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

Spread of Christianity in Thomond

St. Patrick, we are definitely told, never preached in the Clare portion of Thomond, and the absence of his name from the ecclesiastical legends and earlier churches bears out the statement. Even if his alleged journey with Caeilte, in the “Colloquy of the Ancients,” [2] was not absolutely mythical, it could only imply a hasty crossing from Cratloe to Lough Graney, and nothing more.

A certain amount of Christianity may have spread across the Shannon from Singland, where the converted prince, Cairthinn, held his Court; but there is no legend of any church founded earlier than by Cairthinn’s grandson Brecan. There seem to have been two saints of the name, the younger probably nephew of the elder; indeed, unless there be some confusion in the “Life of St. Flannan,” there was a third “Bracanus” living about 650.

The earliest of these men - Brecan, son of King Eochy Bailldearg [3] - lived late in the fifth century, and was by the oldest traditions stated to be a fellow-worker, if not disciple, of St. Enda, of Aran. Even to this day, an ancient church of great note, in the western part of Aranmore, bears Brecan’s name; while another near Lisdoonvarna, bearing the name of Enda, may mark the latter’s work in Corcomroe. Brecan probably worked first in Corcomroe, where, by the picturesque waterfalls of Toomullin, stands a late church with a well bearing his name.

Brought into contact with the pagans of the Corcomroes, Brecan probably conceived the idea of founding a mission in the centre of the present county Clare; and with that wonderful genius and power of selection of strategic positions, so generally displayed by the Irish missionaries, he fixed his establishment at a place called Noughaval, in the district of Magh Adhair. It was a low green ridge, not far from the Fergus, and commanding a view across the whole plain of Clare to Burren, Echtge, and Slieve Bernagh; here he built a church, which formed an independent parish of Kilbrecan, down to, at any rate, the fourteenth century. The name is still preserved in two adjoining townlands, but the massive “cyclopean” foundations of the little oratory are now called Carntemple, and the holy well is Tubberdooran. History has justified his choice - all traffic, and commerce, and warfare have since passed by his monastery; the towns of Ennis and Clare, their monasteries, the modern railway and roads, all show how accurately the ancient priest foresaw the advantage of this obscure spot.

To the north-west and north-east of Kilbrecan, he most probably founded two other churches, Doora and Clooney; at the latter of which he was remembered to the middle of this century as “Rikin,” while the former, in 1189, was known as Durinierekin. He was buried in Aran, near the west end of his own church, in a spot now marked by the fragments of a richly-carved cross, and by an early cross-scribed slab with the words, “Sci Brecani.” [4]

The dawn of the sixth century saw Senan, [5] a scion of a good family which lived at Moylough, near Kilrush, engaged in an extensive work of preaching and teaching in Corcovaskin, and the other districts at the mouth of the Shannon. Men told how, seventy years before his birth, his coming had been foretold by Patrick, who had pointed out the “Green Island in the mouth of the sea,” as the abode of the coming saint. Naturally, a deeply thoughtful and religious youth, Senan was forced to take part in a raid into Corcomroe, which seems to have disgusted him with the lay life, and awed him by his own wonderful preservation. His churches on the islands and coasts of the Fergus, the Shannon, and the Atlantic are, with the exception of Scattery, of little note; and the latter paid for its noble position the penalty of cruel ravage and long occupation by the Norsemen.

About the year 550, the later contemporaries of Senan practically completed the foundation of the early centres of religion throughout the district, Maccreiche, Mainchin, Blathmac; and Luchtighern founded the important churches of Kilmacreehy and Kilmanaheen in the Corcomroes; Rath, in Kinel Fermaic; Tomfinlough, in Magh Adhair; while Iniscaltra and Tomgraney sprang up on Lough Derg, under Colan and Cronan, two otherwise obscure saints.

The next century was marked by the labours of St. Caimin, of Iniscaltra, and by the austere and far-famed Colman MacDuach. At this time (now that paganism was dead, and had nearly vanished) the missionaries of Killaloe - Molua and Flannan - not only worked among their God-fearing clansmen, but made long journeys among the pagans of the Orkneys and Hebrides (640-680), where Flannan left material traces of his visit in the rude boat-shaped oratory on the once nearly inaccessible sea rock, rising above “the Seven Hunters,” which are called from him the Flannan Isles. [6]

The eight century saw the rise of one more church of note - Dysert O’Dea. It was founded by St. Tola, who died in 735, but his life-work is rather identified with central Ireland. The Danish wars during the two following centuries seem to have blighted further advance.

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