St. Finnian of Clonard

St. Finian

St. Finnian was a native of Leinster, being born in Myshall, Co. Carlow about 470. His father was Rudraigh, an Ulsterman nobleman and his mother was a Leinster woman called Telach.

Born in Myshall, Co. Carlow Finnian studied under St. Foirtchern of Trim before travelling to Wales for further studies..  He studied at monasteries in south Wales, thereby establishing close links to the British Church. In Wales he was in contact with the early British saints – Cadog the Wise, David and Gildas. Legends state that he cleared islands off the coast of insects, worms and vermin and another story has him creating an earthquake to scare off some Saxon raiders. Finnian may also have been educated at Tours in France. St. Martin was such a distinguished saints that stories were constructed which linked many of the early Irish saints to his establishment at Tours.

After thirty years in Wales Finnian returned to his native land, founding churches at Aghowle, Wicklow and Dunmanogue, Kildare. Finnian studied under Brigid at Kildare before being led by an angel to a site at Cluain Eraird, which he was told would be the place of his resurrection. Brigid presented him with a gold ring on his departure to Meath.

Led by an angel to Clonard Finnian founded a monastery and school of learning beside the river Boyne at Cluain-Eraird, Erard’s lawn or meadow.

One of St. Finnian’s main considerations when selecting the site for his monastery at Clonard was access to a clean water supply. Wells provided clean water and could be used as a source of holy water and even utilized for baptising new converts. An angel warned Finnian to move the well from the spot he had selected and leave that ground as the cemetery and that is what Finnian did. Leaving Ard na Reilig, the height of the cemetery, Finnian founded his monastery nearby and dug a new well. St. Finnian moved his monastery to the hill called Church Hill and the well on the eastern side is now the holy well.

Here Finnian constructed a small church. The fame of his learning and sanctity spread far and wide and large numbers of devotees were attracted to Clonard. Such was the fame of Finnian and his school that he became known as the “Teacher of the Irish Saints.”

The “Twelve Apostles of Erin” were taught at Clonard including: St. Ciaran of Saighir; St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise; St. Brendan of Birr; St. Brendan of Clonfert; St. Colum of Terryglass; St. Columba of Iona; St. Mobhi of Glasnevin; St. Ruadhan of Lorrha; St. Senan of Iniscathay; St. Ninidh of Loch Erne; St. Lasserian Mac Madfraech; St. Canice of Aghaboe. His faith inspired a whole generation. At one stage there were no fewer than 3000 pupils receiving instruction at Clonard. St. Finnian had a cow and no matter how big a vessel was the cow could fill it with milk. One day a man arrived and said he had a vessel that the cow could not fill and produced a strainer or a sieve. The cow was milked and the milk miraculously filled the vessel.

St. Finnian of Clonard died from yellow fever about 548 and his feast day today is 12 December. Clonard went on to become the seat of the bishop of Meath and today Finnian is patron saint of the diocese.

St. Finnian is said to have bestowed a blessing on the people of Clonard whereby nobody from the area would ever be killed by lightning. Cures were attributed to the waters of St. Finnian’s Well. In recent years a wall was erected around the well and steps allowing access to the water were constructed. The well features on the Clonard Heritage Trail. For the Clonard pilgrimage in 2011 a new entrance was created to the well to facilitate pilgrims.

St. Finnian’s College in Mullingar was named in his honour. St Finnian’s church on Adelaide Road, Dublin is the only Lutheran church in the country. Other Meath links say that St. Finnian visited Balfeaghan church as a sanctuary and founded a monastery at Ardsallagh, near Navan.

Today the site of St. Finnian’s monastery is  occupied by St. Finan’s Church of Ireland church which was closed in 1991. St. Finnian’s Catholic Church has some lovely stained glass windows which  depict events in the life of St Finnian.

St. Finnian’s Church is a detached cruciform-plan church, built 1807, renovated and tower added, c. 1870. Two-bay side elevation to nave, single-bay transepts and apse with sacristy addition to the north.  

There are also statues of St Finnian and St Etchen in the church. At the rear of the Altar the wonderful medieval baptismal font depicts scenes from the bible and important saints.  The statue in the graveyard at Clonard was sculpted in Carrara marble by an Italian artist, Carlo Nicoli, and erected by Very Rev. Edward Crinion P.P. in 1960.

St. Finian’s Well

St. Finian’s Well, Clonard

Born in the latter half of the fifth century in Myshall, Co. Carlow Finian studied under St. Foirtchern of Trim before travelling to Wales for further studies. Led by an angel to Clonard Finian founded a monastery and school of learning beside the river Boyne at Cluain-Eraird, Erard’s lawn or meadow. St. Finian became known as a great teacher and students flocked to Clonard, at one point three thousand students were attending the school including twelve who were to become the apostles of Ireland. Ciarán of Clonmacnoise, two Brendans, Canice and Colmcille of Iona are among the many students to have trained under Finian. St. Finian had a cow and no matter how big a vessel was the cow could fill it with milk. One day a man arrived and said he had a vessel that the cow could not fill and produced a strainer or a sieve. The cow was milked and the milk miraculously filled the vessel. St. Finian of Clonard died from yellow fever about 548 and his feast day today is 12 December. Clonard went on to become the seat of the bishop of Meath and today Finian is patron saint of the diocese.

One of St. Finian’s main considerations when selecting the site for his monastery at Clonard was access to a clean water supply. Wells provided clean water and could be used as a source of holy water and even utilized for baptising new converts. An angel warned Finian to move the well from the spot he had selected and leave that ground as the cemetery and that is what Finian did. Leaving Ard na Reilig, the height of the cemetery, Finian founded his monastery nearby and dug a new well. St. Finian moved his monastery to the hill called Church Hill and the well on the eastern side is now the holy well.

Cures were attributed to the waters of St. Finian’s Well. St. Finian is said to have bestowed a blessing on the people of Clonard whereby nobody from the area would ever be killed by lightning.

In the 1930s the well was described as about three feet in diameter and about three feet wide and was neglected. No pattern was held there at the time. In recent years a wall was erected around the well and steps allowing access to the water were constructed. The well features on the Clonard Heritage Trail. For the Clonard pilgrimage in 2011 a new entrance was created to the well to facilitate pilgrims.



