On Sunday 8 July, Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society will be visiting sites of historical interest in the Ballyboy and Kilcormac area. This outing has been greatly facilitated by local Agnes Gorman, who recounts here the history of the church in Kilcormac.
About 1,500 years ago, Cormac O’ Liathain, a priest, left Cobh, in Co Cork and travelled to Durrow, in Co Offaly to meet with Columcille, who was Abbot and a priest in the monastery. A short time later, Columcille left for Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland. Cormac received the “Durrow Crozier” a symbol of authority, but he had a burning sense to become a hermit – his dream site was where the sound of the river would lull him to sleep, the bird song in the daytime and a vista towards the south, with Knockhill and the Slieve Blooms mountains, acting as his ‘satnav’, and that spot chosen is right here in Kilcormac.
The local people cut down wood and built the church, while the monks of Durrow built a small tower for him to live in and protect the sacred vessels. He was foretold that he would be killed by wolves, which happened to him on his travels westward. St Cormac’s wells are located on Knockhill, Ballincloghan, Scarry, Ballykealy and Tobar na mBearla or the ‘wells of the pearls’, in Cloughill, by the Boolinarrig river in Eglish Parish. It was at Tobair na mBearla that Cormac was killed by wolves. He was in his seventies by then and perhaps, was too near their den. His death on the 21st June, also his feast day is still commemorated to this day. He was buried in Durrow and in Eglish church, a stained glass window commemorates his demise. Cormac’s Crozier known as “The Crozier of Durrow” is believed to be the oldest of its kind in Ireland and can be seen in the National Museum.
Some fifty years before St Cormac, St Brigid visited Ballyboy and built a convent there, known as ‘Abbey Rath’. Another place of worship was that where the monks lived in the Hermitage at Ballincloghan now Larkin’s farm. They were Frenchmen and they made wine from apples and plums. This was one of many foundations of Augustinian Canons introduced into this country by St Malachy, during the 12th Century reform of the Irish Church. Six hundred years from the time of St Patrick and was known as the Golden Age of Christianity.
Kilcormac monastic foundation of the O’Molloys
Later Odo O’Molloy of Broughal Castle founded a monastery here, for Carmelite Friars in 1406. On the Ordnance Survey Map of 1838, the site of the monastery is marked in the garden of the present Convent of Mercy and the only remains of the Carmelite Church is the stone crucifix built into the boundary wall of this church. In 1548, the English attacked the territory of Firceall from O’Carroll country, they burned Kilcormac and ransacked the Carmelite monastery. The Pieta was saved and was placed in St Mary’s Parish Church, Ballyboy. In 1579, the monastery was dissolved. In 1580, Odo O’Molloy, then chief, was captured by the English and hanged. The best known relic of this monastery, is the Kilcormac Missal, written by scribe, Dermot O’Flanagan and is now preserved in the Library in Trinity College, Dublin.
The English Parliament appointed Oliver Cromwell to suppress the Great Rebellion in Ireland of 1641-49 after having success in plundering the English monasteries in the time of Henry VIII. He belonged to a Puritan-Calvinist sect and he believed he was an agent of God, and sought to wipe out Irish Catholics. He arrived in Ireland in 1649. A detachment of his army was spotted by the McRedmond women near Knockhill, on the Cadamstown road. They ran down to the church in Ballyboy, took out the Pieta and hid it in the bushes. They themselves and the community hid in their souterrains or caves. The army camped in Ballyboy where they threw out the contents of the church and stabled their horses in it. After that they feasted on the local produce before moving on to Athlone. Then men from the area buried the Pieta in Ballybracken Bogland and each took an oath of secrecy as to its burial place. After sixty years, the last man alive revealed the secret. His name was Coady and at the age of 90 and nearing death, he was brought to the exact spot. The statue was recovered and was given in safe-keeping to the parish priest of Kilcormac, Fr, Lynam. After a time in Borrisokane the Pieta was brought back to Kilcormac and placed in the local church. It is now on a plinth in this church on a side aisle.
In 1685, the situation changed for Catholics as James II, a Catholic became King of England and he granted freedom to all religious denominations to worship God as they saw fit. The following year 1686 a Diocesan Synod was held in Meath, and one of the regulations stated: In future, no priest shall celebrate mass in the open air on Sunday and Holydays, until such times as a suitable house or chapel is erected. As a result the Friars of Cully set about building a new church on the sand ridge in the townland of Ballyfarrell. James II was deposed by William of Orange and the church was never finished.
After the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 King William marched through Pallas, Ralehin and on to Ballyboy. Having rested one night there he headed on to Limerick. The Irish were certainly under English rule at this stage of history, so the Penal Laws were introduced. Mass was forbidden, Bishops liable to be hanged and priests to transportation and all professions closed to Catholics leaving them powerless. Folklore pays tribute to the Protestants of this parish who sheltered priests in those difficult days.
From 1704-10 the Government allowed one priest in each parish, provided he registered his personal details with the authorities and got 2 people to go bail, each paying £50, and no successor to follow on. This was known as an Act of Registration. The priest could build a church and carry on their duties freely in their parishes. Then there was an oath of Loyalty required, by the Crown, of the priest and those who refused were then again on ‘the run’ also watched by informers. Local Magistrates and officers of the Crown were also liable to a fine of £50. For fifty years the parish had no churches. In this parish Mass was celebrated in a Mass Pit in Garbally four miles east of Kilcormac. In addition there was a Mass Rock in Broughal and a Mass Pit in Dunnes of Ballinacarrig. Mass Rocks and Mass Pits were located in forts along the Munny border adjoining townlands of Gortnamuck, Coarnagarc, Hennesseys and Mulrooneys of Lisduff. In fact, a field on Mulrooneys farm is known as ‘The Priest’s Field’, and the remains of a cave, on the property of Donal and Cecelia Gath, Munnyhill, was used by the priest as a place of refuge.
Catholic Emancipation was achieved in Ireland in 1829. The population grew to over 7 million by the mid -1800s, then the Corn Laws, the failure of the potato crop. Famine struck, causing hunger, disease and emigration. Over one million died by 1849. There was a renewal of hope, the Land League, Home Rule promised and Catholics able to vote with industries and trades coming on stream. Once again, bishops and priests could make plans in updating their churches or building new ones.
The Rev. Bernard Flood, parish priest of Kilcormac, arrived on the 22 November 1863 and set about plans to build a church. He engaged the church architect Mr J.J. McCarthy. The foundation stone was laid by the Bishop of Meath, Dr Thomas Nulty on 16 April 1866, and the following year, on 10 November 1867, this beautiful church was dedicated to The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the same as its predecessor, by Dr Nulty. This church would not have come about only for our bishops, priests, brothers, nuns and laity, their ancestors and ours, who toiled in hard times , but had hope, aspiration, love and salvation, down through the years. From St Cormac’s first wooden church 1,500 years ago to this church built 150 years ago, it is a special day for all of us to witness and especially for our parish priest, Fr. Richard Matthews.