Its so exciting  a conference devoted to the pilgrimage will take place in Ireland on Saturday, 5 October 2019 at The Printworks Event and Exhibition Centre in Dublin Castle.

A one-day conference Encountering the Sacred: The Archaeology and Heritage of Pilgrimage, will explore a wide range of pilgrimage topics from prehistory to the present day and have an Irish and International focus.Encountering—Logo

The conference has a great line up of speakers:

  • Professor Robin Coningham, UNESCO Chair in Archaeological Ethics and Practice in Cultural Heritage, Department of Archaeology, Durham University
  • Dr Lee Clare, German Archaeological Institute, Berlin.
  • Frank Coyne, Aegis Archaeology.
  • Dr Robert Hensey, Archaeologist.
  • Pat Holland, Archaeologist, former museum curator, and annual participant on pilgrimages across Europe.
  • Dr Małgorzata Krasnodębska-D’Aughton, Department of History, UCC.
  • Dr Louise Nugent (Archaeologist & Blogger)
  • Dr Tomás Ó Carragáin, Department of Archaeology, UCC.
  • Br Colman Ó Clabaigh, OSB, Glenstal Abbey.
  • Professor Ruth Van Dyke, Department of Anthropology, Binghamton University, New York.

Tickets are still available here from eventbrite

Encountering The Sacred: The Archaeology and Heritage of Pilgrimage conference is presented by the National Monuments Service of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in partnership with the Office of Public Works and organised by Archaeology Ireland.

Re-discovering St. Willibrord, Patron Saint of Luxembourg and his County Carlow Connection

I’m delighted to introduce  a new guest post by  Dermot Mulligan, Museum Curator, Carlow County Museum on St Willibrord.  The Feast of St. Willibrord, Patron Saint of Luxembourg, will be celebrated with an ecumenical service in the Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow Town at 7.30pm on Tuesday November 7t.  In June of this year a  ‘Relic of St Willibrord’  now on displayed in the Cathedral was presented by the people of Luxembourg to Carlow to say ‘thank you’ for training and ordaining him in the 7th century. Dermot’s post explains Willibrords ‘connections with Carlow,  how and why his relics is now in Carlow. He also tells us about  Carlow Museum’s new yearlong exhibition on St. Willibrord, his time in Carlow, his mission etc.

Re-discovering St. Willibrord, Patron Saint of Luxembourg and his County Carlow Connection by  Dermot Mulligan, Museum Curator, Carlow County Museum

On Monday June 5th,, 2017 in the Basilica of St. Willibrord, Echternach, Luxembourg the Most Reverend Jean-Claude Hollerich, Archbishop of Luxembourg presented a specially commissioned ‘Relic of St. Willibrord’, Patron Saint of Luxembourg, to the Most Reverend Denis Nulty, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin. St. Willibrord is one of the most important Saints in Europe spending twelve years in county Carlow before he led a mission to the continent in AD 6901. The Relic is a gift from the people of the town of Echternach, Luxembourg to honour the near 1,330-year link between both areas and to say, ‘thank you’ to county Carlow for training and ordaining Willibrord in the 7th century.

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St. Willibrord as featured in a stain glass window in the Basilica of Echternach, Luxembourg. Photo Carlow County Museum.

Both Bishop Nulty and the Right Reverend Michael Burrows, Bishop of Cashel, Waterford, Lismore, Ferns, Ossory and Leighlin led a joint ecumenical diocesan pilgrimage of nearly sixty people from Carlow to Echternach not only to accept the relic but to also partake in the UNESCO World Heritage Status annual ‘hopping procession’ in honour of St. Willibrord in Echternach. The Carlow pilgrims are the first known Irish group to partake in this centuries old procession2. The procession is the culmination of three days’ celebrations that begin on Pentecost/ Whitsun Sunday every year in honour of St. Willibrord.





The first known written reference to the hopping procession in Echternach appears in a collection of legal texts dated AD 1497. This reference gives the impression that this particular custom originated much earlier. The exact origins of the hopping procession are unknown. The saga of Veit the Tall, an Echternach fiddler, suggests that the custom originated around the time of St. Willibrord. The hopping custom almost certainly arose in connection with the tithe processions which occurred directly after Pentecost Sunday when people from all the parishes under the abbey’s authority were required to walk to Echternach in a procession. However, there are those who say that it is a vestige of a pagan ritual which has been absorbed into the Christian tradition3.

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Hopping Procession in honour of St. Willibrord, over nine thousand people hop a two kilometer route from the monastery to the Basilica and past St. Willibrord’s tomb. Photo Carlow County Museum.

The Relic is a piece of his bone, and is contained within the rose window of a scale model of the Basilica of St. Willibrord, which a bronze statue of a young missionary St. Willibrord is holding in his right hand. He holds his crozier in his left hand. Willibrord is standing on a piece of sandstone taken from the remains of his original abbey, which is in the crypt of the Basilica. The Echternach based Willibrordus Bauverein (Willibrord Foundation) commissioned German artist Mr. Bernd Cassau to make the beautiful statue.







Through the mists of time his Carlow connection, for the most part, had been forgotten. Pierre Kauthen, former President of the Willibrordus Bauverein, speaking in Carlow, stated “our historians long thought that Willibrord’s monastery was situated at Mellifont or Clonmacnoise. It was your historian, Prof. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín who located it on the site of Killogan/ Clonmelsh, Co Carlow” 4. Professor Ó Cróinín, based in the Department of History, NUI Galway, first wrote about Willibrord in 1982 and has published many papers on Rath Melsigi, Willibrord and his contemporaries since then5 + 6.

Over the course of the following thirty-five years this historical connection between both areas has been re-established. During April 2000, the Willibrordus Bauverein visited Carlow for the first time7. In 2002 His Excellency, Henri, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, paid a state to Ireland, and in 2009, Her Excellency, Mary McAleese, President of Ireland, as part of her state visit to Luxembourg, visited Echternach.

St Willibrord is the Patron Saint of Luxembourg and is buried in the Basilica of Echternach, which is the centre of his monastic foundation. Located near Milford, Co Carlow, is the archaeological site Rath Melsigi8. During the seventh and eighth centuries, this site was the most important Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical settlement in Ireland9. It was here from AD 678 to c. AD 720 that Willibrord and many other Englishmen were trained for the continental mission. In AD 690 Willibrord led a successful mission from Carlow, made up of Irishmen and Englishmen. As part of his abbey in Echternach, he established a very important scriptorium and for a considerable period the abbey produced many of the bibles, psalms and prayer books that are to be found today in the great libraries of Europe. It is likely that the first generation of these scribes were from Co. Carlow or had trained here. Many of the earliest Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were written in Irish script by Irish monks based either in Britain or by Anglo-Saxons who were trained by the Irish.10

From Echternach Willibrord continued to co-ordinate missions to the surrounding countries until AD 739, when he died aged 81. He is buried in Echternach, and he is said to be the only saint buried in Luxembourg. St. Willibrord’s signature is the oldest datable signature of an English person and oldest datable use of Anno Domini (A.D.) dating. Both are contained in a book most likely written in Co. Carlow in advance of his mission. Today the book is known as the ‘Calendar of Willibrord’ and is housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris. The Calendar is a listing of saints’ feast days that were being honoured during Willibrord’s lifetime11.

Willibrord is relatively unknown in Ireland, but much devotion and religious festivals are held to this day in his honour in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. The most famous is the annual hopping procession, a dance that dates back to, if not predates St. Willibrord’s lifetime. The hopping procession takes place annually on the Tuesday after Pentecost Sunday and sees thousands of people descending on Echternach to partake along with dozens of Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops from across Luxembourg, Belgium, Holland and Germany.


