – 193. Argues that a church existed in this area in the sixth century. Very general description of the actual church.
1900, pages 149 and 150. Fairly good description of actual church. Like Frost he argues for a pre-tenth century date for the first church on the site.
Ordnance Survey Letters, 1839 Volume 2, 1928 edition, pages 75 - 79 O’Donovan. Gives quite a deal of useful information on features then visible (1839) which have since disappeared.

Photo 2: South door, Tomfinlough Church
Photo 2: South door, Tomfinlough Church

Photo 3: Window on the South wall of Tomfinlough Church. Inside shot
Photo 3: Window on the South wall of Tomfinlough Church. Inside shot

Photo 4: Inside shot of blocked up sandstone window (on south wall, near south-east corner of Tomfinlough Church)
Photo 4: Inside shot of blocked up sandstone window
(on south wall, near south-east corner of Tomfinlough Church)

Photo 5: East, two period, window from the outside at Tomfinlough Church
Photo 5: East, two period, window from the outside at Tomfinlough Church

Photo 6: Corbels in the south-west corner, interior of Tomfinlough Church
Photo 6: Corbels in the south-west corner, interior of Tomfinlough Church

Medieval windows/doors

Arch and Window Forms

  1. Round or semicircular (Trim).
  2. Pointed (many castles and all dates).
  3. Segmental (Trim).
  4. Segmental pointed (Ballymoon).
  5. Four-centred (Donegal, fireplaces).
  6. Semi-elliptical (Kanturk, Mallow, Carrick).
  7. Trefoil-pointed (Athenry, Ferns, Lea).
  8. Ogee and
  9. Cusped ogee (many XVth and XVIth century examples).
  10. Pair of ogee-headed lights with square hood-moulding.
  11. and
  12. XVth century stepped and shouldered forms (Askeaton).
  13. The “Caernarvon” arch early XIVth century, Ballymoon and Ballyloughan.

Source: Leask, 1941, 24

Saint Luchtighern’s Oratory (Site of)

O.S. Sheet 42 (Co. Clare); Reference: 13.7 cm East; 19.7 cm South; at 110’O.D.

“…About sixty yards south east from the south east angle of the church and included in a kitchen garden wall is a piece of a wall nine feet high and twelve feet three inches long, finished at the extremities with large cut-stones, like the angles of the gable of a house, and having a quadrangular doorway in the centre measuring four feet ten in height from the present level of the ground, one foot nine and a half inches in breadth at top and two feet 2 inches at bottom, covered by a lintel stone five feet long and ten inches thick… There can be little doubt that this was the west gable or end of a very ancient church, of the existence of which no traditional account remains in the district.

Over the doorway are placed three heads (human) sculptured in stone… Of these heads the middle one is much defaced, all its features having given way to the action of the weather, while the other heads retain their features in a good state of preservation…” (see field sketch).
(Source: O’Donovan, 1839, page 77).

“…Only the end wall remains, having a door with lintel and inclined jambs, and above it three corbels with human faces…” (see plate 11, number 10).
(Source: Westropp, 1900, page 150).

The above extracts, by O’Donovan (1839) and Westropp (1900) describe the then surviving traces of an oratory a short distance south-east of Tomfinlough Church. However field examination (1978/1979) failed to find any trace of this site. The former position of the oratory is now covered by a large field wall, inserted in which is a small crossed sandstone block which was presumably associated with the site (photo 1). There was no trace of the doorway though fortunately both O’Donovan (1839, opposite page 77) and Westropp (1900, plate 11, item 10, description on page 177) have field sketches of it.
What of the three carved heads? These have survived and are now incorporated in a modern wall to the south-east of the graveyard (photo 2).

Harbison, in an article on Romanesque heads from County Clare, refers to the Finlough examples:

“…Two of these heads were, unusually carved in sandstone and they have deteriorated so much that it is only just possible to recognise the fact that they were once carved human heads. The third head, carved in the more usual Clare limestone, is in a much better state of preservation (plate 2,4)… The eyes are merely marked by a broad furrow around them, the mouth is a simple arce, the small ears are at eye-level and on the side of the head there is a strange clump of hair. The most unusual feature is a horizontal V-shaped wrinkle on each cheek…”
(Harbison, 1972, page 6; also plate 2, item 4).

