The Churches of County Clare
By T. J. Westropp, M.A.
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Clare County Library

Introduction

Map of County Clare

Map of Ancient Churches, County Clare

In laying before this Academy an attempted survey of the ancient churches of a single county, it is hoped that the want of such raw material for any solid work on the ecclesiology of Ireland may justify the publication, and excuse the deficiencies, of the present essay. So far as it extends, every care has been taken to secure accuracy, but the subject is so extensive, covering over 200 sites, [1] that it lies perilously open to mistake in every direction. Objection may also be made to the fact that the county, rather than the diocese, has been adopted as the limit; this, however, is necessary to put the ecclesiastical survey on even lines with the lists of other antiquities, and in the case of Clare causes the less confusion that the see of Kilfenora exactly covers the baronies of Burren and Corcomroe, while the Clare portion of the bishopric of Killaloe has so strong an identity in history and topography, as to be treated as a separate division in the united diocese of the Protestant episcopate. The only exception is a small portion with the little church of Kilrush, and the old parishes of Killeely and Kilquane, now given to certain churches in the city of Limerick, and even of these the two latter form part of county Clare. The question of church sites calls for a note - only those are included in which the author has been able to find a record or definite tradition of the existence of a church; the mere existence of an apparent church-name proves nothing, as the Kill may be, and in many cases is, a reminiscence of “the wood,” coill, not “church,” cil, formerly on the site, or in some cases was a mere “Killeen” or burial ground for unbaptized children such sites form a separate list. The whole has been based on the maps and letters of the Ordnance Survey checked as far as possible by personal examination.

Apart from the interest attached to our earliest churches and parishes, apart from their value to antiquary and architect, apart even from their importance in ecclesiastical, and even in secular history, they possess in this country another and, in some respects, even greater interest. They form the tide-marks of our early Christianity, as it flooded the heathen lands in the fifth and sixth century; they mark the starting place of our missionaries to other lands, and the foci of that light of learning and religion that shone in the dense darkness that covered the peoples after the fall of the Roman Empire. Lastly, their appended districts have usually preserved, through all political change, the extent of the tribal lands and petty kingdoms as they existed about the year 1100, when more definite shape was given, and limits set to the episcopal jurisdiction. This arrangement in its turn helped to fix such boundaries by the conservatism of the Church.

In the nearly isolated county of Clare - isolated by the river, the sea, and the enmity of Connaught - these phenomena are very apparent, so it is hoped that this Paper may indicate no less the outline of the evangelisation of the district and the ancient tribal divisions, than the number and age of the churches and, where possible, the name and period of their original founders. It must be borne in mind that in most instances, if not in all, the existence of the church preceded its present remains sometimes by several centuries. An energetic outburst of building (as was shown in an former volume of our Proceedings) took place between 1390 and 1520, resulting in the erection of hundreds of peel towers, and, as this Paper indicates, it also led to the repair, and still more often the rebuilding, of thirty or forty churches.

The obscure records of our hagiology leave us open to confusion and error, and warn us to use great caution in receiving evidence as to church foundations. A great number of “Lives” of our saints are late rhetorical productions, frequently panegyrics and sermons, written from five to eight centuries later than the time of the holy men they record. Few, indeed, approach in value Adamnan’s priceless biography; few precede the Danish wars, and being written, rather to edify the pious than to meet the critical, it would be equally unfair to judge them harshly, or to adopt their testimony unhesitatingly. Yet all must preserve genuine tradition, the solid basis of their ornament, and even the latest must keep some outline of its more accurate predecessor, “as clouds take the shape of the mountains which they hide and rest upon,” so in following their guidance, where minute detail is not involved, we probably take no very warped view of the truth.

The term “Thomond” is not used here in its almost prehistoric meaning of northern Tipperary and north-eastern Limerick, nor in its fullest meaning, when the might of the Dalcassians had added to these the present county Clare, a fragment torn from Connaught. It is used rather as it extended in the critical times of the Tudors, before the vast revolution which so radically affected the topography of Ireland. This arrangement is stereotyped on our maps by the present county of Clare, extended to its natural south-eastern limits of the Shannon by our including the small district given to the city of Limerick.

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