Killeshin Church, Laois, Ireland

Killeshin Church is justifiably regarded as the home of one of the finest examples of 12th century Romanesque carving in Ireland, with its ornate doorway decorated with faces, geometric and zoomorphic designs, animals and complex interlace. Killeshin is derived from the Irish Cill Uisean, the Church of Uisean who was an abbot in the days when a monastery stood where the 12th century church now stands. The monastery was founded circa 545 by Diarmait Mac Siabairr who was a member of the local Uí Bairrche ruling family, it is also associated with Saint Comhgan who is commemorated on the 27th of February. This monastery was plundered by Diarmait mac Máel na Bó in 1041 when the oak prayer house known as the dairthech was demolished. A hundred people were taken as slaves and seven hundred cattle were seized. Killeshin was burned again in 1077. A round tower used to stand near the church but was torn down by the landowner in 1704 The church is believed to have been built between 1150 and 1160, and may have been commissioned by the infamous King Diarmait Mac Murchada, who is accredited with the unfortunate legacy of inviting the Normans to Ireland. This is evidenced by inscription on its doorway stating ‘Orait do Diarmait Ri Lagen’ meaning ‘a prayer for Diarmait, King of Leinster’.

The surviving structure at Killeshin comprises of the west and east gables and a major part of the north elevation, the west gable alone with the aforementioned decorated doorway make a visit to Killeshin well worth it.

I have previously posted some stories from the Dúchas Schools Collection of the 1930s as I feel it gives some colour to these places and an idea of what the locals felt about them between one hundred and one hundred and fifty years ago; as the children of the 1930s were writing down the stories of their grandparents and great-grandparents. Here is one such example taken down by a teacher at Killeshin named Tomás Ó Haonghusa, “It is believed that a hermit named Oisin once lived here thus the place is called Gleann Uisean. Another tradition tells us that it was Oisin the son of Fionn Mac Cuail used to camp here when he would be hunting the wild animals. There is the ruins of an old church in the district which was built in the sixth century. In the vicinity of the ruins there is a well called the Holy Well. There is a white thorn bush growing over it also there is a circle of stones around it and in one of them there is a hole which was used for holding a candle”. Intriguingly he goes on to mention an unusual tunnel, “In the vicinity of the old church there is a Moat. There is an underground passage leading from it to the grave-yard in Sleaty. It is said that the men of this district opened it once. After digging for some time they came to an iron door, the priest of the parish told them to close it up.” Lastly and certainly far more sobering is the mention of a Cillín. These were plots of land used primarily as a burial ground for unbaptised children but also for others who couldn’t be buried on consecrated ground, those who died from suicide, unknown beggars, certain criminals, and the ’insane’. I was unaware of on the day of my visit, the National Monuments Service seems to have no mention of it either but that is not implausible as these sad places were numerous in Ireland, an Eileen Jordan writes, “Outside the old graveyards in Killeshin is a small green plot with a fence all round it where the unbaptised children, were buried long ago. But it is not used now.” As of 2013 there was 1440 known Cillín on the island of Ireland, and tellingly five hundred in Galway alone, its not hard to imagine many have sunken from sight.

GPS: 52.84738, -7.00142

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