On Tuesday, June 6th, after 8am Mass, the assembled clergy lead the Relic of St. Willibrord out from the Basilica of St. Willibrord into the adjoining square of the secondary school where thousands have gathered. The procession is led by a large group singing the ‘Litany of St. Willibrord’ who are then followed by local firemen carrying the Relic along the approximately 1.5km route. They in turn are followed by between 10,000 and 13,000 people hopping from their left to right foot in his honour. Participants wear white shirts/ blouses with black trousers/ skirts and hop in rows of five joined together by holding white handkerchiefs. Each of the thirty-nine hopping groups participating in the 2017 procession were led by a marching band all playing the exact same tune. The procession is a physical pilgrimage, and those who participate are known as the ‘people who pray with their feet’12.

The Carlow hopping pilgrims were wonderfully led by members of the Presentation School Band from Carlow town under the baton of Edwina Hayden, Music Teacher. The Carlow pilgrims, group number 29 of 39, received a warm welcome from the many thousands who lined the streets to watch the procession. The group was joined by several people, also hopping for the first time, who had heard of an open invitation to join with the Carlow pilgrims. The group hopped through the medieval streets of Echternach before entering the Basilica, hopping down the side aisle, down into the crypt located under the altar and past St. Willibrord’s remains.


Arriving on Thursday 22nd June, twenty-nine visitors travelled from Echternach to Carlow and spent four days here. The highlight was the ‘Walk with Willibrord’ which took place on Saturday June 24th. The Relic was walked over 13km from St Laserian’s Cathedral, Old Leighlin to the Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow via the beautiful Barrow Way, a National Waymarked Trail, along the banks of the river Barrow. The walk was make up of nearly two hundred people from Ireland and Luxembourg and led by Bishops Burrows and Nulty. Earlier that same morning the visitors from Echternach had a special visit to Rath Melsigi. As a group, with a number of Carlow chaperones and permission from the landowners, they held a short reflection and all joined hands in a circle around the 7th century cross hopping on the spot while humming the hopping tune.



Members of the Willibrordus Bauverein (Willibrord Foundation) visiting Rath Melsigi in advance of the ‘Walk with Willibrord’ on Saturday June 24th last. They are gathered around the granite cross which dates from the time when St. Willibrord and his colleagues were in the area undertaking their studies. Photo: Carlow County Museum.


The ‘Walk with Willibrord’ began at the Holy Well in Old Leighlin at 10am on the morning of Saturday 24th. The ‘Eucharist of the Saints’ service continued in the nearby St. Laserian’s Cathedral, Carlow’s oldest working building.





At the end of the service, shortly after 11am, the relic with music from three pipers from the Killeshin Pipe Band the two hundred people, led by Bishops Burrows and Nulty, began the walk to Carlow Cathedral.



A view of the ‘Walk with Willibrord’, entering the Barrow Way on the Banks of the River Barrow at Leighlinbridge. Photo: Sean McDonnell.




In Carlow town the Relic was walked in procession from St. Clare’s Church to St. Mary’s Church and then onto the Cathedral of the Assumption. Members of the Carlow Fire Service carried the Relic through the streets of the town, mirroring the tradition in Echternach where their Fire Service carry the Relic at the head of their annual hopping procession. The procession in Carlow was led by the Presentation Band who had led the Carlow pilgrims in Echternach. They played the hopping tune as they approached the Cathedral and the visitors from Echternach hopped to the front door of the Cathedral, the first known occasion that hopping in procession has been undertaken in county Carlow13. The Relic was blessed by Bishop Nulty with Holy Water taken from both Old Leighlin and Echternach holy wells.



Members of the Willibrordus Bauverein and people from Carlow hopped in procession for the last kilometer of the ‘Walk with Willibrord’ to Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow town. Photo: Grzegorz Kaczorek.


Carlow County Museum, who coordinated the project from the Carlow side, has opened a free yearlong exhibition about St. Willibrord, his time in Carlow, his mission, his present-day impact and the UNESCO World Heritage Status ‘hopping procession’. A copy of Willibrord’s own hand writing, the oldest datable signature of an English person, is on display along with samples of the beautiful manuscripts that were produced in Echternach. It is clear that several of them are influenced by the Irish manuscripts that these islands are famous for. The method of making a manuscript is shown in detail, from producing the inks and the vellum to how the letters and designs were laid out.



View of the ‘St. Willibrord, Patron Saint of Luxembourg and his County Carlow Connection’ exhibition in Carlow County Museum. Photo: Carlow County Museum.


The project has been shortlisted in the Chambers Ireland ‘Excellence in Local Government Awards 2017’.



  1. ‘Calendar of Willibrord’, MS. Lat. 10837, fol. 39v, Bibliothèque National de France, Paris. Translation from Latin to English provided by Professor Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Department of History, NUI Galway.
  2. According to the Willibrordus Bauverein, who organise the procession, they have no records of any Irish groups participating. The first known Irish participaticants in the hopping procession was in 2010 and the second known was in 2015. Although, a few Irish people have participated in the past but their participation would not have been officially recorded.
  3. Emile Seiler, ‘The Echternach Hopping Procession’, Carloviana, 2000 edition, p. 55
  4. Speech by Pierre Kauthen, former President of the Willibrordus Bauverein (Willibrord Foundation) on Friday June 23rd, 2017 at 8.30pm at the Carlow County Council reception in the Seven Oaks Hotel, Carlow for the Willibrordus Bauverein.
  5. Prof. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Department of History, NUI Galway, ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Peritia Vol.1 (1982) pp. 352-62.
  6. Prof. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Department of History, NUI Galway, ‘Rath Melsigi, Willibrord and the Earliest Echternach Manuscripts’, Peritia, Vol. 3 (1984) pp. 17-49.See also footnote 30 which in abbreviation states “Mr Kenneth Nicholls of University College, Cork, has proposed that the site which occurs in some early charters as Cluain Melsige (now Clonmelsh, Co. Carlow) is identical with the Rath Melsigi of Bede’s account. The identification of Cluain Melsige with Rath Melsigi had been made independently by the late Éamon de hÓir, Irish place names Commission … Fr Columcille Conway had suggested the same identification (see Aubrey Gwynn and R.N Hadcock, Medieval religious houses: Ireland (London 1970) 402”.
  7. Emile Seiler, ‘St. Willibrord’, Carloviana, 2000 edition, p. 55
  8. Record of Monuments and Places, CW012-025 Garryhundon.
  9. Professor Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Department of History, NUI Galway.
  10. Prof. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Department of History, NUI Galway, ‘Rath Melsigi, Willibrord and the Earliest Echternach Manuscripts, Peritia, Vol. 3 (1984) pp. 17-49.
  11. Calendar of Willibrord’, MS. Lat. 10837, fol. 39v, Bibliothèque National de France, Paris.
  12. Emile Seiler, ‘The Echternach Hopping Procession’, Carloviana, 2000 edition, p. 55
  13. There are three known occasions when hopping has taken place in county Carlow. In April 2000 and June 2017, the Willibrordus Bauverein, along with their Irish chaperones, hopped in a circle around the 7th century cross at Rath Melsigi. The conclusion of the ‘Walk with Willibrord’ in Carlow town, June 24th, 2017, is the first known hopping procession in county Carlow in the manner that takes places in Echternach, ie, people in rows of five, holding handkerchiefs and with a marching band playing the hopping tune.



Templecronan and the Relics of St Cronan Co Clare

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.


View of Temple Cronan Co Clare

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).


View of the  west gable of Templecronan church

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.



Fifteenth century doorway in the north wall of Templecronan

Traces on an ecclesiastical enclosure can still be found in the surrounding landscape.

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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 .


View of  gable shrine known as St Cronan’s Bed at Templecronan.

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.


Gable shrine to the northeast of the Templecronan church

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.


