23 July 2018

Ennistymon or Ennistimon,
Lahinch or Lehinch, ‘are
ye right there Michael?’

The Bridge in Ennistymon looks down on the River Inagh and the cascades below (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

On our journey through the Burren on Saturday afternoon, six of us passed through a number of pretty towns and villages in Co Clare, including Ennistymon, Lahinch, Ballyvaughan, Doolin, Corofin and Kilfenora.

On a bright, sunny, summer’s afternoon, one was as bright and colourful as the next, sometimes with colours that were reminiscent of towns and villages in Tuscany under Italian summer sunshine.

Ennistymon, a market town built on the borders of the Burren and on the banks of the River Cullenagh or River Inagh, combines scenic, natural beauty with old world charm and many traditional pubs.

The narrow street near the bridge over the Cullenagh River is the oldest part of the town. Behind the Main Street and a little below the seven-arch bridge, built in 1790, the river with its small rapids rushes over an extensive ridge of rocks, creating a beautiful cascade.

The official name of Ennistymon is Ennistimon, although the spelling Ennistymon is used most widely, and historically it was spelled Inishdymon.

The name is derived from Inis Díomáin, generally translated as ‘Diamain’s River Meadow’ or ‘Díomán’s Island.’ Some argue, however, that the name is derived from Inis Tí Méan, meaning the ‘island of the middle house’ or ‘river meadow of the middle house.’

The oldest part of town is the narrow street near the bridge. Ennistymon grew from just three cabins in 1775 to 120 houses in 1810. The Falls Hotel, formerly Ennistymon House, is a Georgian house built ca 1760 on the site of an earlier castle.

A Church of Ireland parish church, with a nave and chancel, was built in the Ennistymon in 1778 by the Ven James Kenny, Archdeacon of Kilfenora and Rector of Ennistymon. Saint Andrew’s, a new Gothic Revival parish church with an octagonal tower, was built in the 1830s. The church became a hall when it closed in 1989 and is now Teach Ceoil Saint Andrew’s.

A mile outside Ennistymon, the ‘An Gorta Mór’ Memorial near Ennistymon Hospital, stands in the grounds of the old local workhouse, and remembers the Great Famine of 1845-1850.

The West Clare Railway once passed through Ennistymon, connecting the town with Ennis and with towns and villages on the West Coast of Clare. The railway station opened on 2 July 1887, but closed on 1 February 1961.

The Tower of Dough Castle on the golf course and the long sandy beach at Lahinch (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on image for full-screen vfiew)

Earlier that afternoon, we drove through Lahinch, a small resort close to the head of Liscannor Bay. Lahinch is beside a 2 km long beach of golden sands on the north-west coast of Co Clare, between Milltown Malbay and Ennistymon.

The shape of the resort creates Atlantic breakers that attract surfing and canoeing enthusiasts from all over the world and Lahinch has earned a reputation as a top ‘surf centre.’ It is also a centre for sailing, swimming, kite surfing, skin-diving, and deep-sea and fresh water fishing, and is known for its 18-hole world championship course at Lahinch Golf Club.

The marshes north of the town are home to a wide variety of terrestrial, freshwater and marine birds.

Lahinch is said to take its name from the Irish An Leacht or Leacht Uí Chonchubhair, meaning ‘The Memorial Cairn of O’Connor.’ Another version of the name in Irish, found in the Annals of the Four Masters, is Leath Inse, meaning ‘half island’ or peninsula, which describes the location of the village between the Inagh River and the sea.

In the Middle Ages, the O’Brien clan dominated the coastline. Liscannor Castle and Dough Castle are now ruins. The tower of Dough Castle stands on the golf course, and O’Brien’s Bridge across the Inagh River is in the vicinity.

As late as the 18th century, Lahinch was still a small hamlet with only a few fishermen’s huts. It grew in the 19th century to over 1000 people by 1835, but it was not until later in the century that the infrastructure of the town developed and it became a seaside resort with the opening of the West Clare Railway in 1887.

In 1883, the town was struck by a severe storm that destroyed the sea wall and promenade and damaged many buildings. Local governor William Edward Ellis oversaw the repair work that followed, and the construction of a new sea wall and promenade was inaugurated by Lady Aberdeen, wife of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

The West Clare Railway closed in 1961, but Lahinch retains its popularity and in recent years has become a renowned surfing location.

Although the town has been known as Lahinch since the 1850s, in recent years many of the road signs were erected in the area, changing the spelling to Lehinch.

The name change began when the National Roads Authority – now the Transport Authority Ireland – took responsibility for road signs. The NRA asked the county council to put together a Place Names Commission so that it could correct misspellings and typos in the area, and Lahinch, Ennistymon and Corofin became Lehinch, Ennistimon and Corrofin.

