Traditionally it has been believed that St. Columba, or Colmcille, left this world on 9 June 597, marking his departure from this world and entering a new life. Throughout those 77 years on this earth, according to his first hagiographer, Adomnán, he is reported to having performed many ‘prophecies, miracles and visions’ some of them astounding and others quite the opposite. Although much has been made of his more breathtaking and spectacular feats of saintliness, his less notable achievements have garnered significantly less consideration, though they might be worth reflecting on too. Here we take a few examples directly from Adomnán’s writings – one example from each of his three parts or books – and determine if they have any currency today, 1425 years later. (This article is published to mark St Colmcille’s Day on 9 June. Wishing our President Helen Bracken and all who have worked hard to see Durrow fully restored to public health and public access. Ed.)
Adomnán’s work is divided into three books, and according to the title, the first concerns prophetic revelations, the second miracles, and the third visions. There is no chronological order to most of it. He is sometimes painfully clear about some of his sources, and vague or silent about others. Over the centuries it has been added to, and the veracity of his writing has been the subject of much debate, with some researchers more disparaging than others. Here, we are only concerned with the original Adomnán work, and nothing later than that. It was written at least 60 to 100 years after Colmcille’s death. It is worth adding that the version used in this article is a 1995 translation with extensive and informative notes by Richard Sharpe.
The Mullingar and Athlone launches of Westmeath History and Society have provided two interesting and original addresses on the status of local history in Westmeath, our neighbouring county. The Offaly History and Society volume was published in 1998 and is long out of print. A few copies were secured by Offaly History some years ago and are offered for sales as scarce titles. We thank our friend Dr Harman Murtagh for a copy of his address on 31 3 2022 and we have added some pictures for our readers. Enjoy the address in Athlone and you can get the book at Offaly History Centre and online at www.offalyhistory.com, over 900 pages, hardback, €60.
This is the south Westmeath launch of this magnificent volume, Westmeath history and society.
A week ago it was launched in north Westmeath by the archbishop of Dublin, the very Reverend Dr Farrell; south Westmeath must make do with the most irreverent Dr Murtagh.
The book is 900 pages long. As the archbishop observed in Mullingar, it’s about the size of a concrete block: in my view, its only fault is that it’s rather heavy to hold in bed.
Westmeath history and society is one of a series of county books – incredibly it’s the twenty-ninth in the series. The series has been appearing at the rate of a volume a year since 1985.
The series founder, general editor and manager from the start is Dr Willie Nolan, aided and abetted by his wife, Theresa. Their contribution to Irish society and to local studies is without equal. In France they would undoubtedly be awarded the Legion of Honour; in Britain surely Sir Willie and Dame Theresa? In Ireland, and here in Athlone, we can offer at least our enormous admiration for their magnificent achievement – twenty-nine county volumes of this size down, and only three to go! Wow!
Archaeologically speaking there are many different types of enclosure in Ireland, many dating from some thousands of years ago and built for many different reasons. Some of the different types include:
Henge. A large, enclosed, prehistoric, circular or oval area usually over 70m in diameter which is defined by an earthen bank and a (usually internal) shallow but broad ditch. They can contain a variety of internal features including timber or stone circles. They are ceremonial/ritual monuments and date to the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age (c. 2800-1700 BC). They have between 2 – 4 entrances. There are no henges in Offaly.
Just 18 henges survive in Ireland today, one of the largest is at Ballynahatty (7 acres) just SW of Belfast and which contains a small passage tomb containing the remains of a unique Neolithic woman. The most well-known henge is probably that at Dowth at Brú na Bóinne.
Ballynahatty and Dowth Henges
Barrow. A circular or oval raised area (generally over 1m above the external ground level) with an external ditch and sometimes an outer bank. They contain burials and were in use from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age (c. 2400 BC – AD 400). There are at least seven different types of barrow in Ireland.
There are 41 barrows in Offaly, at least 30 ring-barrows and 5 bowl barrows.
Durrow Abbey with two ring-barrows side by side (yellow dots), OS map
Coolcreen in the Sliabh Blooms with 5 barrows adjacent to one another, OS map
Ring Ditch. A bedrock cut ditch or trench of circular or penannular plan, usually identified through aerial photography either as soil marks or cropmarks. When excavated, ring ditches are usually found to be the ploughed‐out remains of a round barrow where the barrow mound has completely disappeared, leaving only the infilled former ditch.
There are 6 ring ditches in Offaly none of which are visible at ground level. Sometimes, they only appear as crop marks on the ground.
Two ring-ditches (yellow dots), Lehinch near Clara, OS map
Ringfort or rath. A roughly circular or oval area surrounded by an earthen bank with an external ditch. Some examples have two (bivallate) or three (trivallate) banks and fosses, but these are less common and have been equated with higher status sites belonging to the upper grades of society. They functioned as residences and/or farmsteads and broadly date from 500 to 1000 AD. Ringforts have seen the most destruction in recent times, primarily to release the enclosed space for agriculture even though protected by law as National Monuments. Ringforts made from stone are called cashels.
There are 199 ringforts in Co. Offaly, mainly clustered in the south of the county.
Three ringforts, Broughal, Co Offaly, OS map
Hillfort. A large enclosed area that is usually encompassing between 2 and 22 hectares (diam. exceeding c. 160m). Hillforts are always located in high upland terrain and are very prominent locally. They are defined by an earthen bank/banks or a wall/walls and can be circular, oval or more irregularly shaped if following the contours of a hilltop. In the case of bivallate or multivallate examples, the banks are often widely spaced. They may have been important ceremonial or tribal centres and/or permanent or temporary settlements. Some examples date from the Early Neolithic (c. 3600 BC), others from the Middle to Late Bronze Age (c. 1400-500 BC) with examples of reoccupation in the later Iron Age (c. 100-400 AD).
There are two hillforts in Offaly, one at Ballymacmurragh NE of Longfort village, it is made of two banks and is almost surrounded by forestry. The second is close by at Aghancon and is made up of two widely separated banks and is one of the largest on the island covering 14 acres.
