by Ailbhe MacShamhráin with Nora White and Aidan Breen.
General director of the project Kim R. McCone, Scoil an Léinn Cheiltigh, Ollscoil Náisiúnta na hÉireann, Magh Nuadat.
Prepared for the web by Andrew McCarthy

Funded by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Preparation for the web (2008–09) facilitated by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Compiled October 2003 to January 2007, revised and expanded with fuller bibliography, February 2007 to August 2008.


Inspired by the monumental Monasticon Hibernicum of eighteenth-century antiquarian and clergyman Mervyn Archdall (to whose scholarship it pays tribute), the project is rather more than a revised version of Archdall’s opus. While Archdall’s encyclopedia of pre-Reformation monasteries and abbies (forty years in the making, although much delayed by the death of his patron, the bishop of Ossory; see Lunney 2009, forthcoming) covered some five-hundred and fifty sites in eight-hundred pages, this database of pre-twelfth century ecclesiastical settlement (compiled in four years) is much wider in scope, recording ten times the number of sites. Indeed, in the twenty-first century we have the benefit of many published sources, a far greater knowledge of physical remains, besides a more developed critical method in the base-disciplines of history and archaeology, than were available to Archdall. These factors together greatly facilitate our interpretation of data. At the most basic level, the approach here is to describe certain foundations as ‘associated with’ e.g. St Brigit or St Finbarr, rather than re-state historically unprovable claims that the sites were founded by the saint in person. Moreover, in listing physical remains, we can nowadays distinguish between structures of medieval (or later) date, and material which can be assigned with reasonable confidence to the Early Christian or pre-Reform period (i.e. pre-twelfth century). A very important further consideration is that this ‘encyclopedia’, taking the form of a computer database, is searchable under a wide range of headings – and so has greater potential as a research tool for scholars in the fields of history, archaeology and related disciplines.

The background to the present undertaking has been related at some length elsewhere (MacShamhráin 2004c; see now 2008). Funded by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences, data for the project was compiled from October 2003 to January 2007, under the general direction of Professor Kim McCone. At that point, a final report was submitted to the Council, accompanied by a list of sites, historical source-references and data on field-remains, and bibliographical references. The budget for the project had by this time expired, but over the following eighteen months, working on a voluntary basis, the database was revised and expanded and a fuller bibliography developed. It was then prepared for launch on the WEB, with the kind assistance of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. This involved some re-structuring, and the provision of a field-key, a guide to general and historical source abbreviations, along with a glossary of technical terms.

Dr Ailbhe MacShamhráin, whose idea it was to produce such an encyclopedia, worked on all stages of the project from initial design to internet launch. He was principal compiler of data for most of the Leinster counties, the north-west and the south-west, and contributed at least some material in relation to every county. He also worked extensively on the bibliography, glossary and abbreviation lists. Dr Aidan Breen was involved from the beginning and, with time out for travel abroad, continued until June 2006. He compiled most of the data for six counties (Wexford, Kilkenny, Waterford, Tipperary, Limerick and Fermanagh), and contributed to four others (Cork, Carlow, Longford and Galway). Dr Nora White was officially employed by the project only from June 2006 to January 07, but very generously continued to assist in a voluntary capacity up to the launch-date. She is mainly responsible for eight counties (Cork, Galway, Mayo, Roscommon, Longford, Leitrim, Down, and Antrim) and made a significant contribution to at least five others (Tipperary, Sligo, Cavan, Armagh and Fermanagh). She was also much involved in the bibliographical search and in compiling the bibliography.

The database, as it stands, includes records 5,529 sites (including at least 412 which are presently unlocated). The intention is to include ecclesiastical sites belonging to the Early Christian, or at least pre-Reform, era – in other words those dating to the twelfth-century or earlier (see MacShamhráin 2004c, 1–16). The end-product might fairly be described as an ‘ecclesiasticon’ rather than a ‘monasticon’ (as Dr Colmán Etchingham remarked to me in conversation!). How many of the sites recorded here were indeed community foundations — monastic or otherwise – is a matter for debate. Among the sites included are public churches (pre-Reform parish churches), cathedrals, hermitages, and proprietary churches. Neither is it the case that all foundations included here are strictly pre-1100. The Church Reform of the twelfth century was not a single event but a movement, which made gradual impact over the course of many decades. However, monasteries and priories belonging to Continental religious orders, such as the Cistercians or Augustinians, or parish churches known to postdate the diocesan reorganisation of the twelfth century, do not fall within our mandate. Such foundations are, by definition, products of the twelfth-century Church Reform and, of themselves, have little to tell us regarding native Irish ecclesiastical settlement. That said, there are instances of post-Reform Continental foundations, and indeed thirteenth-century parish churches, occupying the sites of earlier Irish churches. The Cistercian house of Holycross, Co Tipperary, is apparently surrounded by an ecclesiastical enclosure and is perhaps to be identified with Cell Uachtair Lámann. The even later Franciscan friary of Kilconnell, Co Galway, clearly occupies an Early Christian site, while Diamor parish church (Co Meath) is perhaps to be identified with Diammar of Finngán mac [an] Airchinnig, mentioned in the Martyrology of Tallaght. In a substantial number of cases, sites for which there is no convincing evidence for a pre-twelfth century date have been tentatively included – purely on the grounds that there is, by the same token, no clear case for excluding them. Such sites are marked with an asterisk. Some may well be dropped from later revisions of the database, while other early sites will no doubt come (or be brought!) to notice.