Item: Fragments of a house shaped shrine (Photo: National Museum of Ireland)

Date: Ninth Century

Find Location: Clonard

Current Location: National Museum of Ireland


Fragments of a house shaped shrine were found during drainage work in the early nineteenth century. These house shaped shrines were originally designed to receive relics of the saints. The fragments consist of two sheets of bronze and a decorated disc of cast bronze. The long side was decorated with a pair of medallions of which one survives.

Further Information: Raghnall Ó Floinn ‘A Fragmentary House-Shaped Shrine from Clonard, Co. Meath’ The Journal of Irish Archaeology  Vol. 5 (1989/1990), pp. 49-55



Item: Ring

Date: 1150BC-750BC (circa) Late Bronze Age

Find Location: Clonard

Current Location: British Museum

Description: Gold penannular plain ring. The circular solid body is circular in cross-section and it is slightly thinner at the ends rather than in the middle. The ring has parallel squared flat endings facing each other.

Acquired by British Museum in 1909. Donated by John Pierpont Morgan.

Clonard Bucket

Clonard Bucket

Item:         Bucket                    

Date:  Ninth Century

Find Location:  Clonard

Current Location: National Museum of Ireland


A small wooden bucket decorated with bronze work dating from the eighth or ninth century, discovered during drainage works. In the 1830s, work on the Kinnegad River near Clonard revealed a highly ornate Early Christian bucket with bronze bands and amber insets bound with filigree and decorated bands of bronze. The bucket measured 14cm in height and had been carved from a single block of yew with a separate base. Around forty similar buckets are known from Ireland and Scandinavia. The Scandinavian examples originate mainly from graves dating to the ninth and tenth centuries while the Irish ones are mainly found in rivers and bogs. A few are also known from domestic sites of between the eighth and tenth centuries. The highly decorated character of the Clonard bucket suggests that it may have served an ecclesiastical ceremonial function, possibly as a dispenser for wine or holy water. The proximity of the find spot to St. Finnian’s monastery of Clonard would support such a theory (O’Floinn 1983). In association with the bucket, a Dutch box was found containing coins from the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558–1603), James II brass money from the Jacobite War (1688–90) and coinage of William and Mary, the latest of which dated to 1694. This suggests that the bucket was deposited for safekeeping sometime after that date.

The small size of these vessels would suggest that they were used for serving liquid in small quantities-perhaps wine.

Further Information: George Coffey Guide to Celtic Antiquities of the Christian Period (London, 1910) p. 76



Item:         Crozier                    

Date: Eleventh century

Find Location:  Clonard

Current Location: National Museum of Ireland


Cast copper alloy crozier head, measuring 17.7 cm in height, is well worn. The crozier was recorded as being found in Clonard in the Minutes of the Royal Irish Academy. The crozier consists of a bionical knop surmounted by a bronze crook with a rectangular drop. Traces of decoration on the crook show strips of metal arranged in a  lozenge-shaped pattern. These crosiers were made as shrines to contain the staff of the saint. Croziers such as this were symbols of power and authority. Many date to a period of political upheaval, when the Irish Church was undergoing reform. This reform led to competition between the larger monasteries as they strove to become the new diocesan centres. Lavish church treasures such as croziers and other shrines were commissioned at this time, partly to reinforce the claims of particular monastic centres and their secular patrons

Further Information:

Raghnall Ó Floinn, A crozier head from Clonard’ in T. Condit and C. Corlett (eds),   Above and Beyond: essays in memory of Leo Swan (Bray, 2005), pp 333-42

Chess Piece

Item: Queen from Chess Set

Date: Late Twelfth Century

Find Location: Clonard

Current Location: National Museum of Ireland


Ivory chess piece showing a queen seated on Clonard, discovered in a bog in Clonard in 1817. It is the only know survivor of a number of chess pieces found in Clonard bog. It may be of Scottish or Scandinavian origin. It may have been brought to Clonard by someone in the retinue of Simon de Rochfort who became bishop of Meath in the late twelfth century.

It represents a carved figure of a Queen from a chess set. It is made of ivory or polished bone with a core of lead. It has a small iron spike at the base, presumably for attachment to the playing surface.

The figure has a crown, wears a shoulder length veil over a mantle. The edges of the mantle are folded back revealing a decorative border of dots and crosses. The left hand is raised to the cheek and is supported by the right hand at the elbow.

The chair the figure sits on has projecting arms. The back of the chair is decorated with a pair of two-legged dragons with backward looking heads. Their tails are fishlike and intertwined. The mouths of the animals are joined by a beaded scroll. The letters S, P and K are written on the back in Lombardic script. The perforation through the neck seems to have been added at a later date.

The figure it seems belongs to the same workshop tradition which produced the group of 78 walrus ivory chessmen found in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. Only two other figures are known from the same workshop- one in Bargello, Florence, the other found in Óland in Sweden. The decoration of these pieces is Romanesque in style and were manufactured in some Viking Kingdom in the second half of the twelfth century. The Clonard piece was found before the Lewis chess pieces, this piece represents the sole survivor of a similar set now lost.

Further Information:


Item: Sword Blade (Photo: National Museum of Ireland)

Date: 1600-1200 BC

Find Location: Rossan, Kinnegad.

Current Location: National Museum of Ireland

Description: Middle Bronze Age ‘rapier’ blade has been discovered at a bog in Rossan. It was identified on the surface of the bog by Christie Nolan and then reported to the National Museum by Pat Dunne, both of whom work for Bord na Mona.

The find-place was subsequently investigated by Mary Cahill, Keeper of Irish Antiquities and no additional artefacts were identified. However, several other important finds including a bog body and bog butter have been made at Rossan in recent years. The sword blade measures c. 40 cm in length and is fashioned out of bronze. The handle of the ‘rapier’, which was attached via two rivet holes, was probably made from an organic substance such as wood or bone and this no longer survives.

Rapiers were most likely used as thrusting rather than slashing weapons and they are recorded from both Britain and Ireland. Where finds spots are known, the majority appear to have been discovered in watery contexts, such as bogs, rivers or lakes and this may be indicative of ritual deposition rather than casual loss.

Rapier in this context is an archaeological term for a relatively short, narrow, double-sided blade that emerged in the Middle Bronze Age and represents Ireland’s earliest type of bronze sword (rather than a dagger).

