When Christians arrived in Ireland and started to write about the country they found an island of Gaelic kingdoms, perhaps up to 150, that was dynastic and the political organisation was based on the tuath. The tuath was the bedrock of the Gaelic political system and is described as a small kingdom. Most of what we know now has been gleaned from the Irish Law Tracts, commonly known as the Brehon Laws. Other written sources include the Hero and Saga Tales.
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 earliest writing is recorded in eastern Asia about 5,000 years ago. The spread was westwards with the use of earthen (cuneiform) tablets that are still found today in the Tells of modern Iraq and in the Fertile Valley. Cuneiform tablets were mainly used for recording stock control items and account balances; at the same time Egyptian hieroglyphs were starting to record the stories of the Pharaohs.
Cuneiform and Hieroglyphs
The Greeks and Romans introduced writing to the Mediterranean countries and it spread across Europe to Britain with the arrival of the first Roman invasion in 55BC.
Ogham is the first recorded writing in Ireland, based on inscriptions on stone. Ogham is a language based on the Roman alphabet. The influence of the Roman empire had introduced the Latin language and writing to most of Europe. Only two other societies used stone – Pictish symbols in Scotland and Norse Runes in northern Europe. Ogham stones are found in Ireland and in the Irish areas of influence in Scotland and Wales.
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.
We are pleased to welcome a new contributor and old friend Dr Mary Jane Fox. She has contributed to Offaly Heritage journal.
Saint Colmcille is very much a part of Offaly’s history, almost exclusively due to the early monastic site of Durrow. It is not certain exactly when he founded Durrow, but the land for it was possibly gifted to him either by Aedh, a son of Bréanainn, king of southern Uí Néill kingdom of south Tethbae, or Ainmuire mac Sétnai, a prince from the Cenél Conaill branch of the northern Uí Néill. In both cases it was likely to have taken place around 553.[3
There has been significant controversy over the years regarding St. Colmcille’s copying a psalter belonging to his teacher, St. Finnian of Moville. Doubt about the event itself and events subsequent to it still persist, and the mystery has never truly been solved. For something that occurred almost 1500 years ago, how would that be possible anyway? Granted, it might never be solved, but we might find ourselves a few steps closer to what happened if we reconsider what sort of evidence we are seeking and what we consider acceptable.
‘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.
Our traditional view of the Vikings in Ireland was established by our early primary and secondary schooling. We were aware that the Vikings commenced raiding in 795 AD by their raid on Rathlin Island. Eventually they settled in a few areas around our coastline. However, most of the country was within reach of Viking raiding parties. One of the primary bases from which Viking raids emerged was from the city of Limerick. Limerick provided a springboard for raids up the Shannon, affecting areas on either side of the river.
These raids were on church monasteries resulted in the slaughter of monks and workers in the monasteries. It also appears that the Vikings knew exactly where these monasteries were located and regularly their arrival coincided when particular religious events were underway. From other evidence they were after people, cattle and very occasionally the gold and silver in the monasteries. People were regularly taken to be sold at slaves. The largest such raid was carried out at Howth in the year 821 AD where over 600 females were taken away by ship for slavery. In later times Dublin became the largest Viking slave centre in Western Europe; Kiev in Ukraine was their largest slave centre in the East.
Les pirates normands au IXe siècle by Évariste-Vital Luminais (1894), Musée Anne de Beaujeu, Moulin
Consumed by political and economic turmoil, the first half of the 20th century was a fallow period for the visual arts and archaeological scholarship in Ireland and certainly Offaly was no different. The post-war period dominated by scarcity and emigration, was particularly stifling.
The first glimmerings of change came with the national festival of An Tóstal in 1953. Emulating the very successful Festival of Britain two years earlier, its primary intention was to boost tourism in the Easter off peak period – or as the poet Patrick Kavanagh called it ‘The Monsoon Season’.
Whether or not the festival brought any tourists to Ireland or not is debatable but it certainly had a dynamic cultural impact, particularly outside of Dublin. Local societies emerged to organise exhibitions of arts, crafts and heritage. An awareness of the need for civic improvements led to the Tidy Towns movement. Most importantly, a spirit of optimism and openness was created.
This sense of a new beginning was particularly evident in Tullamore where a small local elite led by individuals with connections to the Dublin art and theatrical world were beginning to promote a more open and less traditional approach.
It must be conceded that the unassertive landscapes of County Offaly have never been a great source of inspiration to painters, most of whom just made a quick stop at historic Clonmacnoise before dashing on to record the West of Ireland.
Yet, others took the trouble to look more closely (or were paid to do so) and found inspiration in its lush farmland, bogs and woods, slow rivers, rolling hills and ancient ruins. Happily, their numbers have grown in the recent past.
The Cotton Map
The first, and in my opinion the finest, artistic image of Offaly is the Cotton Map of 1565. Prepared to assist the Elizabethan Plantation, this is an imaginative creation more akin to Harry Potter’s ‘Marauder Map’ or Robert Louis Stevenson’s chart of Treasure Island than a realistic cartographic exercise. One wonders if its unknown compilers ever visited Offaly or were relying on travellers’ tales.