Old Kyle once formed part of an important Early Christian Monastic site on the borders of the ancient Kingdoms of Munster and Leinster. It also seems likely that the site was of significance, long before the arrival of Christianity to Ireland in the 5th Century A.D. Old Kyle is recorded in early records as Clonfertmulloe, association with St. Molua, one of the foremost monks of Ireland from the 6th Century. Set within the backdrop of the picturesque Slieve Bloom Mountains, on the borders of 4 Medieval dioceses (Killaloe -located in this diocese, Kildare & Leighlin, Ossory and Meath and along the Slighe Dhála, one of the ancient roadways of Ireland, Old Kyle was well placed in the landscape during a time when medieval pilgrims and people flocked to this part of the Country for trade, prayer and learning. This area of southwest Leinster has one of the highest densities of Early Medieval Monastic establishments in Ireland and includes places such as Roscrea, Monaincha, Aghaboe, Clonenagh, Seir Kieran to name but a few.
At Old Kyle today, we see a D-shaped cemetery enclosure bounded by a wall constructed in the early 19th Century. The sandstone foundations of a Later Medieval Church of rectangular plan can be found in the centre of the enclosure. The Church building was certainly decorated, as architectural fragments of Romanesque style are still to be found incorporated into the present boundary wall and scattered through the graveyard. The Monastic site was located in the Kingdom of Osraige at the time of its foundation, and perhaps comparisons can be sought in buildings such as St. Cronans at Roscrea, where we find similar Romanesque capital carvings hewn from the localised sandstone deposits found within the Slieve Bloom Mountains. There are several Cross-inscribed sandstone slabs found throughout the site, which likely date to the Early Christian Period.
The site is associated with two saints, Molua as mentioned earlier and his disciple and chronicler St. Laidgen. According to the Martyrology of Tallaght a document attributed to another famous Laois Saint called Óengus the Culdee, the 12th of January is the feast day of St. Laidgen of Clonfert-Molua. His death, on this day in 660 A.D is recorded in all the major annals of Ireland including the Annals of the Four Masters and Annals of Ulster (in 661 A.D) which state “the sage Laidcnén mac Baeth Bannach, died in this year”. The entry in the Martyrology (a book containing the feast days of the saints) of Tallaght/Óengus for this day states:
“The great martyrdom of Muscenti
With his numerous gentle clerics
Christ hath the secret of his deserts
Laidcend, son of Bath Baidach.”
Laidgen was the son of a powerful chieftain called Baíth Bandaig. He relinquished his birth right of worldly power, to become a monk under the guidance of St. Molua (d. 605 A.D – AFM), who founded the Early Medieval Monastery at Clonfert-Molua (Cluain Fearta) or the “meadow of the grave of my Lua” now known as Old Kyle, which is located approximately 3km NW of Borris-in-Ossory, Co. Laois. St. Molua (Feast Day 4th August), himself was a saint of Ireland with great acclaim, founding his most notable monastery at Killaloe “Lua’s church”, Co. Clare, amongst several others throughout the country. Laidgen is accredited with composing the Life of St. Molua a 7th Century document and one of the earliest works of Irish hagiography. The lorica or protection prayer to St. Molua, is also accredited to Laidgen, which calls on all parts of the body to be protected by God, mentioning limbs, organs and features of the holy saints’ body.
The “grave of St. Molua” described in the 19th century by T. L. Cooke as ‘being most remarkable, 12 feet in length by three feet in breadth. A large, rude, and uninscribed stone marks one end; and a nearly similar stone points out the other end. The limits of the sides are defined by rough limestone flags standing on an end. The upper edges of these flags are barely visible above the surface of the ground’. Today, two of these sandstone slabs are visible, one placed at a right angle to the other, but the feature was altered by the erection of the commemorative Cross and modern kerbing in 1920 by Mrs M. Delaney to commemorate the burial place of St. Molua (Fitzpatrick 1993). This may have been a place of pilgrimage during the Medieval period when the so called “Cult of the Relics” was du jour.