Ballymacmurragh and Aghancon Hillforts, OS map
How to find enclosures.
There are many techniques used to identify enclosures.
Where archaeological remains are suspected but where no evidence is visible at ground level the use of ground level geophysics can reveal detailed layouts of buildings, sites, roadways, enclosures, etc.
Aerial photography allows us to compare sites over many years, commencing in the middle of the last century particularly with the work of Leo Swan and Norman & St Joseph of Cambridge University. Pioneer JK St. Joseph qualified as a geologist and then lectured in Cambridge University. During WWII he analysed photographs taken by RAF photographers. Using his wartime experience he understood the potential of aerial photography to analyse archaeological sites. One of his earliest publications was Monastic Sites from the Air published in 1952.
Aerial photography has also identified enclosures through cropmarks where nothing is visible at ground level. Cropmarks generally appear when crop growth is aligned with dry conditions.
Leo Swan was the first to exclusively examine Irish ecclesiastical sites from the air starting in 1971. He combined his aerial research with study of the six-inch OS maps. In addition, he had access to the documentary evidence from the Early Medieval period. He identified 400 ecclesiastical sites through photography and added another 200 sites through his field work.
Someone with time on their hands can go and compare the early OS maps with these early aerial photos and today’s satellite photos and identify the destruction of the very large number of archaeological sites in their own locality.
One of the other major contributions that Leo Swan made to the archaeological investigations of early church sites from his aerial and field work was to produce a list of features which are consistently found on these sites and lists them in order of frequency:
Evidence of enclosure
Place name with ecclesiastical element
Structure, or structural remains such as church or Round Tower
Carved, shaped, inscribed, or decorated stone cross or slab
Line of townland boundary forming part of the enclosure
Associated traditional ritual or folk custom
Radiating road network
Triangular market area, commonly but not always on the east
Swan suggests that there will be four or five of these features that survive in most cases.
For hundreds of years the enclosures remained untouched whether through folklore – the Púca, Fairy Fort or an area of liminality, the bridge between the living and the dead. It was the arrival of the tractor pulling the plough that rubbed these ancient sites off the landscape.
What do we mean by early Irish churches? The early churches were made of wood, no archaeological trace of these wooden churches have survived. They were simple, rectangular shaped with one door and one window (perhaps) facing east to west, with the door pointing to the west. Stone churches arrived around 500 – 800AD with almost the same layout as the wooden churches. Church architecture remained the same until the arrival of the Continental monks and the reforms of the Irish church in the 1100s. Only a handful of early ecclesiastical sites have been fully excavated, 41 have had partial/limited excavations carried out.
How many ecclesiastical enclosures are there in Co. Offaly? The National Monuments database has a list of 22 ecclesiastical enclosures in Offaly while Elizabeth FitzPatrick in her 1998 paper ‘The Early Church in Offaly’ lists 6 enclosure sites with a possible 5 others. Mervyn Archdall (1723 – 1791) lists 32 ancient Offaly churches in his Monasticon Hibernicum, many of the names he gives can no longer be located today. Later FitzPatrick and O’Brien list eight very large enclosures in their 1998 book on the Medieval Churches of County Offaly.
Swan suggests that there are at least 2,000 early church sites in Ireland. The Stout husband and wife team suggest that there were over 5,500 pre-Norman ecclesiastical sites in Ireland. In addition, it is suggested that over 6,000 townlands contained the name Cill in their placename.
What is an Ecclesiastical enclosure? A large oval or roughly circular area, usually over 50m in diameter, defined by a bank/banks and external fosse/ditch or drystone wall/walls, enclosing an early medieval church or monastery, its graveyard and its associated areas of domestic, agriculture or industrial activity. These date to the early medieval period (5th-12th centuries AD). Sometimes hedges, field fences and field boundaries have replaced the original enclosures.
The Early Irish Church developed independently from the European Roman model which was based on the cities of the Roman Empire, connected by the great European road systems. These European cities had a church centre led by a bishop. The Irish system developed independently to the degree that major reform was demanded by the European and English Church in the 12th century.
These early church establishments are not to be confused with the later and very different medieval abbeys and friaries of the Continental orders that arrived in the 1100s.
A circular pattern for the layout of early Irish church sites was adopted from an early date. There may not have been a written down plan but there was a general pattern almost universally accepted to which the early sites seem to have conformed. These church sites were surrounded by banks of earth constructed in a way used for constructing ring forts, so the skills for construction were readily available. Many church sites had two banks with a very small number having three banks. It appears to have been a universal pattern. The enclosure contained the church, burial ground, other church structures such as round tower and high cross.
Only a small number of Offaly churches retain enclosures visible in the landscape today. However, as discussed earlier there are many techniques available for identifying where enclosures may have been robbed away. Many are very similar in size to ring forts while some of the largest sites are comparable with the largest hillfort.
Many problems exist with a mere surface examination of these enclosures, the most important of which is their dating. Without excavation it is nearly impossible to give a date to the construction of an enclosure. In addition, many of these enclosures display later mediaeval occupation and farming traces at surface level.
Where there was insufficient earth to make an enclosure a number of church sites, particularly on islands in the west of Ireland designed their enclosures and built them in stone. Examples include Skellig, Ilauntannig and Inismurray. These church sites survive today particularly as pilgrimage sites.
Holy of Holies and Sanctuary.
Two features of the Christian church that appear early are the concept of the Holy of Holies and the concept of Sanctuary. Both would have been strange to the Irish people used to the Druidic rituals usually held in groves/woods. Conversion to the new church and its rituals was slow and took hundreds of years to complete, many of the older Celtic rituals survive to modern times – reverence to the holy well, the rag tree and the perpetual fire.
The Holy of Holies is a term from the Hebrew Bible and relates to the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle where God’s presence appeared in Israel. The area held the Ark of the Covenant which contained the ten Commandments, given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai.
