Friar’s Grave or Boundary Marker or: A cross-slab at Ballysheil, Cloghan, Co. Offaly. By Ronan Healy

This week we welcome Ronan Healy, a new contributor to our series of articles on Offaly History. We are pleased to have his contribution and invite our readers to put the hand to the churn and write for the series.

In the townland of Strawberry Hill lies a cross-slab with a history that has generated a number of different theories but no definitive answer. This cross-slab is indistinct in the landscape. You would easily drive or walk past it without even noticing it. However this simple piece of stone has a history, folklore and decoration that suggests it is much more than a simple stone on the side of the road. This blog post will look at the history of the cross-slab, previous research on the slab and some suggestions for the future preservation of the cross-slab.

Context in the Landscape

This monument is located in the townland of Strawberry Hill (or Drishoge). The monument is located at the edge of a minor road (Latitude: 53.24291, Longitude:-7.87125) in the historic parish of Gallen (today Cloghan parish) located in the west of the county of Offaly. The monument is on the edge of the minor road about 1km north-east of Cloghan village that originally was the main road between Cloghan and Ferbane up until the middle of the 18th century.[1]

Figure 1 Cross-slab and Holy Well location

Located 100m to the north of the slab is the site of a holy well. This well is located on private land. The two monuments are both recorded in the ASI Sites and Monuments Record (SMR) database: cross-slab (OF022-011) and Holy Well (OF022-010001).

About 800 metres south of the graveslab location is the medieval site of Killourney now the location of a modern graveyard. Little is known about this site. There are ruins of a church at the site. According to the ASI Sites and Monuments Record (SMR) database, there was no building recorded on the church site in the Down Survey of 1652 so the church was built in the last 300 years. Access to the Killourney site must have been from the same minor road that the cross-slab is located on as the Cloghan-Ferbane road did not exist until the 18th century. [2]

Figure 2 Cross-slab in wider landscape copyright Google

Description of the Cross-Slab

The monument could be defined as either a cross-slab or graveslab. The reason being the stone itself contains a carved cross. The cross-slab measures 120cm long and 46cm wide. It is 6cm in depth. The slab is made of sandstone[3]. The cross-slab features a ringed Latin cross in relief with cross and shaft. The cross-slab is in poor condition with the cross showing considerable wear from weather in the shaft with evidence of frost damage at the arms of the cross. Indeed it is hard to follow the shape of the cross on the cross-slab. There is no evidence of any inscription on the slab.

Figure 3 Cross-slab (image authors)

Theories for the Cross-Slab

The cross-slab was first described by noted local historian and antiquarian T.L Cooke in 1857[4]. Cooke was a local solicitor based in Parsontown (now Birr). Cooke described the slab in great detail and compared it to a graveslab in St. Auden’s church in Dublin (see image below). Based on conversation with a local man and his research in the annals, Cooke believed the slab was a graveslab for the Bishop of Clonmacnoise, Cormac Mac Cochláin who died after the battle of Lumcloom in 1444[5].

The next mention of the cross-slab is by Henry Crawford who in 1916 briefly discusses the slab in his list of early cross slabs published in 1916[6].

In the Schools’ Folklore Collection there are a number of stories relating to the cross-slab and its relationship with the Killourney site. A common story is repeated by a number of different students collecting the stories; a friar was either attempting to escape an attack at Killourney or warn fellow friars at the site of an impending attack. He was attacked at Ballysheil by armed men where he head was cut clean from his body. He was buried where his body fell, but his head rolled for 100 feet and on this spot a well sprang up. This story was repeated in a number of different versions.[7][8][9]

Long, long ago it is said that there was a monastery in the townland of Killourney, Cloghan, Offaly. A priest is supposed to have been killed near this. It is said that the soldiers overtook him in Ballysheil nearby and cut off his head. His body walked headless for about one hundred yards, and *[his head rolled into a well] in a garden which is now owned by a man name Michael Calmon, Ballysheil, Cloghan, Offaly. His body was buried under a flat stone in front of the house which is now occupied by Mrs Carrol, Ballysheil, Cloghan, Offaly. It is also said that anyone who leaves medals, money or anything else on this stone will be cured from any complaint they are suffering from. The Friars in Killourney escaped but the monastery was burnt”[10]

One recent theory by Ger Murphy suggests that the slab was a marker for the boundary of the early monastic settlement site of Killourney. He suggests a date of the 9th century for the slab[11]. Based on its location near the border of the townlands of Cush East, Killourney More and Drishoge and the setting of Killourney at the edge of marginal land, Murphy suggests the inscribed slab is actually a marker or Termon stone notifying travellers of their proximity to the Killourney site. If this theory is correct then this marker stone would possibly be the only known existing boundary marker from an early medieval monastic site in Co. Offaly[12].

