A scented rose and silence as I watch the swallows kiss
And touch the ancient marble – I, too, am part of this.
Kind light and bougainvillea and an evening calm
And I think what prayers have circled all these stones…
…. I shall watch again in sunlight
Search the whole
For signs of those who prayed here
And wove the strands of history
In my soul
In the Cloister of Bom Sucesso , by Sr. Maria Mackey, O.P., (June 1999). (The Convent of Bom Sucesso in Belém near Lisbon was founded by Fr. Daniel Dominic O’Daly, OP, of Kilsarkan County Kerry in 1639, specifically for Irish Dominican nuns, some of whom came from this region of North Munster).
We the people of Tarbert, indeed of North Kerry are ‘part of this’ ancient sacred space of Kilnaughtin. Here among the medieval masonry of this roofless church, and among the headstones of our ancestors – our past generations – we think of them and pray for them, conscious of how they influenced our lives, and conscious of how they connect us to our origins, our past, our heritage that ‘wove the strands of history’ in our souls!
Timeline information provided with thanks to The Tarbert Historical Society and Declan M Downey
From the 6th to the 12th Century
Kilnaughtin (the church of Naughtin), is the original and official name of the ecclesiastical parish of Tarbert. The present medieval structure stands on the site of the earlier cillín or oratory that may have originally been built by Naughten, a disciple of the early Christian patriarch of this region, St. Senan (c.488-544 AD). In 534 AD, Senan established his cathedral and monastery on Scattery Island (Inis Cathaigh), that lies to the northwest of this site in the Shannon estuary. From there, he and his monks Christianised the northern and southern coastlines of the Shannon estuary.
Little is known about Naughtin except that he was venerated with Senan, Erc, Lughach, Ita, Eithne, Eiltín and Brendan among the early Christian saints of the Ciarraídhe Altraíghe and the Ciarraídhe Lúachair (the ancient inhabitants of North Kerry and West Limerick).
The earliest church on this site dates from the late sixth or early seventh century. It was associated with St. Naughtin (who may have been a disciple of Senan) and with the monastery Scattery Island.
In Ireland, it was common practice for the Druidic sacred sites to be adapted for Christian worship. A holy well dedicated to St. Naughtin nearby; the regular discovery during burials of roots and stumps of ancient yew and holm oak trees and the survival of an ancient ogham stone bearing the inscription ‘ Mac I Broc’ (son of Broc or the Badger), that once stood about four feet to the south east of the church and is now housed in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, suggest that this site was once a Druidic sanctuary.
From the late sixth century until the early twelfth century, Kilnaughtin was one of the Termon churches (sanctuary-lands with churches) of the monastic diocese of Scattery. After the reforming Synod of Rathbreasil (1111-’12), the Irish Church was re-structured into its present diocesan system and Kilnaughtin was incorporated into the diocese of Ardfert and Aghadoe (called the diocese of Kerry since 1952). However, Kilnaughtin retained its links with Scattery. A tenth of the revenues from the Termons or Sanctuary Lands in this locality: Kilnaughtin (Carhoonakilla- Ceathrú na Cille- the church’s quarter), Monakyle, Kilpadogue (Cill na Pádóg – Church of the Rush Light – the early medieval lighthouse in Tarbert) Tarmons (Tearmain Shenáin – Senan’s Sanctuary), Kilmurrilly, Kilfergus and Ballygiltenane (Baile na Giolla tSenáin- home of the stewards of Senan), supported the monastery of the Canons Regular of St Augustine on Scattery island, and the canons served the spiritual and pastoral needs of the locality.