The concept of Sanctuary stretches back to the Cities of Refuge of the six Levitical towns in Israel and Judea in which the perpetrators of accidental manslaughter could claim the right of asylum. Mention of refuge and sanctuary can be traced back to the Old Testament and the Books of Deuteronomy, Exodus, Joshua and Numbers.
Charles Doherty (UCD) has suggested that the Irish had a concept of sanctuary based on the biblical ‘city of refuge’ whereby the monastic site is considered a holy of holies at the core, around which are areas of sanctuary that decrease in importance the further you move away from the centre. Doherty describes the first area of sanctuary as Sanctissimus, the second Sanctior and the third as Sanctus.
With the growth of Irish ecclesiastical settlements, it became increasingly important to protect the sanctity of the holy area, prevent the violation of graves, control the influx of pilgrims and protect the wealth of the church. In addition, it was necessary to protect those fleeing and seeking sanctuary and preventing raids from other churches and princes. In Europe the concept of sanctuary was intimately linked to the right of asylum from the 5th century. A Roman law, passed in 419AD set the sanctuary boundary to a circuit of 50 paces around the place of worship. It is not clear when the concept of sanctuary expired.
Were these enclosures defensive? If so, they were a miserable failure. We know the accounts of how easily the Vikings raided the monasteries. Less well known are the accounts of raids by the Irish on the monasteries. The Annals are littered with such raids. One monastery in Offaly is recorded many times. Clonmacnoise did not appear to like its neighbours – Birr, Durrow or Kinnitty.
U760.8 A battle between the communities of Cluain Mac Nois and Biror in Móin Choise Blae.
U764.6 The battle of Argaman between the community of Cluain Moccu Nóis and the community of Dermag (Durrow), in which fell Diarmait Dub son of Domnall, and Diglach son of Dub Lis, and two hundred men of the community of Dermag. Bresal, son of Murchad, emerged victor, with the community of Cluain. Both quotes from the Annals of Ulster.
And in 842 Kinnitty and Clonmacnoise were at war. So much for the Isle of Saints and Scholars!
Durrow also suffered: burned in 1095, 1153 and twice in 1155. In 1175 Durrow was devastated by Hugh de Lacy of Meath.
The Annals of the Four Masters describe other destruction in Offaly.
M800.10 Cill Achaidh (Killeigh) was burned, with its new oratory.
M952.11 Saighir Chiarain was plundered by the men of Munster.
M1548.9 Saighir and Kilcormac were burned and destroyed by the English and O’Carroll
There are many other cases where sanctuary was ignored by the local Irish lords such as described in the Annals
AI1180.3 Ard Ferta Brénainn (Ardfert) was plundered by the Clann Charthaig, and they carried off all the livestock they found therein. They put many good people to death inside its sanctuary and graveyard; but, indeed, God avenged that, for a large number of those plunderers were forthwith slain.’
Another mention in the Annals of Ulster recount an Irish raid on Donaghpatrick, Co Meath
U746.11 Violation of sanctuary at Domnach Pátraic, six captives being hanged.
An attempt to halt the slaughter of monks and laity and re-establish the sanctity of sanctuary was attempted by Adomnán at the Synod of Birr in 697 AD. Adomnán, then abbot of Iona, collected an assembly of religious and royal leaders headed by Loingsech mac Oengusso then Cencl Connaill, King of Tara. The synod passed Cáin Adomnáin also known as the Law of the Innocents. The law provided sanctions against those who killed children, clerics or farm labourers within a church sanctuary, however it failed in its implementation.
THE ENCLOSURES IN OFFALY
Durrow, the Columban site was the location of the murder of Hugh de Lacy in his attempts to build a fort and establish his claims to the lands of Mide (Meath). Whether his plan was to build a Motte and Bailey or a stone fort such as that at Trim is unknown. However, the earlier Irish enclosure can still be seen as cropmarks in the field to the south and east of the church.
The outer enclosure has a double bank with a ditch/fosse in between, perhaps, 500m in diameter. Did the inner enclosure represent the area of sanctuary?
The Life of Colmcille tells us that Colmcille requested Cormac O Liathain that the abbot ‘set in order the monastery and enclose it well’. Elsewhere, it mentioned that 150 workers erected an enclosure that ‘there might not be a breach therein’ and that the oak trees of Dar Magh were cut down to provide stakes for protection of all sides of the monastery.
The following drawing was made by Sterling de Courcy Williams in 1899. The remains of the enclosure can be seen south of the church and swinging west in the direction of the motte.
A story in the Life of Colmán of Lynally recounts that a raiding party from Durrow stole earth from Lynally’s enclosure that Colmán had brought back from Rome. Did they put it into their own enclosure?
Sterling de Courcy Williams drawing of the Termon of Durrow, 1899 & Leo Swan photos1
There is no trace of the first great monastery of St Kieran. This was one of the most important early schools, founded at the edge of the River Shannon in 544.
Like Birr, Seirkieran sat on the old provincial border between Mumu (Munster) and Mide (Meath) and suffered from regular tensions particularly with the southern Ui Neill. Impressive substantial earthen banks, separated by a ditch/fosse still surround the church at Seirkieran, enclosing an area of about 12 ha.
Geoffrey Keating has an account of the building of an enclosure at Seirkieran, ‘at this time Sadhbh, Queen of Ireland, wife of the Ard Righ Donnchadh, son of Flann Sionna and daughter of Donnchadh King of Ossory grieved that Saighir the burial place of her ancestors lay open and defenceless while so many other famous churches in Ireland were encircled by walls induced her royal husband to send a number of masons from Meath to erect a suitable wall of stone around the cemetery’. This account implies a stone wall around the Seirkieran graveyard; however, archaeology has failed to find this wall. It confirms other accounts that Seirkieran was the burial place of the Kings of Ossory at this time; Keating states that ‘the burying place of the kings of Osruighe was at Saighir Chiaráin’.