Figure 4 The 6″ map showing the cross-slab (marked in red) on the boundary of three townlands  (copyright OSI)

Discussing the Various Theories

There are a number of questions to answer in order to understand which theory is most applicable in this circumstance. If it is the graveslab of a bishop as Cooke suggests, why was he buried here? Why was he not buried at the battle site or at his seat at Clonmacnoise?

If it is the grave of a friar as the folklore suggests why was he not buried at Killourney; a local and possibly active ecclesiastical site?

The final theory of the stone as a boundary marker has some merit and deserves some attention. Incised Stones as boundary markers have received some study in Ireland previously (see McCarthy 2013, Colbert 2020). Boundary stones usually marked the extent of an ecclesiastical site. As Colbert writes, early medieval ecclesiastical sites in Ireland had a defined area. This could consist of a number of boundaries known as vellum. The inner most vellum being the most sacred and where the main ecclesiastical buildings were located. The termon marked the limit of the area of the monastic site or it could mark the extent the area it claimed control of (Colbert 2020). This could extent from a few hundred meters to a few kilometres (Colbert 2020). As the cross-slab at Strawberry Hill is only about 800 metres from the site of Killourney, could this cross-slab be a boundary marker?

Dating the stone would help in confirming any of these theories. Less than 15km from this graveslab site is the location of the largest collection of medieval grave slabs in Ireland at Clonmacnoise[13]. Some can be dated precisely thanks to mentions of the deceased person in the Annals. For example the graveslab in the image below records the death of Odhrán the Knowledgeable whose death is recorded in AD 994. This graveslab is quite different from the cross-slab at Strawberry Hill. In his work on the slab at Strawberry Hill, Cooke compared the slab to one located at St. Audoen Church in Dublin.

Figure 5 A comparison of the cross-slab with a 9thC Graveslab from Clonmacnoise and a “blessed stone” from St. Auden’s Church Dublin (Image jstor.com and archeology.ie.) [14]

Another clue to the age of the cross are the grave slabs at Clonmore Co. Carlow which are similar in design. Correspondence with Colbert suggests that the cross-slab could date from the 8th-12th Century. If so it would be a unique monument in Offaly as one of the only know in situ boundary markers.

Whatever the intended purpose of this slab, it does deserve further attention and especially preservation due to its ongoing deteriorating condition.

My thanks to Dr. Kate Colbert and Dr. Christy Cunniffe for their help with this article.

About The Author:

Ronan Healy is a native of Cloghan. He is a graduate of N.U.I.G where he studied History and is a recent graduate of the Certificate in Local History with University of Limerick. He lives and works in Galway.

References:

Colbert, K “Early Medieval Sculpture in Southeast Ireland: Identities, Landscape and Memory” PhD Thesis 2020

Cooke, T.L., Wayside ancient monument at Drishoge, King‟s County‟ in Journal of the Kilkenny and South-East of Ireland Archaeological Society, New Series, i, no.2 (1857), p. 383 Accessed January 31, 2021.

Crawford, Henry S. “Supplementary List of Early Cross-Slabs and Pillars.” The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Sixth Series, 6, no. 2 (1916): 163-67. Accessed January 31, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25514462.

Murphy, G., “Friar’s Stone” Smithstowns, Cloghan, Co. Offaly An Evaluation” Pamphlet 2018.

““Proceedings and Transactions.” Proceedings and Transactions of the Kilkenny and South-East of Ireland Archaeological Society, vol. 3, no. 2, Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 1855, pp. 275–92, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25493663.


[1] Act of Parliament for amending and making…the road from Nenagh through the towns of Birr, Ferbane and Curranboybridge 1779

[2] ibid

[3] Crawford, Henry S. “Supplementary List of Early Cross-Slabs and Pillars.” The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Sixth Series, 6, no. 2 (1916): 163-67. Accessed January 31, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25514462.

[4] T.L. Cooke, Wayside ancient monument at Drishoge, King‟s County‟ in Journal of the Kilkenny and South-East of Ireland Archaeological Society, New Series, i, no.2 (1857), p. 383

[5] ibid

[6] Crawford, Henry S. “Supplementary List of Early Cross-Slabs and Pillars.” The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Sixth Series, 6, no. 2 (1916): 163-67.

[7] The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0815, page 005 Found at https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5044629/5027431

[8] The Schools’ Collection,Volume 0816,Page 004 Found at https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5044630/5027548/5142957

[9] The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0816, Page 217 found at https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5044631/5027723

[10] The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0816, Page 216 found at https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5044631/5027722

[11] G. Murphy, ““Friar’s Stone” Smithstowns, Cloghan, Co. Offaly An Evaluation”” Pamphlet 2018.

[12] ibid.

[13] http://irisharchaeology.ie/2016/06/some-early-medieval-grave-slabs-at-clonmacnoise/

[14] “Proceedings and Transactions.” Proceedings and Transactions of the Kilkenny and South-East of Ireland Archaeological Society 3, no. 2 (1855): 275–92. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25493663.