Now these three towns in Co Clare want local plebiscites to correct the misspelling of their names on all official since 2011. Local groups have started the legal process of changing the names of their towns.

Local people in Lahinch took matters into their own hands, correcting the spelling on a number of signs.

Ennistymon and Lahinch both mentioned in some versions of Percy French’s song ‘Are Ye Right There Michael.’ The song, written by Percy French (1854-1902) in 1902 and parodying the state of the West Clare Railway, was inspired by an actual train journey in 1896.

Because of a slow train and the driver stopped for no apparent reason, French, though who had left Sligo in the early morning, arrived so late for an 8 pm recital that the audience had left. The ballad caused considerable embarrassment to the rail company, which was mocked in music halls throughout Ireland and Britain.

The company took a libel action against French. When French arrived late for the libel hearing, the judge chided him on his lateness. French reportedly responded, ‘Your honour, I travelled by the West Clare Railway,’ resulting in the case being thrown out.

Are Ye Right There Michael, by Percy French (1902):

You may talk of Columbus’s sailing
Across the Atlantical Sea,
But he never tried to go railing
From Ennis as far as Kilkee.
You run for the train in the morning,
The excursion train starting at eight,
You’re there when the clock gives the warnin’
And there for an hour you’ll wait.
And as you’re waiting in the train
You’ll hear the guard sing this refrain:

Are ye right there, Michael, are ye right?
Do you think that we'll be there before the night?
Ye’ve been so long in startin’
That ye couldn’t say for certain
Still ye might now, Michael
So ye might!

They find out where the engine’s been hiding
And it drags you to sweet Corofin.
Says the guard: ‘Back her down on the siding
There’s a goods from Kilrush coming in.’
Perhaps it comes in two hours,
Perhaps it breaks down on the way
‘If it does,’ says the guard, ‘by the powers
We’re here for the rest of the day!’
And while you sit and curse your luck,
The train backs down into a truck.

Are ye right there, Michael, are ye right?
Have ye got the parcel there for Mrs White?
Ye haven’t, oh begorra
Say it’s comin’ down tomorra
And well it might now, Michael
So it might.

At Lahinch the sea shines like a jewel,
With joy you are ready to shout,
When the stoker cries out: ‘There’s no fuel
And the fire’s tee-totally out!
But hand up that bit of a log there
I’ll soon have ye out of the fix
There’s a fine clamp of turf in the bog there
And the rest go a-gatherin’ sticks.’
And while you’re breakin’ bits of trees,
You hear some wise remarks like these:

‘Are ye right there, Michael? Are ye right?
Do ye think that you can get the fire to light?
Oh, an hour you’ll require
For the turf it might be drier
Well it might now, Michael,
So it might.’

A popular version of the song recorded by the Irish tenor Brendan O’Dowda (1925-2002) adds the following lyrics that may or may not have been part of the original:

Kilkee! Oh you never get near it!
You’re in luck if the train brings you back,
For the permanent way is so queer
It spends most of its time off the track.
Uphill the old engine is climbin’
While the passengers push with a will
You’re in luck when you reach Ennistymon,
For all the way home is downhill.
And as you’re wobblin’ through the dark
you hear the guard make this remark:

‘Are you right there, Michael, are ye right?
Do you think that you'll be home before it’s light?’
’Tis all dependin’ whether
The old engine holds together –
And it might now, Michael, so it might! (so it might),
And it might, now, Michael, so it might.’

Saint Fachan’s Cathedral
in Kilfenora is the hidden
cathedral of the Burren

The East End of Saint Fachan’s Cathedral in Kilfenora, Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Travelling into the Burren Country in Co Clare on Saturday afternoon [21 July 2018], six of us began our tour by visiting Saint Fachan’s Cathedral in Kilfenora, Co Clare.

Kilfenora is in the centre of the Burren, about 28 km from Ennis and 5 km from Ennistymon. Although Kilfenora has a cathedral, it is a small village, and it is more likely to be associated in Irish minds with the Kilfenora Ceili Band, founded in 1909, than with a mediaeval cathedral and diocese was once described as the ‘poorest see in Ireland.’

The name Kilfenora may mean the Church of the White Brow or Meadow, or Fionnuir’s Church. In either case, the story of Kilfenora dates back to at least the sixth century when, according to tradition, Saint Fachan, also known as Saint Fachanan, Saint Fachtna or Saint Fachtnan, first built a church here.

This saint has also been identified with Saint Fachtna, the founder of Roscarbery in Co Cork.

The first church building here was probably of wood and was followed by a stone building. But the early church was burned down in 1055 by Murtough O’Brien. It was rebuilt in 1056-1058, only to be plundered in 1079 and then destroyed in an accidental fire in 1100.