Photos of Seirkieran by Leo Swan2
This site contains the church of St Carthage in its original enclosure with the original earthen ramparts around it. The monastery is inside a large D shaped enclosure with the River Clodiagh forming the northern boundary. The enclosure is 500 m x 325 m, covering field boundaries to the south, west and east. The outer bank is made from earth with an external bank/fosse. In 1870 Thomas Stanley described the inner enclosure as having two earthen banks with intervening fosse.
In recent times Dr Paul Gibson has carried out extensive geophysical surveys of the interior which reveals sub-rectangular inner enclosures.
Rahan from early and current OS maps
The enclosures around Killeigh are probably the largest in the country. Many elements of them have survived, the remainder ploughed out. The full extent of the enclosures is best seen through aerial photography and survives in the south east of the village. Another part can be seen to the south west of the village in a field to the west of a lane that runs past Abbey Farm. Otherwise, elements of the original enclosures are seen as ragged cropmarks from aerial photography.
Artistic view of Killeigh Historic Landscape published on Offaly.ie
Close to Roscrea this enclosure is an impressive cashel, built of stone on the basis that stone was more readily available than earth. This site is dedicated to St. Kieran of Seirkieran.
Cooleeshil from OS maps
Another early site with a river as a significant element of the enclosure, similar to Durrow and Seirkieran. Earlier called Kilwheery. Situated on the flood plains of the river Brosna the river provides the southern boundary of a D-shaped enclosure measuring 55m x 35m at maximum. From an account in the Kilkenny Archaeological Journal, during drainage works in 1849 a bell, enclosed in a shrine was found in a pool in the Brosna just beside the site.
Maps from the early OS surveys and modern satellite photo
Kildangan – Tihilly
Tihilly is located between Tullamore and Durrow. Human bones are said to have been found in the site which was levelled during the last century and is no longer visible at ground level. The ecclesiastical enclosure consisted of a large circular area enclosed by an earthen bank which acted as a circular field boundary. The site seems to have contained a graveyard and a holy bush. Folklore stories collected in the 1930s describe the annual Patron Day rituals carried out at Tihilly. The comparison between the 1830s OS map and the modern photo identifies the destruction to the original church site for agricultural purposes.
Maps from the early OS surveys and modern satellite photo
Early church enclosure within an archaeological rich landscape containing church and graveyard. There is no modern access road but there is a trace of a sunken road to the NE of the site that may have led to the original church site.
This week we welcome Ronan Healy, a new contributor to our series of articleson 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.
An account of Clonmacnoise in the early years of the ninteenth century was published by William Shaw Mason (c.1774–1853), as part of his three-volume A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland, drawn up from the communications of the clergy (1814–19). Included in this survey is one Offaly parish – that of Clonmacnoise, published as part of vol. 2 in 1816, pp 142-150.
Shaw Mason was born in Dublin in 1774 and died there in 1853. He was for many years involved in the pursuit of history and was secretary to the Commissioners of Public Records. One attractive sinecure he had was Remembrancer or receiver of first fruits.
The contributer of the Clonmacnoise piece was the local vicar, Patrick Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald noted that there was no town in the parish save Shannonbridge which had a few slated and 280 thatched houses.The parish had 586 families, comprising over 3,000 of a population with only eight Protestant families. Potatoes and milk were the basic foodstuffs with some fish. English was the usual tongue with only some Irish spoken. Patron Day was 9th September as it still is but at that time 3,000 to 4,000 people would attend. The principal owners of land in the parish were Lord Rosse, Rev. Henry Mahon, Edward Armstrong-Frazier and H. P. Lestrange. The number of Protestant families must have one of the lowest in the county and can be conrasted with Ballyboy and Killoughy in 1826 with 7,250 RC and almost 500 Protestants.
Clonmacnois* is the ancient and modern name of the parish. It is situated in the barony of Garrycastle in the King’s County and in the diocese of Meath. Longitude 80 5 ’west; latitude 530 20’ North. (The name Clonmacnois evidently derived from the word ‘Cluain’ meaning a retired lawn, or small nook of land, free from rocks, near a river. . .) Its boundaries are on the north the river Shannon, from which it is separated from the county of Roscommon; on the east, by Kilcleagh and Lemanaghan parishes on the south, by Thesaurin parish, and on the West by part of Thesaurin parish, and by the Shannon which divides it from Galway and Clonfert.
The length of the parish from East to West is about eight Irish miles and the breadth from North to South is about three. About 3723 acres are arable and fit for pasture; the meadow ground is in general indifferent; there is a little upland meadow, as it mostly lies along the banks of the Shannon. But it contains more than double the above named number of acres of bog, as a large branch of the great Bog of Allen runs up into the parish, including every kind of soil. It contains upwards of 12,000 acres.
There is no river in or adjoining to this parish except the Shannon which mears it as already mentioned. A lake called Clonsalagh, which is computed to cover ninety acres, produces good pike and perch and some eels. This sheet of water is situated nearly in the centre of the parish, and derives its name from the townland in which it is. On the North and East, it is surrounded by hills, which, if planted, would produce a fine effect, and on the south and west by a large bog. The parish abounds with hills, the tops of which are allotted to pasturage as all the valleys are tilled and produce fine crops of corn; though the general appearance of the soil which is very light and sandy, might lead at first view to an opposite conclusion. There are neither mountains nor woods here, nor have there been any remarkable indigenous plants found.
Mines, Minerals, &c.
Limestone is the general substratum of the soil in all parts, when mixed with bogstuff and clay; it makes excellent compost for the purposes of manuring.
Modern Buildings, &c.
The high road leading from Ballinasloe to the counties of Meath and Kildare runs through the parish, in a direction East and West. Another crosses it nearly from North to south, and there is also a third road, but this is of very little note. It can boast but of one town that of Shannonbridge so called from a very handsome bridge built across the river. Here is a small barrack capable of accommodating a company of soldiers. A large tower and battery are building and in a state of great forwardness on the western (or Connaught) side of the bridge. This is the great pass from that province to Leinster. A Magazine has already been erected behind the barracks. There is no market held here, the want of which is severely felt by the soldiers, who are obliged to purchase their meat at Ballinasloe, six miles distant.
