The River Pushoge, a tributary of the great Barrow rises on the North Eastern fringe of the Slievemargy Plateau. As we follow her decent into the Glen of Killeshin, the grey old ruins of a former monastic settlement brace her southern banks. These ruins date to a period in Ireland before the Norman Conquest in 1169 but reflect a period in Ireland when European Culture was beginning to take root in society and reflect itself into the fabric of our buildings. The oldest extant structure here at Killeshin, the highly ornate Hiberno-Romanesque Doorway and associated façade and adjoining walls, are dated to the mid-1100’s, a generation before the Norman invasion. It must be added that this doorway or portal, from the secular world into the sacred space at Killeshin, is perhaps one of the finest examples of it style anywhere in the Country.
In terms of the placename, Killeshin or Cill Uisean, can be translated to Cill – the church of the glen of Uise. Uise may refer to an Irish name for the River Pushoge or may also refer to the famous poet Oisín of mythological origins, who was the son of Fionn MacComall, who himself it is said was raised in the forests of the nearby Slieve Bloom Mountains.
The earliest definitive reference we have for Killeshin as a Monastic Settlement comes from the Annals of the Four Masters in 843 A.D, in which it is recorded that Aedhan of Gleann Uisean died in that year. It is likely that a monastery was located here many years before this, as some references are made to St Comghán, as its founder in the 6th Century A.D. Another St Comghán a Culdee and Church reformer, is mentioned at Killeshin. He succeeded Diarmait as Abbot in 874 A.D, and his feast day is commemorated on the 27th February according to the Martyrologies of Oengus. Diarmait’s feast day is recorded as being on the 8th of July in the same document; “Dairmait, a sure flame, the bright sun of Glenn Uissean”. During the Early Medieval period the area was under the rule of the Uí Bairrche, who were generally aligned with the Kingdom of Leinster. However, this chiefdom, which was dominated by the Mac Gorman’s, seemed to have lost their lands and were force to migrate to Munster in the 1140’s, when in the year 1142 A.D., it is stated that “Donogh, the son of Hugh Mac Gorman, Lord of Hy-Bairrche, was slain by Gilpatrick, son of Donogh Fitzpatrick (the Mac Giolla-Padraig) Lord of Ossory. It seems Killeshin and the territory held by the Uí Bairrche were no strangers to conflict, as the annals (AFM) record in 1024, “a great slaughter was made of the men of Munster by Donnchadh, son of Aedh, in Gleann-Uisean, through the miracles of God and Comhdan”. Again in 1041 Gleann-Uisean was plundered by the son of Mael-na-mbo, and the Dairthech (an Oak built oratory) was demolished, and seven hundred persons were carried off as prisoners from thence, in revenge of the plundering of Fearna-mor (Ferns), by the son of Brian, and Murchadh, son of Dunlaing, and in revenge of his brother, Domhnall Reamhar. In 1077 the “Church and great Yew Trees of Killeshin” were burnt in a further incursion. As Killeshin lay on the borders of the Kingdom of Ossory and the Kingdom of Leinster, it is not surprising that it was involved in conflicts between the rival kingships, not to mention the shifting alliances that Ossory had between Munster and Leinster, which may explain why some of the Mac Gorman clan resettled in Co. Clare in the mid-1100’s.
It was around this time that the renowned King of Leinster Diarmait Mac Murchada, steps into the picture, whose invitation to the Anglo-Normans began a new phase in Irish history. Diarmait was King between 1140-1166, 1169-1171 and amongst other endeavours, he commissioned the building of several Romanesque Churches and Abbeys, which included noteworthy examples at the Cistercian House at Baltinglass (1148), St. Saviour’s at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow and Ferns, Co. Wexford. Killeshin and possibly the Timahoe Roundtower were also patroned by Diarmait. Corlett (2018), acknowledges the plundering of Timahoe by the King of Connacht in 1142 and that the Roundtower was possibly constructed after this date, perhaps contemporaneously with the Killeshin Portal. Both the doorway on the Roundtower at Timahoe and the Portal at Killeshin, may have even been the work of the same stonemason. These new buildings would have boosted the reputation of Diarmait and showed that he was playing an active role in the reorganization of the Church within his Kingdom. Romanesque architectural was de rigueur in 12th Century Ireland, with famous examples like Cormac’s Chapel at the Rock of Cashel and Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert. Such works undertaken added to the prestigious repository of the local Kings and acknowledged their acceptance of a Pan-European Church reform movement, which was often perceived as lacking in Ireland during the period.
But how do we know it was Diarmait who patroned Killeshin? Well, literally it would seem he left his mark on the Doorway, or at least his stonemason did! Carved in sandstone, we find the following incomplete inscriptions: “Orait do Diarmait Ri Lagen” – a prayer for Diarmait, King of Leinster. But to complicate matters even further, there were no fewer than four Diarmait’s who were Kings of Leinster from the years 1042-1171. However, another inscription on the doorway reads “Ór do Cellachan” – a prayer to Kelly. Leask (1925) suggests that Cellachán was the mason commissioned at Killeshin, but in my view it is unlikely that a mason’s name would have been inscribed on this sacred doorway in such prominence, as with that along sides a King. Therefore, it is suggested here, that the Cellachán referred to is Dúngal Ua Cáellaide, Bishop of Leighlin from 1152 – 1181. Both inscriptions suggest a date for the Romanesque Doorway as sometime between 1152-1166, as Diarmait prior to his deposition as king in 1166 was actively involved in Church building of the Romanesque style.
