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The Coming of Christianity to Clare
and the evolution of the Diocese of Killaloe and Kilfenora

An early life of St. Patrick (Vita Tripartita) says that the saint never visited Thomond. However, it also tells us that the men of Thomond crossed the Shannon to meet St. Patrick and were baptised by him. After that from a hill in Co. Limerick he blessed Thomond ‘for the willingness with which they had come with abundance of their gifts’. The hill is probably Knockpatrick, near Foynes, which commands a fine view of Co. Clare.

Shortly after the death of St. Patrick the Irish Church took a direction different from the usual pattern elsewhere. This was due to the very rapid growth of many monasteries which became the focal points for the life of the Church. The bishops had a subsidiary role to that of the abbots of the larger monasteries and, because of the importance attached to the monasteries, the normal diocesan system did not take root.

In what is now County Clare there were two great island monasteries at Iniscathaig (Scattery) and Iniscealtra (Holy Island). St. Senan belonged to the generation after St. Patrick and founded his monastery on Iniscathaig in the first half of the 6th century. The medieval lives of St. Senan are contradictory in many details and it is impossible to sift historical fact from various later additions. However, the attention given to Senan’s memory, particularly the extent to which traditions about him have survived in West Clare, shows the important role he must have played in establishing Christianity in the region.

St. Caimin, half brother of Guaire, King of Connacht, went to live a life of solitude on Iniscealtra. Before long his reputation for sanctity attracted many disciples and he had no option but to organise them into a regular monastic community. Christianity was already well established at this stage as Caimin lived about one hundred years after Senan. His death is recorded in the year 654.

The surviving buildings on Iniscathaig and Iniscealtra mainly date from the later medieval period. Among the earliest are the two striking round towers which were built in the 10th or 11th centuries. These served mainly as bell towers but were also used as places of refuge during raids by the Vikings and others. After the great period of Irish monasticism from the 6th to the 8th centuries, the Vikings caused terrible disruption, particularly to island monasteries which were easily accessible to their longships, such as Iniscathaig and Iniscealtra. Iniscathaig was first plundered in 816 and from then on the monks enjoyed little peace. Iniscealtra was first attacked in 837, a disastrous year for many Irish monasteries as the Vikings made their way up the Shannon and other rivers, plundering on their way.

By the early 12th century it was clear that the Irish Church was in need of reform and reorganisation. The monasteries, which had been the focal points of religious life, had declined in importance and the way was ready for the introduction of the diocesan system, which was the norm elsewhere, into Ireland.

12th Century Reorganisation
In the early 12th century Muirchertach Mor O’Briain was leader of the Dal gCais and could be regarded as High King, although he never got full recognition in the northern half of the country. Muirchertach gave his support to the movement for reform and was present at the Synod of Rathbreasail in 1111 which divided Ireland into dioceses for the first time. The king’s influence and power were apparent in the huge amount of territory given to the diocese of Killaloe, streching from Loop Head in the west to Kinnity in the east. Following the death of Muirchertach in 1119 the power of the O’Briens declined and this gave an opportunity to the outlying areas of the new diocese of Killaloe to assert their independence. As a result, when another national synod was held in Kells in 1152 at which the arrangement of dioceses was reconsidered, the diocese of Killaloe was reduced considerably in size. Roscrea (in the east) and Iniscathaig (in the west) were now recognised as independent dioceses. At Kells the diocese of Kilfenora was also given recognition, embracing the baronies of Corcomroe and Burren.

Iniscathaig was an unusual diocese as it had territory north and south of the Shannon. It did not maintain its independence for long. There was a resurgence of O’Brien power under Donal Mor O’Briain, King of Thomond from 1168 to 1194. Once again the outlying areas were absorbed into Killaloe diocese, including the part of Iniscathaig north of the Shannon. Its last bishop, Aed Ua Beccan, died in 1188.

Donal Mor O’Briain took a strong interest in church affairs and was associated with new religious foundations at Clareabbey, Inchicronan, Canon’s Island, Killone (the only known convent of nuns in Killaloe diocese in medieval times) and Corcomroe (in Kilfoenora diocese). The present cathedral of St. Flannan in Killaloe (now Church of Ireland) seems to date from the early 13th century. However, the fine Hiberno-Romanesque doorway which is built into the south wall of the cathedral almost certainly goes back to the reign of Donal Mor and the episcopate of his brother, Constantin O’Briain (Bishop of Killaloe, 1168 - 1194). The cathedral in Kilfenora, which is still used by the Church of Ireland, also dates from the end of the 12th century.

The patron of Killaloe diocese is St. Flannan, whose feast is on 18 December. The medieval life of St. Flannan is now regarded as historically valueless and we have little hard information about him. It would appear that he lived in the 8th century, possibly in West Clare. The prominence given to him was due to family pride on the part of the kings of the Dal gCais in the 11th and 12th centuries. They were glad to have a saint as a family member and were determined to give him due honour. The 12th century Latin life provided biographical details which were accepted uncritically until recent times. Two days after the feast of St. Flannan, we have the feast of St. Fachanan (20 December), patron of Kilfenora diocese. Again, little is known about him but he is associated with the foundation of the first monastic settlement in Kilfenora.

Later Developments
For several hundred years after the Reformation, a Catholic cathedral was out of the question in either Killaloe or Kilfenora. When a new parish church was being built in Ennis in the 1830s the man behind the project, Dean Terence O’Shaughnessy P.P., felt that one day it might be used as the cathedral church of the diocese. The new church was opened in 1843, while the tower and spire were added in 1874. When Thomas McRedmond was appointed coadjutor bishop of Killaloe in December 1889 he decided to live in Ennis, the first bishop to do so for well over one hundred years. Bishop McRedmond remained there after he succeeded as bishop of the diocese in 1891 and since then all his successors as bishops of Killaloe have also lived in Ennis. As a result the parish church of Ennis has been used as a cathedral for nearly a century. As it was not specifically built for this purpose it is called a pro-cathedral.

Kilfenora diocese maintained its independence until 1750 when it was united with another small diocese, Kilmacduagh in south Galway. As Kilfenora was in Cashel province and Kilmacduagh was in Tuam province the dioceses did not lose their separate identities and an unusual arrangement was made. The first bishop of the united dioceses was to be Bishop of Kilmacduagh and Apostolic Administrator of Kilfenora. His successor was to be Bishop of Kilfenora and Apostolic Administrator of Kilmacduagh and the succession was to continue with similar alternations. This arrangement lasted until 1883 when the Holy See decided to unite Kilfenora and Kilmacduagh with Galway. The new bishop was to be Bishop of Galway and Kilmacduagh and Apolostic Administrator of Kilfenora. The title ‘Apostolic Administrator’ is a recognition of the fact that Kilfenora belongs to a different province (Cashel) from Galway & Kilmacduagh (Tuam) and so nominally maintains a separate identity. Because the Bishop of Galway is technically administering Kilfenora on behalf of the Pope, it has been described as the Pope’s diocese.

By Ignatius Murphy

Clare County Library wishes to thank Clare Local Studies Project for preparation of raw text for this publication.

Round tower built in the 10th or 11th century
10thor 11th century round tower




Round tower built in the 10th or 11th century
10thor 11th century round tower

Killaloe cathedral.
Killaloe Cathedral

Ennis cathedral interior
Ennis Cathedral interior

Kilfenora cathedral
Kilfenora Cathedral



Scattery Island