The 14th and 15th Centuries
The names of three parish priests of Kilnaughtin (Tarbert) from medieval papal records survive: Maurice FitzPeter was appointed in 1347, Dónal O’Kennelly held the benefice in 1418, and Matthew O’Connor who ministered in Kilnaughtin in 1421 was promoted to the rank of canon in the cathedral chapter of Ardfert. During this period which saw a revival of Gaelic and Hiberno-Norman culture influenced by the European Renaissance, John O’Connor-Kerry, lord of Carrigafoyle and of Tarbert and founder of Lislaughtin Franciscan Friary (1468) nearby, oversaw extensive rebuilding of churches in this region such as at Killelton, Aghavallen (Ballylongford), Murhur (Moyvane) and Knockanure, as well as Kilnaughtin church with its elegant pointed gothic arched doorways, ogee lancet windows, cinquefoil piscina, holy water font and interior architrave. The traces of a porch may also be seen over the south door. On the exterior wall, over the east window, there is a carved head wearing the ‘chapeau de seigneur’, thereby indicating that it may represent the local lord, John O’Connor-Kerry, whose patronage ensured the edification of the present structure.
The 16th Century
Following the destruction of the earldom of Desmond, by Elizabethan forces in 1583, and the subsequent Plantation of Munster from 1585 onwards, Kilnaughtin, like so many other fine monuments, as well as the local people, suffered. In 1597, the English Queen Elizabeth I granted the Advowson (the privilege of lay-patronage, previously held by the O’Connor-Kerry and by the abbot of Rattoo), of Kilnaughtin Church and Rectory to George Isham of Brainstown County Westmeath. This is the first known reference concerning the transfer of Kilnaughtin into the control of a Protestant layman. It is not clear if Isham benefitted from the revenues from the parish.
The 17th Century
By the early 17th century, John Crosbie, who became the second Anglican bishop of Ardfert & Aghadoe in 1600, and his brother, Sir Patrick, who had acquired the Seigniory of Tarbert from Sir John Holly in 1607, proceeded to consolidate their family’s holdings in North Kerry while simultaneously building-up local ecclesiastical structures and ministry in the region. However, it was not until 1615 that he confirmed the appointment of the Reverend John Menor, as the first known Anglican vicar of Kilnaughtin.
The records show a long gap in the list of Anglican vicars between the appointment of Thomas Chute in 1630 and that of Sir John Morgan who became vicar of both Kilnaughtin and Aghavallen in 1675. This lacuna may be explained by the outbreak of the 1641 Rebellion and the subsequent Wars of the Three Kingdoms (The English Civil War, The Scots War, The War of the Confederation of Kilkenny), which culminated in the beheading of King Charles I in 1649 and the subsequent dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector of England, Scotland & Ireland from 1653 to 1658.
During the period of the Confederation of Kilkenny (1642-1649) when two thirds of Ireland were controlled by the Catholic nobility, Kilnaughtin was restored to the Catholic community for worship. Fr Donatus Johannes Crihoin was listed as the Catholic priest assigned to Kilnaughtin in 1630.
In the census of 1659, the population of the Barony of Iraghticonnor (this region of North Kerry) was numbered at 1,220 and the parish of Kilnaughtin consisted of 219 souls of whom 22 were identified as English and Protestant. The very low numbers reflect the effects of the devastation in the region during the troubled period from 1641 to 1659.
During the period from 1688 until 1692, Catholic worship took place in Kilnaughtin again, but such was the reversal of fortune with the defeat of the Irish Catholic Jacobite cause at the second siege of Limerick in 1691, that the Protestant Ascendancy became established in Ireland.
The 18th Century
The arrival of the Leslie family in Tarbert in 1695 heralded a more secure, stable and sophisticated period in the evolution of Anglican parish of Kilnaughtin during the 1700s. The only record of an Ordination to Anglican priesthood in this community took place on Sunday 29th June 1769 when, according to The Dublin Mercury, Bishop James Leslie of Limerick, Ardfert & Aghadoe (1755-1770) ordained a Mr. Annesley in this church. On the bishop’s death his son, Edward inherited the title and estate of Tarbert, and he had a deeply formative influence upon the growth of the local Anglican Community and its decision to relocate its place of worship from the medieval site at Kilnaughtin to its present site at Tieraclea, east of Tarbert, by 1787. Local tradition maintains that they brought the roof beams and bell from Kilnaughtin to adorn their new place of worship.
