Churches of Ardclough, a talk by Dr Ida Milne for Heritage Week August 20 2013

Talk given by Dr Ida Milne to Ardclough Historical Society for Heritage Week, August 20 2013

The earliest boundaries, the ones that mattered in early Ireland, were the parishes.

Medieval Ardclough

Medieval Ardclough

Here is a map of some of the medieval parishes of North Kildare  as they survived until the 1500s.

There are many, many more of them than we have today. It is clear that parish boundaries moved around as local churches acme powerful and then waned.

The names give a clue as to when the parish came into its ascendancy.



The oldest surviving word for church in the Irish language is the one we use nowadays for Sunday: so Donaghcumper and Donaghmore were probably the first churches built in the area.

Eaglais and then Teampall and then Cill and then Seipéal came in the succeeding centuries later. Clonaghlis was at some stage called Cill na n-Ingean, although eaglais is one of the Irish loanwords from Latin – someone has found 46 different versions of the Latin ecclesia showing up in the old Irish sources.

Castledillon in 1909

Castledillon in 1909

Diseart is associated with the monks of the Culdee era in the 600s, who went out to remote areas to seek seclusion, Castledillon is the Diseart of note in our area.

We also have some prominent local saints, the being Mochua associated with Balraheen in Rathcoffey.  He is the trophy saint of north Kildare, and the only one with national prominence, because he is regarded as the founder of the monastery in Clondalkin. There is also a plaque to his honour in Celbridge, near the site of a holy well.

Martyrology of Tallaght which lists five saints from Ardclough

Martyrology of Tallaght which lists five saints from Ardclough

We also have five local saints, unique to Ardclough, the memory of which we might consider reviving this heritage week.

You can loosely track the fortunes, the ebb and flow of the local parishes, from the calendar rolls.

In 1294 the churches of Kylodonane and Tristeyldelane were deemed not worth the services of chaplains, according to the Calendar of Christ Church deeds. Castledillon and Whitechurch were merged in the 1307 papal taxation.

Castledillon, Straffan, Donaghcumper and Kildrought were merged in 1541 when Henry VIII, having abolished the monasteries, commenced to turn the entire parish system ion Ireland on its head.

Oughterard as drawn by Austin Cooper in 1782

Oughterard as drawn by Austin Cooper in 1782

Lyons and Oughterard merged in 1541.

Kill and Lyons merged amid the chaos of the 1600s.

The centre of the merged parish, or at least the Catholic version of it, remained in Lyons until the 1820s when Father Dan Nolan moved it, first to Painestown, then to Kill,

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere was no canal when, during penal times, the local mass house was built in the townland of Ardclough.

It shows up in the Diocesan return of November 16 1731 as having been built in 1716

Another mass house was recorded in Painestown in 1724.

When the old St Anne’s was built on the site of this mass house Canal bank in 1810 it was the named as parish church of Lyons.

Pope Pius VII sends a bronze crucifix as a personal gift to this new church on the Canal, and Valentine Lawless presents baptismal font of white marble brought from Rome.

The church in Kill was not built until 1821.

The last Catholic Parish Priest of Castledillon was recorded in 1704.

Clonaghlis graveyard

Clonaghlis graveyard

The nearest of the five old churches in the district to where we are tonight is in the graveyard at Clonaghlis.

The church itself is long gone and all we have is a little graveyard in an adjoining field to the Village of Lyons.

The oldest headstone there goes back to 1729 but it was used as a graveyard for several centuries before that.

Lyons buildings aerial canaLots of work has been done to keep this churchyard in use, but I suspect the last of the stones were used to build the collection of 1820s buildings beside the 13th lock.

The glen of the church had lost its position of prominence long before the canal was build, although there was an oral tradition among canal boatmen that the 13th lock was haunted because the canal there was dug through a graveyard.

In 1206 the Church of Clonacles granted by Peter de Laermerdin to St Thomas Abbey near Dublin.



There was also a manor here that belonged to the Plunkett family: in 1336 John Plunkett sued Hugh de Blound of Rathregan Co Meath, for the Manor of Cluinaghlys, in possession of his grandfather Walter Plunkett and passed down by his father Henry Plunkett.

The commemoration of the feast days of local saints held great importance in Christianity, and our parish has five who feature in the calendars of saints that have survived, the most prominent of which are the Martyrologies of Donegal and Tallaght.

Two are associated with Clonaghlis, Feidhlim Virgin and Mugháin.

They had a joint feast day December 9th and were named as the foundress saints of Clonaghlis in the Martyrology of Donegal.

Two daughters of Ailill son of Dúnlang, and Cill-na-ningean in the west of Mágh Life by the side of Liamhain in the name of his place. They are of the race of Cathaoir Mór of Leinster.”