Pathway leading to St Cronan’s holy well

The holy well is  located at the base of a rock outcrop and defined by a dry-stone circular wall.


Stone wall surrounding St Cronan’s holy well

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.

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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.












The Birthplace of St Colmcille

Tradition holds St Colmcille was born at  Gartan in Co Donegal. The exact location of the saints birthplace is open to discussion. One tradition says the saint was born on a stone called the Leac na Cumha in the townland of Lacknacoo.

Leac na Cumha or the Stone of Sorrow is stone set into a large  oval-shaped mound with a U-shaped setting of stones that opens to the north.


Leac na Cumha in Lacknacoo

The Leac na Cumha is located along th south-eastern edge of the mound. It is a flat slab of stone and its surface is covered in prehistoric rock art. The art  consists of cup-marks c. 0.1m in diameter.


Leac na Cumha is covered in rock art

It is here on this stone that the saint is said to have been born.  The site was marked on the 1st ed. (1836) OS 6-inch map as St Colmcille’s stones. Close to the mound is an enormous stone cross erected by Cornelia Adair in 1911.


Stone cross at Leac na Cumha in Lacknacoo

In the nineteenth century

it became commonplace for emigrants to spend their last night here on the Leac na Cumhadh – the Stone of Sorrows. As Colmcille had decided to exile himself to Scotland, they thought that sleeping here – where he was born – would make their sadness easier to bear (http://www.colmcille.org/gartan)


A short distance away are the ruins of an early medieval ecclesiastical site at Churchtown – Ráth Cnó . Tradition holds this was the  place where St Colmcille’s family lived.  It was said his family gave this land  to the church so that a monastic settlement could be built here. The site over looks  Lough Akibbon and Lough Gartan.

The site is still used as a turas by pilgrims who walk barefoot between the five marked stations. Believers follow the turas between Colmcille’s feast day on 9th June and the end of the turas season on 15th August, performing a series of prayers and actions at each stop (http://www.colmcille.org/gartan/3-03).

The most prominent features on the site is a small church marked as St Colmcille’s chapel on the 1st ed (1836) OS 6-inch map.


Medieval church at Gartan

According to the Donegal Archaeological Inventory this is probably the chapel described in 1622 as being in repair and having a thatched roof.

To the north of the church is a graveyard, at the  centre of which  are the foundations of a building  said to be a monastic building.


Possible foundations of a monastic building

Two stone crosses also survive at the site and are part of the pilgrim stations.


Below the site is a holy well dedicated to the saint.

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St Colmcille’s holy well at Gartan


Both of these sites are part of the Slí Cholmcille  and directions can be found on this website.

Useful Links



Winter Solstice at Knockroe Passage Tomb 2015

Knockroe Passage tomb is located close to the Tipperary/Kilkenny border in Co Kilkenny, near the village of Ahenny. The tomb dates to circa 3,000 BC .  For a nice synopsis of the history and significance of the site  check out this article by the time travel Ireland blog written by Abarta Audio Guides.   An important feature of the site  is a midwinter alignment of two tombs  in the east and the west within the main mound with the rising and setting sun on the 21st of December.  This alignment runs a day or two either side of the main solstice. Unlike the Newgrange passage tomb,  the Knockroe passage tomb  is uncovered, so to see this event properly one needs a clear sky without clouds.


View of Knockroe passage tomb. Image is from Abarta Audio Guides.

The winter solstice  is normally on the 21st December of each year but occasionally it can be on the 22nd.  This  year in Ireland it fell on the  22nd of December.  This has to do with a number of things like  leap years, the wobble of the earth,  and  time zones – so in the US this year it was the 21st while in Ireland on the 22nd.   This articles 10 Things About the December Solstice  explains it all quiet nicely.

21st of December at Knockroe

For many years now  while most people flock to Newgrange to experience the  solstice,  a large gathering of people  local to the area of Knockroe  and  the surrounding counties come to Knockroe to see   either for the  sun rise or  sun set alignment.  For many it is an annual event and a well established tradition.  This year the morning of the 21st was very wet and windy but as the day went on it cleared and the sun came out. I hopped in my car and  arrived for the sunset solstice at the western tomb.  This was my first time at the Knockroe solstice, as I walked down the long bohereen that leads to the site I meet many people on their way to the tomb.  A really large crowd had turned up  and it was a really nice social occasion with  mince pies, and mulled wine.  I also ran into some archaeology friends of mine which was great. While we waited for the solstice Prof Muris O Sullivan who excavated the site gave a brief history of the site and the results of  the excavation.


People crowded around the western tomb listening to Murris O’Sullivan talk about the tomb.

At  3.45 am of light run along the passage and hit the back wall of the tomb  lighting up the back stones and  a number of people saw a beam of light shine through the back of the tomb on to the grass behind it.

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 Following the solstice the group was addressed by the Caiseal Conservation Committee.  We were told that the local community  are  trying to raise awareness and fight  a proposes development of a windfarm running from  the  shoulder of Sievenamon back along the ridge  opposite Knockroe. The turbines would be visible from the passage tomb  and some of the turbines are proposed to be built  in the area where the sun sets and aligns with the tomb. The photos below provide details of the development and contact details for the community groups fighting this development Caiseal Conservation Committee and the Suir Valley Environmental Group. For  anyone who wants to find out more  contact this email walshtullahought@yahoo.co.uk

22nd of December the day of the Solstice

As the official solstice was the 22nd and I was at a loose end  I decided to  head back to Knockroe.  As on the 21st the morning was particularly wet but the day did clear up although there was a lot of cloud in the sky.   I arrived at the site at about 3pm by 3.30pm  I was part of a group of  four, one of whom was a film maker and had placed a small camera inside and outside the tomb, I have added his video of the event at the end of the post.

At roughly  3.45pm the clouds  suddenly cleared  enough to allow a  beam of light run along the passage and hit the back wall of the tomb highlighting the rock art carved on the back stones.


Beam of light on the 22nd of December as it hits the back wall of the tomb

I know my prehistoric  archaeology friend who often tease me alot I might add about my interest/obsession with all things medieval and pilgrimage,  will be delighted to know  that I found this an amazing experience and I feel very lucky that the weather conspired to allow us to experience the magic  of the solstice and for me to see the light enter the tomb two days in a row. Brilliant what an amazing way to spend an afternoon.

This is a video by the film maker I met. I’m not a fan of the music but images are very cool and give a real sense of the event.

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Facebook pages for anti turbine campaign




The Autumnal Equinox and the Sliabh na Calliagh Passage Tomb Complex

Sliabh na Calliagh Passage Tomb complex is  one  of Ireland’s finest prehistoric archaeological sites. I am delighted to present a  guest blog  by the wonderful Lynda McCormack   that explains the  archaeological significance of the complex and its role in the autumnal equinox.  Lynda  is currently carrying out  Doctoral Research at the Department of Archaeology at NUI Galway and Sliabh na Calliagh is one of her study areas.


The Autumnal Equinox and the Sliabh na Calliagh Passage Tomb Complex By Lynda McCormack


The Sliabh na Callaigh Passage Tomb Complex often referred as the Lough Crew Complex is located in the north west of County Meath on a raised ridge of lower carboniferous limestone which erupts in four individual summits known as Carnbane West, Newtown hill, Carnbane East and Patrickstown Hill. The central and highest hill within this ridge is Carnbane East. At a height of 274m this is the highest point in County Meath and from this position in the landscape it is allegedly possible to view up to 18 counties on a clear day.


A map of the Sliabh na Callaigh Complex showing the distribution of monuments (McMann 1995).

There are 31 archaeological monument found on the heights of summits and low valleys within this area. Antiquarian accounts of the area suggest there may have been many more monuments here with some dismantled in the past for the construction of walls in the 1800’s. Recent geophysical investigations which involve non invasive scanning of the ground to detect the signature of sub surface remains have clarified the pattern of monument distribution with the result that it is now possible to speculate that the arrangement of space within the Complex may have been quite different in the Neolithic (McCormack 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014).


