Along the main road between Mountrath and Portlaoise, the R445 pierces through the heart of what was once one of the most revered and influential monastic establishments of Ireland and indeed Europe during the Early Medieval period. The following attempts to address the influence that Clonenagh played from its humble origins in the mid-6th Century A.D, until its eventual decline with the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, up to the present day where it has continued to hold the imagination and esteem of people within the county and beyond.
Today the most discernible features of the site are marked by a church ruins and adjoining Protestant graveyard to the south side of the road and directly opposite on the north we find a Catholic graveyard encircled by a stone wall. Clonenagh is now a townland within the parish of Mountrath (diocese of Kildare & Leighlin), barony of Maryborough West. Up until the 19th Century this currently designated townland formed the largest parish in the county when it was known as Clonenagh and Clonagheen, consisting then, of the entire modern parishes of Ballyfin, Raheen and Mountrath. This 19th Century rearrangement of parochial boundaries provides a double-edged insight into Clonenaghs’ previous significance and subsequent decline in status, bearing in mind that this boundary shift occurred over a 1000 years after the monastic site was at its zenith.
Clonenagh is situated in the shadow of the Slieve Bloom Mountains on a slight elevation (120m) or hillock, which forms part of a natural system of ridges, eskers and hills which extend to the east and west of the country. Indeed these landscape features played an important role in earlier times; forming what was part of the Slighe Dhala, one of the five major highways of Ireland, these being ancient roads which according to the annals of the medieval period all led to the royal seat at Tara, Co Meath. Coupled with this we have the presence of the River Nore approximately 5km to the southwest, a busy waterway which serviced the Midlands and the South East for many centuries until the advent of modern forms of transportation. From this we can speculate that Clonenagh wasn’t a hermitage or place of quite retreat, as it was located along a busy historic communication network which connected Clonenagh to the far flung corners of the island. The locational choice of the monastic establishment would have been well placed in terms of benefiting from regional and national trade, pilgrim journeys and outwardly flows of its own influence and monastic tradition. It was well placed within the cultural landscape of Early Medieval Ireland. Indeed this is verified within early accounts such as The Life of St. Fintan and the Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee in 9th Century A.D, where it identifies Clonenagh as a site of great learning which attracted scholars from the four provinces of Ireland. These sources also confirm that Clonenagh was famed as a Gallic School attracting scholars from outside of Ireland particularly from France, hence the term Gallic. The attraction of such foreign scholars to Ireland during this early period isn’t surprising as during the period which witnessed the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe itself was shadowed by the cloud of what became known as the “dark ages “where learning and culture was lost or at best stifled. Ireland itself wasn’t under direct Roman influence and didn’t experience anything like the cultural upheaval which occurred away from her shores in the wake of so called barbarian incursions into the lands which formally encompassed the Roman civilization. On the contrary, the islands relatively stable environment led to an export of learning and influence, in an era in which the island became famously known as the “land of the saints and scholars”. By the time Clonenagh had been established in the mid-6th Century A.D. Ireland was experiencing the earliest stages of this Golden Age.
Clonenagh takes its name from the Irish Cluain Eidhneach, which translates to meadow or bog-island of the ivy. A Latin name Latibulum Haederosum was ascribed to Clonenagh in early documentary sources which Lanigan (1822) interprets as the ivied retreat. Symbolically ivy (Hedera hibernica) may have been a deliberate choice with regards to the naming of this new monastic establishment. Ivy is one of Irelands few native evergreen plants, providing vivid symbolism of immortality and eternal life, perhaps fitting in neatly with the new Christian ideology of the time. Ivy can often be found as a three lobed leaf, and this may have been used as a symbol of the trinity by Clonenaghs’ earliest monks in much the same way as the shamrock was used by St. Patrick. Secondly ivy was associated with Dionysus the Greek and Roman Gods of wine and again Christian correlations to the Eucharist may have been a factor in the use of Eidhneach within the naming of Clonenagh. Finally with regards to the ivied-retreat, trees and shrubs such as ivy played an important role in pre-Christian Irish/Celtic religion and culture. The ivy plant correlated to the letter “G” of the Ogham alphabet. The assimilation of old Celtic customs into the new Christian religion in Ireland has been observed and well documented and it could be argued that on the back of this Clonenagh had its name formulated from such a bridging of old and new social orders.
