Templecronan is one of my favourite pilgrim sites. The site is an early medieval monastic settlement dedicated to St Cronan. It is located on farmland in Co Clare near the village of Carran. To get to the ruins you need to cross through some fields but a number of signposts guide the way.
Very little is known about the history of Templecronan or the people who lived here and most of what we know about the site is gleamed from the archaeological record. The site is located in a townland called Termon/ An Tearmann which means church or glebe lands.
Today the most prominent feature at the site is a small rectangular shaped multi-period church. The fabric of the walls contain traces of cyclopean masonry, a common masonry style for churches in early medieval Ireland and a blocked up linteled west doorway with inclined jambs. These features, suggest an early stone church was at the site and was remodelled in during the Romanesque period (1020-1170 A.D).
Romanesque features within the church include a round-headed window in the east gable and corbels decorated with Hiberno-Romanesque animal heads in the west gable. There are also a number of Romanesque heads incorporated into the fabric of the walls.
Further remodelling was carried out in the fifteenth century with the addition of a pointed finely carved doorway in the north wall.
Traces on an ecclesiastical enclosure can still be found in the surrounding landscape.
Archaeological evidence for pilgrimage at Templecronan is represented by two outdoor reliquaries located close to the church. Outdoor reliquaries were built to house the relics of a saint or holy person who was normally the founder saint. Some may have been built over the original grave of the saint. At Templecronan the reliquaries/shrines are a type known as gable shrine. They are triangular-shaped structure made up of two long flat flag stones and two smaller triangular-shaped stones arranged like a tent and orientated east-west. The short length of the shrines suggests they were used to house disarticulated skeletons/corporeal remain (Edwards 2002, 240).
Most scholars agree that the gable shrines are among of the earliest types of outdoor reliquary and suggest a date of seventh or eighth century. However Carlton Jones (2006, 138-139) suggest that both the shrines at Templecronan were contemporary with Romanesque carving at oratory. Only targeted excavation would answer this question definitively although excavation of a gable shrine at Illaunloughlan Island, Co. Clare dated the shrine to second half of the eighth century .
The shrine located southeast of the church is known as St Cronan’s Bed and local tradition holds this was the burial -place of St Cronan. The second shrine is found northeast of the church in the adjacent field defined by modern field boundaries.
The presence of the gable shrines strongly suggests that pilgrimage was taking place here as early as the eight century and the construction of the shrines represents a period of great devotion to the saints associated with the site. The site appears to have fallen out of use in the late medieval period and devotion the the shrines gradually ceased.
Further evidence of pilgrimage is found at a holy well located a short distance from the church. The well is also dedicated to St Cronan and known as St Cronan’s holy well/Tobar Chronain.
The holy well is located at the base of a rock outcrop and defined by a dry-stone circular wall.
The holy well is a simple spring. A large penitential cairn of unknown date is found beside the well within the enclosure. It is not possible to know if the well was part of early medieval pilgrimage at Templecronan but it was a place of pilgrimage in the nineteenth century.
The Ordnance Survey Letters for Clare 1839 state that ‘stations are performed but no distinct patron day is remembered‘. A quick search of nineteenth century sources has failed to turn up any further information about the well. Today the well and its surrounding are well cared and I noticed some coins left beside a small modern religious statue which suggests it may be still visited.
Templecronan is one of many wonderful site in Co Clare and is certainly worth spending some time exploring.
Edwards, N. 1999. The Archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland. London: Routledge.
Jones, C. 2004. The Burren and The Aran Islands. Exploring The Archaeology. Cork: The Collins Press.
Marshall, J. & Walsh, C. 2005. Illaunloughan Island: An Early Medieval Monastery
in County Kerry. Bray: Wordwell.