There are twenty-three data fields. The first field, ‘A’, gives the name of the foundation. If the name is attested in early or medieval sources, or if it appears to be readily reconstructable, the Old Irish form is given. Hence we have Cell Brigte or Domnach Pátraic, rather than Modern Irish forms of Cill Bhríghde or Domhnach Phádraig. If the foundation-name is unattested and not readily reconstructable, the modern English placename is supplied – e.g. Kilmakee (Co Antrim) or Rathkillkeady (Co Kilkenny). Either way, the modern townland name is given and the location-name of the site, where available – so there should be no difficulty in locating sites under names by which they might commonly be known. Seven of the fields (E to K) are locational, covering secular and ecclesiastical administrative units from townland to county, diocese or province. Early Christian ecclesiastics, ‘saints in the Irish tradition’, associated with the sites concerned (often regarded as founders of the churches) are covered in the three fields B to D. Saintly figures linked to foundations in documentary sources are listed under ‘doc.assoc’ (B), and where known, the lineage from which the individuals reputedly descended is entered in the adjacent field (C). ‘Trad.assoc’ (D) is used to record names of saints traditionally associated with a site, either because the site is named from them (e.g. Kilkieran or Donaghpatrick), or because there is a surviving field antiquity such as a ‘St Kieran’s Well’ or a ‘St Patrick’s Rock’.

The field headed ‘Sources’ (L) is concerned almost exclusively with hagiographical sources – mainly ‘Lives’ of the saints, martyrologies and genealogies of the saints. Data from this field relates to the reputed founders of the sites and underpins the above-mentioned ‘doc.assoc’ entries. Field M, ‘Historical Record’, concerns the subsequent history of the site, with emphasis on pre-Norman (or early post-Norman) native sources. Not infrequently, ecclesiastical records (charters or taxations), or English Crown documents, of medieval date are given – either because they represent the earliest documentation available for a particular site, or because they demonstrate survival into the post-Norman period. Occasionally, there is reference to an early-modern source; placename studies have repeatedly shown how even eighteenth-century records not infrequently preserve name-forms which can strengthen the case for regarding a site as perhaps pre-Reform (see e.g. Price 1945–67, and now Ó Cearbhaill 2007, passim).

Of the remaining fields, ‘clerical status’, ‘gender’ and ‘familial links’ (N, O and R) perhaps provide the greatest scope for speculation; if the reputed founder is claimed to have been in episcopal orders, or if there is a record of episcopal succession (see field P), the status of the site is given as ‘episcopal’. If a succession of abbots, comarbai or airchinnig is recorded, or can be inferred, the status is said to be ‘coarbial’. Similarly, in field O, sites are classed as ‘male’ or ‘female’ on the basis of the gender claimed for the (reputed) founder, or of a succession record which suggests that the community was (predominantly) male or female. The field entitled ‘familial links’ (R) could be described as a catch-all for several concepts; foundations are deemed to be ‘linked’ if one (a ‘lesser’ site) is claimed by hagiographical doctrine to have been subject to another (‘greater’ site), if there is charter evidence to show that one was the property of another, or solely because ‘tradition’ (or placename evidence) suggests a link. Granted, in the latter case especially, we may be dealing with cult-diffusion rather than with ‘familial links’ (much less paruchial belonging) as such. The intention is that possible links, whatever their precise character, might be highlighted.

By comparison, fields P and Q have ‘lower register’ aims; the former (entitled ‘Succession Record’) lists ecclesiastics, male or female, who succeeded to offices at the foundation concerned – abbots, abbesses, comarbai, bishops, and occasionally others of less exalted rank such as treasurers, lectors or scribes. These lists make no claim to be exhaustive; fuller accounts for major sites can be found in the New History of Ireland, vol. 8, and in published prosopographies.

Field Q gives medieval church-dedications to Irish (or Continental) saints; in some instances, a surviving medieval dedication to e.g. ‘St Barrahan’ might be the only clue to a possible pre-reform site associated with (in that case) Berchán.