It is unclear as to the exact date of the foundation of the monastery at Clonenagh. Lanigan (1822) and others have subsequently suggested a date of 548 A.D but this has recently being disputed by Sperber (2004) on grounds of inaccurate dating contained within annals and earlier sources. Nonetheless all indications point to a mid-6th Century date perhaps a few years after 548. The founding father of Clonenagh is reputed to be the much celebrated and remarkable St. Fintan. This however is disputed by John Colgan, the famed hagiographer and historian born in 1592; who credits St. Columba of Terryglass as being the first Abbot of Clonenagh. Stokes (1880) believes that Fintan was the third head at Clonenagh after St. Columba and Mochoeme of Terryglass. The widely held view is that Fintan studied at the abbey of Terryglass under Columba and from here he went on to found his own establishment. Fintan was accompanied by St. Columba, Mochoeme of Terryglass, County Tipperary and Coeman of Annatrim, Co. Laois. They journeyed to the province of Leinster whereby the latter three stayed at Clonenagh for one year waiting for a sign from God to indicate where was the best place to build their monastery, and whilst there many people flocked to see Fintan and his companions. No sign came from God and with the multitudes of people who came to Clonenagh it prompted the men to move on towards the Slieve Bloom Mountains in search of a quieter sanctuary of prayer. Within the Slieve Blooms they met a dumb herder boy named Setna. Columba blessed the boy who spoke to reveal that the Angles were awaiting their return at Clonenagh where Fintan was to found his monastery, saying that he was to stay at Clonenagh until he died. This account is interesting as Fintan was searching for a quiet retreat but was advised through the miracle of Setna that he was required to establish a community at Clonenagh, which as we have seen was a busy location for Fintan and his companions after their previous one year stay at the site. Perhaps this was a message in itself, concerning the transition within the Christian Church in Ireland at that time, which was moving away from the anchoritic tradition established in the style of the desert fathers towards a pastoral style which reached out to the community!
St. Fintan requires a look at in greater detail, in order to peel back some of the complex layers which surround Clonenagh. In these early days of Christianity “cults of the saint” were of major importance, and a good understanding of what we know of Fintan and his life can give us a more vivid interpretation of how Clonenagh functioned both at a local level and within the interconnected society of Early Medieval Ireland. Given the time which has expired between then and now, it is often difficult to obtain a clear picture of actual happenings from alleged events. It seems that Fintan was born someplace within Leinster with some authors pointing to Clonkeen Co. Laois as his birthplace. As Charles- Edwards (2004) and Sperber (2004) underline, Fintan was a member of a group of populations known as the Fothairt, a group to which we more closely affiliate the great St. Brigid of Kildare. Indeed according to their paternal lineages, both Fintan and Brigid were said to have been blood related. As Sperber (2004) highlights this link between Clonenagh and Kildare was preserved until at least the end of the 10th Century A.D whereby a recording in the Annals of the Fours Masters for 991 A.D mentions the obituary of Diarmait who was joint lector at Clonenagh and Kildare. Links with St. Brigid are also highlighted by Molloy in 1813, where he mentions that one of the three extant burial grounds located at Clonenagh bears the name of St. Brigid.