Lynda carrying out geophysical survey  on the southern extent of Carnbane East.

Folklore and Origin legends

The name Sliabh na Calliagh translates as the hills of the Witch and references a local explanatory narrative which attributed these enigmatic stone heaps to a mythological Cailleacht/Witch who allegedly dropped these stones from her apron as she jumped from hill to hill in her quest to rule all of Ireland. She apparently fell to her death on the lower slopes of Patrickstown hill but not before dropping these stone cairns in her wake. The detail inherent in these stories suggests that the locals who perpetuated these narratives were familiar with the distribution of sites across the ridge. Not only is the site named after her, one of the distinctively shaped kerbstones on the northern face of one of the largest monuments Cairn T is  named the Witches’ chair and it is thought that if she had succeeded in her quest then this particular stone could have functioned as her throne.


Cartoon of the caillech/withch dropping the stones from her apron after (Eibhlin Nu Sheinchin 1937).


Determined now her tomb to build, Her ample skirt with stones she filled,
And dropped a heap on Carnmore; Then stepped one thousand yards, to loar,
And dropped another goodly heap; And then with one prodigious leap
Gained Carnbeg: and on its height, Displayed the wonders of her might. (Jonathan Swift 1700).

Hags chair

Drawing of the hag’s chair from the Discovery of the Tomb of Ollamh Fodhla (Conwell 1973)

Passage Tomb Complexes and Passage Tombs

The Sliabh an Calliagh Passage Tomb Complex is one of our four major Irish Passage Tomb Complexes. There are over 236 of these monuments in Ireland, many of which appear within these four main concentrations. While many other Megalithic structures such as the Court Tomb, Portal Tomb and Wedge tomb most commonly appear in isolation. The Passage Tomb monument type is distinctive for its appearance in groups. These groups are commonly referred to as Cemeteries but are most accurately referred to as Complexes because a burial role can only have been one small part of their ritual usage. The most famous Irish Passage Tomb Complex is undoubtedly the Boyne Valley Complex where Newgrange and Knowth have been extensively excavated and reconstructed to facilitate tourist access via the Bru na Boinne visitor center in Donore Co. Meath. The two complexes in Co. Sligo are known as the Carrowkeel/Keashcorran Complex and Cuill Irra and both of these have been subjected to multiple research initiatives including excavation over the years. The Carrowmore distribution which is central to the Cuill Irra Complex is also accessible via an OPW visitor centre.

Cairn T

Plan of Cairn T plan showing the location of the hag’s chair (McMann 1995)

Passage Tomb monuments are named for the presence of a long passage which leads to a chamber which is concealed within a cairn of stones and retained by a kerb line of boulders. There is much variation in terms of size and while some monuments are small and compact and may never have facilitated human entry others are large and complex and appear to have been constructed to be as impressive as possible to a spectator.

Paul Naessens

Photograph by Paul Naessens Cairn T centrally placed on Carnbane East with Cairn U to the right and Cairn S in the background.

They date to the Neolithic period c. 3000BC and are complex ritual structures within which cremated human remains were carefully deposited. Although human bone is usually within these structures, they were not just built to contain to remains of the dead. These structures were built with ritual and used with ritual an in many instances excavation has revealed a series of foundation events which predate the structures suggesting that the very positions which they occupy within the landscape were of importance long before they came to be monumented in reflection of this in the Neolithic.
The Sliabh na Calliagh Passage Tomb monuments were brought to prominence by local school inspector Eugene Alfred Conwell in 1863 after a fortuitous visit to the summit of Carnbane East. It is most likely that the monuments were already well known to the locals and possibly also further afield but their significance was not understood or contextualised within the Irish Passage Tomb Tradition until Conwell began his investigations. He thoroughly searched the ridge and the surrounding hinterland and carefully documented each monument and implemented an identification scheme by which the individual monuments are still known today. Following his detailed field walking he undertook a series of investigations focused specifically on the recovery of human remains and the careful recording of each decorated surface. His records are of great value particularly because much of this art has been badly damaged and is no longer visible. Conwell also presented his findings to the Royal Irish Academy on numerous occasions and was responsible for the publication entitled The Discovery of the Tomb of Ollamh Fodhla. His research was conducted in the style of the time where different questions were asked of the data and so very little attention was paid to stratigraphy. Despite this however, Conwell was an industrious student and not only are his records detailed they are thoroughly engaging as he describes how he conducted his investigations under the watchful gaze of a number of ‘fine ladies’. Although the Sliabh na Callaigh Passage Tomb Complex is well known for its Neolithic Passage Tombs, it is a multi-period landscape which includes evidence for Mesolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age activity extensively focused on the landscape to the north of the ridge.

Map 2

Multiperiod Sliabh na Calliagh (McCormack 2010)

The Equinox at Cairn T Sliabh na Calliagh

Many of the passage tombs on the height of the ridge are orientated towards the east and Cairn T in particular is carefully positioned with the effect that it captures the rays of the rising sun on the mornings of the Equinox in March and September. This alignment takes place over the course of five mornings and lasts for up to 30 minutes provided that the sun can penetrate the clouds.

Sunrise LC

Facing the rising sun on the 21st September 2015

Having visited the Equinox for over 15 years myself, I can say that it is easier to see it in March around 6am in comparison to September around 7am when the weather can be a little more unpredictable. Each year on the mornings of the Equinox, hundreds of tourists climb Carnbane East in the dark to watch the sun rise and to access Cairn T where they can watch the light travel over the floor space of the passage until it eventually reaches the highly decorated backstone which is directly aligned with the entrance portal.


The illumination at 6.30AM

chamber.jpg 3

Illumination at 7.05AM

Those who enter the chamber of Cairn T on the mornings of the Equinox can watch the sunlight trace its decorated path across the surface of the stone, starting in the top left hand corner and moving right in front of their eyes until it comes to rest on the chamber orthostat to the right of the recess.

light chamber

The illumination at 7.10AM

Interestingly, the quality of the light changes as it moves across this stone, as the sun rises. The colour of this light also changes from a deep red to a vibrant golden yellow.

chamber.jpg 2

The illumination at 7.30AM


The decorated backstone has been extensively studied and Shee Twohig (1981) notes that the ‘sunburst motif’ which is illuminated by the sunlight on the mornings of the Equinox is not found elsewhere within the Complex or within the Irish passage Tomb Tradition.

Chamber 5

Illumination at 7.15AM, the light showing the decoration on the backstone.


Within Cairn T in particular there are 19 decorated orthostats, 2 decorated sill stones, 8 decorated roof stones and one decorated kerbstone known as the Witches’ chair (Shee Twohig 1981, p. 214). Another interesting motif which is found on the surface of this stone is the offset motif which is also known as the scaliform motif (Robin 2008), Robin’s recent research into the structured placement of megalithic art within Passage Tomb monuments has shown that this particular motif is commonly found in association with entrances and sill stones and places of transition within the monument.

scaliform motif

The Scaliform motif (Robin 2008) Decorated back stone Cairn T (Conwell 1873)


Antiquarian sketch of decoration backstone cairn T

Antiquarian sketch of decoration back stone cairn T


Its appearance here on the backstone is potentially indication of a metaphorical transition seeing as it is not possible to physically move thorough this space. Perhaps the presence of this motif on this surface is also connected to the transition of the sunlight across the surface of the stone. Megalithic art is commonly referred to as abstract art. There are multiple interpretations of what the individual motifs might represent and each interpretation is a valid as the next but it is impossible to be sure of the true meanings affixed to the individual motifs. One thing is certain though, this art was undoubtedly integral to the ritual experience of the site and undoubtedly had a deep meaning for those who constructed and used these spaces in the Neolithic.