The final group of fields contain material which is more directly relevant to the disciplines of folklore and archaeology. It must be acknowledged that the data recorded in field S is limited in quantity and selective in character, but the resources of the project were limited. Where data was available to us, we make mention of traditional stories, beliefs or practices – particularly ‘patterns’ or a tradition of ‘clandestine burial’ (whether recorded as such or inferred from location names such as ‘the killeen’ or ‘the caldragh’). The archaeological record (fields T and U) is considerably more detailed, if by no means exhaustive. Field remains are stratified, focusing on those considered to be characteristic of the Early Christian/pre-Reform era (this is the approach taken by e.g. Culleton 1997). Hence enclosures, circular or oval (often surviving in part, so seen to be semi-circular, d-shaped or quadrantal), are generally mentioned first, followed by a range of field monuments, with stone church buildings (surviving examples of which are most often twelfth-century or later) further down the list – unless there is a strong case for doing otherwise. The only artifacts listed in field U are examples (recovered by search or excavation, or merely associated with the site by tradition) which may support the case for the site as a pre-Reform ecclesiastical settlement. The bibliographical field (which makes no claim to being exhaustive) provides at least some guide to secondary literature in which sites are discussed or (in the case of more obscure sites) merely mentioned. The addendum field includes fragments of additional information, or comments on the part of the compilers. A full bibliography, field-key, glossary of terms used, and lists of abbreviations (general and source-related) are appended.

Extensive as the database is (with more than 5,500 records it is the largest encyclopedia of Early Irish ecclesiastical sites to date), the compilers are well aware of its limitations. As acknowledged above, the inclusion of quite a number of sites — even on ‘tentative’ grounds — might be described as ‘optimistic’. No doubt a great many more sites, which might better deserve to be included, have been left out. Certainly, there will be scope to expand many of the existing records, whether in relation to historical sources, archaeological data, folklore material or bibliographical references. The present work must be viewed as a ‘beginning’, not as an ‘end’. The intention is that it should be extended over time, if not by the original compilers, then by other agents. Even as it stands, however, the database has potential as a research tool in a number of ways – whether to assist local investigations (finding out about the ecclesiastical sites in a given area) or facilitate higher-level research in history or settlement studies. The scope to use it in pursuit of inquiry into such issues as ecclesiastical jurisdiction, cult diffusion, ecclesiastical gender-balance and settlement patterns has already been explored on a limited scale, taking the diocese of Dublin as a case-study (MacShamhráin 2005a, 114–43). Hopefully, it will compliment the many publications emanating from (e.g.) the CELT Project and the LOCUS Project (NUI Cork), the Ordnance Survey Letters Project, Irish Historic Towns Atlas, and the Dictionary of Irish Biography (RIA). Where the ‘Monasticon’ database goes from here, or what impact it may have on future scholarship, time will tell.

It must be acknowledged that the project could scarcely have been completed without the generous support and assistance of a number of individuals. That said, there is always the danger in listing names that some will be unintentionally omitted. However, it seems only right to mention those whose contribution can scarcely be overlooked. In particular, I cannot adequately express my thanks to my wife, Marie Fingleton. Not only has she been a pillar of support to me personally – especially in the context of a most serious illness that has plagued me almost from the commencement of the project – but she generously volunteered to assist with various ‘editing tasks’. Hence, she spent a great many hours checking townland and civil-parish data against relevant reference-books, standardising abbreviations and sourcing bibliographical references in library catalogues. Without her dedication, the project as a whole would undoubtedly have been much the poorer.

Of those who lent support and assistance at different stages, particular mention must be made of Professor Liam Breatnach and Professor Fergus Kelly (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies), who placed library facilities at my disposal and who subsequently facilitated the launch of the database on the Institute’s website. On the technical side, Andrew McCarthy (DIAS) prepared the database for its launch, while at an earlier stage Jim Cumiskey (Cambio Systems) and Tamas Reminick had helped with design issues. Many others assisted by lending books, sending offprints, drawing attention to materials, answering questions or making helpful suggestions; included here are Dr Katharine Simms and Dr Seán Duffy (TCD), Professor Pádraig Ó Riain and Professor Máire Herbert (UCC), Dr Conchúr Ó Crualaoich (Oifig na Logainmneacha), Linzi Simpson and Edmond O’Donovan (Margaret Gowen & Co, Archaeological Consultants), Charles Doherty (UCD), Dr Colmán Etchingham (NUI Maynooth), Dr Brian Lacey (Discovery Programme), Dr Harry Long, Dr Paul Byrne, Eleanor de Eyto, Joseph Kennedy. Thanks are also due to Professor Thomas Charles-Edwards (Oxford) and Professor Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (NUI Galway) who, along with Professor McCone, supported the project proposal when it was first submitted to the Irish Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences. To all the above, and to any others whose names I may have inadvertently omitted, my sincerest thanks.

Ailbhe MacShamhráin
Féile Éogain Aird Srath
X Kl Septimbir MMVIII