Fintan was a man who asserted great influence over ecclesiastical politics and religion during his lifetime. It is unclear of the exact date of his birth but some sources refer to the year 525 A.D, interestingly the year in which St. Brigid is said to have died. His death is recorded in a number of annals as being either 601 or 603 A.D; the Annals of Tigernach record the earlier date with the Annals of Ulster, the Fragmentary Annals (FA) and the Four Masters all recording 603 A.D. His feast day is the 17th of February. The FAs are generally accepted as being derived from the now lost Annals of Clonenagh, as they deal with affairs within the regional limits of the settlement. St. Fintan is regarded as one of the three patron saints of Laois which include St. Colman of Oughaval and St. Mochua of Timahoe. The 12th Century Book of Leinster compiled by Aed Mac Crimthainn of Terryglass and transcribed at Oughaval Co. Laois places St. Fintan amongst the top three saints of Ireland behind St. Patrick and St. Brigid. This account in the famous Book could be interpreted as being slightly bias, considering the political connections its author had with Clonenagh, nevertheless it gives an idea of the prominence Fintan held within the early church in Ireland. We know from the Life of Saint Fintan which was likely recorded in the 730’s, that Fintan was involved with a number of high profile religious personalities at the time. As a young adult, Fintan was visited by the famous visionary St. Colum Cille. He revealed to Fintan how he would serve God during his lifetime. A short time after this visit Fintan is said to have studied under St. Columba who founded the monastery at Terryglass. During Fintans’ search for a monastic site, he was accompanied by Coeman who was a brother to St. Kevin of Glendalough. Here we see a tentative link between Fintan and one of the most influential monasteries in Ireland at the time. Fintan is also associated with a number of churches which on reading the earlier texts appear to be subordinate schools of Clonenagh. These include Agha in Co. Carlow and Killeigh Co. Offaly. Once he had established himself at Clonenagh we hear of many saints and scholars who flocked to study at the renowned site. These included most famously St. Comgall who went on to found one of Ireland’s best known monasteries at Bangor Co. Down. In the life of St. Comgall, Fintan is said to have granted him the land at Bangor on which to build his establishment. After the death of Comgall a number of abbots were named Fintan, likely in reverence of the great man himself. In the life of St. Fintan, he is said to have saved the life of the king of Ui Bairrche who went on to become a monk at Bangor. It cannot be overstated the numerous references and associations to Bangor, a monastery which provided a gateway to Britain and Europe and was at the forefront of Irish missionary practices for centuries. Other saints who visit St. Fintan at Clonenagh are St. Canice or Cainnech from the nearby distinguished foundation of Aghaboe. In this account Canice on hearing of the strict rule of obedience which was maintained at Clonenagh, argued for a relaxation of Fintans’ rule. This rule included renunciation of any use of the plough, abstinence from any drink but water as well as upholding a strict diet. It is also believed that Fintan didn’t allow cattle at his monastery. In the Early Medieval period cattle were associated with wealth and utilized as units of currency. It seems that Fintan objected to all worldly influences at Clonenagh where fasting, abstinence, learning and prayer formed the major activities. On the request of Canice, Fintan is said to have relaxed his rule but he himself is said to have maintained this rigorous obedience to God. This is echoed almost two centuries later in an account by Oengus the Culdee, the famed Bishop, hagiographer and church reformer, in a verse dedicated to Fintan; “Fiontain the generous, never ate during his time, but bread of barley corn and water of earthy clay”. St. Oengus who founded Dysart Enos Co. Laois (which is visible from Clonenagh on the hills to the east) lived a distinguished life at Tallaght, where he recorded his famous Félire Óengussois. Some sources say he is said to have been born at Clonenagh, where he received his early training as a monk. After his distinguished career, St. Oengus was laid to rest in 824 A.D at Clonenagh. In terms of the continued status Clonenagh held, it is important to highlight that its connection with Oengus occurred over 200 years after the death of Fintan, its founder. Oengus is certainly one of the most influential monks of the Early Medieval Period, renown both nationally and internationally. By 603 Fintan had made his mark and departed his brothers at Clonenagh for his heavenly reward. His death was recorded in all the major annals of Ireland including the Annals of Ulster, Chronicon Scotorum, Innisfallen and the Fragmentary annals. Coupled with this Fintans’ feast day the 17th of February is recorded within a number important European Christian manuscripts. These include the Martyrology of Usuard an important 9th Century French manuscript, which states the Fintan was “a great man of virtue”. His name also features in the Martyrology of Salisbury as well as the Roman Martyrology. These references to St. Fintan further underline the degree of respect, influence and importance he held during his lifetime not just locally or nationally but also on an international level. That said, as founder and head instructor at Clonenagh, it seems plausible that the monastery itself shared in this glory and significance.