Rossan Bog Body

Item: Bog Body (Photo: National Museum of Ireland)

Date: 700-400 BC

Find Location: Rossan, Kinnegad.

Current Location: National Museum of Ireland

Description: The partial remains of a bog body has been uncovered in Rossan bog in Co. Meath. The find was discovered by Bord na Móna workers and subsequently excavated by a team of archaeologists, led by Maeve Sikora of the National Museum of Ireland. Although as yet undated the remains were found in an area that has previously produced bog body remains (Moydrum Man) that were radiocarbon dated to the Early Iron Age (700-400 BC).

Further Information:

P.V. Glob, The Bog People (London, 1969),

Eamonn P. Kelly, ‘New find supports kingship and sovereignty theory’ in Archaeology Ireland Autumn 2011 pp. 4-5

Eamonn P. Kelly, Kingship and Sacrifice: Iron Age bog bodies and boundaries (Bray, 2006)

Baptismal Font


A baptismal font was formerly in the Church of Ireland church. It was moved to St Finnian’s R.C. Church in 1991. This baptismal font was formerly in the Church of Ireland church at Anneville or Clonard Old. It was moved to St Finnian’s R.C. Church in 1991. The font is carved from limestone and is octagonal in shape with deeply chamfered under panels depicting a range of biblical scenes. The inner basin of the font is circular and it has concave sides and a central drain. The font stands on a similarly deeply carved octagonal base which sits on a rectangular modern base. The font is somewhat small and it has been suggested that perhaps it originally stood on a medieval pedestal or that there was a short shaft which would have connected the base and font. All the panels of the font and base are decorated. The execution of the carving suggests that the carver was a skilled amateur and not a master craftsman. Beginning with the Flight into Egypt and proceeding from left to right, we see the Blessed Virgin holding the infant Jesus while seated on a donkey, with Joseph wearing a cloak and holding the reigns walking along side. The next panel comprises a winged angel holding a book with an interlacing design underneath and it has been suggested that it may have been a ‘filler’. The Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan is illustrated on the next panel. Jesus is depicted standing in the river Jordan and John the Baptist is depicted by his side baptising him with water from a vessel. The upper part of the panel depicting John the Baptist has been damaged and so it is hard to discern. To the right there is an elongated tree with pairs of opposed leaves and two berries on top of the stem growing out of a vase. This too has been interpreted as a possible ‘filler’. The hypothesis that these panels are mere fillers is a little simplistic – it is likely that these depictions had symbolic meanings and messages that are now lost to us today. It is a little convenient for us to label them as fillers. Six winged angels are depicted on the following three panels, five hold blank shields and the sixth one holds an open book. It is possible that the blank shields could originally have been painted with coats of arms or other emblems. The next panel is divided into two niches – in one a winged angel is depicted pointing to an open scroll. In the second niche St Peter is depicted sitting and holding the symbolic key (his emblem)in his left hand and in his right hand a sword. The eight panel illustrates a Bishop and angel with an open book. The former is wearing a mitre and is holding a crozier in his left hand and is blessing with this right hand – and it is locally thought to be St. Finnian of Clonard. The lower part of the font has four panels of shield-bearing angels some not fully carved and four panels of foliate motifs – vines and grapes, oak leaves and acorns. (Roe 1968; Hickey 1998, 520-2) Font section compiled by: Niall Kenny

Church of Ireland Church

Clonard Church
Clonard Church 1776

Detached Board of First Fruits church, built 1808, with three-stage entrance tower having pinnacles and castellations to the west, and vestry to the north-east corner. Now disused. Pitched slate roof. Rendered walls with ashlar limestone quoins, string courses, date plaque and carved medieval stone head. Traceried windows set in pointed-arched openings with stone sills and surrounds. Timber battened double doors with fanlight above set in pointed-arched opening with limestone dressings. Surrounded by graveyard with grave markers. Ashlar limestone piers with wrought-iron double gates. Built on site of abbey.

St Finnian’s Church of Ireland in Clonard, Co. Meath, is believed to have been built on an earlier pre-existing monastic settlement or church. The present church, is one of many Board of First Fruits churches in Ireland and was built in 1808 by James Bell, it is noted that it is was built over the remains of an older church, which stood on the site of an even earlier church!

St Finnian’s closed in 1991. Below the tower of the church is a rectangular block of limestone known as ‘The Trough’, it is believed to have curative powers, especially in relation to the curing of warts. Local lore states that ‘The Trough’ has never run dry even during the hottest of summers.

The graveyard is also home to a ‘Croppies’ grave. The ‘Croppies’ were Irish rebels who fought during the failed 1798 rebellion. After the Battle of Clonard on 11th July 1798, where many rebels were killed, many of the croppies from Wicklow and Wexford were left lying in fields and ditches, some were buried in a mass grave; others were carried to this graveyard and buried in an unmarked grave.

Clonard in the 12th Century

“Losing a Bishop and gaining a Castle”

Clonard Motte

At the start of the twelfth century Clonard was a monastery still largely dominated by the Celtic system of organisation. The Irish church was organised on a different structure to mainland Europe.  The monastery was ruled by an abbot and there was also a bishop residing at Clonard. The twelfth century was to see the adoption of the continental arrangement of organising the church with proper bishops with clearly defined diocese. Clonard had become the centre of a diocese in the twelfth century and then that centre was moved to Trim just after the century ended.

On the secular side Clonard was a settlement under the control of the kings of Meath, the Maelseachainn. It was closely associated with the family and as a result was raided on numerous times in the twelfth century. By the end of the century Clonard was still strongly influenced by the Celtic way of living but had been invaded by the Anglo-Normans and a town had been established. The town never flourished as it was too near the native Irish.

