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The Stone Crosses of Kilfenora by Jack Flanagan

Introduction

“YE Citie of the crosses” - this was how Charles Blake-Forster titled his historical notes on Kilfenora in the 1870s. It was called a city even though its Cathedral was the smallest with the poorest diocese in Ireland. This city was a hamlet of poor thatched dwellings. The diocese took root from the Abbey that was founded here by St. Fachtnan about 650. St. Fachtnan was from Cork and some believe he was an O’Leary. We know little about the early life of the Abbey, only that it was burned in 1055 by Morough O’Brien who slew many of the inhabitants.

If the church at Kilfenora is evidence of the existence of an early religious establishment here, the same can be said about the high crosses as further proof of this. In ancient times the Brehon laws recognised the boundary marks of farms and forts, which were often marked with upright blocks of stone, and their unlawful removal was looked at as a crime. With the advent of Christianity it was natural that the monastic establishments, in the grants of lands they received marked those termon lands as they became known, by crosses probably of wood in the first instance, for the Christian cross replaced the standing stone.

From the early days of Christianity in Ireland crosses have been erected for various purposes, mostly as sepulchral monuments and to define the limits of sanctuary of the church. The crosses at Kilfenora were erected for these two purposes, but as to the number that stood here we will never know, but a deeply rooted tradition which the older generation much adhered to, is that there were seven crosses, whence the “Citie of the seven crosses.”

Several writers gave their views on these crosses, but they differ on many points. Charles Blake Forster said “that of those curious and interesting relics only two now remain” - the one adjoining the town which he thought dated from the days of St. Fachtnan, and the other one, of which the head and arms are broken off, stands on a slight elevation in the demesne of Ballykeal.

From Henry Pelham’s Map of Co. Clare, 1787
From Henry Pelham’s Map of Co. Clare, 1787

When Pelham drew his map of Co. Clare in the 1780s - he was in the Kilfenora area in 1782 - he included in the map three crosses outside the village: one on the hill-top south of the village, one in Ballykeal a short distance west of the then Ballykeal Manor House (now a ruin), and one in Ballyshanny, to the south of Ballyshanny Castle. It’s strange he didn’t include any cross near the Cathedral, although the Doorty cross would not be standing at that time, for in 1752 part of the cross was laying on the Doorty grave. But it’s more surprising that he didn’t include the high cross in the west field. The present church was not erected at that time, neither were the farm buildings, which were only erected in the 1930s, so there was nothing to obstruct the view of the cross.

 

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