The story of Clonenagh may have begun with Fintan but it certainly didn’t end with his death. Oengus the Culdee mentions that at Clonenagh there were no fewer than eight succeeding Fintans who served there as abbots. It is recoded that four consecutive heads at Clonenagh after St. Fintan’s departure were named Fintan perhaps as a gesture towards the founding fathers acclamation. This may indicate the beginnings of the “Cult of Fintan”, an Early Medieval phenomenon which only the most revered Early Churchmen received. His immediate successor was Fintan Maeldubh who was a native of Osraige, a Kingdom which lay on the south western flanks of Clonenagh. Maeldubh was appointed by Fintan the founder before his death and he is recorded to have died in a number of annals in the year 626 A.D, with his feast day recorded on the 20th of October. Another St. Fintan, named Corach who was famed for his chanting and pilgrimages throughout Ireland, and was said to have been the grandson of the King of Leinster, is recorded to have died in the mid-7th Century A.D. The annals mention his departure and give his titles as Bishop of Clonfert and Abbot of Clonenagh. Clonfert at that time was considered one of foremost monastic schools in Ireland, it was the inspiration for many great missionary ventures across Europe and its relation here to Clonenagh is striking. We see another reference in the annals to Maelaithgen, Abbot of Cluain Eidhneach who is recorded to have died in 767 A.D.
The monastery at Clonenagh like so many across the Island was plundered and burnt by the Vikings. The Viking Longphort located at Dunrally Co. Laois, may have been used as a base for these attacks which were recorded in the years 838 and 840 A.D. It seems that during these years the island was experiencing great turmoil in the face of the new threat from the “foreigners”. A major headline in the annals occurred in 843 A.D when the Vikings sacked Dun Masg (Dunamase) the seat of the Kings of Loigis. This resulted in the slaughter of Aed, who was joint Abbot of Terryglass and Clonenagh, and the Prior of Kildare who was also killed in this attack. We see from this account that the link between Kildare, Terryglass and Clonenagh was still important almost 300 years after the foundation of the monastery by St. Fintan. It also shows that Clonenagh may have been dependent on the local Kings of Laois, in place of the previous link with the Kingdom of Ossory. By 866 A.D we see that Clonenagh was associated with the Kingdom of Munster where its Abbot Reachtabhra died. Reachtabhra was also the Abbot of a monastery in Cork named Corcaigh Mor. The Annals of the Four Masters record the deaths of a number of abbots and bishops of Clonenagh in the years 872, 890, 898 and 909. By 919 A.D we have a record of Clonenagh and Timahoe being plundered by a second wave of foreigners, but it seems to have recovered by 922, as the death of an abbot is mentioned. Again in 927 and 940 we see the recording of the death of an abbot and bishop at Clonenagh. The internecine warfare which had always marked the Irish political scene at the time is reflected in an entry in 965 where the vice-abbot of Clonenagh was killed by the men of Osraige. Perhaps a struggle for influence over the monastery was the root cause of occurrences relating to this entry. By 970 the death of an O’Connor (Connaught) Bishop is recorded at Clonenagh again indicative of a change of patronship at the monastery. The link between Kildare and Clonenagh was still evident by 991 with an entry declaring Diarmaid, rector of Cill-dara and Abbot of Cluain-eidhneach died. Finally the last we hear of Clonenagh within these early annals is the year 1071, where the obituary of a Priest is recorded. Perhaps by this time Clonenagh was beginning to wane in terms of its influence.
