Dysartgallan Church (LA030-011001-) is set in the picturesque landscape of the Owenbeg River valley in south County Laois, approximately 3km northeast of Ballinakill village. The site is located within the townland of Aghnacross, civil parish of Dysartgallan or Ballinakill. The Church is located within 50 meters of the Owenbeg River and it would appear that a fording point existed where the current road bridge transverses this tributary of the Nore, hence the Irish name for the townland (Áth na Croise – Ford of the Cross). Interestingly with regards to the Cross/na Croise, the sandstone base of what would have been an Early Christian High Cross (LA030-047002-) is to be found 400m to the northwest of the church built into a roadside wall beside a rag tree/holy bush which is still venerated today. According to Comerford (1886, vol. 3, 105), this undecorated cross base came from the church site. Local tradition attributes curative properties to the water found within the rectangular socket (dims. 0.20 x 0.25 x 0.12m). Given these dimensions it may be postulated that cross stood to between 1-2m in height, which would have been a towering presence overlooking the eastern side of the fording point along the “little” river. The High Cross was likely decorated with biblical scenes, which would have been relevantly easily carved and sculptured in comparison to the granite High Crosses found due east across the landscape beyond the River Barrow. Unfortunately today in the absence of the upper parts of the cross we can only speculate on its former splendour. What became of this portion of the cross remains a mystery; perhaps it was broken up during the Tudor Conquest of the County or more intriguingly remains buried within graveyard at the church.
The Church site itself and its association with the cross, almost certainly dates to the Early Christian Period and according to Comerford is associated with St Monahan (Manchán of Min Droichit) who died in 648/52 with his feast day celebrated on the 2nd of January. Manchán is also associated with Mondrehid, County Offaly and is said to have been a famed Early Cristian theologian, recorded in the Félire Óengusso ‘The martyrology of Óengus’ as “The Splendid”. There are at least eight St. Manchán recorded from the Early Christian Church which makes it difficult to attribute any of these to Dysartgallen with certainty. Tentatively I’d like to suggest an association with St. Manchán of Lemanaghan in Co. Offaly. My only basis for this is the proximity of the townland of Gallen Co. Offaly to Manchán’s monastery at Lemanaghan (OF015-004008-), 6km to the west. Hence Dysartgallen may have been a hermitage site connected with this cult associated saint who died from plague or the “great mortality” in 664 A.D. (Annals of the Four Masters).
The present ivy clad building consists of a nave and chancel built of roughly coursed limestone (Wth c. 6.6m, L. c. 12.7m, wall T c. 0.9m). There appears to be the remnants of a Belfry in the western gable which also contains a window. The nave and chancel are separated by a segmented chancel arch constructed of sandstone. A reference to the church is found in the Ecclesiastical Taxation of Ireland in 1302 A.D. In 1394 the Annals of the Four Masters record that James Butler the 3rd Earl of Ormonde burnt and devastated Gailne during an attack into Leinster.
Perhaps the present ruins date to the 15th Century, after the Earl’s recorded attack. The building appears on the 1560’s Cotton Map of the County as intact with a pitched roof.
However by 1615 according to the Liber Regalis Visitationis it was in a ruinous state, as a result of the Tudor Plantation in the County and the imposition of the “New English settlers” who usurped the native clans resulting in a period of great warfare and destruction in Laois and Offaly. A Medieval settlement is recorded in the townland of Aghnacross (LA030-033—-) and likely dates to this period (The O Doyne/Ó Duinn Manuscript), the present location of this settlement is unclear. An inquisition held in Maryborough on the 17th June 1568 indicates that Rory Oge O’More “Captain of Leyse” held land at Galin with the undertaking that these lands would provide 40 kerne (Irish light infantry) to the crown when required. The same document advises that the Vicar of Galen Church was Carroll Mc Teig. The influx of settlers into Laois and the resultant mistreatment of the natives drew Rory Oge into open conflict with the English.
By 1573 Owen McHugh O’Dempsey (a native Laois Clan who sided with the Tudors) was granted the estate at Galin and was described as a “dutiful Irish subject”. By 1584 a reference to the construction of a castle at Galin in the Queens County to protect a water-crossing is found which may refer to (LA030-021001-) a castle in the townland of moat, (a name with its defensive connotations) over 1 km to the south of the church. During the nine years war in Ireland (1593-1603) on May 4th 1596 three villages which were under the control of the Bishop of Leighlin and Alexander Cosby in Galin, were burned by the rebels under Brian Riaghe an ally of Owney Mac Rory O’More. Perhaps this attack led to the ruinous state of the church as described in 1615, from which it never recovered. The lands were described as unfortified by the time of the Down Survey (1656-1658) with a townland population at Aghnacross recorded as 16 (likely families, 2 English and 14 Irish) in the census of 1659.
The connection of the site with the O’Moore’s is also recorded by O’Hanlon where he maintains an Irish “Popish Priest” named Connal Moore administered at “Disertgallen, Clonkeen and Tullore” during the penal times and was recorded in the Register of Popish Priests, 1704. Local legend points to Fr. Connal Moore as being a direct descendant of Rory O’Moore one of the leaders of the 1641 Irish Rebellion. Rory O’Moore was a nephew of the aforementioned Rory Oge. It is said that mass was given during these penal times at a sheltered place called Dysart Cross, which is where the current rag tree and High Cross are now located. Connal was also recorded in the locality in 1731.
The site today is accessible and the graveyard is well maintained by the local community. It would be great to see a conservation plan implemented for the church ruins, with professional removal of the dense ivy which keeps these ancient walls hidden from view. A log book for visitors is available to sign from a gentleman who lives across the road from the church and if you are lucky to meet him, he will tell you a tale or two about the history of this hidden gem in Co. Laois.
Archaeological inventory of County Laois. Sweetman, P.D., Alcock, O. & Moran, B. (1995) Dublin.
Ordnance Survey Letters of Laois (1838) Published 2008 (Four Masters Press) – Michael Herity
History of the Queen’s County (1914) – John Canon O’Hanlon
Collections Relating to the Dioceses of Kildare and Leighlin Rev. M. Comerford, (1883)
Record of Monuments & Places, Co. Laois compiled by Caimin O’Brien (2007)
Calendar of Document in relation to Ireland
Antiquities of Laois – Philip I Powell (2014)