The village contains a few slated houses of two stories high and the rest, to the number of 280 are thatched. In consequence of the great number of artificers employed in the military works house rent has increased rapidly. The average rent for building ground amounts to ten shillings per foot. Its inn is nothing more than a stopping point, but the village contains several shops for retailing spirits without licence better known throughout the country by the name of Shebeen Houses.
It is singular, that not a possessor of a fee simple estate resides in the parish, neither, if we except the glebe house, is there is more than one good slated house in it, which belongs to Mr. Coughlan who holds about 200 acres of land, on which he resides.
Ancient Buildings, &c.
The Abbey of Clonmacnois is situated near the river Shannon. It was built about the year of our Lord 561 at which time it was held in high veneration. The Churchyard annexed to it contains nearly two Irish acres; it is one of the greatest burial places in Ireland, upwards of four hundred corpses are supposed to be buried there annually. There are also the remains of ten other chapels of lesser note, now totally in ruins. A door of one of them is very curiously and very beautifully carved. About half quarter of a mile thence, are the remains of a Bishop’s palace, now wholly in ruins, some of the walls are the only parts that have as yet escaped the ravages of time. In the church-yard are two large Round Towers one about 62 feet high, and 56 in circumference; its walls are 3 feet 8 inches thick, and the other is 5 feet 6” high, 7 feet in diameter and three feet thick. Here are also two large crosses, one of which is marked with some rude carving and bears an inscription in antique and unknown characters. At a small distance stands what appears to have been a religious house for nuns; it is also in ruins, no part of the building remains, except a single arch. A full account of this interesting place may be found in Archdall’s Monasticum and Ledwidge’s Antiquities of Ireland.
Present and Former State of Population &c.
From every information that could be procured it appears that there are 586 families in the parish, comprising of 1618 males and 1558 females. Eight only of these families are Protestant, the rest Roman Catholic. The people in general are very comfortable and dress neatly, some in grey frize, and some in coarse blue cloth. Potatoes and milk form the general food, to which is often added fish procured from the Shannon and the lake. The poorest keeps one cow, and some have three or four. There are very few who do not keep one horse for work, and some have two.
The fuel is turf. This is plentiful and of good quality. The houses are in general very neat and comfortable, mostly built of stone and mortar. One person only is named here as having lived to 90 years of age. Few arrive to 70.
The Disposition and Genius of the Poorer Classes
The people here are very industrious. They are courteous to strangers but have a stubborn disposition in their intercourse with each other. Their general language is English, although they sometimes speak Irish to one another.
There is but one patron day held here, on 9th of September in honour of St. Kieran their tutelary saint and this is numerously attended. From 3000 to 4000 people assemble there to do penance from different parts of Ireland, even from the county of Donegal. Tents and booths are erected round the churchyard for the accommodation of the people. This assemblage continues for two days and often ends in quarrels. Its abolition would be a desirable circumstance. Some persons have been obliged to keep to their beds for weeks in consequence of beatings received at such meetings.
The Education and Employment of Children.
The children are brought up to husbandry. Some parents send their children to the petty schools in the neighbourhood, during the idle season of the year. When asked why they did not send them regularly and constantly, their answer was that they could not spare them from the work. The girls are generally employed in spinning.
There are no public schools. The parish clerk keeps a licensed Protestant school, which is very badly attended, not more than fifteen children receiving instructions from him. There are, however, three Roman Catholic schools, whose average number of pupils fluctuates from forty to eighty. In harvest time and spring, the number sinks much lower, in consequence of the children being kept to assist in the agricultural labours. The quarterly salary for tuition is 1s. 8d. for reading and spelling 3.s 4d. for writing and arithmetic. There is no public library nor any collection of Irish or other manuscripts relating to Ireland.
Religious Establishments; Tythes &c.
Clonmacnois is a vicarage in the gift of the Bishop of Meath, and is not united to any other parish. About two miles and a half from the church stands the glebe house, where the vicar resides on a glebe of about forty acres. All sorts of grain pay tythes. Wheat, bere and barley are set at from 10s. to 12s. per acre; oats and flax at eight shillings, neither meadow, potatoes, nor rape pay tythes. Sheep pay at the rate of £1.13s. 4p. per hundred. The tythe is but indifferently collected. Some indeed pay punctually, but others very badly. There are two Catholic chapels in the parish, with a priest to each.
IX Modes ofAgriculture Crops Etc.
The inhabitants adhere very tenaciously to the old modes of agriculture. Burning for manure is much practiced, it is called ‘boiting’. The ground when thus prepared, is planted with potatoes, then wheat, barley and oats. The wages of the labourers are 10d. per day in summer and 3d. in winter without victuals but is somewhat higher in harvest. The stock is chiefly cows, horses and sheep of the old Irish breed. The general acreable rent, particularly for late takes is from a guinea and a half to two guineas, but on old takes, from 15s. to a pound. No duty services or payments are exacted from the tenants. Most of the land is set in small farms of from about 10 to 15 acres but there are a few of 25 acres. There is neither market nor fair, nor even a pound or a constable in the parish.
X Trade, Manufactures, Commerce, &c.
XI. NATURAL CURIOSITIES
The list of incumbents from the First Fruits’ Records.
The Reverend Philip Barret, Clerk, was collated on 26th day of May 1743 to the vicarage of Clonmacnois in the King’s County, and Diocese of Meath.
Stephen Bootle, 14th July 1762, Vicarage Clonmacnois, King’s County.
Joseph Pasley, 4th February 1763, Vicarage Clonmacnois, King’s County
William Donaldson, 7th November, 1764 Vicarage, Clonmacnois King’s County
John Baily instituted 15th December 1778, Vicarage Clonmacnois, King’s County – episcopally united to the Rectory of Ballygart in County Meath.