By the late 11th Century Clonenagh was located along the war ravaged frontier between the Kingdom of Leinster and the Kingdom of Osraige. This alone must have taken its toll on the community at Clonenagh. Nonetheless it seems to have remained both functionally and symbolically important for at least another century. As mentioned earlier, the authors of the 12th Century Book of Leinster which included Aed Mac Crimthainn of Terryglass made considerable efforts to align themselves with Clonenagh and St. Fintan its founder. Considering this; Clonenagh at this time must have retained something of its former greatness. With the church reforms of the 11th and 12th centuries, Clonenagh may have seen a gradual reduction in its influence. Despite being actively involved in missionary undertakings in its earlier phase, Clonenagh didn’t seem to attract any of the continental orders such as the Dominican and Cistercians which appeared more fluently in 12th and 13th Century Ireland. For instance Aghaboe Abbey 10km southwest of Clonenagh saw members of the Dominicans revitalize their community. The great church reforms under St. Malachy oversaw a shift in monastic governance with Diocesan rule coming to the fore. A group of four synods were held including one at Rathbreasail, Co. Laois (unknown location) in 1111. This synod was of national importance and most authors agree that it is located near the modern town of Mountrath, although the exact location remains a mystery. Perhaps it may have been held near Clonenagh at the great Rath of Redcastle? These synods are credited with creating new ecclesiastic boundaries in Ireland. The outcome was that Ireland was to be broken into 24 dioceses. Clonenagh became a territory or parish within the diocese of Leighlin, one of five such dioceses in the province of Leinster. Given that Clonenagh was once associated with powerful bishops who were often joint abbots at great monastic sites such as Kildare, Clonfert and Terryglass, this reduction in status to an ecclesiastic territory within Leighlin gives us a picture of a declining role which Clonenagh was now playing within the contemporary religious and political scene of 12th Century Ireland. Although Rathbreasail may have been a factor in the decline of Clonenagh, it is believed that the records of the synod and indeed other worthy events were recorded in the now lost Book of Clonenagh. It seems ironic that the events at Rathbreasil which were recorded in greatest detail within the Annals of Clonenagh led to the diminution of this once great monastery. This set of annals are generally believed to have formed the basis of the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. Like every truly great monastic institution of the time Clonenagh made its own contribution through the recording of its own set of annals, a sure testament in itself of the greatness and influence she once held. The last alleged sighting of what was surely a brilliant manuscript was reported by O’Hanlon (1879) from a third party who heard of the book being located at the library at Ballyfin House when it was occupied by William Wellesley Pole in the years before the outbreak of the great famine. It seems the Book may have been sold or given away in an inheritance bid and some accounts say that it made its way as far as Australia.
By the 12th Century, entries concerning Clonenagh with the various annals and documents of Ireland become sparse. It seems the old monastery became somewhat of a backwater. An entry in 1135 within the Miscellaneous Annals mentions a battle which occurred near Clonenagh. This entry according to Lucas (1985), is likely to be an erroneous placename for the battle as a number of contemporary manuscripts indicate was fought in a different area altogether. Either ways we know from this account that Clonenagh hadn’t completely disappeared into abyss of decline. Clonenagh is mentioned in the Triads of Ireland, which was compiled from the 14th to the 19th Century from various late medieval manuscripts, although its origins may lie further back to the 9th Century A.D. Within these Triads Clonenagh is said to be one of the three oratories of Ireland which also included Birr and Leighlin. Again this reference to the monastery is quiet significant and exemplifies the reverence which it held throughout the island.
By the arrival of the Anglo-Normans we find virtually no direct mention of the site at Clonenagh. Conceivably given that many monastic sites within the country had well developed surrounding agricultural fieldscapes, the land at Clonenagh may not have been desirous for Anglo Norman large scale manorial settlement. By the late 13th and early 14th Centuries we have a Knight’s Fee document which indicates that there were a number of areas within the medieval parish of Clonenagh which formed part of the manorial lands of Dunamase. These included Clonkeen and a southern part of the parish which between them contributed 2 fees to the King. Although no direct mention of the actual site of Clonenagh is made, lands which formerly belonged to the establishment were possibly utilized as part of the greater manorial lands of Dunamase. As such there is no evidence of Anglo Norman activity in the area, although a monument directly south of the ruined church graveyard is listed as a motte structure. This consists of a low 2.5 meter mound with a possible surrounding ditch, a rather small motte by any standards! In 1348 the Annales Breves Hiberniae compiled by Thaddeus Dowling (1548-1628) record that the Bishop of Meath was involved in the formal canonization of St. Fintan of Clonenagh. Nothing contemporary is mentioned of Clonenagh itself but it is captivating to see that discussions on Fintan, his miracles and achievements were still deliberated in the ecclesiastic courts of Late Medieval Ireland, seven centuries after his death.
