The Church of Inion Bhaoith

INTRODUCTION

I had the immense pleasure of visiting the ancient parish church of Killinaboy not once but twice this week. On the first occasion I was part of a group of local tourism providers which was led by the inimitable Galway archaeologist/guide Christy Cunniffe. On the second occasion I myself was guiding an A.T.G.I. (Approved Tour Guides of Ireland) group. Guide guiding guides.

The visits were a pleasure for two reasons: firstly, although Killinaboy is my adopted home place, I rarely frequent the church in my capacity as tour guide. The second reason is that the site visits impressed upon me the wealth of heritage housed there – ancient church, Romanesque art, round tower remnants, double-armed cross, sheela-na-gig, bullauns (basin stones) re-invented as grave markers…as well as a rich mix of medieval vaults, headstones, grave slabs, tombs and wall plaques.

The site is immaculately maintained by the enthusiastic Killinaboy History and Heritage Group. The church had been choked with ivy. Thanks to herculean work by the local group, the ivy has been removed and the splendour of the stone fabric is visible again. The same group is also responsible for the excellent information display board on the history of the parish which is located at the entrance to the site.

The group has also been active in print having published Killinaboy & Coad Graveyards – a remarkable alphabetical inventory of the graves at the Killinaboy site and the neighbouring historic church site of Coad.

The Killinaboy site is dedicated to Inion Bhaoith an obscure saintess from the Early Medieval period (400-110 A.D.) in Ireland.
According to tradition she founded a monastic community on site in the 7th century A.D. The oldest part of the extant church is said to date from the 11th century.  The church was repaired for Protestant worship in the 1720s.

The site is located on elevated ground in close proximity to the river Fergus. The eminent local historian Michael Mc Mahon maintains the Early Medieval monastery would have had a footprint of up to 800 acres. This landscape context of the monastery has been diminished as the busy regional road R476 passes within metres of the church.

I would like to share just five of the many cultural highlights from the church of St Inion Bhaoith.

The O’Hehir wall plaque 1711.

1. THE O’HEHIR WALL PLAQUE

North-west part of interior.

Inscription –  Loghlen Reach O’Hehir’s tomb finished by his son Andrew  O’Hehir ER in VV 1711.

One of the many funerary monuments dedicated to the Catholic gentry in the church. The O’Hehir vault is located below the plaque.

Thanks to Oonagh O’Dwyer for identifying the plant growing on the plaque. It is navelwort or wall pennywort Umbelicus rupestris . Its rounded leaves have a navel-like dimple in the centre.

Navelwort is highly appetizing and full of goodness! The plant is also used as a homeopathic remedy.
It blooms in May and the spiked flowers are a striking accent on the landscape. Navelwort grows on rocks, walls and hedge banks.

The plaque and the plant make for a neat juxtaposition of cultural and natural heritage.

Reference:
Killinaboy & Coad Graveyards. Killinaboy History and Heritage Group.

Buíochas le Oonagh Dwyer (Thanks to Oonagh). Oonagh is based in Lahinch and leads highly acclaimed wild food walks in the region www.wildkitchen.ie

Detail from O’Flanagan wall plaque 1644. Image by Tony Kirby.

2. O’FLANAGAN   WALL PLAQUE

North-east part of interior.

Inscription – I H S INRI 1644 under these carved marble stones lieth Connor O’Flanagan’s body and bones which monument was made by Anabel his wife
Orate Pro Eislaus Deo
.

The impressive funerary monument (plaque and burial plot) includes a primitive crucifixion scene in relief.

Connor O’Flanagan was one of the leaders of the 1641 Catholic insurrection – a rebellion by the Irish Catholic gentry and clergy against the English administration in Ireland. The Confederation was subsequently joined by English royalists.
However, it was routed by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army in the 1849-53 war. The land in Ireland was appropriated to Cromwellian adventurers and soldiers after the Cromwellian war.