CT 2

Cairn T photographed from the west on the morning of the Equinox 21st September 2015.

Visiting Sliabh na Calliagh

The central hill of the Sliabh na Calliagh Passage Tomb Complex known as Carnbane East is state owned and access can be gained free of charge to this site throughout the year. The key to Cairn T can be obtained from a local coffee shop and so access is facilitated to this monument even after the OPW have withdrawn their tour guiding presence which extends throughout the summer months .This Monday on the 21ST of September at 7AM hundreds of us made our twice yearly pilgrimage to the heights of Carnbane East in the dark hoping to experience the sun light trace its decorated path across the backstone of Cairn T. In doing so we were potentially re-tracing the footprints of our Ancestors who constructed these monuments 5000 years ago who may have climbed this hill with comparable anticipation. Those who made the trip this year were rewarded by the sight of a sunrise from the highest vantage point in County Meath, We were also rewarded by the sight of the sunbeams carefully captured within the monument for this short period of time.
We will gather again in March 2016 for the Vernal Equinox which marks the return of the light and the lengthening of the days but until then we are left with an evocative image of how these monuments may have been used to measure the passing of time in the Neolithic.

You can keep up todate with Lynda’s research on twitter at  @LyndaMcCormack1 and on academia.edu

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Conwell, E. 1873. Discovery of the tomb of Ollamh Fodhla. Dublin, McGlashan &Gill.
McCormack, L. 2010. A Comparative and Multiperiod Landscape Analysis of the Sliabh na Callaigh Hills. Unpublished MA Thesis. NUI Galway.
McCormack, L. 2012. A Geophysical Investigation of the Sliabh na Callaigh Passage Tomb Complex Phase 1. Unpublished report NUI Galway
McCormack, L. 2013. A Geophysical Investigation of the Sliabh na Callaigh Passage Tomb Complex Phase 2. Unpublished report NUI Galway.
McCormack, L. 2014. A Geophysical Investigation of the Sliabh na Callaigh Passage Tomb Complex Phase 3, Unpublished report NUI Galway.
McMann, J. 1995. Loughcrew the Cairns a Guide, Meath, After Hours Books.
Robin, G. 2008. Neolithic Passage Tomb Art around the Irish sea Iconography and Spatial Organisation. Unpublished Ph.D thesis, Nantes.
Shee Twohig, E. 1981. The Megalithic Art of Western Europe. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

IHS Monogram/Insiginia on 18th and 19th Century Gravestones

As you know I am a big fan of the current movement to record historic graveyards and the great work being done by  Historic Graves and local communities around Ireland.  I  am amazed by the  many examples of 18th and 19th century  folk art preserved around the country in historic gravestones.


Gravestone from Tubbrid Co Tipperary

The majority of 18th and 19th century gravestones that I have encountered  bear the  monogram IHS at the top of the stone.  I have often wondered about its origins and meaning.  What follows is just some observation on this motif, I intend to delve deeper when time permits.

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Gravestone with IHS motif from St Olan’s church Aghabullogue Co Cork

What does IHS Stand for ?

The three letters IHS are what is known as a  christogram. This is a  combination of letters that forms an abbreviation for the name of  Jesus Christ.

So IHS stands for the name Jesus.   You might be thinking  how can this be as there is no I or H in  the word.  The answer to the question is that in Greek  the word Jesus is written as ιησους’ it is transliterated as ‘ihsous’ . In Latin the name is written Iesus  and in English Jesus. The insignia ‘IHS’ comes from the Latinized version of the Greekιησους’. IHS, it is the first three letters of the Greek spelling of the Holy Name Jesus. According to the New Advent Catholic Encyclopaedia

In the Middle Ages the Name of Jesus was written: IHESUS; the monogram contains the first and last letter of the Holy Name. It is first found on a gold coin of the eight century: DN IHS CHS REX REGNANTIUM (The Lord Jesus Chirst, King of Kings).

The monogram became popular  after the 12th century when St Bernard  encouraged devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus and  it was widely used in Western iconography. St Bernadino of Sienna (1380-1444), a popular Franciscan preacher,  is said to have placed the monogram on a tablet and held them both  before a crowd of people and  rays  were said to radiate from the sign.   From that time on the IHS  was often depicted in a sunburst.  A number of 18th/19th century gravestones bear this design see photo below.


Rubbing of gravestone from Tubbrid Co Tipperary, note the  IHS is framed in a sunburst

Towards the end of the Medieval period IHS became a symbol  like the Chi-Rho ( Chi-Rho is the Greek letter Χ combined with the letter Ρ represents the first two letters of Christ (ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ) and it is the most common monogram of Christ).


IHS within Sunburst at St. Finbarr’s Church in Magheross, Carrickmacross (http://www.carrickmacrossworkhouse.com/index.php/headstones-crests-symbols)

Maere (1910) notes that sometimes

the H appears a cross and underneath three nails, while the whole figure is surrounded by rays.  IHS became the accepted iconographical characteristic of St. Vincent Ferrer (d. 1419) and of St. Bernardine of Siena (d. 1444). The latter holy missionary, at the end of his sermons, was wont to exhibit this monogram devoutly to his audience, for which some blamed him; he was even called before Martin V.  St. Ignatius of Loyola adopted the monogram in his seal as general of the Society of Jesus (1541), and thus it became the emblem of his institute (Jesuits).  IHS was sometimes wrongly understood as “Jesus Hominum (or Hierosolymae) Salvator”, i.e. Jesus, the Saviour of men (or of Jerusalem=Hierosolyma).

In Medieval England the name of Christ was considered powerful protection against demonic agents such as ghosts. ‘It was used apotropaically in England from the end of the 12th century, engraved on material culture in the abbreviated trigram IHS (from the Greek IHCOYC, Jesus)‘(Gilchrist 2008, 126). With this in mind its very interesting that one of four bells made for the west tower of  Ely Catherdral  in 1345-6  by John of Gloucester was named IHS.  Bells were meant to ward off evil and in Germany and parts of Scandinavia  pilgrim badges were incorporated into medieval bell moulds. There are also  examples of IHS  appearing on medieval grave slabs and holy water fonts  in England.

I dont as yet  know how old the use of IHS is in Ireland  but it  most likely  dates to medieval times.


IHS stone at the entrance to the  Augustinian Priory on  O’Connell St Limerick City.

A 17th century example is found at  Augustinian Priory on O’Connell Street Limerick City in Limerick.   The Limerick city Augustinians were originally based in the town of Adare Co Limerick but following the reformation moved into the city and eventually ended up at their current location.

The stone is located on the right as you enter the church from O’Connell St.  As you can see from the photo the insignia is cut in relief on to a rectangular dressed stone. The stone is  not original to the church, according to the Augustinians of Limerick Website.

 The stone is the original lintel stone dated 1633 from the order’s first chapel in Limerick at Fish Lane. The O’Doherty family saved this stone in 1933 when the buildings in Fish Lane were knocked for new houses. The stone was kept in their stonecutting yard until  brought to the attention of the Prior, Fr Vincent Lyons in 1961. Fr Lyons bought the stone and in October 1962, it was inserted into the wall of the church.


IHS stone at the Augustinian Priory Limerick City

The H has a cross extending from it and a heart underneath  which I assume  must represent the sacred heart.

IHS was appearing on  funerary monuments by the early 17th century. One of the earliest example I have come across  from my very limited search was record by Chris Corlett (2012).  He   notes that  IHS  is incorporated into the base of a cross on a stone commemorates a James Grace who lived in nearby Rathvilly (Co. Carlow) and who died in 1605 at Baltinglass Abbey Co Wicklow.