By the 16th Century which saw the plantation of Laois by English settlers, much of the peripheral areas within the county had been laid waste to by the constant fighting between the English and local Gaelic tribes. Clonenagh wasn’t spared during the conflict with a reference to the church at Clonenagh having been destroyed and being in a ruinous state by 1587 albeit with its land intact. Furthermore in 1615 an entry mentioned that the chancel was in need of repair. By this later period, Clonenagh had become nothing more than a small parish church which had been destroyed as a place of worship during the turbulent days of the plantation. Soon after this it would have been acquired by the new Protestant settlers. On the Cotton Map (Fig. 3) of Laois dating to 1563 Clonenagh or Chloenenagh as it is referred too, is mentioned and depicted as having two intact churches as well as a castle within its vicinity. This recording more than 20 years prior to the above description is in stark contrast as it seems within this generational timeframe, that the church had been destroyed. The depiction of the castle most likely refers to a Towerhouse which once stood at Redcastle approximately 1km to the west of Clonenagh. A road or pass running from Fort Protector through Clonenagh is also evident from this map, this routeway formed the much earlier road network known as the Slighe Dhala. The Cotton Map is regarded as being of reasonable accuracy unlike John Speeds of Leinster 1610 which is not as reliable in terms of geographic distributions of places, especially on a county level. On Speed’s map (Fig. 4) one could tenuously link the placename Clonemyn with Clonenagh, which on the map is located between the Nore and the Barrow valleys. What these maps tell us is that the area was still regarded as of economic and social significance but other areas in the county by this period had seemed to surpass Clonenagh for a variety of reasons, examples of such would include Fort Protector the precursor of the town of Portlaoise. Perhaps the mere mention of Clonenagh on the early maps is suggestive of the parish and as a consequence the population this delimitated. Certainly the Down Survey map from 1656 (Fig. 5) acknowledges Clonenagh as this large parochial tract of land which incorporates the town of Mountrath. Redcastle and a church at Clonenagh are clearly depicted and one can assume that the 1615 reference of the need for a new chancel, had been accomplished and it fully functioned as parish church by the time the Down’s Survey map had been completed. The rise of Mountrath town in the 17th Century and the subsequent population shift clearly had a detrimental impact on Clonenagh even at these latter stages of its decline. The parish base at Clonenagh itself was relocated to Mountrath and as we have seen, by the 19th Century the large parish of Clonenagh became redundant and was broken up into three separate parishes. Thus signaling the end of its influence from the power and prestige it had garnered more than a millennium before. A look at the 19th Century ordinance survey maps of the area show that the church at Clonenagh had succumbed to a ruinous state yet again. By this period Clonenagh had ceased to be a place of worship but continued on as a place of burial as it is today, where according to the Lives of St. Fintan any sinner interned here would find heavenly salvation.
A look at some of the local folklore concerning Clonenagh and St. Fintan
We have seen that Clonenagh played a prominent role in Early Medieval society, with its significance lasting down the generations. By examining the oral tradition, which many agree is the language of the ordinary people from times past; we can shed further light and corroborate some of the information which we have learned from the written record. Many of these stories were recorded by the late Helen Roe with perhaps the most famous being concerned with the Holy Well at Clonenagh. This well was covered over by a Protestant landowner as many people would journey to the well for a cure from its holy waters especially on the pattern or feast day of St. Fintan on the 17th of February. Often records show that these patron days in the 18th and 19th Centuries were marred by scenes of drunkenness and violence, perhaps a reason why the landowner closed up the well. Nonetheless a short time after, it is said that St. Fintan caused the well to rise up in the hollow of a sycamore tree a few yards away from its original position.