References:
The Parish of Corofin A Historical Profile . Michael Mc Mahon. Michael Mc Mahon 2013.
Killinaboy & Coad Graveyards. Killinaboy History and Heritage Group.

Detail from the Blood grave slab 1760. Image by Tony Kirby.

3. THE BLOOD GRAVE SLAB

Eastern half of interior in a central position.

Inscription – Here lies the body of Mr Matthew Blood the elder who died the 29th day of September 1760 in the 85th year of his age.

The slab also features a carving of the god of the sea, Neptune, with a three pronged spear. The Bloods were English settlers who acquired lands in the parish at the end of the 1500s.
Matthew was probably the grandson of Neptune Blood who was vicar-general of the diocese of Kilfenora in the late 1600s.

Neptune was adamant that the insurgents burned his fortified dwelling and displaced him during the 1641 rebellion. The dwelling in question is An Cabhail Mór whose ruins stand today on the edge of the river Fergus a short distance from the church. The church and the Blood residence enjoyed inter visibility.

The proximity of the O Flanagan plot and the Blood slab in the church are amusing given the fact that the two families were on opposite sides during the 1641 conflict. Enemies in life, close in death!

The Bloods were Protestant ascendancy landlords. Matthew’s burial here in the 1760 is explained by the fact that the church was transformed from Catholic to Protestant in the 1720s.

The last straw for the Bloods in the parish was probably the savage murder of William Blood in 1831 by a secret society in County Clare called the Terry Alts. The Terry Alts was one of many such societies in Ireland in the period 1760s-1830s which violently opposed the harsh dominion of the tiny landowning ascendancy.

References:
The Parish of Corofin A Historical Profile . Michael Mc Mahon. Michael Mc Mahon 2013.
Killinaboy & Coad Graveyards. The Killinaboy History and Heritage Group.

Kilnaboy Church

Killinaboy Church; Western gable with double armed cross.

4. THE DOUBLE-ARM CROSS

On western gable of church facing the R476 road.

Double-arm crosses date to the start of 2nd millennium A.D. and are found at ecclesiastical sites across medieval Europe. The crosses were a device used by the church to tell pilgrims that the site contained a relic of the true cross of Christ. Pilgrimage was an important source of revenue to the church and the cross was designed to attract the pilgrims.

The cross at Killinaboy is off-centre on the western gable of the church. Archaeologists Peter Harbison and Christy Cunniffe suspect that the cross was originally set over the trabeate doorway of a smaller church on site and that it went off-centre with the church re-build.

Art and architectural historian Rachel Moss (T.C.D.) knows of only one other such cross which survives in Ireland. It is made of metal and was located at Kilkenny West, County Westmeath. The cross is now on display in the National Museum of Ireland.

Reference:
The Double-Arm Cross on the Church Gable at Killinaboy. Peter Harbison. North Munster Antiquarian Society Journal (volume 18, 1976).

Buíochas le Rachel Moss. (Thanks to Rachel).

5. THE ROUND TOWER

About ten metres north of north wall of church.

Round towers were built at ecclesiastical sites in Ireland from the 900s to the 1200s. Scholar George Cunningham maintains that 90 examples survive – 65 intact and 25 degraded. Theory and controversy continue to rage regarding the functions of the towers. A round tower is known in Gaelic as cloigteach suggesting that the towers were used in part as belfries. Other plausible uses according to Cunningham are pilgrim landmark, refuge at times of strife and desire by the religious community and its royal benefactors for prestige.

The intact towers extend to about 30 metres in height. The Killinaboy tower is only 4 metres high. According to local tradition the notorious Cromwellians severely damaged the structure with their canon. No historical evidence has emerged yet to support this allegation.

There is evidence of only two other round towers at monastic sites in the Burren region – the intact tower of Kilmacduagh in south-east Galway and the one at Noughaval (no longer extant) a few miles north-west of Killinaboy.

References:
Irish Round Towers. Roger Stalley. The Irish Treasure Series 2000.
Round Towers and Tall Tales. George Cunningham. Irish Times article June 2014.

