Early Church Enclosures in Offaly. By John Dolan

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:

HengeA 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.

Ballinahatty and Dowth Henges

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, 2 ring-barrows side by side (yellow dots)

Durrow Abbey with two ring-barrows side by side (yellow dots), OS map

Coolcreen in Sliabh Blooms with 5 barrows adjacent to one another

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-dirches (yellow dots), Lehinch near Clara

Two ring-ditches (yellow dots), Lehinch near Clara, OS map

Ringfort or rathA 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

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

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.

Here is a link to Leo’s photos for Co. Offaly.   https://lswanaerial.locloudhosting.net/search?query=offaly

Cambridge University conducted aerial photography of the UK and Ireland after WW2. Cambridge University Air Photos of Co. Offaly are available here  https://www.cambridgeairphotos.com/search/?lonLat=&search=offaly

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:

  1. Evidence of enclosure
  2. Burial area
  3. Place name with ecclesiastical element
  4. Structure, or structural remains such as church or Round Tower
  5. Holy well
  6. Bullaun stone
  7. Carved, shaped, inscribed, or decorated stone cross or slab
  8. Line of townland boundary forming part of the enclosure
  9. Souterrain
  10. Pillar stone
  11. Founder’s tomb
  12. Associated traditional ritual or folk custom
  13. Radiating road network
  14. 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.

ECCLESIASTICAL ENCLOSURES

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.

Holy of Holies

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

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?

The Termon of Durrow
Durrow, Leo Swan photos

Sterling de Courcy Williams drawing of the Termon of Durrow, 1899 & Leo Swan photos1

Clonmacnoise.

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.

Seirkieran/Saighir.

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 Swan

Photos of Seirkieran by Leo Swan2

Rahan.

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

Rahan from early and current OS maps

Killeigh.

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.

Published on Offaly.ie Artistic view of Killeigh Historic Landscape

Artistic view of Killeigh Historic Landscape published on Offaly.ie

Cooleeshill.

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.

Cooleeshill

Cooleeshil from OS maps

Wheery

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.

Wheery

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.

Tihilly early OS map and modern photo

Maps from the early OS surveys and modern satellite photo

Fancroft.

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.

Fancroft early OS map and modern satellite photo

Fancroft early OS map and modern satellite photo

Sources

1   Accessed August 3, 2021, http://lswanaerial.locloudhosting.net/items/show/33524. Shared under license  (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

2   Accessed December 3, 2021, http://lswanaerial.locloudhosting.net/items/show/34458. Shared under license  (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

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.

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A Rethink: Colmcille’s Copying of a Psalter. By Dr M.J. Fox

We are pleased to welcome a new contributor and old friend Dr Mary Jane Fox. She has contributed to Offaly Heritage journal.

Saint Colmcille[1] 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,[2] 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.

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Catherine Maria Bury and the design of Charleville Castle. By Judith Hill

Charleville Demesne and district c,. 1900

‘Catherine Maria Bury and the design of Charleville Castle’ is the title of an online lecture via Zoom provided by Offaly History for Mondy 20 September at 7. 30 p.m. Our speaker is Dr Judith Hill. She has kindly provided this note for Offalyhistoryblog readers on her forthcoming lecture.

When I started researching my PhD on Gothic revival architecture in Ireland after the Union I had no idea that Charleville Castle, one of the first and most impressive of the castles of this period, owed its inspiration to a woman. I wanted to compare the castles at Birr and Charleville, and was very much aware that their (male) owners had voted on different sides for the Union and that they came from different political traditions. Would this play any part in the designs for the castles that they built, or in the case of Sir Laurence Parsons, remodelled in the very first years of the nineteenth century?

Women at that time played no direct role in politics. They are also relatively (though not entirely) invisible in the historical record. It is only when you can look at family papers that you might find some evidence of what a woman might have done. Catherine Maria Bury’s letters have survived; some of these were published in 1937. They tell us about Catherine (later Lady Charleville) as a person, her friends, her interest in literature. They are tell us that she was close Charles William Bury, and that when he (for it was he) went to see how the building of the castle was progressing he would send detailed descriptions to her. Although he does not ask her directly for her advice, it is clear that when they were together they discussed the project.

Catherine Maria Bury and Charles William Bury
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Saint Manchan’s Shrine – Art and Devotion in 12th Century Ireland

‘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.

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Mercy Nuns, Tullamore: pragmatic women in a time of change. By Declan McSweeney

The role of religious orders in Irish society is a subject which frequently arouses passionate debate and, like many other debates, often generates more heat than light as extreme positions are taken, with members of orders seen as either saints or demons. The sisters of the Tullamore Mercy Convent are held in high esteem for their educational and charitable work and have always been willing to learn and to adapt with changing times.

The Sisters of Mercy have had a presence in Tullamore since 1836, when the original sisters came on the flyboat from Portobello down the Grand Canal, from the mother house in Dublin’s Baggot Street, founded by Catherine McAuley.

A favourite in the month of May during the rosary processions in Tullamore convent

St Joseph’s Convent was the first foundation outside Dublin by an order which was to become the largest order of women religious in the English-speaking world.

