Seir Kieran- Part 1. By John Dolan

We welcome a new contributor this week to our series of articles on the history of County Offaly. John Dolan writes about Seir Kieran in this fine piece. John was born in Tullamore, now retired, and has a degree Archaeology and Celtic Civilisation. He speaks regularly to historical societies in Dublin. Part 2 will be published next Wednesday. Seir Kieran is the ‘island parish’ in Offaly belonging to the diocese of Ossory. Our blog articles are brought to you twice weekly during these weeks  of the plague to hopefully provide some inner peace through historical inquiry. You now have 182 to chose  from and can join the 150,000 views since 2016.

032462 View of church at Seir Kieran
Seir Kieran on the boundary of Meath and Munster

The parish of Seir Kieran is one of the many early Christian sites that remain under reported and hidden in today’s world. Since its destruction by ‘the O’Carrol and the English’ in 1548 and similar to many other Offaly early churches, it has dropped into insignificance.
Seir Kieran is now mainly known for the history of its GAA club rather than its claim to be a Christian site before the arrival of St. Patrick.

What’s in a Name?
One of the difficulties which trouble researchers when using modern search tools is the way the name of this parish has been recorded over the last 1,600 years. Recorded names such as Saiger, Saigir, Seyer, Saykeran, Saygher, Shyre, Sirekeran, Seerkeran, Saighar, or Seirkeran can confuse, while Ciarán himself is mentioned in documents as Kyeran, Kyran, Keranus, Quiran, Ciaranus, Queranus or Kieran. has a separate list of 19 different names for Saighir from Papal Letters dating from 1282 to 1685. The most interesting name from this list is recorded in the Red Book of Ossory as Carrucata de Saeyr.
Occasionally Ciarán of Saighir is mentioned as Sean-Chiarán (the Older Ciarán) to differentiate him from his neighbour on the Shannon.
The generally agreed meaning of the name Seir comes from combining Sair meaning a fountain and Fuar meaning cold. In Stokes translation of the Tripartite Life of Patrick he records an ancient poem from Patrick to Ciarán about the location of Saighir.

There is an extended version of this poem in Feile Oengusso that includes references to his royal lineage as well as the celestial sign given to his mother Liadaine before his birth.

Images from Tripartite Life Vol 1, 77

Keating’s History of Ireland lists a total of 29 St. Ciaráns in Ireland, while the Martyrology of Donegal has 19 in its list and Geoffrey Keating suggests 25.
Interestingly, Ciarán of Saighir is mentioned in the Calendar of the Russian Orthodox Church for 5th. March each year.

Images from Tripartite Life Vol 1, 76 (old irish)
Did Ciarán arrive before Patrick?
Many accounts suggest that there were five bishops working in Ireland before the arrival of Patrick. Some accounts describe him as ‘the first-born of the saints of Ireland’. These five bishops were Declán of Lismore, Ailbe of Emly, Abbán of Moyarney, Ibar of Wexford and Ciarán Saigre. Only one of Ciarán’s Lives recounts that he went to Rome to study Christianity, was ordained and on his return journey to Ireland met Patrick who was heading to Rome at that time. Patrick advised Ciarán about setting up a church in Ireland and gave him a bell. This bell was to ring when Ciarán reached the location where he was to set up his cell. In his travels Ciarán arrived at a location where his bell rung, the location is now known today as Bell Hill overlooking the village of Clareen, Offaly.

Barcán Chiaráin
St. Patrick gave Ciarán the bell when they met in Gaul. The bell was to ring when Ciarán came to the site to be his monastery in Ireland. The bell rang when Ciarán reached a place known today as Bell Hill.
It was damaged during a raid on the monastery and was from then called the barcán (gapped) bell.
Later it was revered, used to swear allegiances or treaties between princes of local tribes, it was also brought to the scenes of battle in order to negotiate peace and treaties. The Chronicon Scotorum for 972AD mentions that ‘Donnchadh Finn, son of Aedh, son of Flann, was slain by Aedh, against the protection of the Barcan Ciarain, through treachery.’

032451 Paddy Lowrey in Seir Kieran Graveyard
The late Paddy Lowry (1919-2013) of Forelacka Glen. Always a pleasure to listen to. Seen here at Seir Kieran with one of its famed later tombstones in the 1970s so ably written up by Mrs Ada Leask.