6. COFFIN STAND

A few metres west of the west gable of the church.

A modern boundary wall has been built over the stand. The previous wall was located nearer the modern road R476. A stile would have allowed access to the site. The pall bearers would have rested the coffin on the stand as they entered the site through the stile. I have read several accounts of the Killinaboy site but have not noted thus far any reference to the stand.

The stand is a humble but precious part of our funerary story.

Anne Ridge discusses the use of coffin rests in her book Death Customs in Rural Ireland Traditional Funerary Rites in the Irish Midlands published by Arlen House (2009).

Archaeologist and field monument advisor at Galway County Council, Christy Cunniffe, is familiar with several coffin stands spread across counties Galway, Mayo, Offaly and Tipperary.

Fragment of Romanesque stone. Image by Tony Kirby

  7. CARVED STONE

Cornerstone of south doorway (internal).

This is in fact a fragment of a carved stone. It features a Romanesque carving of a mythical animal. The piece is located within the church as a cornerstone of the south doorway.

The Romanesque architectural style prevailed in Europe during the period 900-1200 A.D. The style became widespread in Ireland in the 1100s – a period which coincided with ecclesiastical reform and the setting up of the Irish church along European diocesan lines. The Romanesque was characterised by round arches, vaulting and decorative sculptures.

The nearby Temple Cronan in Termon, Carran features a fine array of sculptures – human and animalistic.
The carved stone at Killinaboy would have enjoyed a more prominent position in the building in the past. The location of the other part of the stone is not known.

Sheela Na Gig, Kilnaboy

Doorway with Sheela-Na-Gig.

8. SHEELA-NA-GIG

Above south doorway of church.

A sexual carving known as a sheela-na-gig is located over the south doorway of the church. There is no consensus regarding the origins of the term sheela-na-gig.

The carvings are usually distinguished by an unflattering portrayal of a woman with prominent genitalia. They occur in Ireland on buildings which date from the 1200s to the 1600s. The carvings may serve to warn against the sin of lust when found at church sites. On the other hand, they may functions as talismans or protective icons when found on secular buildings such as tower houses or town walls.

However, it is fair to say the functions of the carvings remain hotly disputed. Other possible functions include pagan god survival and fertility figure.

The icon at Killinaboy is made of limestone and its features are becoming progressively vaguer due to dissolution by rainwater.

Ireland has the greatest number of surviving sheela-na-gig carvings. McMahon and Roberts, authors of The Sheela-na-gigs of Ireland and Britain , cite 101 examples island-wide.

There are 5 sheela-na-gigs recorded in County Clare – 2 in the Burren and 3 in the south east of the county.
The second carving in the Burren is located at Ballyportry castle just outside Corofin. There are also carvings at Bunratty castle and Clenagh castle (west of Sixmilebridge). Some reader may help me identify precisely where the fifth County Clare example is!

© Text by Tony Kirby / Images by Carsten Krieger

2 thoughts on “The Church of Inion Bhaoith

  1. Carsten. Wonderful piece of work,thank you.Be home in July,saving these locations,to visit & hopefully photograph.Keep well.Cheers John.

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  2. Thanks for the insights. This site is easily discounted by callous passersby, like myself, because of the tight crowding of the roads. Interesting to learn that one of the boundary walls was actually moved to accommodate the roads’ present locations. Perhaps the most interesting facet of your article, to me, regards the oscillation of ownership between the conquerors and the aboriginal residents. I drove past this church site dozens of times last spring, and got out and looked around maybe twice. But never noticed most of the features you have highlighted here. So thanks again. Also, very glad to hear of the existence of an association of tour guides. Am sure those events are fertile exchanges; would dearly love to tag along on a few. The leading professional organization for such, back when I was starting out in the bidness, was called Association of Interpretive Naturalists. One bright light who produced a regional newsletter for AIN noted that practitioners were sometimes wrongly called interpretators, and therefore a shortened nickname ought to be “taters”. A bit of highly dated tater humor for our Irish counterparts…

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