John Fitzgerald, instituted 10th October 1799 Vicarage, Clonmacnois, County Westmeath.
Amongst the recently announced projects for the rejuvenation of the centre of Tullamore is the long promised opening of the ‘Hidden Bridge’ behind the County Library and the linking across it of O’Connor Square and Church Street by a new public park. Though the age and function of the bridge are obscure, clues may be found which shed light on not just its genesis but also those of Tullamore itself.
As humans began to leave the forests and gather together for trade and security, three distinct models of settlement began to emerge. One was the elongated village street which developed along a well travelled trail. Another was the crossroads ie. a meeting of four trails creating a junction around which housing and businesses clustered.The third was the village green form, where several trails came together around an open marketplace.
In Offaly the best examples of the first are Banagher, Shannonbridge, Daingean or Edenderry with their long main streets. Ferbane is a good example of the second type. Killeigh, Cloneygowan, Geashill and Clara which share the same feature of a triangular fair green, are good examples of the last.
Into which category therefore does Tullamore fall?
The Cotton map of the mid to late 16 th century shows the central Midlands as mainly woods, trackless plains and bogs. Apart from ‘Dinian’ (Daingean), Killeigh is the only settlement noted
Tullamore first appears as a distinct settlement on the Moll Atlas of 1728 which shows the Tyrellspass to Birr road as the main route from Westmeath to Tipperary and crossing the Ballycowen River river just south of a hamlet noted as ‘Tullymore’. No other roads into this village are shown.
The first map which shows the layout of the town of Tullamore itself is Taylor and Skinner’s 1777 volume which describes the routes of all the main roads traversing Ireland at that time, but does not purport to be a reliable guide to the streets or form of the towns through which they pass. The guide shows the north -south Kilbeggan to Birr road crossing the river and intersected by the east-west Philipstown (Daingean) to Clara road at a point just south of the present canal bridge. A small chapel is shown on Church Street and a nobleman’s seat close by. The Tyrellspass to Birr road is shown entering the town from the north east and meeting the Philipstown/Clara road at a T-junction, but does not continue further southwards. Were it to continue in a straight line however, it would arrive at the river at precisely the location of the ‘Hidden Bridge’ at the rear of the Library which suggests that this was once its destination.
William Larkin’s Survey of 1809 is a little more detailed and shows seven roads radiating out into the countryside from a central point- again presumably the river crossing. The arrival of the Grand Canal in 1798 had interrupted this road pattern north of the river.
Some indication of the age of these radial roads may be drawn from an examination of the first really reliable map of Tullamore-the Ordnance Survey of 1838. Field boundaries which are not continuous across road lines suggest land ownerships of some antiquity and therefore longer established routes. The clearest example of newer roads interrupting established field boundaries is visible in Bachelors Walk, laid out in 1815 while the relatively recent vintage of Tanyard Lane and the road to Geashill are evident also. However, the Killeigh, Kilbeggan, Rahan and Charleville radial roads which have differing boundaries on either side, are clearly much older.
The North Eastern Radial
Of particular interest however is the north eastern entry to the town from the Tyrrellspass direction and the former direct route to Birr according to Moll. Having cut through the esker at Derrygolan, the road takes a direct and straight line to enter Tullamore at Puttaghan along a route formerly known locally as Rapparee Alley; at which point (according to Taylor and Skinner) it suddenly meets the east-west Philipstown-Clara road and proceeds no further. The discontinuous boundaries on either side northwards of this junction suggests a route of some antiquity. We can only speculate as to why it does not continue further to its projected and natural destination point -the river crossing suggested by Moll’s map.
Roads evolve along desire lines of movement and historically the focus of all the other radial roads entering Tullamore was the river crossing. As there were no physical obstacles to interrupt the original line of the Puttaghan Road, we can only surmise as to the reasons for its discontinuance or abandonment.
Combining the Moll Atlas and Taylor and Skinner’s Map it would appear that the road originally ran past the ruined castle recorded in 1620 as being in the ownership of Sir John Moore and which was located somewhere in the Church Street/O’Carroll Street area. Indeed the castle may have originally been built to ensure the security of that ancient road.
In 1710 Sir John moved the family seat of the O’Moores from Croghan to Tullamore and built a new house somewhere near the old castle. It is possible but conjectural that some years later the Puttaghan road was decommissioned by Sir John to increase and protect the pleasure grounds around his new residence. Traffic from the north east would now meet a T-junction at the northern edge of his estate and travel westwards along the Philipstown- Clara road to meet with what was by then, the main Kilbeggan-Birr road and then proceed southwards along it to ford the river.
Though this diversion might have inconvenienced travellers, it should be noted that in 1786 Sir John’s successors rerouted the Tullamore- Birr road around their new demesne at Charleville for this very reason.
The Old Bridge
What then was the function of the bridge between O’Connor Square and Church Street and which has been hidden out of sight for many years? The sharp cutting of the stonework of its central abutment suggests that it is not an ancient structure, but we have no precise information as to when it was erected; in particular we don’t know if it predates or succeeds the bridge to the west which was provided on the site of the former ford sometime around 1775.
The eminent chronicler of the history of the town, Dr. William Moran conjectures that ‘It was probably about the time (early 18c.) the fair green and the cornmarket were opened, that the first bridge over the river was built to enable farmers from the south side of the river to bring their produce to market’. He then goes on to surmise that ‘Two short stretches of road, one each side of the river, connected this bridge with the already existing Philipstown-Birr road.The inconvenience of having to make this little detour, in order to cross the river by the bridge was soon felt; and the present bridge was built to replace the old one’
The provision of the western bridge to replace the ford at present day Bridge Street does not explain why the eastern bridge should have been enclosed and abandoned. It would still have been the more direct route between the two market places of the town and of greater convenience to cattle drovers and wheeled traffic.