Date of Oratory:
Any discussion on this will have to be based largely on written descriptions of the site from 1839 and 1900. Field examination as stated previously does not yield any surviving trace (1979).

According to “The Martyrology of Donegal” and “The Life of Mac Creiche”, as cited by Frost (1893, page 191), Saint Luchtigern lived during the early sixth century, A.D. By tradition he built the first church at Finlough and surprisingly later churches did not use the same site but rather went further up-slope. The west wall described by O’Donovan (1839, page 77) may in fact date in part from this early period. His reference to large cut-stones is of interest as these suggest an early date for the site. It may have been that the sixth century ruins were restored and the church re-used about the tenth century. This possibly accounts for the lintelled doorway of that date.
Certainly the church was, again, restored at a later date as shown by the presence of three Romanesque heads. Davies (1948, page 78) ascribes heads of this style to the fifteenth century. In fact the site may have been restored at the same time as nearby Tomfinlough Church which has a fifteenth century east window. This suggests that the Finlough sites went through a period of activity during that period.

References to the Oratory:

1893, page 191. Gives information relating to sixth century Saint Luchtighern.
1900, page 150. Important for his drawing of the lintelled doorway and part of the wall (plate 11, fig. 10).
Ordnance Survey Letters, 1839, pages 77 & 78. Very important for its description of the site in 1839. Also contains folklore on the meaning of the three heads, especially the then poor condition of the central head.
The Other Clare, 1978, pages 5 & 6. General information on site. This reference is important for an explanation of an apparent contradiction between what O’Donovan wrote (1839, page 77) about the three Romanesque heads and what can be seen on observation. By O’Donovan’s description the middle head was in a very poor condition more so than the other two. Now (1979) the middle head is in a very good condition. What has happened is that the order of the stones has been altered since the mid-nineteenth century.

This article also contains two photos of the heads. One is a general photo showing the condition of the three heads while photo 2 is a close up of the centre head.

Davies, 1948, page 100, dates Romanesque heads.

Harbison, 1972, page 6. He describes, in some detail, the features of the actual heads. (see also plate 2, item 4).

Photo 1: Cross on a sandstone block. Was this associated with the sixth century oratory at Tomfinlough?
Photo 1: Cross on a sandstone block.
Was this associated with the sixth century oratory at Tomfinlough?

Photo 2: Three Romanesque Heads at Tomfinlough Church
Photo 2: Three Romanesque Heads at Tomfinlough Church

Tomfinlough Plague Stone

O.S. Sheet 42 (Co. Clare); Reference: 14.3 cm East; 19.7 cm South; at 110’ O.D.

“…There is a stone in the graveyard wall at its south west angle on the outside, measuring about three and a half feet in length, one foot in thickness and two feet in height over the level of the field. It is a hewn stone and appears to have been part of the doorway of some edifice, traces of the foundations of which may be seen extending to the north. On the front of this stone are two raised solid circles about six inches in diameter, one of them fashioned like a saucer turned upside down, and the other plain and having a small cross slightly and rudely indented on it. The stone is popularly called the plague stone…” Source: O’Donovan, 1839, pages 78-79.

This feature is still to be clearly seen in the field (photo, below). O’Donovan’s reference above to foundation traces north of this feature is interesting. All that exists there today is a field wall. However the lower traces of this are, in part, of large limestone blocks – could these be part of a third church site at Finlough Townland?

For Folklore relating to the Plaque Stone refer to:-
O’Donovan, 1839, pages 78 & 79.
The Other Clare, 1978, page 5.

Plague stone at Tomfinlough Church
Plague stone at Tomfinlough Church

Finlough Holy Well:
O.S. Sheet 42 (Co. Clare); Reference – 19.2 cm South; 13.9 cm East; at 100’ O.D.

This restored well site has a date of 1710 carved on a top stone.