Old Donagh Graveyard is situated on a drumlin at Donagh, close to Glaslough in County Monaghan. It is considered to be one of the oldest ecclesiastical sites in the country and is on a pilgrimage route associated with St Patrick. It has a wonderful collection of headstones and a beautiful cross known as the Donagh Cross or the McKenna Cross. This cross depicts the crucifixion and it is believed it may was the inauguration site of the local chieftain of the McKenna clan. The cross is thought to date from the 10th to the 12th century based upon details of the positioning of Christ on the cross. Both the knees and feet of the carving are facing to the left, this is a feature of pre-12th century depictions of the crucifixion whereas after the 12th century the feet and legs are depicted as pointing straight down. The crudeness of the carving would also suggest an earlier date.
The McKenna clan features heavily in the graves at Old Donagh and their reach as a family is international. They are believed to have first settled in the area in the 7th or 8th century. The earliest recorded Chieftain was Patrick McKenna who fought alongside Hugh O Neill at the battles of Clontibret in 1595, the Yellow Ford in 1598 and the Battle of Kinsale in 1601. One of the last McKenna chieftains buried at the graveyard is Phelimy McKenna, both he and his four sons were massacred by Cromwellian forces are buried there. Phelimy’s fifth son, John McKenna, who had escaped the earlier massacre died when leading Irish forces at the Battle of Drumbanager in 1689. Another interesting grave is that of William ‘Bully’ McKenna, who died in 1816, the father of John or Don Juan McKenna who was second in command during the Chilean war of independence from Spain, his General being the infamous Bernardo O’Higgins.
There are conflicting stories about how the cross ended up positioned where it is. One school of thought is that after the Plantation the cross was dumped into the local bog to lessen the importance of the site. Another story states that the cross was originally the market cross of Glaslough but the Leslie’s wanted it removed from the town and the people who removed it got stuck in the bog and were unable to move it. The cross was later moved to the graveyard and buried where until it was re-erected in 1910 by Shane Leslie and placed in Old Donagh.
The amount of beautifully carved headstones and memento mori must be accredited to the stonemasons the McKayes. The McKayes were a family of stone-cutters whom the Leslie’s brought to the area, they later sold their business to the Delaney’s who carved a lot of the later headstones in the graveyard, one of the finest carvings is the Delaney grave close to the entrance of the graveyard.
The ruinous church at the centre of the graveyard dates from the early medieval period but has been ruinous since the reformation. On St Patrick’s Day in 1508 as a mass was being attended by the McKenna chief, he had the chieftains of the Maguires of Fermanagh as guests, they attacked by the McMahons and the roof of the church was burned, however the McKenna’s and Maguires easily defeated the McMahons.
The palpable sense of history and the beautiful decoration of the headstones as Old Donagh Graveyard in Monaghan make this one of my favourite sites to have visited in a while, a true hidden gem. In doing this blog I have spent a lot of time in graveyards, castles and thin places, I am asked sometimes if I ever ‘sense’ anything dark or foreboding and by and large I would have to say I find most of these places peaceful and pensive, they provoke thought and reflection. However Old Donagh Graveyard falls into the realm of a handful of places where there is a sense of antiquity and importance but also a resonance of something a bit more foreboding and disorientating. It is certainly worth a visit.
GPS: 54.31201, -6.9184