Location, location, location.
Most sources agree that St. Ciarán was born on Cape Clear Island, Co Cork, the son of Lughaid of royal blood. However, the Martyrology of Donegal suggests that he was the son of Aengus Osraighe and therefore born in Leinster. At Cape Clear he is remembered at St. Ciarán’s Strand, St. Ciarán’s Stone, St. Ciarán Well and St. Ciarán’s church, all named after him.
There are an exceptionally high percentage of sites dedicated to Ciarán in Ossory with a number dedicated to him in Munster, some in Meath. Also, he is named in the parish and holy well in Killybegs, Co Donegal and another holy well to Ciaran at Kilcar. He is revered in Kilkieran in Connemara.
There are many churches named after Ciarán in Scotland, but there is considerable confusion with the other Ciarán from Clonmacnoise. However, those named after Ciarán of Saighir include Kilchiaran, Rhinns of Islay; Cill Chiarain, Kilchoman (Islay); Dalmakerran, Tynron; Kilkeran, North Bute; Kilkerran on Kintyre and Kilcheran on the island of Lismore.
Saighir, along with Birr is positioned on the boundaries of Mumu (Munster) and Mide (Meath) which led to conflicts over the centuries. The development of Saighir was also tied into the local politics of the Osraige. Saighir was positioned on the road that joined the Sli Mor and Durrow and the Sli Dála at Roscrea and was availed of by Carthach the abbot of Rahan who was ejected by his monks when he attempted reform.
Pre-Christian Practices.
The druids were reputed to meet in secluded wooded groves, a practice which the Romans found offensive as they performed their religious duties in public. These sacred trees were known in pre-Christian times as bile. In Ireland these trees were found beside holy wells and eventually became rag trees. The druids and other non-Christian societies regarded wells as the giver of life and many regarded them as sacred. Lastly, perpetual fires or eternal flames are recorded from the earliest times in the Middle East and the practice spread into Europe as part of religious symbolism of the druids. The early Irish church decided to Christianise all three pagan practices with examples to be found at Saighir as well as Brigid’s Kildare among many of the early church sites in Ireland. Kenney in his Sources suggests that Saighir may even have been a pagan sanctuary.
What date was that?
Archdall (1786) suggests that Ciarán was born in 352AD in Cape Clear; Todd, quoting Ussher, also suggests 352AD but later disputes that date. This date was also backed by O’Flaherty. The Martyrology of Donegal suggests 353AD while the Annals of Innisfallen give the date as 357AD and John Hogan’s Life says Ciarán was born in 375AD. Lanigan suggests Ciarán became bishop in 538, while later authors give 538 or 540 as his year of birth. Ware states that he lived for 197 years but Colgan has it that he lived for 192 years! Take your pick!

032452 Seir Kieran Graveyard
The graveyard at Seir Keiran

Bishopric, Cathedral and Diocese
The Martyrology of Oengus describes Ciarán as episcopus episcoporun – the Bishop of Bishops, this would suggest that Saighir was the oldest bishopric in Ireland. Lanigan says that Ciarán was the first bishop of Ossory. The bishopric first moved to Aghaboe c 1111AD, Cooke suggests 1052AD, perhaps when Saighir lost a significant political sponsor, Aghaboe then became the principal church of the Osraige. Later, due to Norman pressure the bishopric was finally moved to Kilkenny. Sir James Ware says in 1705 that the bishopric of Saigre was added to other sees as a result of a Synod without mentioning which one, probably the Synod of Kells 1152. This synod finalised the reorganisation of the Irish diocesan system, reducing the number of dioceses and where the diocese of Saighir was subsumed into that of Ossory. Graves says that Saighir had a ‘cathdera’ and that the people of Ossory were his ‘parochia’. Todd affirms that Saighir was a ‘city’, numerous authors have claimed that it also contained a cathedral.
Offaly and north Tipperary had large monasteries that had the skills to support scriptoria. These included Birr (Gospel Book of Macgregol), Durrow (Book of Durrow), Lorrha (Stowe Missal), Roscrea (Book of Dimma) and Saighir (see below). As would have been the norm at that time each monastery would have kept its individual Annal, the Annals of Saighir have never been found.
Feilire Oengusso says that Cairnech Moel (Cairnech the Bald) was Ciarán’s scribe (sgribnid) at Saighir, implying that Saighir had a scriptorium. He wrote the wonderfully illustrated manuscript Imirce Chiaráin. Elsewhere the Feilre mentions Daig mac Cairill as Ciarán’s primcherd ‘chief workman’, a smith and artisan and a scribe, ‘tis he that made 300 bells and 300 croziers and 300 gospels’.
Later in Feile Oengusso it mentions that ‘many cattle he had, for there are ten doors to the shed of his kine and ten stalls for each door… and there were ten calves in each stall and ten cows with each calf’. O’Donovan in his Letter dated 25th January 1838 did the calculation of ’10,000 cows! A rich hermit! In addition ‘he had fifty horses broken-in for ploughing and tilling the earth’.
A remarkable story from the Annals for 1284 that ‘the Lord Bishop of Ossory, Geoffrey St. Leger, acquired … the manor of Seirkeran by duel’. Did the good bishop himself engage in the duel? Obviously the manor was of significant wealth and importance to be contested over.

Some books from the Offaly History Centre, Tullamore. Not shown here is Carrigan’s important history of the diocese of Ossory
Archaeological surveys in recent times have failed to verify these claims. There is no archaeological evidence of a monastic town with its attendant mills, workshops and molten slag. But the claims above describe a monastery of substantial wealth and the attendant skills to hand to maintain them.

The famed Seir Kieran v St Rynagh’s