Cooke (1852) mentions that the grave and associated ballaun stone was a site of an annual meeting on the Festival of Lughnasa (1st August) for dancing, merriment and match-making, up until 1810. He also mentions that a Bell Shrine of St. Molua now housed in the British Museum London, was in the care of the local O’Duibhginn family or (Deegan or Duggan -Anglicised) who were known as the “Bell Keepers” up until the Cromwellian Period. This family resided at the nearby Cloncourse Castle, which was built in 1636, likely replacing an earlier structure. The above mentioned Ballaun stone, is quiet a prominent feature at the site. Known as St. Molua’s Stone, it is a large weathered limestone boulder (L 1.6m x 1.1m Wth; H 0.6m) which on its upper surface contains five depressions. According to an account from the 1937 folklore collection, Patrick Breen advises that these depressions in the stone were the result of “Saint Lua, who knelt and prayed on this stone left the round marks of his knees and elbows in it”. Such ballaun stones can be found at numerous Ecclesiastic sites throughout the country, although their function is subject to much debate. At other sites rounded pebbles were placed in the depressions and turned three times clockwise for a cure and three time anti-clockwise for curse. Rainwater collected in these stone depressions are often said to have curative properties. On a more profane level, these types of stones may have been used in the past for simply grinding corn and wheat with rounded pebble rubbers. Nonetheless, the ballaun here at Old Kyle has been revered down through the centuries and is still regularly cleaned of overgrowth in current times. The stone was originally located in a field to the east of the graveyard enclosure but was subsequently moved into the graveyard in the 19th Century.
Cloncourse Castle home to “the Bell Keepers”
Ballaun Stone St’ Moluas’
Another feature which was once found at the site and is now located within the grounds of St. Molua’s Church Ballaghmore, is what is known as St. Molua’s trough. Originally located under a Holy Tree or Rag Tree close to the enclosure at Old Kyle, it was moved by Fr. Gleeson at the turn of the 20th Century to its present location. The rectangular sandstone trough (L 0.95m x 0.48m x 0.40m; T 0.13m) has a lip running around its inner edge at the top which appears to have accommodated a lid for the sarcophagus or what may have been a saint’s reliquary. Such reliquaries were used to hold bones or items belonging to saints of the Early Christian Church and were often centrepieces for pilgrim rituals. It may have been used as such for the bones of Molua or his disciple Laidgen, provocatively it may have been part of the ritual at the site whereby verses of the lorica of St. Molua were recited. The sandstone trough is said to contain curative water and is visited by people looking for various blessings.
In terms of the pre-Christian nature of the site, the most visible signs of this include a Standing Stone (LA015-034—-), 140m west of the D-Shaped Cemetery enclosure. 1.5km east in the adjoining townland of Mondrehid, we find evidence of Bronze Age activity in the form of a Ring Barrow (LA016-020—-) and in the townland of Toortaun 1km NW we find a large mound (LA015-024—-) again which likely dates to this period. The name of St Molua itself may be linked to the Pre-Christian God Lugh one of the most prominent figures in Irish cycles and folklore. Interestingly Lugh the Sun God is associated with the harvest and the festival of Lughnasa (August 1st) is named after him. St. Moluas’ feast day is recorded as August 4th:
“Blithe will he be after arriving in heaven, great is my confidence in him, the holy royal champion, Molua Mac Ochae”. (Martyrology of Oengus).
Added to this, the above-mentioned grave of St. Molua is aligned north-south, which would be counter to Christian aligned east-west burials. T.L Cooke advised that gatherings of people occurred here on the 1st of August 1810 to mark the harvest festival.
To conclude, Old Kyle was once an important site during the Early Christian period and may have been a place on the frontiers of ancient Kingdoms where pilgrims came to pray and worship at the reliquary of St. Molua in the Medieval custom of the “Cult of the Saints”. It seems likely that the site was also revered in pre-Christian times too and may have been associated with the Celtic God Lugh. Today I would recommend the area for a visit with its stunning Slieve Bloom backdrop and various features which are the reminders of life and times in the revered past. Perhaps on an Early August day you might catch a special sunrise tiptoeing along the mountain tops, an alignment perhaps illuminating something which was special to humankind all those centuries ago.
Cooke (1852) On Ancient Irish Bell The journal of the Kilkenny and South-East of Ireland Archaeological Society , Ser. 1, Vol. II, pt. 1, pp. 47-63, 1852
Martology of Onegus
Annals of Ireland UCC Celt
Duchas National Folklore Collection