Brought to Tullamore at the request of the then parish priest, Father O’Rafferty, it went on to play a major role in local history, as well as to found convents in other locations.

In writing about the order, I am conscious of my own dealings with it as a young boy, having attended the old St Joseph’s NS (where St Philomena’s is now located) from 1965-68. In those days, the norm was that boys attended there for the first three years of schooling, until First Communion, when they departed either for Scoil Bhríde or, as in my own case, to the primary school then run by the Christian Brothers in Coláiste Choilm.

The girls then continued for another year or two until moving to St Philomena’s, which was then based in Harbour Street, in what is now St Mary’s Youth and Community Centre.

I have good memories of the four nuns who taught me in St Joseph’s – the late Sister Bernadette Nevin was my first teacher in Junior Infants, and she was followed by Sister Scholastica (now Sister Kathleen), Sister Regina (who later moved to teach in the USA) and Sister Columba (now Sister Nuala).

Sr Bernadette, teacher to so many in her early years

I cannot presume to speak on behalf of my female counterparts regarding their memories at more senior primary and secondary classes, that is something they would have to outline themselves. During my schooldays and for many years thereafter, the Sisters of Mercy ran three primary schools in Tullamore – in addition to St Joseph’s and St Philomena’s, they ran Scoil Mhuire on the other side of the town – in addition to the Sacred Heart School, the only all-female secondary school in Offaly.

In addition to such a major role in education, I am conscious of their involvement as nurses in the local hospital, where a separate convent, the Sacred Heart convent, long existed, as well as their work in Riada House and its predecessor, the old County Home.

One also thinks of the order’s legacy in terms of setting up the Day Care Centre at Whitehall, the old launderette on Convent Road and of course involvement in the development of youth services and work with Travellers.

The convent (1836-41) and the first girls’ secondary school of 1911 at Convent Road

By the late 1980s, the effect of declining vocations was already beginning to be felt – the appointment towards the end of that decade of Ann Cooney as the first lay head at St Philomena’s was followed by that of Geraldine Byrne at St Joseph’s in 1992 and Máire McRedmond at Scoil Mhuire in 1999. At secondary level, Sheila McManamly became first lay principal at the Sacred Heart School in 1991, when Sister Ann O’Neill kept her promise to do no more than six years as head following the retirement of the late Sister Dolores Walsh.

Second level girls at Tullamore convent in 1914

St Joseph’s Convent has been linked to a number of foundations away from Tullamore – in addition to the Kilcormac convent, which has closed in recent years (with the remaining sisters moved to Tullamore), it is worth noting the role in founding convents in Derry and in Costa Mesa in Orange County, California.

Sisters from Tullamore have also served in Zambia and Kenya as well as Iceland.

With the remaining sisters predominantly elderly, the time will come when few will be aware of their work, but the legacy remains in schools and youth services. Those of us of a certain generation are well aware of the great work done by Sisters Ann and Genny, among others, in the youth services, and the order’s generosity in donating the old St Philomena’s to become the Youth Centre in 1980.

We also remember the work of Sister Veronica Gilsenan in helping bereaved families, as well as her work with Travellers and others in need – at a personal level, I recall her going to see my father when he was dying in Our Lady’s Hospice in Dublin in 1990.

Sister Veronica and friends about 1990

In assessing their work, we have to remember that they often reflected the mores of their time and as sisters aged, they often re-evaluated positions they previously took for granted.

From conversations I had with sisters down the years, I could see they were quite pragmatic in coming to terms with the changing position of women and the adjustments in social mores.

3 Sources for Offaly History and Society: the Methodist community in Offaly and the Birr Methodists 200th, 1820-2020

IMG_8456~photo
A 1906 review of some leading Birr Methodists from the Chronicle

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of the Birr Methodist church in Emmet Street (formerly Cumberland Street) in Birr. However the communities in Birr and Tullamore are much older and date back to the 1760s In this short piece we can only look at some of the sources. It is important because Methodists like the Quakers made a distinct economic and social contribution to the well-being of the towns and villages where their churches were associated. One has only to reflect on families in Birr and Tullamore such as Fayle, Haslam, Morrison, Lumley, Bradley, Burgess and more.

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Seir Kieran- Part 1. By John Dolan

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

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

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

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Kilcormac and its traditions as a place of worship. By Agnes Gorman

On Sunday 8 July, Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society will be visiting sites of historical interest in the Ballyboy and Kilcormac area. This outing has been greatly facilitated by local Agnes Gorman, who recounts here the history of the church in Kilcormac. 

About 1,500 years ago, Cormac O’ Liathain, a priest, left Cobh, in Co Cork and travelled to Durrow, in Co Offaly to meet with Columcille, who was Abbot and a priest in the monastery. A short time later, Columcille left for Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland. Cormac received the “Durrow Crozier” a symbol of authority, but he had a burning sense to become a hermit – his dream site was where the sound of the river would lull him to sleep, the bird song in the daytime and a vista towards the south, with Knockhill and the Slieve Blooms mountains, acting as his ‘satnav’, and that spot chosen is right here in Kilcormac. Continue reading