So the twelfth century was a time of change for Clonard and not necessarily change for the better. Let us look at some of the characters that brought these changes to bear on Clonard. I will try to explain the changes by examining the lives of some of the people who were important to Clonard in the twelfth century

  • Bishop Maélmuire Ua Dúnáin
  • Bishop Ethru Ua Miadhachain 
  • Bishop Echtigern mac Méal Chiarain – Bishop Eugenius
  • Bishop Simon Rochfort
  • Murchad Ua Máel Sechlainn  – king of Meath
  • Agnetha Ni Máel Sechlainn  – The Great Nun
  • Hugh de Lacy – Lord of Meath

Bishop Maélmuire Ua Dúnáin

Maélmuire Ua Dúnáin entered his religious life in Clonard in the middle of the eleventh century. Ua Dúnáin was one of the leading reformers of the church in the twelfth century. He appears as a witness to a deed in the Book of Kells dating from 1087-94, where he is described as ‘senior of Leth Cuinn’, chief bishop of the northern half of Ireland. In 1096 he was one of the signatories to the petition of the citizens of Waterford asking St. Anselm to consecrate their first bishop.  In the petition he used the title ‘bishop of Meath’ and this is the first recorded use of that title. St. Anselm was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109. Bishops had been appointed to Dublin and Limerick by the archbishops of Canterbury as there were no Irish archbishops.  Dublin, Limerick and Waterford were Hiberno-Norse towns rather than Irish and churchmen may have seen them as not part of the Irish church. The appointments made by Canterbury were a attempt to claim supremacy over the Irish church.

Ua Dúnáin may have visited Rome and was appointed Papal Legate to Ireland by Pope Paschal II. He presided over the important synod of Cashel in 1101. According to the genealogical records of the O Briain clan, Maélmuire Ua Dúnáin, ‘chief bishop and chief senior of the island of Eire’ presided at the synod as papal legate.  This synod enacted decrees against lay investiture and against simony. It also ruled that no layman could be an erenach and that no erenach could have a wife. An erenach had responsibility for church lands and revenue and so controlled the church though its financial affairs. A bishop had little or no financial resources and therefore little power. Bishops were attached to particular monasteries and were subject to the abbot or erenach.  This decree was an attempt to remove the lay influence in the church and also prevent church offices being inherited by the same family down the generations. The Synod of Cashel was hosted by King Muircheartach Ó Briain and as one of the acts of the synod he presented the Rock of Cashel to the churchmen of Ireland. Ua Dúnáin was described as Archbishop of Munster in one of the Annals when he died.

Ten years later, at the synod of Ráth Breasail in 1111, the demands of the reformers for changes in ecclesiastical structures were more directly addressed. Muircheartach Ó Briain again presided as king of Munster. Gilbert, Bishop of Limerick, was Papal Legate. Ceallach represents Armagh and Maélmuire Ua Dúnáin was described as the noble senior of Eire.  The synod marked the transition of the Irish church from a monastic to a diocesan church. It established two provinces: Armagh and Cashel. Each province consisted of twelve territorial dioceses including Clonard and Duleek in Meath.

At the Synod of Uisneach convened by the abbot of Clonmacnoise later in 1111, the see of Duleek was suppressed. This synod was for the clergy of Meath. West Meath was assigned to a new diocese of Clonmacnoise and East Meath to Clonard. Murchad Ua Máel Sechlainn, king of Meath, presided over the synod at Uisneach and he ensured that Clonard remained the centre of a diocese.

Ua Dúnáin  was recognised as the bishop of Clonard and bishop of Meath.  The bishop had his residence at Killyon.

In 1119 the annals record that Maélmuire Ua Dúnáin, Archbishop of Munster, head of the clergy of Ireland and Lord of the alms deeds of the west of Europe, died in the 77th year of his age, on the 9th of the calends of January on his pilgrimage at Clonard. He was described as the most exemplarily devout and pious man then known in the western world.

Clonard Crozier

This Bronze Crozier Head was said to have been found near Clonard during drainage works. It is a typical small abbots’ staff or crook and dates to the late eleventh or twelfth century. It is now in the National Museum of Ireland.  

Bishop Ethru Ua Miadhachain

Eochaid Ua Cellaig succeeded Maélmuire Ua Dúnáin as bishop of Meath and ruled until about 1140. He appears in one of the charters of the Book of Kells and was described as chief bishop of the men of Meath. Ua Cellaig was succeeded by Ethru Ua Miadhachain.

In 1143 Clonard was burned for the most part, with Less-an-nemra, the fort of the shrine which was the house in which the shrine of St. Finian was preserved. About this time a monk named Gilda Module flourished.  He was author of a historical poem in the Irish language in which he gave a short history of the Christian kings of Ireland from Laoighre to the death of Malachy, from 428 to 1043. He may have been a monk at Clonard or at Ardbraccan or spent some time in both monasteries.

Ua Miadhachain attended the synod of Kells. This synod took place in 1152, under the presidency of Cardinal Paparo, and continued the process begun at the Synod of Ráth Breasail of reforming the Irish church. Its main effect was to increase the number of archbishops from two to four, and to redefine the number and size of diocese. The Primacy of Ireland was granted to the Archdiocese of Armagh. Clonard was confirmed as the see for East Meath. Duleek was also recognised as a diocesan centre. Kells was established as see for the kingdom of Bréifne but was absorbed by Diocese of Meath in 1211.

Ua Miadhachain, Bishop of Meath, appears as one of the guarantors to the freedom of the church of Ardbraccan from having to host the king’s army for a night’s billeting in one of the charters recorded in the Book of Kells

Ethru Ua Miadhachain, other bishops and church leaders did fealty to the English king, Henry II, at the second synod of Cashel in 1172. He was listed as Bishop of Clonard. The Synod was assembled at Cashel at the request of Henry II probably in the early spring of 1172. The Synod sought to regulate some affairs of the Church in Ireland and to condemn some abuses, particularly in relation to marriage, bringing the Irish Church more into alignment with the Roman rite.

About 1173 Ethru Ua Miadhachain, Bishop of Clonard died at an advanced age, after having spent a good life.

Bishop Echtigern mac Méal Chiarain

Bishop Echtigern mac Méal Chiarain, bishop of Clonard 1173-1191, was known by his Latin name Eugenius. Bishop Eugenius co-operated with the Anglo-Norman settlers and the new abbey became the cathedral church of the diocese, its monks the canons of the chapter.

The Irish church accepted the customs of the English and continental church as part of the re-organising of the church. Eugene witnessed grants of tithes and churches to monasteries introduced by the Anglo-Normans but resisted the granting of the church at Duleek to Llanthony monastery by Hugh de Lacy. Eugenius confirmed many grants of lands by the new Anglo-Norman lords to the monastery of Llanthony, a favourite monastery of de Lacy. Grants by William Breton of lands at Rathbeggan and William le Petit at Mullingar and Rathkenny were witnessed by Eugenius. These grants date from 1180-1188. Geoffrey, chaplain of Trim, is one of the witnesses to a confirmation of Bishop Eugene, bishop of Clonard concerning churches in Meath and the land of the Grange of Skryne recorded in the chartulary of St. Mary’s abbey about 1185 and also witnessed a charter of Reginald de Turburville to Llanthony. Eugenius witnessed a confirmation of a grant of Castletowndelvin church to Llanthony dating from 1188-91.