Rath on top of Lyons hill, the seat of ten kings of Leinster

Rath on top of Lyons hill, the seat of ten kings of Leinster

A saint attained much status from royal lineage associates them closely with an important High King of Ireland of the mythological cycle, the one defeated by Con of the Hundred Battles and father figure of the dynasty of Leinster Kings associated with the dynasty of Kings of Leinster associated with Lyons hill.

Was it an earlier or more important monastery than Oughterard?

Clonaghlis is close to a water source,

Oughterard is not.

Nowadays, Oughterard is our most prominent heritage landmark in the area.

Oughterard Round Tower as drawn by Austin Cooper in 1785

Oughterard Round Tower as drawn by Austin Cooper in 1785

It is home to one of the five round towers to be found in County Kidlike, the oldest structure in our community, a structure that is up to 500 years older than the nearby church.

Thanks to Arthur Guinness, it is regarded as one of the most important tourism sites in North Kildare.

A trail which leads from the hilltop to Celbridge, under planning at them moment, has been called Arthur’s way, but its history predates porter by a long time.

It is very tempting to speculate that the spiritual importance of Oughterard predates the buildings that are there today. The spiritual significance of the site may even predate Christianity, which would not be unusual for a raised site in a flat county.

Lyons was an inauguration place for a dynasty of Kings of Leinster.

View to 14th century window at OUghterard

View to 14th century window at Oughterard

Oughterard may have been the spiritual equivalent of Lyons. Many Celtic royal sites have civic and spiritual centres on adjoining hills, Tara and Slane hill being the best known example.

Oughterard was founded in c600 by a female saint, something that has led to speculation that Árd Cloch might not be the high stone after all, but the high nunnery.

When discussing the foundation of Oughterard it is usual to add here that the woman who founded Oughterard, Naomh Brigid or Bríga was NOT the St Brigid of Kildare town.

Indeed our local St Brigid seems to have had a following of her own, and is associated with monasteries in Sallins and Waterford.

There were three St Brigids in County Kildare and, if Seathrún Céitinn/Geoffrey Keating is to be believed, at least 14 in all, not counting St Brigid of Sweden who was named after the Kildare saint.

Oughterard from the roof of the church

Oughterard from the roof of the church

So it is understandable if her memory got mixed up with the Brigid who seems to have made the successful transition from Christian saint, and some say Celtic goddess, to feminist icon in our time.

Our local St Brigid’s feast day is January 21 , less than a fortnight before Brigid of the magic cloak.

We also have a second female saint from the top of our hill: Naomh Tarcairtenn or Derchairthinn. Her feast day is December 18.

While Briga was the foundress, Der, as we will describe her for purposes of brevity to her friends tonight in this room, was important in establishing the status and credentials of the nunnery as a force to be reckoned with.

DerchairthinnShe was supposedly of royal lineage and here our tale throws up some intriguing possibilities.

Saints were sometimes accorded royal blood by their hagiographers.

Genealogies of saints in the Ireland of a millennium ago were very political and were written up, more than often, hundreds of years after the saints themselves had passed away.

Arthus Guinness, most famous grave in Oughterard

Arthur Guinness, most famous grave in Oughterard

They were often about status and territory, tributes and taxes, and especially about spheres of influence.

The family connections, real or imagined, of the saint were an indicator of who outranked whom in the ecclesiastical and monastic ladder, and what homage, financial, ecclesiastical or cultural, should be paid by one centre to another.

The genealogies claimed that Der was descended from one of the most important High Kings of the mythological cycle, five generations before Niall of the nine hostages, far enough back in the mists of time, even when the claim was made, to make sure she was associated with the three Royal dynasties of Kildare as well as the dynasty that controlled Tara and the royal houses of Innishowen and Roscommon.

The claim was already a tenuous one when it was first made in the 800s,

Lyons Hill, seat of ten Ui Donnchadha kings of Leinster

Lyons Hill, seat of ten Ui Donnchadha kings of Leinster

it was based on an ancestor 300 years prior to her life, a bit like someone claiming to be descended from Louis XIV today. And the life was not written up for another 200 years.

Neither did it directly associate her with the dynasty associated with Lyons Hill, rather with a distant ancestor. Which may have been the point all along.

Der may have been a symptom of a local rivalry, the saint of royal descent to put Clonaghlis and Castledillon in their place, some introduced to the saintly calendar to assert the prominence of Oughterard which may have been under pressure, deemed necessary because Briga the saintly foundress of Oughterard did not have a royal genealogy of her own.

Oughterard in 1874

Oughterard in 1874

It is an intriguing possibility, one we are not going to be able to prove or disprove at this distance.

