Parish Churches

Parish churches and cathedrals are a product of the church reforms of the twelfth century in Ireland. While the country was dotted with churches and ecclesiastical sites in the early medieval period, there was a lack of overall organization and the degree of pastoral care available is a matter of debate and certainly varied greatly from place to place. There has also been debate about the extent to which parishes were well established and tithes levied before the Anglo-Normans arrived. Certainly in the areas settled by the Anglo-Normans parishes became well established and were often coextensive with the local manor. Parish churches and manorial centers are commonly situated in close proximity in these areas. On the other hand many of these churches were older ecclesiastical sites and some of the manors were older political units or centers. However, in areas not settled by the Anglo-Normans, parishes appear to have been established more gradually and haphazardly.

The parish system was based on tithes, a tax amounting to one tenth (a tithe) of farm produce payable to the parochial clergy for their maintenance. In many cases the lord granted the tithes to a monastic establishment, who would supply a priest from the community to serve the parish or more usually pay a priest to do so. A small amount of land known as the glebe, usually situated close to the parish church, was set aside for the priest’s residence and for grazing and tillage on a small scale.

Medieval parish churches are normally divided into a nave, the main body of the church where the congregation worshipped, and the smaller chancel, where the priest performed the ceremonies at the altar. The upkeep of the nave was the responsibility of the parish, while that of the chancel fell to the priest. The chancel was usually a separately roofed, lower and smaller section of the building and was entered and visible from the nave through a chancel arch. Usually set immediately west of the chancel arch was a wooden rood screen, which takes its name from a large wooden crucifix (rood) suspended above it. The screen, which had doors in the center giving access to the chancel, normally had a narrow loft above it, accessed by a stairs within the screen or in the thickness of the wall on one side. Not a single medieval wooden rood screen survives from Ireland but evidence for their former existence can be seen in many churches in the form of corbels or beam-holes in the walls and windows or stairs that served them. The rood screen would have further emphasized the division between nave and chancel and in plain rectangular churches would have been the main demarcation between these two areas of the church.

Kildare Cathedral.

Kildare Cathedral.

Irish medieval parish churches are mostly in ruin and are generally considerably smaller than contemporary examples in England. Some of the largest examples from the thirteenth century were built in towns and good examples can be seen at New Ross, County Wexford and Gowran, County Kilkenny. At New Ross only the chancel and transepts survive from an ambitious early thirteenth-century church. At Gowran most of the nave survives with its aisles, all built around 1270.

Parish churches were frequently altered and added to and it is rare to find an example that is of one period only. Some incorporate remains of older churches from the tenth to twelfth centuries, such as Tullaherin, County Kilkenny and Fore, County Westmeath. The sequence of alterations and rebuildings can in some cases be very complicated as at St. Audoen’s in Dublin or the larger church at Liathmore, County Tipperary.

The fifteenth century saw a great boom in building in Ireland and many churches were built anew or older ones altered. Many of the small ruined medieval churches in graveyards around the country date from this period. Often they have opposing doorways, with pointed two-centered heads, in the north and south walls of the nave. The most popular form of window in late medieval times was that with an ogee head and these are found also in the contemporary tower houses. Some of the finest churches of this period were those built in towns or in the more settled lands of the Pale. Larger examples have fine traceried windows such as those seen at St. Nicholas’s in Galway or Dunsany, County Meath.

A feature of churches of this period is the provision of accommodation for the ministering priest in the west end of the church or in an attached tower. In many cases the area of the nave to the west of the doorways was walled off from the rest of the church and provided with a first floor for extra accommodation. A tower at the west end or attached to one side or incorporating the chancel probably served as a castellated presbytery. A common feature of the period was the addition of crenellated parapets on churches, rendering them suitable for defense on a small scale. Churches were attacked and damaged in raids and warfare and the provision of defenses was a serious consideration. Also churches were used to store property and valuables, making them a lucrative target for raiders and thieves.

Chantry chapels were sometimes formed within or added to parish churches, especially those in towns. These and collegiate churches were sometimes endowed under the terms of a will, when money or property was bequeathed for this purpose and to support the priest or priests to say mass there for the souls of the deceased. Some chantry chapels were controlled by guilds, such as the guild of St Anne at St Audoen’s in Dublin.

Many parish churches, especially the rural ones, became ruined during the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries or as a result of the Reformation, which made them the property of the established Protestant church while the vast majority of the population remained Catholic. Also, as a consequence of the dissolution of the monasteries, many parishes became impropriate to lay people, whose main concern was not the cure of souls.


Though bishops were important figures in the early medieval Irish church, churches associated with them were not referred to as cathedrals until the reforms of the twelfth century divided the entire country into dioceses. Most of the buildings then designated as cathedrals would have been older principal churches on ecclesiastical sites. Some of these survive as ruins such as those at Clonmacnoise and Glendalough, while others were incorporated into buildings still in use by the Church of Ireland such as Clonfert, County Galway and Kilfenora, County Clare. Other churches had short-lived claims to cathedral status such as those at Ardmore, County Waterford and Scattery Island, County Clare. The newly appointed bishops in the twelfth century succeeded in acquiring for their dioceses some of the old termon lands of early medieval monastic/ecclesiastical sites and, where these were successfully held and well managed, they became episcopal manors, which helped to support the bishop and other diocesan dignitaries. If extensive, these see lands could help in supplying funds for building projects, such as a new cathedral or additions to an old one.

Many Irish cathedrals incorporate Romanesque fabric from the twelfth century and indeed the Romanesque style is often seen as closely associated with the reform movement. A Romanesque church appears to have an essential prerequisite in order to make a serious claim for episcopal status in the twelfth century. Cathedrals with surviving Romanesque include Tuam, County Galway; Ardfert, County Kerry; and Clonfert, County Galway.

The largest cathedral in Ireland is St. Patrick’s in Dublin, and both it and the other Dublin cathedral, Christ Church, were influential in introducing the Gothic style from the west of England in the thirteenth century. Other medieval cathedrals in Ireland are smaller in scale, while some are much smaller than many English parish churches. Well-preserved examples still in use by the Church of Ireland include St. Canice’s in Kilkenny, Cloyne, County Cork, Killaloe, County Clare, and Limerick. All four are mainly of thirteenth-century date and Kilkenny and Limerick have both nave aisles and transepts. The cathedral at Cashel, County Tipperary, is also a large, mainly thirteenth-century structure, but is unroofed, having been abandoned in the eighteenth century.

The only medieval cathedral, which was also monastic, was Christ Church in Dublin, which was a monastery of Augustinian canons. It is also the only cathedral with the remains of a formal chapter house; the lower parts of it survive to the south of the south transept. At other sites the diocesan chapter presumably met within part of the cathedral or in an attached or associated building or chapel such as the Romanesque Cormac’s Chapel at Cashel, which is known to have been used as a chapter house in post-medieval times. In Ireland there is little evidence for major associated developments around cathedrals and even medieval episcopal palaces are very rare. The present palace at Kilkenny incorporates the medieval palace, while in Dublin parts of the medieval Palace of St. Sepulchre survive within later buildings. At Cashel the hall and dormitory of the vicar’s choral, endowed in the fifteenth century, have been reroofed as visitor facilities.

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