About 1175 one of the new settlers, Adam de Feypo, assigned his chapel at Skryne to his brother, Thomas, who was ordained by the Bishop of Meath. Thomas was the first of  the Anglo-Norman language to be appointed to a parish in Meath, he later became a monk of the Cistercian abbey of St. Mary’s in Dublin and the parish became property of St. Mary’s.  The idea of a parish was also a new concept at the time.  Bishop Eugenius participated in the ceremony to hand over the tithes to St. Mary’s but two weeks later he appears to have changed his mind.  This may have because he realised that he was reducing the income of the diocese by allowing in outside monasteries to control parish churches. About 1185 de Feypo wrote to the Pope to complain of the actions of Bishop Eugenius who had tried to take over the tithes of the parish. In the same letter de Feypo complained that a Cistercian monk who had been nominated Bishop of Kells had been “violently ejected by the shameless Bishop of Meath who had then presumed to add that bishopric to his own.” 

The territory of Saithne, north of Dublin, was a sub-kingdom of Meath and Hugh de Lacy as lord of Meath may have used this to justify its appropriation. Imar Ua Cathasaigh had submitted to Henry at Dublin. De Lacy took control of the territory of Saithne when Ua Cathasaigh died in 1179. De Lacy made grants to the monastery of Llanthony of lands north of Dublin, which were confirmed by John and also by the Bishop of Clonard. The fact that the bishops of Clonard/Meath could grant a confirmation for these lands could be interpreted that these lands were part of the diocese of Meath, as any territory held by de Lacy could be viewed as part of the diocese of Meath. Some of the Clonard diocese was transferred to the diocese of Clonmacnoise.

Eugenius attended a synod at Clonfert to further reduce the hold the erenachs had over the church and its property. The Archbishop of Dublin, Lorcán Ua Tuathail, returned from the Third Lateran Council in 1179 and convoked the synod of Clonfert to deal with abuses in the church in Ireland. 

In 1191 Eugenius appointed Ralph le Petit as the archdeacon of Meath. Ralph le Petit may have been a relation of William le Petit who held Mullingar and Rathkenny.

Llanthony Priory, Wales

Bishop Simon Rochfort

A synod was held in Dublin in 1192 and at this synod Simon Rochfort was promoted to the bishopric of Meath. Simon Rochfort was the first Englishman to become bishop of Meath, this was part of a process where Englishmen were taking over positions in the church following the Anglo-Norman invasion. Simon Rochfort took the title bishop of Clonard when he succeeded Bishop Eugenius and used that title for the first ten years of his rule, although he occasionally used the title bishop of Meath. It is probable that he resided in Clonard for a period.

In confirmation of grants to St. Mary’s Abbey, Dublin, and in document in the register of St. Thomas’s Abbey, Dublin, he signed himself as bishop of Clonard. The earliest surviving reference to a bishop of Meath in papal document dates from 1202. 

About 1191 Dublin diocese took over some lands previously ruled by the bishops of Clonard and Duleek. Shortly afterwards Clonard’s boundaries with the dioceses of Clogher and Ardagh were adjusted and so the borders of the diocese of Meath were becoming fixed.  

Clonard was a border town and was subject to raids by the Irish. In 1200 the Ua Ciardha of Carbury burnt the town in order to injure the foreigners that were in it. The English of Clonard fled before the attack of the Irish.

In 1201 when the archbishop of Armagh died a meeting of clergy was called at Drogheda to decide a successor. Only a few clergy met and Bishop Rochfort was one of two bishops to attend. Bishop Rochfort was one of three Englishmen put forward as candidates for succession to Armagh. However another assembly was held in Armagh and Bishop Rochfort refused to travel there pleading that he feared the Irish. He seems to have initially opposed the election of Echdonn Mac Gilla Uidir as archbishop but had accepted it by 1205 as he attended a council held by the archbishop at Mullingar.

In 1202 when the papal legate was in Ireland Bishop Rochfort obtained permission to transfer his cathedral from Clonard to the place then known as Newtown by Trim. The bishop was seeking the protection of the secure castle at Trim but could also plead that St. Patrick founded a church and diocese at Trim.

The prior of St. John’s monastery at Clonard did not approve of the transfer of the chapter to Newtown Trim and wrote emphasising the claim that his monastery held the chapter of the diocese.  Topul was prior of Clonard 1192-1202.

Simon Rochfort brought his church to a site outside the town so he would not be subject to the civil authorities in Trim. Another reason may be that the diocese might then have taken its name for the town of Trim and  Rochfort wanted the diocese to take the name Meath. 

In 1206 Simon de Rochfort founded the Abbey of Newtown near Trim for the Regular Canons of St. Augustine. No separate cathedral was erected and the church of the canons regular served as the cathedral. The  new monastery was dedicated to S.S. Peter and Paul. It is probable that some if not all of the Anglo-Norman canons from St. John’s in Clonard were transferred to Newtown at the time.  

Simon Rochfort united the two monasteries at Clonard., St. Peter’s and St. John’s. In 1205 Bishop Rochfort was one of the judges appointed by Innocent III with regard to  possession of the body of Hugh de Lacy between the monks of Bective in Meath and the canons of St Thomas’s, Dublin. The decision was made in favour of the abbey of St. Thomas. In 1211 Bishop Rochfort along with Master Gerald de Cusack, William Petit, steward of Meath, and Ralph Petit, archdeacon of Meath, served as an arbitrator in the matter of the division of the Irish lands of the two monasteries of Llanthony.