Robert Chapel (2012) records two early 17th century  grave slabs with IHS near Craughwell   in Co Galway, one  at Killogillen ( whoes inscription bears the date 1614)  and the other  at Killora (whoes incription  bears the date dated to 161(?) 9). This design becomes a very common feature of  18th and 19th century headstones. There are likely many other earlier examples but time has not allowed for a more intensive search.

A variant of this motif is the cross coming from the H with  three nails  arranged  underneath. This motif was used in late medieval period and was popularized in the fifteenth century by Franciscans and was eventually adopted by the Jesuits. It also  occurs  on the 18th and 19th century gravestones (see below).

 Father Ryan Erlenbush (2012) in his blog What does IHS stand For? The meaning of the Holy Name of Jesus

After three nails were added under the insignia (together with a cross above), some noticed that the inscription now contained a “V” below the IHS – so that we see IHSV.  In this form it was adopted by St. Ignatius as the symbol of the Jesuits. IHSV was interpreted to mean In Hoc Signo Vinces, “In this sign, you shall conquer”. It was taken as a reference to the victory which Constantine won against Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge on 28 October 312. Before the battle, the future Emperor saw a sign in the sky (probably the Greek chi-rho X-P, the symbol of “Christ”) and heard the words εν τουτω νικα, which is Greek for “In this [sign], you shall conquer”. The phrase was translated into Latin and it was noticed that the first letters of each word added up to IHSV – thus was born the legend that IHS stood for Constantine’s vision and the Christianization of Rome. Most certainly, in the Holy Name of Jesus we shall conquer every enemy – and the last enemy to be destroyed is death itself).


Gravestone with IHS and three nails at Newcastle graveyard Co Tipperary.

So it seems that the IHS motif has a long tradition in Ireland and the  stonemasons who made these stones  were drawing from a common  Christian tradition and iconography which can be traced back to the medieval period. This is a really interesting  topic and I hope to come back to it again.


Anon. Holy Name of Jesus,   at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07421a.htm

Chappel, R. 2012.’Workingman’s Dead: Notes on some 17th to 19th century memorials, from the graveyards of Killora and Killogilleen, Craughwell, Co Galway, Ireland. Part II. http://rmchapple.blogspot.ie/2012/04/workingmans-dead-notes-on-some-17th-to.html

Corlett, C. 2012, ‘ The Grace Memorial Stone at Baltinglass Abbey’, http://www.christiaancorlett.com/#/blog/4564514201/The-Grace-memorial-stone-at-Baltinglass-Abbey/3705554

Erlenbush, R. 2012. ‘What does IHS stand For? The meaning of the Holy Name of Jesus’ http://newtheologicalmovement.blogspot.ie/2012/01/what-does-ihs-stand-for-meaning-of-holy.html

Gilchrist, R. 2008. ‘Magic for the dead? The archaeology if magic in late medieval burials’ Medieval Archaeology, Vol 52, 119-159.

Maere, R. (1910). IHS. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved December 7, 2013 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07649a.htm




Holycross Abbey: Medieval Pilgrimage and Historic Tours

Holycross was  one of the more popular pilgrim destinations in medieval Ireland. For centuries pilgrims travelled here to venerate the abbey’s sacred relic of the true cross,  which gave  its name to the Abbey.

View of Holycross Abbey from across the river

My last few posts have been about community archaeology projects and this post continues the theme.   The Holycross Community Network have trained  19 of their members as tour guides and will be running guided tours of the abbey, to help visitors  gain a greater appreciation of the abbeys history and  architectural features .

Tour guides Liz Nevin, Marie Byrne, John Bourke, Mike Carley and Adam Tozer

From now until easter the community is offering free guided tours of the abbey (further information holycrossabbeytours@gmail.com / 086-1665869). Being a bargain lover  I headed along with my friend Ciara to one of  the Saturday tours. The  tour  I attended was given by three guides Adam, Liz and John who  entertained us  all with a combination of historical facts  and folklore associated with the site, as well as pointing out  many of the hidden carvings and masons marks scattered around the church and other buildings.

The  full history of the abbey and its association with pilgrimage is too complex to discuss in detail here so I will just give a quick overview  of the abbeys history and association with pilgrimage.

Adam pointing out the whispering arch to visitors  in the cloister area

On the tour we learned that the abbey started out as a Benedictine Abbey (1169) , it was re-founded  as a Cistercian monastery in 1180  by  Domhnall Ó’Briain the King of Thomond  (Limerick).  The abbey was granted a charter in 1185-6, which confirmed lands totalling almost 8000 acres (Stalley 1987, 245). The charter mentions an older name for the area Ceall Uachtair Lamann. The name suggests the presence of early medieval church  in the area.

A copy of  the charter granting lands to Holycross Abbey

It is said that  the original relic  at Holycross was probably the same relic presented in 1110 by Pope Pascal II to Muirchertach Ó”Briain, Domhnall’s grandfather. The relic was likely gifted to abbey either in 1169 or 1181/2 by Domhnall Mór Ó’ Briain. Over time the relic became an object of veneration and attracted large numbers of pilgrims. Scholars believe that there may have been at one time  up to three  relic here at the Abbey (Ó’Conbhuidhe 1999, 166; Halpin & Newmans 2006, 388).

View of  cloister arch

Peter Harbison (1992, 305)  is of the opinion that the later rebuilding was  financed by the stream of pilgrims who came here to venerate the cross. This was also a period when the abbey enjoyed the patronage of the Earl of Ormond, James Butler ,so I am sure this patronage also contributed to the revamp of the abbey. The re-modelling of pilgrim sites  was often the result of increased numbers of pilgrims or the desire to attract more pilgrims.  Alterations were often designed to make the relics more visible and accessible to the multitudes.

Romanesque doorway leading from cloister into the church

The church was  entered from the cloister through an Romanesque style doorway. The cloister and domestic buildings of the monks would have been off-limits to pilgrims who would have entered the church through the western doorway.

The abbey church is  cruciform in plan, with intricate vaulted ceilings.


Vaulted ceiling in the transept of the church, photo taken prior to restoration. Edwin Rae Photo archive http://hdl.handle.net/2262/40640

There are many interesting features within the church, too many to mention here.  One worth noting is  a beautifully decorated sedilia, traditionally called the ‘Tomb of the Good Woman’s Son’. The sedilia is located within the chancel of the church. The base is highly decorated  and the top of the structure has a series of shields/coats of arms;   the  abbey, the Butler arms and the FitzGerald arms  and the royal arms of England (Stalley 1987, 115).  In the medieval church, the  sedilia functioned as a  stone seat, it was used by priest officiating at the  mass. Over time a colourful legend about the ‘Good Woman’s son’ developed around the sedilia. The earliest recorded version of the tale dates to the mid 17th century. The tale recounts an English prince (some accounts name him as the son Henry II)  travelling through the Holycross area collecting St Peter’s pence, he was killed by an O’Forgarty, the ruling Gaelic family in the area and buried where he fell in a wood called Kylechoundowney (Hayes 2011, 10-12). Some years later a blind monk at the abbey had three visions directing him to go to the wood. Having explained his visions to the abbot, he was given permission to set forth and investigate.  Having reached the wood the blind man’s companion saw a hand sticking out from the ground. The blind monk miraculously returned his sight and a spring of water burst forth from the ground  (ibid). The body was brought back to Holycross and buried and the young man’s mother upon hearing the news  gifted the abbey a relic of the true cross (ibid). This   legend may have developed following the acquisition of a second relic of the true cross.

sedilia known as the Good Woman’s Tomb

Another very interesting feature is an elaborately carved tomb-like structure called the  ‘Waking Bier of the Monks’, situated between the two south transept chapels. Stalley(1987, 116), suggests that it may have possibly functioned as an elaborate shrine where one of the  relics of the True Cross could be viewed through the open-work  canopy .  The base of the  stucture (shrine)  resembles a tomb chest and  the upper section with its canopy, arcades  resembles  English shrines  such as St Albans, St Edward the Confessor at Westminster and St Swithun at Winchester. Hayes (2011, 105)  notes also that Dr Dagmar O’Riain-Raedel suggest the it may also have functioned  as the sepulchrum Domini (the Lords tomb), where following the Good Friday liturgy the relics of the cross and the consecrated Host were placed here to symbolise the burial of Christ  after the crucifixion.  Architectural fragments suggest a  second  shrine  which may  also have displayed a second relic of the cross. These fragments are  not on display at present in the abbey but it  was recorded in 1913, prior to renovations, as being located in the north-west angle of the north transept.  Both structures are contemporary and date to the main period of rebuilding.

