Seir Kieran, County Offaly by John Dolan. Part 2

John Dolan writes about Seir Kieran in part 2 on Seir Kieran this week. John was born in Tullamore, now retired, and has a degree  in Archaeology and Celtic Civilisation. He speaks regularly to historical societies in Dublin. 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 183 to chose from and  you can join the 150,000 views since 2016. If you would like to write for us email us at info@offalyhistory.com.

 

 

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Seir Kieran from a drawing in the Dublin Penny Journal of 1834

 

Lives of the Saints
The Lives were generally written hundreds of years after the death of the saints and usually by people who had never met them. The format adopted by the Irish hagiographers followed that of the Life of St. Martin of Tours. These Lives were considerably removed from the texts written in the early churches, what we have today are later copies. Folklore, stories and religious/political inferences had been handed down orally over generations before the first Life was written.


What we have today are copies of the Lives held in larger collections, many written in the 13th to 15th centuries, some later in the 16th century.
There are four Lives of Ciarán surviving today, two in Latin and two in Irish, the most detailed is in the Codex Kilkenniensis. Ciarán’s Life is recorded amongst many others in the Codex Salmanticensis, the Codex Kilkenniensis, held in Marsh’s library, Dublin, the Codex Insulensis in the Bodlean and the Codex Brussels. There are 7 copies of these Lives surviving. Both Plummer and Sperber suggest that these Lives are the survivals of an original, but now lost written in Latin.
John of Tynemouth’s Sanctilogium contains a Life of St. Piran of Cornwall which is substantially a copy of the Life of St. Ciarán. Ciarán is said to have gone to Cornwall, accompanied by Bruinech from the convent in Killyon who also became a saint there. Piran (or Perran or Keverne) is the patron saints of tin miners. Is the name Piran a consequence of the language change from Q Celtic to Q Celtic affecting Welsh and Cornish? There is a considerable discussion on Ciarán in The Lives of British Saints.
The Trivallate (3 banks) Ringfort
Ringforts were well established as settlement centres before the arrival of Christianity. Matthew Stout in his seminal book on Irish Ringforts suggest that only 4% of all Irish ringforts were trivalletted. Offaly has over 500 ringforts but only 2 are trivallate. A trivallette ringfort would represent an Iron Age lord of real significance, a ri tuath, such is the one at Saighir but now destroyed in Oakley Park.

National Monuments Service 1830s map
From the OS Map of 1838 and courtesy of the National Monuments Service

The maps from the 1830s Ordnance Survey, along with the photographs of The Cambridge University Collection of Aerial Photography, taken in the 1960s show a terrific trivallate ringfort. Stout’s analysis of the ringforts in this area of Co. Offaly identifies the links between significant ringforts and early church sites. The Ordnance Survey map from the 1830s below identifies the ringfort and church settlement with the dots indicating the items in the archaeological database of the National Monuments Service. The two photographs were taken by Cambridge University before the destruction of the ringfort.

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The pioneering Dr St Joseph,  of Cambridge University, aerial picture of c. 1969 showing the monastic site and trivallate ring fort

Recent geophysical research has identified that many of the early Irish church sites were secured in an earthen enclosure, i.e. Killeigh and Durrow. Many of these sites had just a single bank surrounding the church site, others had more than one bank e.g Durrow. In a number of cases these enclosures can be identified by today’s street patterns that eventually grew around the church site, such as in Armagh or Kells.
The remains of the enclosure banks that surrounded Saighir are still in evidence. However, earthen banks such as these are impossible to date, unless datable artefacts are found embedded.
The Annals of the Four Masters for 941 describe that Queen Sadhbh was so upset at the state of the cemetery of Saighir that she would not allow her husband Donnchadh be buried there. She demanded that her husband Ard Righ Donn send men from Meath to build a wall of stone around the cemetery. There is no evidence for this stone wall, where did the stones go?