Bishop Rochfort attended the fourth Lateran council in Rome in 1215 and on his return to Ireland decided to implement some of the reforms in his diocese. He held a diocesan synod at Newtown in 1216  and established rural deaneries at the previous episcopal sees in Meath : Trim, Kells, Slane, Skryne and Dunshaughlin. A corporate seal of the clergy of Meath showed five people who perhaps represent the five former sees which were amalgamated to created the diocese of Meath. The documents omitted Clonard, Ratoath and Duleek as sites of bishops in previous times. An ordnance of the Synod of Kells was recited at the diocesan synod stating that when bishops of smaller diocese died they would be absorbed into the larger diocese. This may have be Rochfort justifying the absorption of Kells into the greater Meath diocese which had taken place about 1211.

De Rochfort died in 1224 and was buried at Newtown. His effigy is preserved in the medieval cathedral. He was said to have been an excellent bishop.

Corporate Seal of the Clergy of Meath – Courtesy of Ken Pratt

Newtown Cathdral, Trim with niche which contains effigy of Simon Rochfort.

Murchad Ua Máel Sechlainn

Meath was a kingdom which was divided and re-divided during the twelfth century.  Murchad Ua Máel Sechlainn was the primary resident claimant and held major parts of the territory in the first half of the century. He managed to remain king for forty-seven years but was displaced on five occasions by other claimants.

Murchad  came to power in 1106 when his brother, Donnachadh was killed at Lough Owel. Murchad married Mór Ua Briain, daughter of Muichertach Ua Briain, king of Munster and claimant to the high kingship of Ireland. One of their daughter’s marriedTigernán Ua Ruairc, king of Bréifneand the other marriedTairdelbach Ua Conchobair, king of Connacht, who became one of the major claimants to the high kingship.

In 1115 Tairdelbach Ua Conchobair divided Meath between Murchadh and his brother Maelechlainn. Murchadh murdered his brother and took over as king of all Meath.

As a result of the conflicts with neighbouring powers Clonard abbey was twice plundered by the men of Teffia and Carbery in 1131. Murchad retaliated by killing the men of Teffia.  In 1134 Concobair,  king of Munster, spoiled Meath and carried off the riches of the province which had been stored in the church at Clonard. In 1135 the monastery was again destroyed by fire and Fiachra the most holy and reverend leader then in the province of Mide died. In 1136 the inhabitants of Bréifne plundered and sacked Clonard and behaved in such a shameless manner as to strip Ua Dailigh, then chief poet of Ireland to his skin and leave him in that situation and amongst other outrages they sacrilegiously took from the vestry of the abbey, a sword belonging to St. Finian, the founder.

By the late 1130s Murchad was powerful enough to raid the territory of Bréifne and Uriel. In 1141 Murchad was recognised as the king of Mide and Conmaice by the high-king but a few years later the high-king was attempting to replace Murchad with his own son.

Murchad assisted St. Malachy of Armagh in introducing more regular monastic orders into Ireland and Meath. Murchad endowed  two monasteries at Clonard. Murchad  also seems to have founded monasteries at Trim, Durrow, Kells  and Duleek. Murchad founded the abbey of regular canons at Clonard. Dedicated to St. Peter this monastery was located at Mulpheder, the hill of Peter. He favoured reform and founded the Cistercian monastery at Bective. Muchad had residences at Durrow and Clonard.

In 1150 the kingdom was once more divided between Tairdelbach Ua Conchobair, Tigernán Ua Ruairc and Ua Cerbaill of Uriel with Murchad banished. This arrangement did not last and in 1152 the kings of Connacht, Ulster and Leinster met at Rathkenny in Meath and divided the province between Murchad and his son, Maeleachalinn. Clonard was the point of division.

Ua Ruairc’s kingdom was raided at this time by Diarmaid Mac Murchada and Ua Ruairc was deposed and the chieftainship given to his son. There arose then a war between the Ui Briuin and the men of Meath.

In 1153 Murchad died at Durrow. Maeleachalinn succeed his father but died of poisoning in 1155. In 1155 Gillagott Ua Ciardha was slain at Clonard, by Donnchadh Ua Máel Sechlainn, King of Meath; and Donnchadh was then deposed by the Meathmen themselves, in revenge of the dishonouring of Finian, and they set up Diarmaid, son of Domhnall, in his place.

Diarmaid was recalled only to be deposed again amidst much confusion. Mac Murchada of Leinster and Ua Ruairc of Bréifne became the principal rivals for supremacy over Mide. In 1163 a claimant to the western Mide emerged. In 1169 Mide was divided by Ua Ruairc and the high king, Ua Conchobair.


Derbfhorgaill was the daughter of Murchad Ua Máel Sechlainn, king of Meath.  Derbfhorgaill was born in 1108, most likely at Durrow, as this was the residence where her father died in 1153 and where her brother Máel Sechlainn was poisoned in 1155. The family also had a house at Clonard.

Her father supported Tigernán Ua Ruairc in his successful campaign to become king of Bréifne. Derbfhorgaill married Tigernán but this was probably a dynastic marriage rather than necessarily a love match. They had at least one son – named Máel-Sechlainn. In 1130 Ua Ruairc supported her father and had him restored to his kingship of Meath but later in the decade he defected to support his brother-in-law, Tairdelbach Ua Conchobair, in the contest for the high kingship of Ireland. Diarmait Mac Murchada was initially an ally who benefited from the division of Mide as did Ua Ruairc. Derbfhorgaill found herself torn between loyalty to her husband and loyalty to her family.

In 1152 Mac Murchada humiliated Ua Ruaric by invading Bréifne and making off with Derbfhorgaill.  The Annals of the Four Masters describe the event as follows: ‘On this occasion, Derbfhorgaill, daughter of Murchad Ua Máel Sechlainn and wife of Tigernán Ua Ruairc was brought away by the king Leinster [Diarmait Mac Murchada], with her cattle and her furniture, and he took her according to the advice of her brother Maelseaclainn.’ No mention of elopement or abduction! He was 42 and she was 44, so they were not the typical star-crossed lovers. Maelseaclainn was opposing Ua Ruairc’s claim to Meath. According to Geoffrey Keating there had been an illicit attachment between Diarmait and Derbfhorgaill for many years previously but this was something that Keating added in, in hindsight.

Derbfhorgaill was taken back a year later by the High King Tairdelbach Ua Conchobair. An army was led by Ua Conchobair to meet Mac Murchada, to Doire Gabhlain, and he took away the daughter of Ua Máel Sechlainn and her cattle from him, so that she was in the protection of the men of Meath. Mac Murchada was forced to pay 100 ounces of gold in compensation to Ua Ruairc. Dynastic politics were the reason for the abduction rather than love. Derbfhorgaill returned to her husband and seems to have been restored to her position.