Oughterard turns up in the bulletins from the battlefield that fill the extensive Irish annals, usually as the subject of frequent raids, often but not always by Vikings.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was burned more than a dozen times, most prominently by Sigtrygg Olafsson/Sitric Silkbeard in 995, four years before his defeat by Brian Boru in the battle of Glenn Máma fought in the valley behind Oughterard hill, and in 1094 by Godfred Crovan Haraldson the King of the Isle of Man.

The church and privileges was granted, along with many of the sites and church privileges of the area, to the monastery of St Thomas, an important monastery named for Thomas a Beckett which was the under the control of the Angevin administration in Dublin. Its main legacy today is the name of Thomas Street in Dublin.

The church was listed for repair in 1609. Because this was the date given for the construction of the church in the Lewis Topography you find it in almost every reference book about Oughterard.

oughterard mapIn 1622 and 1630  it was listed as ruined, so if it had been newly built in 1609 it had a very short life.  In 1657 it was in ruins and had no minister. But it was one of the chosen 25 churches in Kildare to be repaired so they could function as a pariah church for the established church, which had been  devastated by Cromwell’s campaigns – Cromwell was as much an enemy of the established Church, what we now know as the Church of Ireland, as he was of Catholicism.

We know the names of the clergymen who were trying to keep the parish together, in 1605 Uachtar Árd passes to Thomas Harrington and in 1608 Browne listed as “Provost of Owghterard.”

Oughterard church

Oughterard church

Mike O’Neill, an architectural historian who did a lot of valuable research on Christchurch cathedral in Dublin, estimated in an article in the Kildare Archeological Journal a few years ago that the ruined church we know today was 14th century build.

The footings for the bell cote were cited by Mike as important in his establishing a mid 1300s date for the church, there is something similar in the ruined church in the graveyard in Straffan, which dates to around a century later.

Oughterard church

Oughterard church

The distance of the door from the end wall is exactly one perch,  as you would expected from a church professionally built by a mason, a powerful and important position in pre-literate society when accurate measurements were difficult. Dan Brown fans would love the hidden meanings to be found from an accurate measurement of the construction of Oughterard church.

The stairs leads up to what used to be a residence for the vicar. The entrance we use today is through the original west window. The original door on the side is the Bruton tombstone, opposite the tombstone of Arthur Guinness.

Oughterard church

Oughterard church

By the 1300s this was one of the most prominent settlements in north Leinster. seat of a royal manor and borough despite the fact it is  “situated far from water source on a hilltop “as the UCD geographer Tadhg O’Keeffe pointed out in 1985. It is worth reminding people from South Dublin that Oughterard, was a borough long before Dun Laoghaire became one.

The ancient plough headlands are still visible. Until the road moved down into the valley in the early 1700s all traffic to Naas, Kilcullen, and beyond to Cork and Limerick passed thought the little road past Oughterard and down to Bishopscourt.

There is also a stone church and castle in the beautiful graveyard at Whitechurch.

Even the name indicated that this is a different type of church, a monastery of conquest.

Whitechurch graveyard

Whitechurch graveyard

It is named for the white friars (Carmelites) who established their church there, in contrast to the Blackfriars (or Dominicans) of Blackchurch, Naas and Athy and grey friars (Franciscans) of Kildare town and Castledermot.

In 1300 Ecclesia Templi Albi was granted to crusader knights, the order of St John, best known as the Knights Hospitallers and the Knights of Malta, an international monastic order based on the rule of St. Augustine.

Window at Whitechurch

Window at Whitechurch

Within five years of the Norman invasion they had been granted the Priory at Kilmainham in Strongbow and had been established in Kilteel near Kill, Killybegs  and most notably at Tully near Kildare town in the decades before they were became rectors of the church at Whitechurch.

They were also granted churches at Rathbride, Dunen and Kylcork.

As rectories these were not part of the monastery but parish churches that came under the control of the preceptory.



This was an order in turmoil, because the last of the Crusader lands in the Middle East, where it had its headquarters, had just been lost to in 1291.

Dan Brown fans will recognise this as the order that was given all the lands of its big rival, the Knights Templars lands in 1312.

Its symbol was the same as the St John’s ambulance brigade of today, the ambulance division is a modern invention based on the medieval order.

It was endowed as a feudal estate in 1508 and prominent enough to appear on the Boazia & Elstrack map of Ireland in 1599.

When the churches passed from Catholic to Protestant (Established) hands in 1541, the tithes of Whitechurch were among the most valuable in the county, equivalent to 18 couples of grain of £12 and were held by David Sutton and Richard Aylmer.

But its church was in disrepair in 1609 according to the Chancery Court and diocesan returns of 1630.

The ancestors of Patrick Sarsfield are among the prominent lords of the fiefdom. Sarsfield also held other Knights of Malta lands in Co Kildare.

Indeed the makers of the 1599 map seem to have been fans of the Knights because they included their other former holdings in the county.

A few fields north of Whitechurch is one of the curiosities of our community.