Diarmait had acquired many enemies in Ireland which included the local O’More Sept in Laois, where it is recorded that “Niall Ua Mordha, lord of Laeighis, was released from the fetters by the King of Leinster, Diarmaid Mac Murchadha, after he had been blinded against the guarantee of the laity and clergy” (1153 AFM). The same annals record that in 1158, “An army was led by Ruaidhri Ua Conchobhair as far as Leithghlinn (Leighlinbridge), and he took the hostages of Osraighe and Laeighis; and he fettered, (another unfortunate O’More) called Macraith Ua Mordha, lord of Laeighis”. Any army coming from Connacht passing in the direction of Leighlinbridge would have crossed into the Killeshin area. Given the nature of marauding armies, and their tendency to lay waste to a given area, it would be reasonable to assume that the Romanesque doorway was commissioned after this major incursion into Leinster, perhaps narrowing the construction phase to within an eight-year period 1158-1166. O’ Keeffe (1997) gives us a date of between 1140-1150 but doesn’t rule out the possibility that it was built after 1152. In that year, the Synod of Kells formally delineated the dioceses of Ireland which included the formation of Diocese of Leighlin. Also, to note, Dúngal Ua Cáellaide was appointed as Bishop in 1152, after the Synod.
Without getting into too much detail with regards to the doorway itself, I plan to revisit this at a later stage, as it will require the attention of a full article. The doorway is described by Lord Walter Fitzgerald in 1910 as follows; “The western doorway is one of the best specimens in Ireland of the Hiberno-Romanesque art; it is of four orders, and elaborately carved with a great variety of patterns, the second arch being ornamented with representations of animals and birds; while the keystone of the outer arch consists of a human head in relief, its moustache and beard being arranged in peculiarly curled locks. Each of the eight pillars is topped by a human head, some clean-shave, others with twisted moustaches and curled beards and whiskers; the hair over the brow is in some cases waved, and in others fringed with curls intertwined”. Zoomorphic and vegetal motifs, along with chevrons and human head carvings, create a vivid interplay on the beholding eye. The portal exhibits themes found in the medieval bestiaries from the time, which include depictions of a human-headed lion or manticore, a griffin, a dragon, a possible wolf, hounds and hares. The masons used both sandstone and granite to execute these carving, and O’Keefe suggests that they may have been painted in the fashion of illuminated manuscripts from the time. In total we have ten carved human heads located on the capitals on both sides of the doorway, a carved head said to represent Saint Peter is located above the doorway as the keystone, an interesting carving for the saint believed to possess the keys to heaven. Furthermore, a badly weathered rather dour-looking faced Judas is carved on a granite block which is located above the plinth on a southern jamb at foot height (a positioning, believed to be a mark of disrespect). In all we have twelve stone head carvings accounting for the 12 disciples of Christ. Another face above the plinth on the outer jamb on the south seems to represent the “Green-Man”, which is intertwined with foliage. Perhaps this may represent old pagan symbolism incorporated into church architecture, of which we find many such examples from throughout Europe. O’Keefe advises that the pediment over the doorway is a feature which can be found at several early and late Romanesque doorways throughout Ireland.
A Romanesque-styled window is located directly over the doorway and an almost identical window is found in the adjoining northern wall. Together with the masonry, this showing us that the western façade and the north wall are of a contemporaneous construction. It appears that the church at Killeshin was modified years later to include a square two-light ogee-headed window which dates to approximately the 16th Century. This section of the church has different dimensions to the western facade and adjoining walls on the south and north, and may have been rebuilt and used as a Protestant place of worship a little after the plantation period in the 1560’s.
Shortly after the doorway at Killeshin was built, the settlement experienced a change in fortunes as result of the tumultuous Anglo-Norman invasion. As stated earlier, Killeshin was situated on the borders of the Kingdom of Osraige and these areas became the marcher battlefields between native Irish and Anglo-Norman’s when Diarmait assumed control of Leinster again in 1169. The Medieval cantred of Oboy was formed which included Killeshin, and granted to an Anglo-Norman Knight called Walter de Riddlesford, initially from Strongbow but this was later confirmed by King John. Within this cantred, the powerbase was located townland of Castletown, 10km northwest of Killeshin. Although what appears to be an Anglo-Norman motte was constructed to the southwest of Killeshin Church, Castletown was regarded as the administrative centre of the cantred. This is perhaps significant as Killeshin seems to have declined even further into the 13th and 14th Centuries as there is little mention of the settlement from the scant records of the time. According to O’Hanlon, the motte at Killeshin, is said to be a sepulchral mound, which marked the burial of Bishop Diarmait who died in 874 A.D.