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Sier Kieran Infomation panel at the site courtesy of Offaly County Council Heritage Office

Famous burials
While the bishopric remained at Saighir the Kings of Ossory were buried there. Cearball mac Dulainge was buried in Seir Kieran’s churchyard in 885. There is a burial slab with a Celtic Cross marking his grave. Donnchad, son of Ceallach, King of the Osruighe is buried there. Also, Dymma, Prince of Fiachach was interred there. Fergal, son of Cellach died there ‘after oenach’ in 961.
First nunnery
Nunneries in Ireland have been poorly researched. If the Life of Ciarán indicates that he was one of the earliest bishops in Ireland then the account in the Life that Ciarán set up his mother in a nearby nunnery at Killyon and brought Ciarán’s mother along with the daughters of local lords as the first nuns there. The only other early account of the establishment of a nunnery in Ireland is that in the Life of Brigid of Kildare.
Inquisition
The Inquisition was held at Leap castle on 28 December 1568. The audit of the monastery showed that the walls of the church were prostate. There was a large stone building, thatched with straw (used as the church), two other stone buildings thatched with straw (the residence for Canons). The Priory consisted on one acre (present churchyard) and the townland of Seir-Kieran was 41 acres in extend.
In 1552 the lease was given to one John Croft. Then in 1566 the lease given to John O’Keroll.
Queen Elizabeth on 3rd August 1578 gave the priory to Sir William O’Carroll with its site, precinct and possessions in land and tithes. In 1586, Sir Luke Dillon obtained a lease on the property for sixty years. On 9th January 1604 Captain (later Sir William) Taafe was granted the property.
It is unclear if any of these gentlemen, other than O’Carroll knew where Saighir was or if they ever set foot on the site.
Hi, we’re the Vikings!
The Annals of Inisfallen for 842 describe a raid by a Norwegian fleet from the Boyne. The Boyne was probably not navigable beyond Carbury, Co. Kildare. How did these Vikings arrive at Saighir, clearing through the bogs of the Midlands and rounding the Sliabh Bloom mountains?
Other references to raids at Saighir are for 839 (CS, AU, MB) or 941 (AFM). It is not clear if all of these refer to one raid or multiple raids with just the dates mixed up. The 842AD date stands as Birr was also attacked at the same time.
The Normans arrive.
The Normans arrived in Offaly from two directions. Durrow was in the ancient province of Meath and Hugh de Lacy, Lord of Meath, arrived there and was killed there in 1186. There is less documentation about the arrival of the Normans at Saighir, it is suggested that Theobald Walter from Ormond may have used the ancient road from Roscrea to Durrow to build his low motte at Saighir.
Who has Ciarán’s Silver Staff?

Richard Pococke (1704–1765) was an antiquarian, bishop, collector, traveller…A sale after his death listed items in a catalogue that included item ‘114, A silver pastoral staff of St. Kerian, the first bishop of Ossory’. The staff was sold on the first day of sale 27th May.

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Two stories from Carrigan’s History of the Diocese of Ossory are worth recording.
How many tunnels?
‘About 1860, some workmen engaged in removing stones for building purposes, immediately outside the churchyard gate, came upon an arched passage. Not wishing to injure it they carefully covered it up again, and interfered no further with the place. A similar archway was come upon, beyond the Uar river, under Bell Hill, by a cottager while working in his garden. Both these passages are probably connected with a third whose opening or entrance is in the centre of the ” Three-Ring Fort,” one field beyond Seir-Kieran graveyard, to the west, in Oakley Park. This Three-Ring Fort is one of the finest Raths in Leinster; it consists of no less than four concentric rings, with the same number of fossae, and covers about two Irish acres’.
There are many instances of souterrains discovered in ringforts. They may have been used for food storage and some were used for shelter in times of conflict.

Recent local folklore recounts that the sound of a cow lowing can be heard as though coming from a cave or tunnel in the area.

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Fr. O’Keeffe caught Stealing
‘Father O’Keeffe, when P.P., Seir-Kieran, had this pedestal uprooted and was bearing it off to Clareen chapel, when the Protestant Minister, the Rev. Mr. Scott, appeared on the scene, and insisted on his carrying it back and setting it up again in its own place’.
Sheela na Gig
Thomas Lalor Cooke, the Birr historian (d. 1869) was the first author who mentioned the Saighir Sheela-na-gig. He described it as ‘a curious and grotesque figure made of freestone, and resembling an Egyptian idol, was to be seen here in the eastern gable of the church of that day’. The National Monuments Service lists ten locations for Sheela-na-gig in Co. Offaly. The Saighir Sheela was removed under instruction of the Reverend – and transferred to the National Museum where it had been on public display until recent times.

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Seir Kieran has a great hurling tradition as has St Rynagh’s