20 August 2018

Three churches on
the site of Saint Mel’s
Cathedral in Ardagh

The ruins of Saint Mel’s Cathedral in Ardagh stand on a site said to date back to the fifth century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

On the way back from Wineport Lodge near Athlone, Co Westmeath, last week, I visited the village of Ardagh, Co Longford, just off the N4 Dublin-Sligo road, 10 km from Longford town and 5 km from Edgeworthstown.

The Irish name Árd Archadh means the ‘high field.’ The village is set on high ground with good agricultural lands. About a mile from the village, a hill called Brí Leith is known locally as Ardagh Mountain, and is said to have been a centre of pre-Christian religious worship.

The ruins of Saint Mel’s Cathedral in the centre of Ardagh mark one of the most important ecclesiastical sites in Co Longford. These ruins are to the south-east of Saint Patrick’s, the Church of Ireland parish church, in a corner of the graveyard beside the road.

Tradition says Saint Patrick founded a church at Ardagh in the mid-fifth century, around 454. Here he baptised Maine, Lord of South Teffia, built a church, and consecrated his nephew, Saint Mel, the son of Patrick’s sister Darerca, as bishop, with Mel’s brother Melchu as co-bishop. It is said Mel and his three brothers had travelled with their uncle Saint Patrick to Ireland.

Although there is no historical or archaeological evidence to support these legends, Saint Mel is still regarded as the founder of the Diocese of Ardagh, and he invited Saint Brigid there to found a convent. He accepted her vows and gave her and her seven companions a site for their convent. There is no trace of an early convent in Armagh, although a holy well is named after Saint Brigid and is visited each year on her feast day, 1 February.

Saint Mel is said to have died ca 490, and his feast day is on 6 February. From the saint’s death, the line of episcopal succession in Ardagh is uncertain and the subject of speculation and legend.

Saint Erard is said to have been Bishop of Ardagh in 754, to have travelled to Rome with his companions and to have died died at Ratisbon, where he is also said to have been bishop.

At the Synod of Rath Breasail in 1111, Ardagh and Ardcarn were named as alternative centres for a diocese in East Connaught. Ardagh was chosen, and at the Synod of Kells in 1152, the Kingdom of Breifne was incorporated into the new Diocese of Kells, while the Diocese of Ardagh remained an independent see, with Saint Mel’s as its cathedral.

The first named Bishop of Ardagh was Mac Raith Ua Móráin (1152-1166). The diocese originally comprised the country of the Eastern Conmaice. It included the territory of the O’Ferals and the O’Quinns in Co Longford, called Annally, and the territory of Muintir Eolais, or the MacRannal (O’Reynolds) family in Co Leitrim.

The rival claims of Armagh and Tuam to primacy in Ardagh, beginning in 1177, led to a schism in the Diocese of Ardagh in1224. Pope Honorius III decided in favour of Armagh in 1216, this was confirmed by Pope Gregory IX in 1235, and a final settlement was agreed in 1326.

The O’Farrells, a local chieftain family, provided seven Bishops of Ardagh in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Early cathedral ruins

The ruins of Saint Mel’s Cathedral in Ardagh, with Saint Patrick’s parish church in the background (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The remains of Saint Mel’s Cathedral in Ardagh stand to the south-east of Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland parish church. Saint Mel is reputed to be buried within the walls of the cathedral ruins. However, this ruined church dates from three centuries after the saint’s death, and predates the introduction of a diocesan system in Ireland.

The present stone ruin, built in the eighth or ninth century, is of a cyclopean nature. Excavations have shown it was built on the site of an earlier timber church.

The ruins of Saint Mel’s Cathedral represent a typical early mediaeval church, with a simple rectangular room, accessed by a western lintelled doorway with inclined jambs, tapering from the base to the top.

The building is 10.35 metres long an 7.70 metres wide. The large blocks of stone that make up the walls sit on a stone plinth that projects slightly. Some limestone blocks in the wall measure an average of 2.5 metres by 0.90 metres. The roof would have been a high-pitched roof, supported somewhat by the antae located at the corners of the ruins.

The cathedral tower was destroyed in 1230 during a fight between supporters of rival claimants to the title of Bishop of Ardagh.

The cathedral was severely damaged in 1496 internecine warfare between factions in the O’Farrell family. A report to Rome said the cathedral was left without sacristy, bell tower or bell, and with only one altar open to the sky in a roofless church. and was never restored.

The cathedral remained in ruins in the 16th century, and when Bishop William O’Farrell died in 1516 Ardagh was said to consist of only four wooden houses and the ruined cathedral, ‘of which hardly the walls are left.’

Patrick MacMahon, who was Bishop of Ardagh in 1553-1572, was accused of leaving the cathedral in a ruinous state and doing nothing to repair it. Given the desolate state of Ardagh, the Bishops of Kilmore were also Bishops of Ardagh after 1604. A royal visitation in 1615 confirmed that the cathedral was still in ruins.

When William Bedell as Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh (1629-1642) visited Ardagh in 1630 and reported to William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, that Ardagh was ‘very miserable’ and that the cathedral and the bishop’s house had been razed to the ground.

Saint Mel’s crozier was found in the vicinity of the church in the 19th century. Then in 1967, archaeological excavations at the site identified the footprints of a wooden structure, dating to the eighth century, almost identical in dimensions to the present footprint of the upstanding stone structure.