For most of the eighteenth century, Kilnaughtin was used for Anglican services, though Roman Catholics continued to have the right of burial in the church grounds, and their clandestine chapel was located nearby in ‘Pat Ryan’s Field’ (a site on the farmlands of the Buckley Family of Cockhill). Fr Denis Kennelly, who resided in the nearby townland of Farranawanna, was listed as the Catholic parish priest of Kilnaughtin and Aghavallen in 1704. This is the first known reference to a time when both parishes were united, and so it continued until 1859. Fr Diarmuid O’ Shea ministered to both parishes as curate and as parish priest between 1695 until his death in 1730. He was succeeded by Fr Thomas FitzMaurice, who was recorded in 1763/4 as being responsible for the united parishes that consisted then of 505 Catholic households. He died in 1781 and was buried in nearby Lislaughtin.
Throughout the period of the ‘Penal Laws’ (c.1695-1829), Roman Catholic clergy (Diocesan and Franciscan) continued to minister in the locality, often with the connivance or protection of the Leslie family and the Knights of Glin. Following partial relaxation of the Penal Laws during the 1770s, a presbytery for the Franciscan Guardian of Lislaughtin and for two Diocesan priests who served the then united parishes of Aghavallen and Kilnaughtin (Ballylongford and Tarbert), was established in the house (currently owned by the Heaphy family) beside Lislaughtin Friary.
The 19th Century
By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, there was a marked increase in the local population due to the economic activity generated in the area mainly through supply of agricultural produce and other goods and services to the British naval and artillery units stationed at Tarbert Island, Carrig Island and Scattery Island. For the period 1806-1808, Fr Michael O’Sullivan had reported that he ministered to 985 Catholic households in the united parishes, which is a marked increase on the number recorded in 1763/4. By 1827, the Catholic chapel in ‘Pat Ryan’s Field’ adjoining Kilnaughtin, was still in use until its roof fell in. Thereafter, Catholic worship took place in Tarbert, as the Penal Laws had ceased with Catholic Emancipation in 1829. When St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church was built in Tarbert in 1833, the last parish priest of the union of Kilnaughtin and Aghavallen, Fr Daniel McCarthy (1832-1859) had a stone from Kilnaughten’s medieval church incorporated into the foundation of the sanctuary to symbolize the continuity of the faith’s tradition in Tarbert and its ancient associations with Kilnaughtin.
The 20th & 21st Centuries
Throughout recent and contemporary history, Kilnaughtin continues to be a place of sacred and special significance for the people of Tarbert and for people elsewhere with ancestral connections to the parish. It continues as a place of burial for both Anglicans and Catholics, and during the 1990s, the medieval church structure was lovingly cleaned and stabilised by a group of local volunteers led by the late Owen Kelly of Tarbert Island. Every year during August, an open-air memorial mass and blessing of the graves takes place in Kilnaughtin, and it attracts large attendances. Recently, the Kilnaughtin Graveyard Committee which maintains the sacred space, has built a permanent shelter for the altar that complements the gothic architecture of the ancient church. The Tarbert Historical & Heritage Society has created a record of all the burials and tombstone and gravestone inscriptions in Kilnaughtin cemetery, which is an invaluable historical and genealogical resource.
J. Anthony Gaughan, Listowel and its Vicinity (Cork, 1973, second & revised edition 1974), pp. 18,27, 32-3, 39, 131,165, 222, 235, 528-9, 531.
Denis & Josephine Holly, Tarbert on the Shannon (Ballyshannon, 1981), pp. 19-21.
Patrick Lynch, Tarbert – An Unfinished Biography (Shanagolden, 2008), pp. 153-155 and pp. 246-249
Dr. Declan Downey, ‘The origins and development of Anglicanism in Kilnaughtin -Tarbert , c. 1585 – 1816’, in Tarbert Historical & Heritage Society (Eds), St. Brendan’s Church of Ireland, Tarbert 1814-2014. 200 Years of Change (Shanagolden, 2014),pp. 18-45.