In previous years it had been associated with scribes and Abbot’s of great acclaim throughout Ireland. For instance, in 915 A.D it is written that arch-bishop Maelmaedhog, son of Diarmaid, who was one of the Ui-Conannla, Abbot of Gleann-Uisean, a distinguished scribe, anchorite, and an adept in the Latin learning and the Scotic language was slain in the battle of Cenn Fuait (Kildare/Carlow area) between the armies of the Kingdom of Leinster and the Vikings under Sigtrygg Gále. Another entry in 951 A.D mentioned the obituary of Feidhlimidh, Abbot of Killeshin and Sage of Leinster. These entries are recorded in all the major annals of Ireland and show us that, although Killeshin may not have been classed as a major Irish Monastery, it was an important seat of learning and was bound up in the rich tapestry of ecclesiastic cognizance in Leinster from the 9th-11th Centuries. A manuscript known as the Rawlinson B502, one of the three major pre-Norman illuminated manuscripts to survive in Ireland and now housed at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, may have been compiled at Killeshin.
At Killeshin a Roundtower or Cloigtheach (Bell-house/Stonehouse) once stood within the monastic precinct of the scenic glen. However, we have two accounts that survive which record that on Monday 8th March 1703, “ye steeple was flung down by one Bambrick employed by Captain Wolseley”, for fear the tower would fall and injury his cattle. Dr. Thomas Molyneux confirmed this tragic event in 1709, in which on visiting the area he acknowledges that a tower measuring 105ft had been brought to the ground by the landlord several years earlier. According to O’Donovan in 1839, the locals advised that the tower had “four round pillars” which formed its base. Intriguingly, the only other tower in Ireland which has a similar supporting base is found at Castletown-Kinneigh, Co. Cork, built in the same year as the Battle of Clontarf, in 1014. There was certainly a tower-like structure marked on the 1565 Plantation Map of County Laois, but we cannot discern form this if it had four supporting pillars.
Other features at Killeshin include a circular Medieval Baptismal Font (located at the Doorway) hewn from granite with a cone shaped basin and aperture in the centre. This is largely undecorated except for an incised band running along the centre of the exterior of the basin. According to Fitzgerald (1910), it was moved to its current location from the northeast side of the Church. A plaque on the wall of the surrounding graveyard reads; “James Fitzgerald, who built this wall and planted the trees in 1787”.
In conclusion, we have seen that the monastery at Killeshin was founded perhaps in the 6th Century A.D. By the 9th Century A.D it had evolved into an important regional centre of learning and scholarship and was associated with the Culdee movement. The positioning of the monastery on the borderlands of the Kingdoms of Leinster and Ossory, made it susceptible to incursions and the area was plundered on numerous occasions into the 10th and 11th Centuries. The stone church and Romanesque Doorway were constructed under the patronship of Diarmait Mac Murchada, the King of Leinster, with the intention of boosting his reputation as a powerful King and influential church reformer. The presence of the Culdee’s here at Killeshin, further underscores the perception of a church looking towards the future. This culminated in the laying down of stone, and the building of an edifice in the Hiberno-Romanesque style, being one of only a handful of sites, chosen by the King of Leinster to display his kingly prowess. Thankfully for us, the sacred doorway or church portal, still stands, as a shining beacon of the past over the Glen of Killeshin. It would seem the doorway was built sometime between 1152-1166, when both Diarmait Mac Murchada was King and Dúngal Ua Cáellaide was Bishop of Leighlin.
Although the doorway has stood the tests of time and conflict, a new threat has emerged in last number of years, insofar as the impacts of weathering on its ornate carvings. In recent times, the relief carving depicting Judas has almost disappeared, amongst other sacred images, which were hewn from stone 850 years ago by a highly accomplished mason. As an initial step, the application of non-invasive 3-D scanning of the portal would be a wise approach, which would help to digitally conserve the remaining imagery for future generations. Furthermore, this would help us unlock some finer details which may lie hidden within the complexities of the portal.
Annals of the Four Masters available at: https://celt.ucc.ie/published/T100005A/index.html
Corlett, C. (2018). Teach mo chua—an early ecclesiastical site at Timahoe, Co. Laois. Archaeology Ireland Heritage Guide No. 83.
Crawford, Henry S., & Leask, H. G. (1925). The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Sixth Series, Vol. 15, No. 2
Crawford, Henry S. (1918). The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Sixth Series, Vol. 8, No. 2
FitzGerald, Lord Walter. (1910). The Killeshin church ruins, Queen’s County. JCKAS Vol. VI, No. 3
Hayes, N. (2017). Laois Folktales
O’Hanlon & O’Leary (1914) History of the Queens County
O’Keeffe, T. (1997). Diarmait Mac Murchada and Romanesque Leinster: Four Twelfth-Century Churches in Context. The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 127
Stokes, W. (1905). Martyrology of Oengus
Ordnance Survey Letters by John O’Donovan and Eugene Curry, 1839 Queen’s County & Co. Clare