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|A Survey of Monuments of Archaeological and Historical Interest in the Barony of Bunratty Lower, Co. Clare by William Gerrard Ryan|
Part 3: Pre-reformation
church and monastic sites
Tomfinlough Church; Saint Luchtighern’s Oratory (Site of); Tomfinlough Plague Stone
Nat. Grid. Ref: R435704; ½” Sheet 17
For information relating to this important site refer to: - (a) site plan (b) site description (c) series of photographs on the site.
Plan of Tomfinlough Church:
When dealing with this important site I intended to refer to each of the walls separately, noting their principal features and possible dates of erection.
The southern wall is probably the most important of the four containing,
as it does, the original entrance area as well as three windows, two
of which are now visible (photos 1, 2 & 3).
Though not clearly visible from the outside a second very interesting double light window occurs quite close to the previous one (see site plan). The reason why it cannot be examined from the outside is because, all but for a small section to the top, it has been blocked up (photo 1). On the inside, however, it can be examined along its 1.70 metre length. Westropp has given a very good description of this window and what he wrote in 1900 largely holds today: “…and a richly moulded pointed double-light south window, the capitals carved with leaves and the hood resting on faces, two pointed heads, and a central detached shaft with moulded bands (now fallen)…” page 149.
Photo 4 shows up these features and they are quite clearly visible at
the site as they are carved on sandstone along a wall of limestone. (For
an excellent description of this window, in 1839, refer to O’Donovan,
Finally on the southern wall, in the area where it meets the eastern
gable, is a second buttress. However this one, clearly shown on the site
plan, is of a nineteenth century date. An examination of the wall, near
this buttress, will show a plaque stating that the site’s wall
was repaired and the buttress added by a John McNamara.
The eastern wall along its 9.80 metres (external) length contains two
windows, one of which is of particular interest. The first window, near
the south-easterly corner, is of cut limestone and .90 metres wide. The
actual opening, see site plan, is only .40 metre wide.
A close examination of the area about this cut limestone window does show a deal of cut sandstone (photo 5). This, according to both O’Donovan (1839) and Westropp (1900), is the trace of a plain three-light early fourteenth century (Norman) window which was mostly removed when the late fifteenth century limestone window was inserted:-
“…This (limestone) window, which does not appear to be many
centuries old, is inserted in another (sandstone) window, twelve feet
one inch wide; the top, which reaches high up in the (east) gable, covered
with ivy, so that its form cannot be ascertained. The sides of this window
appear on the outside of the wall, all built up of the same sort of grit
(i.e. sandstone) as that already mentioned…”
The northern wall, in a poor state of preservation, does not contain any features of note along its 23.30 metre external length. As the site plan shows most of it is defined by only foundation blocks.
The west wall is likewise damaged at its centre (site plan). A very close examination of the area where it meets the south wall shows corbels (photo 6). These mark the position of a gallery which originally covered the western part of the site. By local tradition this was some 2.12 metres (7 feet) above the church floor. To get into this gallery one used a door in the north wall.
Fortunately O’Donovan left us with some further information on this particular wall: “…There is a pointed doorway in the west gable, nearer to the north than to the south side, measuring four feet nine inches in height and three feet six inches in breadth, the wall (is) broken a little over it, and at its sides.
There was a quadrangular window nearly over it which is now closed up
with mason work. About four feet in height of the lower part of this
gable appears to be much older than the other parts of it, and the little
doorway does not appear to be of the same age with it…” (1839,
Date of Church:
Apart from visible remains the Annals of the Four Masters, cited by O’Donovan, 1839, pages 196/197 also have references to this obviously important site:
REFERENCES TO TOMFINLOUGH CHURCH:
Arch and Window Forms
Source: Leask, 1941, 24
Saint Luchtighern’s Oratory (Site of)
O.S. Sheet 42 (Co. Clare); Reference: 13.7 cm East; 19.7 cm South; at 110’O.D.
