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Clonfert Cathedral

Located within one mile of one another, it was inevitable that Brackloon Castle in its early life was inextricably linked with the Church and town at Clonfert. Not only did the O Maddens and other local Gaelic ruling families provide patrons and clerics to the Church, but as it grew locally, the Church became a significant landowner in the region. Like several other families, the Maddens at Brackloon paid a nominal rent to the Bishop for part of their lands.

Little physical evidence remains today of the town or many of its most prominent buildings, with the exception of the Cathedral, the ruins of the Bishop’s house and a few grass-covered stones of the abbey wall. Only the ancient Cathedral of St. Brendan of Clonfert, survives as a living building, its solitary setting and small size, miniscule by European standards, belying its significance as an international heritage site.

St. Brendan is credited with founding a monastery here around 560 AD on a narrow fertile strip of land on the edge of a vast expanse of bog and seasonally-flooding meadow in close proximity to the Shannon. On his death around twenty years later the saint’s body was brought back to Clonfert for burial. His foundation grew with his fame and around him developed various legends, giving rise to the name St. Brendan the Navigator. Tales repeated in medieval manuscripts of his supposed seven year sea voyage to the Isle of the Blessed in a small hide-covered boat have been interpreted by some as his having been the first European to have discovered the New World centuries before Columbus.

The monastic settlement became an important ecclesiastical centre and pilgrimage site, with many of its abbots significant individuals in the political and Church life of the region. One abbot was proclaimed High King of Ireland in 838 at Clonfert. Its importance was further confirmed when the diocese of Clonfert was formed in 1111 with the settlement becoming the seat of the bishop.

As it grew, Clonfert became the subject of recurring raids from hostile neighbouring Gaelic families, Viking pillagers and the early Anglo-Normans. The earliest church on-site was in all likelihood of timber construction but we know that a stone church was built prior to 1045 as its was burned that year. It is possible that this stone church may have been the earliest form of the current cathedral church, given that the nave or main body of the cathedral is believed to date from the 900s or 1000s.

The current cathedral was burned and rebuilt on various occasions in its thousand year life. It was burned in 1164 and rebuilt three years later under the O Kelly King of Uí Maine. It was burned again in 1179, in the same year as an important synod was being held there and it is believed possible that the carved sandstone Hiberno-Romanesque doorway and its human heads for which the building is celebrated may date from this period.

To the simple nave was added a chancel at some stage in the early 1200s, its plain east window regarded as the high point of the Irish Transitional style and two transepts (or side chapels). In the 1400s, along with a tower, transept arches, vestry and other works, a new arch was added between nave and chancel studded with decorative carvings, including a mermaid polished from the touch of generations of visitors. Although viewed now as bare dark limestone in the poor natural light of the chancel, the arch and its carvings, like much of the interior, would in all likelihood have been painted originally in bright colours.

Given its long history, Clonfert was the site of significant human burial and its name may derive from the Irish 'Cluain Fearta' or 'meadow of the grave'. Burials are known to have occurred not only in a wider area than the modern graveyard surrounding the cathedral, but also in the grounds of the nearby abbey and nunnery. Excavations show that human bones lay not far beneath the floor of the cathedral nave and tower structure, suggesting that the cathedral was also used for human burial over a long period. 

It is difficult to imagine the cathedral in its rural tranquility having once stood at the heart of a bustling town, with its town square and walls. Behind the cathedral stood the bishop’s fortified house, to its east a wealthy Augustinian Abbey and to its south a nunnery.  Although the target of much violence down the years contributing to its decline, Clonfert still had sufficient potential in 1579 for Queen Elizabeth to order it be considered as the site for what would later become Trinity College in Dublin.

Although the Protestant Church gained control of the site from the late 1500s, the Reformation was slow to take hold initially. The early Protestant Church came under considerable pressure locally at various times from the late 1500s to the late 1600s from a local Catholic ruling class still powerful and antagonistic. However, in 1691 the defeat of the supporters of the Catholic King James II not more than fifteen miles away at Aughrim paved the way for the new Protestant minority's control over the country.

By the early 1800s only what were described as a few 'mere cabins' lay around the cathedral and Bishop's house. Only the chancel was used for divine service, the nave having fallen into disrepair and not returned to use until about the 1830s. Despite various works, the building was still in a poor state of repair by the 1880s, damp, with rotting timbers, unglazed windows, leaking roof and the graveyard lost to nettles and weeds. Further refurbishment was undertaken at the end of that century and early 1900s but it was not until 1986 that the nave and chancel were re-roofed.

Today the cathedral is only used on rare occasions for divine service. Although a monument of some international architectural note, its unique doorway of soft sandstone is severely weathered and considered endangered. The building’s continuing survival and accessibility is due principally to the care of its small local congregation.

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