The other eminent chronicler of the history of Tullamore Michael Byrne, suggests that property records indicate that the eastern bridge is of a later date than 1775 and was a private facility and an internal link within a single business premises-as was common in the other brewing, tanning and distilling businesses of the town that utilised the river as a source of water or for the discharge of effluent.
I think it is possible to argue that neither Dr. Moran nor Michael Byrne have fully explained the genesis of the bridge and that we have to go back to an earlier date to understand the reason for its location; whatever about the date of its construction.
I believe that, as in the case of its companion to the west, the natural extension of the radial line of the approach roads into Tullamore suggests that it may have been built on the site of an earlier ford-indeed that the entire river between both bridges may have originally been shallow enough to have been fordable. The drainage scheme of the early 1950s deepened this section of the river between Church Street and Bridge Street by removing the rocky outcrop which facilitated the fording of the river at this point.
If this earlier crossing point existed, it is probable that prior to the construction by Sir John Moore of his new house in 1710, all of the radial roads met together at a point to the south of the river. If I am correct in this, a triangular fair green with the fordable river running through and surrounded by houses on the three sides (Church Street being its northern side) would have been the most likely original urban form.
The neighbouring villages, Killeigh, Clonygowan, Geashill and Clara, display such triangular layouts. As may be seen from comparative plans, the form and dimensions of their central village greens are almost identical to each other. (illus.). The village green which I submit may have been the form of Tullamore up to the end of the 17th c. would have been similar to them in scale and shape.
It is possible also that Frankford (Kilcormac) originally formed around a Fair Green of similar scale though the triangular block is now much compromised by infill housing.
A New Theory
As ‘Tullymore’, Geashill, Killeigh, Clonygowan and Clara appear on Moll’s map of 1728 it is possible therefore that all five or even six villages all formed in the mid to late 16th c, as the plantation of Leix-Offaly began to transform the economy and settlement pattern of this particular area of the Midlands.
It is also possible that some time in the early 18th c. the direct route into Tullamore from the north east and which crossed the river to culminate in the fair green of Tullamore-today O’Connor Square- was enclosed into the estate of Sir John Moore and the connection discontinued.
Over the years, the triangular form of the original village green evolved into ‘The Market Place’ and later into Charleville Square. From 1740 onwards it was reduced in scale and became more rectangular and formal. Eventually the land on its northern side, between it and the river was enclosed to build the Market Hall in 1789.
Meanwhile, the lands on either side of the river at the location of the former crossing had come into the ownership of the Quaker Thomas Wilson, who together with his partner Thomas Pim conducted a wool combing and tannery business at the rear, backing on to the river. The lands then passed through the hands of Gideon Tabuteau and on to Joseph Manly who operated a brewery and maltings. They were later acquired by the Tarletons who operated a milling business. It is possible that any of these commercial families may have erected the private stone cut bridge.
I suggest therefore that the bridge behind the County Library is relatively new but that it is located on an earlier crossing point of the river which existed up to the end of the 17 th. century and which gave direct access from the farming hinterland on the north east to the central marketplace of Tullamore.
If I am right, the long promised and eagerly awaited opening to the public of the ‘Hidden Bridge’ will reestablish part of an ancient route which was once an integral part of the original village of ‘Tullymore’.
…..The soft and dreary midlands, with their tame canals,
Wallow between sea and sea, remote from adventure….’
‘Dublin Made Me’ Donagh MacDonagh
Once a month, my uncle Billy Holohan who was the Assistant County Engineer for West Offaly, would come to Tullamore to report to his superior, the County Engineer Tom Duggan, in the courthouse.
After the meeting he would sometimes pick me up from my mother’s house in Clonminch and bring me to stay with himself and his wife Nell in Gallen Lodge in Ferbane. The highlight of the journey, for both of us, was an inspection of the progress on the construction of the two cooling towers of Lumcloon Power Station.
We watched as immense rings of slim, angled columns emerged and were tied together by large circular bands to form the base from which the structures would rise. Over the next few years we marvelled at the gradual ascent of the elegantly modulated shapes, first curving inwards and then subtly outwards to form a lip. Billy tried to explain to me the structural engineering concepts behind the design, but as a small boy I could only marvel at the height and sheer scale of the undertaking.
Unusually for an engineer, Billy had a deep interest in history. He brought me along on his site inspections and introduced me to Clonmacnoise and Sier Kieran. His favourite stop on our return journey to Tullamore was Leamanaghan where we roamed amongst the remains of the Monastery. He delighted in showing me the hoof mark inside the gate of the school which marked the passage of St Manchan’s stolen cow and then brought me over the fields to St Mella’s Kell which I still believe is one of the most romantic spots in Ireland.
Then in 1959, in an act which was deeply symbolic of Ireland in that peculiar time between economic stagnation and rapid growth, Leamanaghan Castle was bulldozed to provide hardcore for works at Lumcloon Power Station. The Castle, which was derelict but still substantial, had been the ancestral home of the Mac Coghlans. Cardinal Rinuccini had stayed there (or more likely nearby Kilcolgan, also demolished) during his time as Papal Nuncio to the Confederation of Kilkenny and the Annals of Clonmacnoise were translated into English in the house. I was dumbfounded but hadn’t the courage to ask Billy whether it was the ESB or the County Council who were responsible.
The Cooling Towers
The cooling towers were completed and over the years, became part of the public perception of the Midland landscape.
Driving westwards you knew you were approaching Kildare and Offaly when the Allenwood towers became visible, then Portarlington and Rhode emerged with Lumcloon in the far distance. Their harmonic shapes complemented Croghan, Endrim and Bellair hills and provided points of vertical interest in an otherwise soft and dreary plain. The bogs, which had been perceived for centuries as profitless and impassable were now a proud testimony to national energy self-sufficiency and local technological advance.
However, with the passage of time, what was originally considered a solution, became a problem and peat extraction began to be wound down with grievous personal and economic consequences which are still being felt. The Power Stations were closed, their towers and buildings demolished and their sites converted to other uses.