“…About sixty yards south east from the south east angle of the church and included in a kitchen garden wall is a piece of a wall nine feet high and twelve feet three inches long, finished at the extremities with large cut-stones, like the angles of the gable of a house, and having a quadrangular doorway in the centre measuring four feet ten in height from the present level of the ground, one foot nine and a half inches in breadth at top and two feet 2 inches at bottom, covered by a lintel stone five feet long and ten inches thick… There can be little doubt that this was the west gable or end of a very ancient church, of the existence of which no traditional account remains in the district.
Over the doorway are placed three heads (human) sculptured in stone… Of
these heads the middle one is much defaced, all its features having given
way to the action of the weather, while the other heads retain their
features in a good state of preservation…” (see field sketch).
“…Only the end wall remains, having a door with lintel and
inclined jambs, and above it three corbels with human faces…” (see
plate 11, number 10).
The above extracts, by O’Donovan (1839) and Westropp (1900) describe
the then surviving traces of an oratory a short distance south-east of
Tomfinlough Church. However field examination (1978/1979) failed to find
any trace of this site. The former position of the oratory is now covered
by a large field wall, inserted in which is a small crossed sandstone
block which was presumably associated with the site (photo 1). There
was no trace of the doorway though fortunately both O’Donovan (1839,
opposite page 77) and Westropp (1900, plate 11, item 10, description
on page 177) have field sketches of it.
Harbison, in an article on Romanesque heads from County Clare, refers to the Finlough examples:
“…Two of these heads were, unusually carved in sandstone
and they have deteriorated so much that it is only just possible to recognise
the fact that they were once carved human heads. The third head, carved
in the more usual Clare limestone, is in a much better state of preservation
(plate 2,4)… The eyes are merely marked by a broad furrow around
them, the mouth is a simple arce, the small ears are at eye-level and
on the side of the head there is a strange clump of hair. The most unusual
feature is a horizontal V-shaped wrinkle on each cheek…”
Date of Oratory:
According to “The Martyrology of Donegal” and “The
Life of Mac Creiche”, as cited by Frost (1893, page 191), Saint
Luchtigern lived during the early sixth century, A.D. By tradition he
built the first church at Finlough and surprisingly later churches did
not use the same site but rather went further up-slope. The west wall
described by O’Donovan (1839, page 77) may in fact date in part
from this early period. His reference to large cut-stones is of interest
as these suggest an early date for the site. It may have been that the
sixth century ruins were restored and the church re-used about the tenth
century. This possibly accounts for the lintelled doorway of that date.
References to the Oratory:
This article also contains two photos of the heads. One is a general photo showing the condition of the three heads while photo 2 is a close up of the centre head.
Davies, 1948, page 100, dates Romanesque heads.
Harbison, 1972, page 6. He describes, in some detail, the features of the actual heads. (see also plate 2, item 4).
Tomfinlough Plague Stone
O.S. Sheet 42 (Co. Clare); Reference: 14.3 cm East; 19.7 cm South; at 110’ O.D.
“…There is a stone in the graveyard wall at its south west angle on the outside, measuring about three and a half feet in length, one foot in thickness and two feet in height over the level of the field. It is a hewn stone and appears to have been part of the doorway of some edifice, traces of the foundations of which may be seen extending to the north. On the front of this stone are two raised solid circles about six inches in diameter, one of them fashioned like a saucer turned upside down, and the other plain and having a small cross slightly and rudely indented on it. The stone is popularly called the plague stone…” Source: O’Donovan, 1839, pages 78-79.
This feature is still to be clearly seen in the field (photo, below). O’Donovan’s reference above to foundation traces north of this feature is interesting. All that exists there today is a field wall. However the lower traces of this are, in part, of large limestone blocks – could these be part of a third church site at Finlough Townland?
For Folklore relating to the Plaque Stone refer to:-
Finlough Holy Well:
This restored well site has a date of 1710 carved on a top stone.