08 September 2018

An ancient cathedral site
in Roscrea with its Round
Tower, High Cross and
Romanesque doorway

The Romanesque doorway at Saint Cronan’s Church, Roscrea, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Roscrea in Co Tipperary originally stood on the ancient road that ran in part from Tara to Cashel. This location may explain why Saint Cronan founded a monastery there in the early seventh century, and why the monastic site briefly served as the episcopal seat in the short-lived Diocese of Roscrea in the 12th century.

Today, the site monastic site includes a round tower, a much-worn High Cross, an isolated Romanesque door, and a 200-year-old Church of Ireland parish church.

Both the Church of Ireland parish church and the Roman Catholic parish church in Roscrea are named Saint Cronan’s Church, in honour of the founding saint of these ecclesiastical sites, which I visited last week on my back to Co Limerick from Kilkenny.

Saint Cronan, who died in 640, is seen as the abbot-bishop and patron of the short-lived Diocese of Roscrea, which was later incorporated into the Diocese of Killaloe.

Saint Cronan was born in the territory of Ely O'Carroll, Ireland. His father’s name was Odhran, and his mother came from west Clare. After spending his youth in Connacht, he founded a number of monastic houses before returning to his native area ca 610, when he founded a monastery and school in Roscrea or ‘the wood of Cré.’

The Annals of Tigernach and the Annals of Ulster describe Saint Cronan as ‘Bishop of Nendrum.’ The Acts of Saint Cronan abound in miracles, including the legend Dimma, one of his monks, transcribing the Four Gospels without rest in a period of 40 days and 40 nights.

Saint Cronan of Roscrea is said to have died in the year 640, and his east is celebrated on 28 April.

The High Cross at the site in Roscrea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

In the confusion that followed the Synod of Rath Breasail in 1111, an attempt was made to establish an independent Diocese of Roscrea. However, there was no Bishop of Roscrea at the Synod of Kells and Mellifont in 1151, although it is later listed as one of the dioceses in the Province of the Archbishop of Cashel, probably incorporating areas that had previously been in the Diocese of Killaloe.

Isaac Ua Cuanáin, Bishop of Roscrea, died in 1161, and nNo more is heard of the Diocese of Roscrea after that. It was subsumed once again, along with the Diocese of Scattery into the Diocese of Killaloe, and the cathedral church became an Augustinian friary and later a parish church.

All that survives of the ancient monastic site are the Romanesque gable of the 12th century cathedral church, a high cross and a round tower.

The once beautiful sandstone gable is now very badly weathered from pollution and age. It includes a tangent gable, blind arcades, a doorway of three orders, with the figure of an abbot or bishop above, and rosettes. It has been compared with similar doorways in Cormac’s Chapel in Cashel and Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert.

The distinctive 12th century High Cross displays a figure of a ‘clothed’ Christ om one side and Saint Cronan on the other.

The round tower in Roscrea is first mentioned in 1131, when it was struck by lightning.

The remainder of the church or cathedral in Roscrea was demolished in 1812, and many of the stones were used to build a new Saint Cronan’s Church of Ireland parish church.

Saint Cronan’s Church, the Church of Ireland parish church in Roscrea, was built in 1812 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Saint Cronan’s is a single-cell, gable-fronted parish church, with five-bay side elevations to nave, a four-stage tower and porch at the south-west elevation, and a vestry at the south-east elevation. The original building was funded by the Board of First Fruits with a gift of £100 and a loan of £775.

This church is a fine example of early 19th-century church architecture. The features include crenellated parapets, stone pinnacles at the gable ends and on the porch, a tower with crenellations and pinnacles, diagonal buttresses, pointed-arch windows with stained glass, and a timber battened double-leaf door.

The church was designed by a Roscrea-born architect James Sheane, whose name is inscribed on a datestone in the tower. He was buried in the churchyard when he died in 1816. His other known churches and glebe houses are in Modreeny and Kilrushall, in the Diocese of Killaloe.

The porch was added around 1813 by John Bowden (d. 1822), and the church was restored in 1879 by Sir Thomas Newenham Deane (1828-1899) of Woodward and Deane.

The grounds include a graveyard and a replica high cross, enclosed by a rubble stone wall, cast iron gate and railings.

The Round Tower in Roscrea is first mentioned in 1131 and was inhabited until 1815 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Meanwhile, the neighbouring round tower is said to have been inhabited as late as 1815.

Until the M7 motorway was built, the main road from Limerick to Dublin cut through this monastic site, between the Round Tower on one side and the Romanesque doorway and the High Cross on the other side.

Despite the motorway taking traffic out of the centre of Roscrea, this is still a busy road with a blind and sharp bend, and I felt I was taking my life into my hands twice last week as I tried to cross the road from the road tower to the site of the church.

The arch of the Romanesque doorway at Saint Cronan’s Church, Roscrea, is of three orders (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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