Portarlington was the second last to go. At 10.30 on the morning of the 4th of April 1997, the cooling tower that had taken three years to build and stood for forty seven years, vanished in three seconds at the hands of an English demolition expert who already had many redundant cooling towers on his c.v..
Futile last minute efforts to save it were led by the Heritage Council and a local preservation group organised by Progressive Democrat Senator, Cathy Honan. Architect Gerard Carty of Clonbullogue, now a director of the world famous Grafton Architects, wrote in protest that the Power Station was ‘A monument to those visionaries who grafted a semi-industrial outlook onto the principally agricultural psyche of the Midlands’. Their protests crumbled in the face of the ESB’s assertion that ’ It was built for power generation and that function is over’.
The crowds watching the spectacle of the demolition were serenaded by local accordionist Louis Melia who played his composition ’The Tower I Loved So Well’ during the countdown to the explosion.
An era had ended and the advent of wind power was at hand.
Because of the absence of nearby dwellings but with existing connections to the national grid, the Midland bogs were identified very early on as first choice locations for large scale wind energy generation. But, whatever about their ecological impacts, the visual impacts of turbines can be a lot more substantial than those of cooling towers.
Unlike one or two isolated towers, turbines spread haphazardly over large areas of the landscape. Though man-made, their scale and large array results in their being read as part of the natural landscape itself- which can be visually disturbing. As the blades rotate in different cycles, they can often cause visual irritation, even from very far away. The scale of the turbines can be incongruous and though they are generally no higher than the former cooling towers, there are a lot more of them. All in all, their visual impacts are significant and often unassimilable. But then, maybe the cooling towers were also, but in the 1950s any development was welcome, while today’s affluence allows us to make choices.
But whether it is cooling towers or turbines, the greatest sensitivity should always be shown when their development impinges on historic sites. Leamonaghan paid a price for the construction of Lumcloon and shouldn’t be put in the firing line a second time.
With the imminent lodgement by Bord na Mona of its proposal for a 17-turbine wind farm with blade heights of up to 220 m, the bogland island of Leamanaghan with its ancient monastery and graveyard will be in the forefront of the conflict between architectural heritage and power generation. Preliminary images show turbines dominating its surrounding landscape on its northern side.
However, just as in the 1950s, the likelihood is that national energy needs will trump all other considerations- particularly in the light of the recent correspondence from the Office of the Planning Regulator directing the Council to dramatically increase Offaly’s megawatt production.
This should not mean that the vulnerable character of Leamanaghan be disregarded, but that the most careful consideration needs to be given to the interface between it and the future wind farm. As one of the most sensitive locations in Offaly (and also to make restitution for the shameful razing of the Castle) the balance of the argument should favour the protection of its history and beauty.
A Return to Profitless Bog?
As wind replaces peat extraction, it is not unthinkable that it may in turn be replaced by a less visually obtrusive or ecologically harmful form of energy production.Turbines last for about twenty years before they need replacement and a point may come when this is no longer economical.
In March of this year the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe declared that ‘Nuclear energy can be a critical component of a decarbonised energy system for those member states that choose to consider it as a part of their sustainable development and climate change strategy’. It will be interesting to see how other European countries respond to the technological advances which are now delivering safer nuclear energy.
I wonder if in seventy- or eighty-years’ time, as the last of the turbines come down and the land gently recedes back into its ancient role of profitless bog abounding in nesting snipe, will a small and nostalgic group emerge to campaign for the preservation of the remaining few of these iconic structures?
Dealing with time periods that trace back thousands and hundreds of thousands of years can be difficult to handle because of the range of dating systems used such as BC, AD, CE etc. For this blog dates will be recorded as BP – before present. This is to avoid conflicting terminology and confusion.
Simplistic timelines for early Irish human occupation up to the historic period are:
Mesolithic (Hunter Gatherers) 10,000 – 6,000 Before Present
Neolithic (Farming) 6,000 – 4,500 BP
Copper and Bronze Age 4,500 – 2,500 BP
Iron Age 2,500 BP – 400 AD
What mechanisms are there for identifying dates that trace back into the distant past? A number of research mechanisms are used. Firstly, land base studies include Greenland ice analysis, then lake sediment analysis and lastly radiocarbon dating. Newer research methods include undersea marine geological data which would include marine landforms and sediment cores. It is not possible to extract dates from stone tools/weapons unless there are associated artefacts that can be radiocarbon dated.
When renowned Offaly archaeologist Caimin O’Brien, cited Sir Edmund Spenser’s inclusion of a verse on Croghan Hill in his most famous poem, The Faerie Queene, in Stories from a Sacred Landscape: from Croghan Hill to Clonmacnoise; the curiosity bells began to ring. This was an amazing revelation and posed questions as to how Spenser was familiar with Croghan Hill and its religious history? Had he visited the area? When did he visit? What were the circumstances pertaining to his visit? And latterly, the question arose as to whether it was possible that this visit influenced him in some distinctive way? And furthermore, whether that influence was positive or negative?
‘A rich and dazzling Celtic bewilderment, a perpetual challenge to the eyes and a perpetual delight.’ T.D. Kendrick (Archaeologia 86, 1936)
Saint Manchan’s shrine is one of the most remarkable survivals from Ireland’s medieval past, having been safely kept and venerated in the same locality since its creation in the early twelfth century. This masterpiece of medieval art is now proudly and reverently displayed in the rural parish church of Boher in County Offaly, not far from its original home at the ancient church site of Lemanaghan. St Manchan’s shrine is a gabled-reliquary, taking the shape of steeply pitched roof or tent, and is fitted with carrying rings, which enabled it to be carried in procession by two bearers using poles. It is not only the largest reliquary surviving from medieval Ireland but is also the only remaining example of its type. It enshrines what are believed to be the bones of its eponymous saint, St Manchan, whose death is recorded in AD 664.