She became a benefactress of the church. In 1157 there was a great gathering of nobles and clergy at Mellifont for the consecration of the first Cistercian monastery in Ireland. Gathered to celebrate the great day were MacLoclainn, the high king, Donnachad Ua Carroll, king of Airgialla, Tigernán Ua Ruairc of Breffni, the archbishop of Armagh and primate of all Ireland, and seventeen other bishops. Derbfhorgaill presented 60 ounces of gold, a gold chalice for the altar of Mary and nine cloths for the other altars of the church. In 1167 Derbfhorgaill repaired the Church of the Nunnery of Clonmacnoise. The remains of this church are one of the finest existing examples of Irish Romanesque architecture.

Fourteen years after the abduction or elopement or carrying away in 1166 Ruadri Ua Conchobair the high king joined forces with Ua Ruairc and attacked and captured Ferns. Mac Murchada was banished into exile. Mac Murchada sought the support of Henry II, king of England and offered fealty.  Mac Murchada recruited an army in Wales and returned to Ireland and regained his kingdom. Richard le Clare, better known as Strongbow, landed in August 1170 with a considerable army and captured the walled city of Waterford. Having married Mac Murchada’s daughter, Strongbow turned his attention to the strategic political and trade centre of Dublin. Mac Murchada followed up the victory at Dublin by taking his forces into Meath, which he had contested in previous years with Ua Ruairc. Mac Murchada plundered Meath including the monasteries of Clonard, Teltown, Dowth, Dulane, Kilskyre, Castlekiernan, Kells and Slane. However St. Finian got his own back and Diarmait was dead within the year.

In 1171 Diarmait Mac Murchada  “died before the end of the year of an insufferable and unknown disease;  for he became putrid while living, through the miracle of God, Colum-cille and Finian, and the other saints of Ireland, whose churches he had profaned and burned sometime before.”

Derbfhorgaill entered the religious house at Mellifont in 1186 and died there on 25 January 1193 aged 85 years.

Nun’s Church, Clonmacnoise

Agnetha Ni Máel Sechlainn  – The Great Nun

Agnes or Agnetha Ni Máel Sechlainn was known asAn Cailleach Mór or the great nun. She was the abbess of St. Mary’s Clonard, the head house in Ireland of the Augustinian canonesses of the congregation of Arrouaise.

Daughter of Muirchertach Ua  Máel Sechlainn and Dubchobliag Mac Murchada, daughter of the king of Leinster. Her father was the brother of Murchad Ua  Máel Sechlainn, who was king of Meath for most of the early twelfth century. Her father had ruled for a brief time before Murchad had deposed him. Murchad Ua Máel Sechlainn founded the Arrouaisian nunnery of Clonard about 1144. This monastery was the first of the Arrouaisian cannnonesses and was the chief house in Ireland.

The new house was dedicated to St. Mary. Agnetha was made the abbess. She was known as the Great Abbess. Her convent was built in the townland of Kilnagallaigh (the church of the nuns). They also held the townland of Monagalliach (the bog of the nuns.) Agnetha founded at least thirteen daughter houses. St. Mary’s abbey in Dublin was a daughter house of this abbey. Abbey Street in Dublin and the abbey Theatre are named after this monastery. Another one  of the churches was that of St. Mary’s at Clonmacnoise, the nun’s church which was re-edified by Dervogilla.

Agnetha defended the rights of the abbey’s property. When Adam de Feypo was granted Skryne, she insisted that the abbey’s lands at Baile na Cailleach, later anglicised to Collierstown be protected as abbey property. Abbess Agnetha did not wish to be taken over by the new Anglo-Norman bishop of Meath, Simon de Rochfort and she appealed to Pope Celestine to be taken under his protection together with the thirteen daughter houses of the order. The Papal protection was confirmed for the convent in February 1196. The great Abbess died in 1196 at a great age.

Hugh de Lacy

If you wish to know what Hugh’s complexion and features were like, he was dark, with dark sunken eyes and flattened nostrils. His face was grossly disfigured down the right side as far as his chin by a burn, the result of an accident. His neck was short, his body hairy and sinewy. If you further enquire as to his height, he was a short man; if you want a description of his build, he was misshapen, and as to his character, resolute and reliable, restrained from excess by French sobriety. He paid much attention to his own private affairs, and was most careful in the administration of the office entrusted to him and his conduct of public affairs. Although extremely well versed in the business of war, he was not a success as a general, for he often suffered heavy losses on his expeditions. After the death of his wife he was a womanizer and enslaved by lust, not just for one woman, but for many. He was avaricious and greedy for gold, and more ambitious for his own advancement and pre-eminence than was proper.’ Expugnatio, p. 193    

‘If you wish to know what Hugh’s complexion

Hugh de Lacy

Hugh de Lacy came to Ireland in 1171 with Henry II. He was granted the kingdom of Meath as Murchad Ua Máel Sechlainn had held it.

De Lacy retained the best lands and the most desirable locations as seignorial manors including Trim, Kells, Duleek, Clonard, Killare and Fore whilst he granted other lands to his knights. De Lacy’s manors and seigniorial areas were anchoring points for his power. A grant did not necessarily mean the lands had to be confiscated from their existing owners; it could simply mean the imposition of a new overlord on the existing landholding.

De Lacy erected a castle at Clonard according to Giraldus. The  castle may have been built on church lands which may have been  an attempt by de Lacy to lay claim to lands which title was not clear.

Castles were constructed by de Lacy to subdue and retain territory. De Lacy hemmed in the Irish with castles and forced them to obey his laws. De Lacy was a master builder of timber and earthwork castles, erecting them not only in Meath but also in Leinster. Castles had proved essential in the Norman conquest of England. Castles also provided a fortified, defensible home for members of the feudal nobility and a centre from which an estate could be administered. De Lacy and his nobles erected earthwork castles to protect their settlements and newly conquered lands.