The late mediaeval cathedral

The church ruins in the graveyard to the south-east of Saint Patrick’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The church ruins in the graveyard to the south-east of the 19th century Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland parish church may represent the late mediaeval church built to replace Saint Mel’s Cathedral.

This is a single-chamber rectangular building, with a west doorway and an east window, and three windows in both the north wall and the south wall. The church is covered with ivy and there is no architectural details that would indicate its date or age. There is a blocked doorway with a horizontal lintel in the graveyard wall.

This may be the ruined cathedral that Bishop Bedell saw when he visited Ardagh in 1630. If so, then it was ruined again during the rebellion of 1641.

The church or cathedral was restored after the Caroline restoration, but it was certainly probably abandoned by the beginning of the 19th century when the present parish church, Saint Patrick’s, was built in 1810-1812.

Saint Patrick’s Church

Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland parish church in Ardagh was built in 1810-1812 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland parish church was a cathedral church for a period during the early 19th century, until the Dioceses of Ardagh and Kilmore were united in 1839.

The church stands in the centre of Ardagh on an elevated site in landscaped grounds, surrounded by a graveyard to the south, east and west, and with random rubble stone boundary walls.

This church is typical of churches financed the Board of First Fruits between 1711 and 1833, with two or three bays and a tower and found throughout the Irish countryside. The front or west face of the church exhibits an interesting mix of classical influences in the cornice and frieze and Gothic details. The side vestibules are a feature found in a number of the Church of Ireland churches in Co Longford.

This may be a slightly quirky church, but it is attractive and retains its early form and character and its fabric, and fine craftsmanship can be seen in the carving and detailing.

Saint Patrick’s is a three-bay single-cell church built or rebuilt in 1810, with a three-stage tower on square-plan to the west, added around 1812. It is flanked on either side, to the north and south, by a single-bay vestibule and narthex.

The church is built of rendered walls over a dressed limestone plinth, with dressed limestone quoins to the corners.

The front of the church is reached by stone steps. The front or west elevation of the church has a parapet, with moulded cornices, a carved limestone quatrefoil decoration on the frieze, a date plaque and inscribed crosses and cross loops to west elevation.

At each side of the nave, the pointed arch window openings have dressed limestone block-and-start surrounds, sills and stone tracery with quarry and storm glazing.

The east end has a triple-light pointed arch window, with dressed limestone block-and-start surrounds, sills, timber tracery and with quarry and storm glazing. There are blind pointed arch window openings, with corbelled dressed limestone surrounds, and pointed arch timber louvered openings.

The square-headed entrance opening has a pointed arch dressed limestone surround to a plain tympanum. There is a timber battened double leaf door with elaborate strap hinges, flanked by carved limestone pilasters and a moulded cornice.

There are pointed arch window openings at the sides of the vestibules too, with dressed limestone block-and-start surrounds, sills and six-over-six pane timber sliding sash windows with intersecting tracery to the heads.

The tower is built of random rubble stone at belfry level with cut stone quoins to the corners. It has cut stone corner pinnacles and a crenellated parapet. The tower also has pointed arch timber louvered openings.

The church has a pitched, natural slate roof with overhanging eaves and cast-iron rainwater goods.

The church cost £1,809 to build, and Lewis records in 1837 that the church in Ardagh is ‘a plain commodious building with a square tower, for the erection of which the late Board of First Fruits granted a loan of £900, in 1812, and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners have lately granted £301 for its repair.’

The tracery details in the nave windows suggest they were altered in the second half of the 19th century, perhaps to designs by the architect James Rawson Carroll (1830-1911), who carried out extensive works in Ardagh between 1860 and 1865.

The elevated position and the prominent site in the village makes it a dominant feature in the surrounding landscape. It forms part of an interesting group of related buildings, including the former rectory and the lychgate at the entrance to the church.

The graveyard has a number of good quality grave markers, the earliest of which is dated 1818.

Saint Patrick’s Lychgate

The lychgate leading into Saint Patrick’s churchyard was erected in 1863 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

A charming timber lychgate at the main, west entrance to Saint Patrick’s churchyard was erected in 1863. This is composed of a half-hipped terracotta flat tiled roof, with slates on each side, supported by a painted open timber post construction on red brick bases. There are double leaf timber gates with latches.

A lychgate was the place where priests traditionally met coffins before a church funeral. The word lych has its origins in Old English and means ‘corpse.’ Although lychgates are a typically Anglican feature, they are unusual in Ireland. In England, they can date from the 13th century, but many are thought to date from the 15th century. The tile roof is also an unusual feature in Ireland.

This lychgate was probably designed by the architect James Rawson Carroll (1830-1911), who carried out a number of works in Ardagh for Sir Thomas Fetherston in 1860-1865, when he was commissioned to improve the village as a memorial to his uncle, Sir George Fetherston.

Today’s cathedrals

In 1961, the parish church of Saint John in Sligo became the cathedral of the Dioceses of Ardagh and Elphin as the Cathedral Church of Saint Mary the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist, and the dean is the Dean of Elphin and Ardagh. In the renaming, the stories of Saint Mel have been forgotten.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the Bishops of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise lived in Ballymahon from 1788, but the cathedral was moved to Longford in 1838, and today the cathedral for the Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise is Saint Mel’s Cathedral in Longford.

Inside Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland parish church in Ardagh, Co Longford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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