This tree itself became known as the money tree at Clonenagh and indeed people came from throughout the county to say a few prayers or leave an offering, often in the form of a coin, by which it was hammered into the trunk of the large sycamore tree. 19th Century accounts by O’ Hanlon also mentions this practice in his History of the Queen’s County underlining the antiquity of this particular tradition. Unfortunately in 1994 the tree, which had been weakened considerably by metallic poisoning, was blown down in a storm. Today there are new shoots emerging although the well itself isn’t visible. Another well dedicated to St. Fintan is located a few kilometers to the south at Cromogue.
Another curious story tells us that during the construction of Clonenagh St. Fintan drew sand and gravel from the esker formation known as “the downs” at Portlaoise. Whilst doing this he gave some of his cargo to St. Brigid which she used to build her own establishment at Kildare. This story although historically impossible as Brigid would have lived some years before Fintan, is nonetheless of interest as it shows a relationship between the two monastic establishments which has been discussed earlier. Secondly the esker system that we see at “the downs” in Portlaoise lies on the same system which formed part of the wider communication network known as the Slighe Dhala.
Finally a more recent account concerns a Church of Ireland minister who lived at a cottage in Clonenagh named Rev. Sandy. He was expelled for drunkenness at the pulpit. Despite his stripping from the gown, he married many hundreds of people from the county and beyond and became famous for his motto “Happy the wooin, that’s not long a doin”. The rumour goes that under the penal laws he was prosecuted and sentenced to be hanged but this was later commuted to a short term of imprisonment. It is said he later became a Catholic.
These vernacular accounts of which I have spoken but a few, form part of the great story telling traditions of an age which has almost sadly disappeared. They contain information which can be deciphered, allowing us to create a more vivid picture of the site which today remains mostly beneath the fields around Clonenagh. For such an oral tradition to stand the tests of time, the influence of the original establishment must have been far-reaching.
What the archaeological evidence can tell us.
Although the site at Clonenagh has never been excavated, its structures and features can be examined in order to illuminate its former significance. There are no fewer than five earthen mounds of varying size within a 300m radius of the most distinguishing structure we see today, that being the ruins of the church. Four of these mounds are clustered within a 100m radius, with three lying to the south of the main road. Beginning with the south side structures we find the ruined church atop the first mound which comprises a graveyard. This is regarded as the Protestant cemetery with many head stones dating from the 18th Century to the modern period. There are many uninscribed stone grave markers, which are characteristic of grave markers from early historic times. The church ruins are regarded as having a 16th Century nave and chancel. As alluded to earlier, this church was possibly burnt in the 1580’s and was subsequently rebuilt and maintained for the Protestant community of the parish. It is mainly constructed of limestone with a number of sandstone inclusions, perhaps these sandstone features were part of an earlier church on the site. Molloy’s sketch of the church in 1813 shows a slated roof and it may have still functioned around this period, although by 1840’s it seems to have fallen out of use as indicated by the ordinance survey map.
Less than 10m from the boundary walls of this cemetery we find a second mound to the south. This consists of a partially eroded circular raised platform, with slight evidence of a fosse, approximately 20m in diameter and 2.5m in height. In my opinion this may be the remnants of a defensive earthen ringwork built by the Anglo-Normans after their conquests in Leinster. It certainly would have been an uninspiring defensive structure in terms of Anglo-Norman fortifications and may represent a token presence of Anglo-Norman settlement in the area in a time when Clonenagh had substantially declined in status. 50m to the east of the church we see another large mound in the adjoining field, which according Molloy (1813) was a burial ground known as St. Brigid’s. Manning (1998) indicated that there was evidence for a mortared structure atop this mound which could have functioned as a church. A number of uninscribed or badly eroded headstones protrude from the overgrowth along the mound.