When de Lacy was granted the kingdom of Mide in 1172 he began a whirlwind programme of castle-building to create a network of powerbases. De Lacy retained much of the territory under his own control and he erected mottes or earthwork castles at his seigniorial manors of Trim, Ratoath and Dunshaughlin, Kells, Clonard, Fore, Duleek and Drogheda. De Lacy’s castles at Trim and Duleek were destroyed in 1174 by an Irish raid. When the castle at Kells was in the process of erection in 1176 it had to be abandoned in the face of an Irish attack, but was rebuilt two years later. A ringwork castle, a wooden defensive fortification, encircled by a trench and enclosed within a wooden stockade, was erected by de Lacy at Trim in 1172.

A motte consisted of a raised mound of earth with flattened summit, surmounted by a wooden tower surrounded by a ditch and defended by a wooden palisade. The height of a motte varies, with the ramparts often revetted with stone, timber or turf to prevent the earth slumping. Mottes and baileys varied greatly in size and shape. Many mottes were low in height with broad summits. The timber castles dominated the surrounding countryside and provided an advantage to the defender; providing a platform from which to observe or throw missiles. Some mottes had attached enclosures, a bailey, at their base.  Baileys provided space for kitchens and halls on areas of better land and in border areas, space for barracks for a garrison.

A ringwork castle consisted of a circular ditched and embanked enclosure with a rampart, which make them difficult to identify due to their similarity to ringforts. These earthwork enclosures were topped with a timber palisade but did not have a motte. There was a possible ringwork castle at Clonard excavated by Sweetman but artefacts proved to be from later than the twelfth century.

Mottes could be erected quickly using unskilled labour. It would take fifty people forty working days to erect a small motte and take them 120 days to build a large motte. The earthwork of the bailey would require an equivalent amount of work and time. The construction of the castle is likely to have been performed partly, if not wholly, by coerced local labour under Anglo-Norman direction. Irish workers had no great tradition of building in stone so they would have had the skills to construct the wooden and earthen buildings required.

Mottes were often constructed by using the material dug from the enclosing fosse and piling it up on the perimeter of the intended mound. While unskilled labour was required for the erection of the motte the work needed to be supervised by a military engineer. The military value of the mottes depended on the steepness of their banks and angles of up to 40° would have been difficult to maintain on unconsolidated material.

The Pipe Roll of 1211-2 record a cost of £19 4s 10½d for the construction of a motte castle at Clones in Co. Monaghan with £15 4s 7d on supplies and £21 11s 0d on carriage of men and materials to Clones. 

Land and water routes influenced the choice of castle sites by de Lacy. Overland routes such as the Slíghe Mór may have influenced the location of a motte at Clonard. Clonard was on the main east-west route, the Slíghe Mór, and there may have also been a north-south route passing close to Clonard. Control of this route from the south to Trim and the route to further expansion to the west could have been key factors in locating the motte here. Monasteries were often already the centre of route ways and this may have influenced the decision to locate castles at these sites.

Use of ecclesiastical centres was strategic but also symbolic.Clonard, Trim, Kells, Duleek and Durrow were sites chosen by de Lacy where there had been pre-existing ecclesiastical settlements. These ecclesiastical sites were the main focal points in an area of scattered settlement and may have been the nuclei of associated secular settlements. Diocesan centres such as Clonard and Kells were the focus of considerable wealth, patronage and political power as was Clonmacnoise. Control of ecclesiastical centres linked the new lords with the church establishment. A number of monasteries had defensive banks which would have offered protection.

In 1174 the Irish attacked and burned the ringwork castle in Trim. The settlers in Meath responded to the Irish attack by rebuilding their castles, raiding into Connacht and hanging the Irish leaders. Trim castle was re-built this time in stone. Magnus Ua Máel Sechlainn, claimant to the kingship of Mide, was captured and hanged at Trim in 1175. The Anglo-Normans raided Mide from the Shannon to the sea with the monasteries of Clonard and Durrow being plundered.

In 1184 de Lacy erected a motte at Killare, under the hill of Uisneach, to guard the route from Durrow to Ardagh. Killare would seem to have been de Lacy’s principal stronghold in west Mide. The castles at Delvin and Clonard may also have been part of this western expansion.

This high motte was erected east of the Clonard river, surrounded by the usual Norman fortifications and flanked by the usual bailey. Its perpendicular height is 50 feet and its lower circumference measures 432 feet, the top which is flat is crowned by an impressive stately tree.

The earliest extant records relating to land usage from 1211/12 indicates that there was considerable cultivation of grain crops in Meath. Eight-ox plough teams operated on the manors of Clonard, Kilmore, Ardmulchan and Nobber. Cattle, sheep and pigs were also important in manorial economies.

Between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries new towns were developed throughout Europe with de Lacy being at the forefront of urban development in Ireland. Irish urban development reflected a number of the characteristics of the urban expansion taking place on the continent.

Clonard and Fore had difficulty surviving as settlements due to their proximity to Irish controlled areas. Clonard was a significant monastic settlement being described as a town before the arrival of the Anglo-Normans but it failed to develop as an urban settlement.

The existing Irish church traditions were respected by the de Lacy. The cult of St. Finian continued at Clonard with a shrine dedicated to St. Finian being erected in the new church. De Lacy allowed pilgrimages to continue at Clonard. In 1185 Maelisa Ua Dalaigh, chief poet of Erinn and Alba, and ruler of Corca-Raidhe, died at Clonard on pilgrimage. The relics of Cianan and Finian were protected by de Lacy. This respect was tinged with fear of what might happen if the new arrivals committed sacrilege. The Irish saints and their traditions were respected. De Lacy accepted the existing Irish bishops and the existing Irish diocesan arrangements. The Irish bishops including Thaddeus of Kells and Ethru Ua Miadhachain of Clonard did fealty to Henry in 1172, accepting the coming of the new order.

De Lacy founded the abbey of St. John’s at Clonard between 1183 and his death in 1186.  And it was probably colonized by monks from St. Thomas’s in Dublin.  De Lacy became the patron of existing monasteries in Mide or re-founded them.  Prior to the arrival of the Anglo-Normans there were Augustinian communities for both sexes in Kells, Duleek, Clonard, Durrow, Trim and Navan. A number of these monasteries suffered damage during the campaigns of the Irish and the Anglo-Normans in the 1170s. All the existing monasteries had their grants and possessions confirmed to them or were re-founded and it would appear as if they continued to function without major change. It was suggested that Kells and Clonard were re-founded after 1183 by de Lacy to allow English monks take over from the native incumbents.