Liz telling us the history of the ‘Waking Bier’

The earliest reference to pilgrimage is found in the Papal letters of 1488.  The letters mention ‘the oblations which are made by the faithful to the wood of the Holy Cross in the church of the same monastery and which are collected by collectors appointed for the purpose’. This reference implies that the pilgrimage was well established by 1488. Pilgrims often brought gifts to the shrine, animals, foodstuffs and in the later medieval period coins and wax votives and candles.

The Ormond relic’ a 15th century reliquary containing a relic of the true cross

The presence of ‘collectors’ implies that  significant numbers of people arrived with offerings. We  can only guess how pilgrims would have interacted with the  holy relic but given that this was a working monastery, the monks would have controlled the access of pilgrims ensuring that they did not dispute their daily prayers.  The pilgrims who came here were from all social classes and  came seeking healing both  physical and spiritual for themselves or loved ones, to ask protection and help in times of crisis,   to experience a miracle, others came out of devotion to God, some came out of  curiosity, others to experience to social side of the pilgrimage .

The main burst of devotion would have focused on feasts connected with the holy cross such as  the 3rd of May, the feast marking the finding of the cross and the 14th of September, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (Exaltatio Sanctae Crucis)  a feast greatly observed in the medieval world and Easter.

The abbey also held one of its two annual fairs on the 14th of September,  most likely to take advantage of the large numbers of pilgrims.  A common practice at other pilgrim sites, the fair offered pilgrims a chance to combine prayer and devotion with  more secular pleasures. Medieval fairs were often associated with other activities, such as games and matchmaking and there are many parallels to the descriptions of pattern day festivities associated with mass pilgrimages of the 18th and 19th centuries. From medieval times, the area also has strong links with St Michael whose feast was the 29th of September . So September was a busy month for Holycross.  On special occasions like the feast of the cross,  the relic(s) at Holycross would have been displayed within the church either in the two shrines noted above or possibly displayed in a Rood Screen or the high altar.  It may also be possible that  relics were brought on procession  on busy feast days, as happens still with the relics of St Willibrod in Belgium.

Relics were not just a focus of devotion,  they were also used  in the swearing of oaths  and they were used to ward off evil, pestilence and plague. There are 16th-17th century references to the Holycross relic of the cross being brough out of the abbey as far away as Kilkenny to swear oaths on and even to improve fertility of crops  and there still survives a late medieval image depicting the relic of the True Cross at Holycross, being carried suspended from the abbot’s neck .

15th century window

Unlike many other Irish shrines pilgrimage at Holycross did not end with the reformation.   The relics at the abbey which also included a miraculous statue of the Blessed Virgin,  escaped  destruction by the reformers possibly because of the abbeys connections with the Bulters and there are many references and accounts of pilgrimage at Holycross post-dating the reformation.

Carving of an owl at centre of the church

To   briefly mention just a  few references to post reformation pilgrimage;  in   1567  the Lord deputy complaining to the Queen wrote  ‘there is no small conflunence of people still resorting to the holy cross’. In 1579 James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald is said to have venerated the relic  of the cross at the abbey a few weeks before his death at the hands of the Burkes, while 1583 Dermot O’Hurley archbishop of Cashel made a pilgrimage to the shrine shortly before his capture by the English. The relic of the cross would have attracted people from all classes  and in 1586 Camden writes of the ‘famous abbey’ to which the people still come to do reverence to the relic of the Holy Cross’. He goes on to say ‘It is incredible what a concourse of  people still throng hither out of devotion. For this nation obstinately adheres to the religion of superstition of their forefathers.’

Holycross Abbey, Thurles, County Tipperary - Pre Restoration

Holycross Abbey, Thurles, County Tipperary – Pre Restoration Image from the Edwin Rae Photo archive http://hdl.handle.net/2262/40632

The reformation began the decline of the  religious community at Holycross. In 1534 Willian Dywer, then Abbot, resigned his office  to Philip Purcell and the abbey became a provostry rather than a Cistercian abbey. By the 17th century the abbey had fallen into ruins and links with the Cistercians were finally broken with the death of Fr Edmond Coogan in  c1740.

The abbey and its church remained in ruins until the 1970’s when a  special act of parliament known as the HOLYCROSS ABBEY (COUNTY TIPPERARY) ACT, 1969 (http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/1969/en/act/pub/0007/print.html), allowed  for its re-consecration and restoration. This process is described in fully in an excellent book Holycross. The Awakening of the Abbey, by William Hayes details this process. There is lots more to add about the pilgrimage tradition and I will hopefully discuss it further in the coming months.

View of the restored  abbey church from the cloister

© Louise Nugent 2012


Halpin,  A. & Newman, C. 2006. Ireland. An Oxford Archaeological Guide to Sites

  from the Earliest Times to AD 1600. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harbison, P. 1991. Pilgrimage in Ireland. The monuments and the people. London:

Syracuse University Press.

Harbison, P. 1992. Guide to National and Historic Monuments of Ireland. Dublin:

Gill & Macmillian.

Nugent, L. 2009. Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland, AD 600-1600. Vol.1-3.Unpublished PhD Thesis, University College Dublin.

Stalley, R.1987. The Cistercian monasteries of Ireland: an account of the history, art

  and architecture of the white monks in Ireland from 1142-1540. London: Yale U.P.

Graveyard recording at Newcastle

This week I  headed along to  another historic graveyard at Middlequarter,  Newcastle, Co. Tipperary.  The old graveyard at Newcastle  along with the graveyards at Molough, Shanrahan and Tubrid, are  currently being recorded by local community groups trained by Historic Graves (http://historicgraves.ie/).

The Medieval Church and graveyard at Middlequarter, Newcastle, image taken from Bing maps

Newcastle graveyard  is located close  to  the Anglo-Norman castle which gives its name to the area.  The remains of the castle consist of a  hall house with a vaulted roof, a tower and a bawn. The castle  is strategically located  on the banks of the River Suir close to the fording point .  The castle  is  part of a group  of 12th -13th castles  built in a line along foothills  of the Knockmealdown mountains. This  area was the  frontier  between the Anglo-Norman territory and the Gaelic territory of the Déises . Newcastle was in the control of the Prendergast family from the 13th to the 17th century, it then  passed into the hands of  the Perry’s family.

View of Newcastle castle from the nearby graveyard

The historic graveyard  surrounds  a 12th /13th century church, which functioned as the medieval parish/manorial church .

The medieval church at Newcastle

Newcastle church is one of the largest medieval parish churches in the surrounding area, being 29m  in length and 10m in width. Any past dedication to a saint has long been forgotten and today the church is simply known as the old church.

Southern doorway of the church

The church is entered through two ornate doorways  at the west end of the church, located in the  north and south wall.  The south doorway is simpler in design with a moulded surround. The north doorway is slightly taller and has roll and fillet-mouldings with traces of hood- moulding over the apex of the door. Both doors are directly opposite each other.

The North doorway of the church at Newcastle

There is no evidence of an internal division   between the chancel and the nave within the church, nor is there any traces of a choir.