There are a number of burrow holes dug into the mound with considerable amounts of scattered human bone, indicating a burial place. Across the road 100m to the northeast, another large mound exists which is known as the Catholic burial grounds. According to Comerford (1886) this was the original site of the monastery at Clonenagh. Many of the headstones date to the 19th and 20th Centuries with again some typical Early Medieval uninscribed grave markers. Perhaps the most intriguing finds at Clonenagh have emerged from this part of the complex, with over 13 cross-inscribed slabs having been unearthed during clean-up works at the graveyard in 1988. To date these represent the largest collection of such objects discovered in Co. Laois. According to Manning (1998) they date between the 7th -11th Century A.D. These are sandstone slabs which have relief carvings of spirals, circles and Early Christian Greek-style crosses. It is somewhat ironic that these cross slabs were uncovered in that a 10th century poem concerning St. Aengus the Culdee mentions his burial at “Cluain-Eidhnech of the many crosses”. Today these fine examples of Early Medieval insular rock art can be seen crudely cemented into the west wall of the aforementioned graveyard. Their features have been weathered greatly since the accidental discovery and these slabs need to be appropriately conserved.
Finally concerning the immediate site, approximately 300m northeast of the ruined church the fifth earthen mound is located. Nothing remains of an old church ruin which is indicated on the 1840’s ordinance survey map. Again like the other 3 mounds, this may have been a burial ground which perhaps fell out of use before the 19th Century. A local myth eludes us to the possibility that seven churches once comprised the monastic settlement at Clonenagh. From the evidence on the ground, there are at least four sites all represented by elevated ground comprising of centuries of burial. During the Early Medieval Period most Church structures were wooden and these have since decayed leaving no visible remains. Given the large number of churches which may have existed at Clonenagh, one can assume that it was a monastery of considerable size perhaps on the scale of Clonmacnoise, itself famed for its numerous church buildings. Finally I would like highlight the presence of a massive bivallate ringort, at Redcastle approximately 1km west of Clonenagh. This ringfort is the largest monument of its type in Co. Laois measuring a huge 120m in diameter with both inner and outer defensive embankments surrounded by commanding views in all directions. Such ringforts are generally attributed to the Early Medieval Period and given its close proximity to Clonenagh, there is no doubt that both sites had a profound relationship during the golden age of St. Fintan’s establishment here at Clonenagh. Such ringforts were reserved for high status individuals, perhaps a local king or even a powerful bishop. Occupants of such structures were involved in both national and international trade as evident from excavations at similar sites. It is difficult to discern the exact relationship between the two sites, but perhaps Clonenagh was supported by the patronage of a local King who resided there. Maybe Redcastle provided a source of defense for the monastery in times of attack? The contrast between this high status ringfort and that of the supposed Anglo-Norman ringwork 10m south cannot be more striking and gives us a measure of activity and importance which Clonenagh held from its heyday in the Early Medieval period to its gradual decline over five centuries later.
Today the site at Clonenagh stands as a proud reminder of a time when Christianity galvanized Early Medieval society in Ireland. At that time Ireland was in the midst of its Golden Age and monasteries such as St. Fintans’ establishment here at Clonenagh attracted the scholars and missionaries from home and abroad who formed the very backbone of this great period of enlightenment. As we have seen, this monastic school in Co. Laois originated in the mid-6th Century A.D. It was associated with the Fothairt and St. Brigid from its very beginning and subsequently many important saintly personalities were affiliated with this school. The many entries from the early annals of Ireland underpin the significance Clonenagh. These provide a timescale spanning over seven centuries which show an establishment at the height of its power and document its gradual decline. By the arrival of the Anglo-Normans and as a consequence of church reforms, Clonenagh began to decline and fade into the memories of time. Local folklore and archaeological evidence seem to corroborate to some extent these events which occurred during its longevity. Clonenagh is certainly worthy of its place amongst the great antiquities of Co. Laois and indeed Ireland. Clonenagh began as an Ivied retreat and today the “ivy still climbs the crumbling hall to decorate its decay” (Philip James Bailey).
Sperber (Ingrid): ‘Late, and not of special distinction’? The misunderstood Life of St. Fintan of Clonenagh. In OLL 1 (2004), pp. 28–49.
Charles-Edwards, T. M. Early Christian Ireland (2000)
Lanigan, John (1822), The Ecclesiastical History of Ireland
Powell, Philip (2014) Antiquities of Laois
Stokes, Whitley (1905) The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee
Archaeological Inventory of Co. Laois
Ordnance Survey Letters Laois
Annals of Ireland https://celt.ucc.ie/publishd.html