Puddlehall moat

Puddlehall moat

Puddlehall is one of the few moated houses found outside North Wales, according to long time Celbridge resident and UCD architectural professor Sean O Riordáin. He is buried in Donaghcumper graveyard.

The church in Castlewarden has been lost altogether.

Castledillon, is one of the oldest spiritual sites of all. We will start with the documented sources, as they are a little safer than the foundation date.

Castledillon is founded by another local saint, the last of the five that we will meet tonight. Iollathán of the desert has a feast day on February 2nd, which means that all our saints are winter saints.

His life is lost in the mists of time.

Rath on top of Lyons hill, the seat of ten kings of Leinster

Rath on top of Lyons hill, the seat of ten kings of Leinster

Again it is likely that later hagiographers dressed up a royal lineage for him. He was supposedly the son of a King of Leinster and brother of the King which gave Carbury County Kildare its name, and father of St Criotán associated with sites on the river Dodder.

The thing to note here that this is the dynasty of the Kings of Leinster associated with Lyons hill, their domain was closely associated with the Dodder basin.

Castledillon graveyard

Castledillon graveyard

Castledillon comes with a mystery of its own. A stone that cane be viewed today in the Visitor’s Centre in the square in Kildare Town.

It was moved there in the 1970s for safe keeping from the graveyard, where we can see it in photographs from 1909.

What does it say?

Castledillon stone

Castledillon stone

The Latin inscription looks very impressive at first, until you look at the translation:

Here Lies (illegible) God Have Mercy on His Soul. Was he a bishop?

He doesn’t have a name.

He doesn’t have a crosier

Castledillon stone sketch form 1909

Castledillon stone sketch form 1909

What he does have is a carries a reliquary suspended around the neck and hanging below a brooch like object at the throat.

His right hand rests palm downward on the chest.

Walter FitzGerald’s article says that this alignment of his hand suggested he may be an abbot.

In 1909 Walter Fitzgerald concluded the grave was of an abbot of St Wolstan’s, the monastery near where the original girls secondary school for Celbridge stood, on the banks of the Liffey.

Walter Fitz’s antiquarian work is important for us today because he had access to lost sources: the material that was later destroyed when Rory O’Connor blew up the records offices in the Four Courts in 1922.

St Wolstan’s was one of the most powerful monasteries in Ireland and Castledillon had become a satellite church for the main monastery when the invading Norman landowners, The de Hereford family, the ones who took al the lands which had belonged to the dynasty associated with Lyons Hill,  granted Thillerdelan (Díseart Ilean, Castledillon) to the newly established religious community in Celbridge in 1202.

castledillon 1909That the community named their monastery on the Liffey bank near Celbridge for the newly canonised St Wolstan was an indication of who was boss in the new Ireland:

Wolstan was the only English Bishop to have sided with William the Conqueror after he invaded England.

He was the very first post-invasion saint, having been canonised earlier that year by innocent III, likely as part of a deal to gain King John’s support for his planned crusade to the Holy Lands, the fourth crusade and the one that ended up sacking Constantinople instead.

Spellisy grave in Castledillon

Spellisy grave in Castledillon

Because the house beside the monastery also took the name St Wolstan’s, and a girls’ school was opened there in 1957, moving to Ballymakealy in 2002, everyone in the local community is now familiar with a saint that the rest of the world has forgotten, one that had nothing to do with north Kildare and one that first appeared on the calendar for political rather than spiritual reasons.

St Wolstan’s monastery became significant nationally in 1536 when it became the first monastery to be seized by Henry VIII – perhaps because Henry put an Ardclough man  in charge of taking over the monasteries, Gerald Aylmer from Lyons.

Mary Stones with the Castledillon stone

Mary Stones with the Castledillon stone

Another aside: here is the woman who looks after the Castledillon stone today in Kildare Town Heritage Centre.

Her name is Mary Stones.

Castledillon graveyard has one remaining grave, and local people used to call it Spellissy’s graveyard.

This is because the only remaining stone commemorates the memory of Cornelius and Ann Spellissy, a name closely associated with Counties Clare and Limerick.

Church at Lyons

Church at Lyons

The church of Lyons has one of the finest architectural features in the neighborhood, these carvings from the 15th century.

The church was turned into a mausoleum for the Lawless family, the Lord Cloncurry, who removed the memorial headstones for their predecessors the Aylmers shortly after they got hold of the estate in the 1790s.

The oldest headstone in Lyons churchyard, dedicated to Edmond Moore and his son James, dates to 1691.

The graveyard is still in use among families in the neighbourhood. Constant use has been the greatest safeguards against the erosion of our built heritage.

By using our ancient graveyards we preserved out monuments. It is a pity that Castlewarden and Castledillon churches were lost. Let us make sure no more perish in the same way.

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