The east gable  of the church is now partially collapsed. Luckily the Ordnance Survey Letters of 1840 provide the following decription

Its east window is in the pointed style and constructed of brownish sandstone chiselled… 6 feet in height and 1 foot 8 inches in width. It is divided into two compartments the stone which separates them has been removed (O’Flanagan 1930 Vol.1,  22)

View from window at NE end of the church

The  Ordnance Survey letters also state that ‘ the church was burnt by a Prendergast who lived in Curraghcloney Castle’  (O’Flanagan 1930, vol. 1, 23).  However today  many   local people tell the tale, that it was Cromwell  who burned the church .

Volunteers recording gravestones at Newcastle

The graveyard  has a mixture of 18th , 19th and 20th century graves, including some very recent ones. In total there are  204  grave markers in  the graveyard.

Volunteers recording a gravestone

It is difficult to decide which gravestones to include here  as there are so many interesting ones. The stone below was carved in  1755  to commemorate the death of Denis Morison.

A simple gravestone dating to 1755

Some of the early gravestones have lovely decoration. The  stone below depicts the crucifixion scene and a stone by the same mason has been identified in Shanrahan & Tullaghmelan graveyards.

Crucifixion imagery on the gravestone of Daniel Long of Neddins died 1817

The interior of the  church is packed with approximately 60 burials. At the east end are three unusual  burials. A chest tomb sits in the NE corner of the church. The  inscription of the tomb is worn away and impossible to read.  O’ Hallian  in his book Tales from the Deise  gives the following   account of the inscription

Here lyeth the body of Jeffry Prendergast of Mullough in the county of Tipperary who served in Flanders as Captain under the Great Duke of Marlbourugh, from  whom he had the honour of reciting public thanks for his services at the siege of Ayr in 1710. Died 1713. he was an affectionate husband and tender father, in friendship steady and sincere; to all beneath him courteous, truly just and therefore universally esteemed and beloved. He lived under the influence of religion and died cheerfully supported by it the  27th day of March in the 64th year of his life.

Chest tomb of Jeffery Prendergast

John Burke’s A Genealogical and Heraldic History of Extinct and Dormant Baronetcies….. records that Jeffrey’s father Thomas Prendergast, esq was born in 1614 and married Elinor the sister of Walter the 11th Earl of Ormond. The text also says  Thomas died in 1725, aged 111 years ‘as appears on his tombstone at Newcastle, near Clonmel’.  Once the survey is complete if the tombstone commemorating Thomas survives I am sure the volunteers will uncover it.  I would wonder if he was not interred with his son Jeffery.

Beside the Prendergast tomb are two grave slabs which I recorded as part of a project for  college in 1998.  The  inscription on slabs have  deteriorated since  I last visited here. One  has a motif of  a horse standing on its hind legs in an oval frame. This is the grave of Samuel Hobson sq of Muckridge,  who died in 1782.  The second slab records the burial of ‘Lieu Henry Prendergast of Mulough’ and his wife who died in 1776 , along with  their a coat of arms.

Crest on the Prendergast grave slab

© Louise Nugent 2012


Hallinan, M, 1996. Tales from the Deise: an anthology on the history and heritage of Newcastle, the Nire Valley, and especially the Parish of Newcastle and Four-Mile-Water. Dublin: Kincora Press.

O’ Flanagan, Rev. M. (compiler) 1930. Letters containing information relative to the antiquities of the county of Tipperary collected during the progress of the Ordnance  Survey in 1840. 3 Vols. Bray: Typescript.

Power, Rev. P. 1937. Waterford and Lismore; a compendious history of the united

  dioceses. Cork: Cork University Press.

Graveyard recording at Tubrid and St Ciaráns well

I was so impressed by last weeks visit to  Shanrahan graveyard   that I decided to head along to Tubrid/Tubbrid graveyard today and have a go at some graveyard recording for myself.

19th century Church of Ireland at Tubrid

Tubrid is another interesting place, thats well worth a visit. Today it consists of  the ruins of a 19th century church of Ireland surrounded by a graveyard.

Mortuary chapel

The graveyard contains a small 17th century mortuary chapel which is   the burial-place of Geoffrey Keating the author of  The Foras Feasa ( the history of  Ireland). Keating was born nearby at Burgess townland.  Over the door of the mortuary chapel is a latin plaque.

Latin plaque that commemorates Keating

Power (1937)  recorded the Latin inscription as ,

ORAte Pro Aiabs P. Eugenu: Duhy Vic de Tybrud: et D: Doct Galf: Keating huis Sacelli Fundatoru: necno et pro oibs alusta sacerd. quam laicis quoru corpa in eod: jacet sa A Dom 1644

Pray for the souls of Father Eugenius Duhy, Vicar of Tybrud, and of Geoffrey Keating, D.D., Founders of this Chapel ; and also for all others, both Priests and Laics whose bodies lie in the same chapel. In the year of our Lord 1644.

The graveyard is filled with really beautiful 18th and 19th century gravestones which I recorded with the help of other volunteers like Patsy McGrath, Michael Fennessy and Deirdre Walsh and training by Historic Graves (http://historicgraves.ie/).

The oldest stone  I came across dated to 1680. Some of the stones were difficult to read but John Tierney of Historic graves had a few trick using artificial lights that made the recording process easier.

Mark Ryland recording a grave inscription.

One of the earliest inscriptions I came across

Here Lies the body, of Anno Neil alias McGrath, who departed Life this 22 Day of Feb 1795 Aged 48.

Gravestone dating to 1795

Many of the gravestones are decorated with beautiful imagery, below is one of my favourite decorated gravestones.

St Ciarain’s well at Tubrid

I also visited   the nearby holy well of  St Ciarán, which is  a few 100 yards down the road  on the banks of   the Thonoge River.  This is not Ciarán of Clonmacnoise but Ciarán of Tubrid/ Ciarán son of Eachaid of the Decies.   Power (1914) noted the nearby graveyard and  church  was called Cillín Ciarán or Ciarán’s little church.  Ciarán is mentioned in the Irish and Latin Lives of St Declan. The Irish Life tells how Declan baptised Ciarán at the near by holy well when he was an infant (Power 1914).

And it was this child, Ciaran Mac Eochaid, who founded in after years a famous monastery (from which he migrated to heaven) and another place (monastery) beside. He worked many miracles and holy signs and this is the name of his monastery Tiprut (Power 1914, 59).

O’Riain (’2011, 174) notes  he is also mentioned in the Life of Tighearnach of Clones, whom he accompanied to Tours( the shrine of St Martin) in France. Shortly before the trip he resuscitated a daughter of the king of Munster named Eithne ‘ possibly the eponym of Temple-etney, near Tubrid’ (ibid).

The saints feast day was the 10th of November and the well was visited on this day within memory. Power in 1914 gives  the following description of the well

‘The Holy Well of Tubrid, a large circular basin at which stations were formerly made, has recently been enclosed by a wall.  A public pump too has been erected in connection with it’ (1914, 175).

St Ciarán’s well

Today the well is a rectangular  shaped  trough built into a retaining wall at the edge of a  hillside.  The top  of the wall is   covered with concrete. At the back of the well recess is , a stone spout which carries water draining off the hillside which fills the trough.

A local lady from Ballylooby told me that within memory  school kids at Ballylooby were given the day off on the saints feast day and people would visit the well .  Mass was said here until about 10-15 years ago but the tradition of stations had died as Power noted in the 1900’s .


Ó Riain, P. 2011. A Dictionary of Irish Saints. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Power, Rev. P. 1914. The Life of St Declan. London: Irish Text Societies.

Power, Rev. P. 1937. Waterford & Lismore. A Compendious History of the United Dioceses. Cork. Cork University Press.