The East Window in the ruined nave of Saint Fachan’s Cathedral, Kilfenora (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Kilfenora could not have been of great significance in the years that followed, and if there was a Diocese of Kilfenora it was ignored at the Synod of Rathbreasail in 1111. However, Kilfenora was recognised as a diocese at the Synod of Kells in 1152, when a new diocese was one of three carved out of the Diocese of Killaloe. The smaller dioceses of Roscrea and Scattery Island lost their new diocesan status within a short time, but Kilfenora remained the centre of a diocese that corresponded with the ancient territory of Corcomroe.

By the 12th century, there were six or even seven high crosses on this site at Kilfenora, forming one of the largest collections of high crosses in Ireland.

Nevertheless, over the centuries, there were few willing or able candidates who were willing to become Bishop of Kilfenora. An unnamed Bishop of Kilfenora took the oath of fealty to Henry II in 1172, but his two successors are known only by their initials.

The first names Bishop of Kilfenora, Bishop Johannes, was appointed in 1224, but even then many of his successors are only known by their first name alone.

In time, Kilfenora was the second smallest diocese in Ireland, with Waterford the only diocese that was smaller. The Diocese of Kilfenora is 29 km long, 14.4 km wide, and extends to 55,000 ha (135,700 acres). It is slightly smaller than the adjacent Diocese of Kilmacduagh, and both are about half the size of the Diocese of Ross in west Cork. The three Aran islands – Inisheer, Inishmaan and Inishmore – were also included in Kilfenora.

The list of Bishops of Kilfenora is still not clear in the immediate post-Reformation period, and it is still not clear whether the loyalties of Bishop John O’Neylan (1541-1572) were to Rome or to the Anglican Reformation. The crown made no appointment to the diocese between 1541 and 1606, and from 1606 to 1617 Kilfenora was held with Limerick.

Because Kilfenora was a remote, impoverished and insignificant diocese, it continued to be difficult to attract bishops in the 17th century. When Richard Betts arrived in the diocese in 1628, he declared ‘I have no wish to become bishop of the poorest see in Ireland’ – and he promptly returned to England.

Ten years later, Bishop John Bramhall of Derry, later Archbishop of Armagh, told the Lord Deputy in 1638 that Kilfenora was so poor that no-one wanted to go there. Robert Sibthorpe would only accept a nomination if he was allowed to remain Dean of Killaloe. He was the last separate Bishop of Kilfenora, and after his death in 1661.

Kilfenora continued to be regarded as an impoverished diocese throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and its survival depended on being united with various dioceses, including Limerick, Tuam, Clonfert, Killaloe (1752-1976) and Limerick and Killaloe (since 1976).

Richard Mant, Bishop of Killaloe and Kilfenora (1820-1823), visited Kilfenora shortly after becoming bishop in 1820, and described it as ‘the worst village that I have seen in Ireland, and in the most desolate and least interesting country’ – a reference to the Burren and not to Ireland.

The West End of Saint Fachan’s Cathedral, Kilfenora, Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Saint Fachan’s Cathedral dates from 1189-1200, when it was built in the so-called Transitional style with a nave and a chancel, and the early building may have been aisled.

According to local tradition, the chancel, dating from late 12th to early 13th century, had an oak ceiling decorated in blue with gold stars, and this survived until the end of the 18th century. There is some evidence of alterations and extensions in the 14th and 15th centuries, but little remains of this work.

Today the church shows a curious mix of styles from a number of periods. The oldest part is probably the rough-cast north wall of the nave with blocks that are now covered with plaster.

The former chancel is now without a roof. It is 10.8 metres long and 6.3 metres wide, and the walls are about one metre thick. The three-light east window is rounded and moulded, with carved capitals. On both sides of the window is a carved effigy: a bishop with his right hand raised in blessing, possibly dating from the early 14th century, to the north, and a tonsured, bareheaded cleric holding a book, possibly 13th century, to the south.

A carved 15th-century Gothic recess, once described as a sedilia, may have been a 15th century wall tomb (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

An elaborately carved and screened recess in the north wall is often described as a 15th-century Gothic sedilia, but the seats between the piers are too narrow and, instead, it may have been a 15th century wall tomb.

On the south wall, there is a double sedilia with a plain dividing shaft, a double piscina, and a square aumbry.

The Blood family monument in the Chancel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

One of the tombs in the chancel is the burial site of the Very Revd Neptune Blood, who received his name because he was born at sea. The memorial in Latin names his seven children, dating from 1683 to 1700. Dean Blood was an uncle of Thomas Blood, who tried to steal the crown jewels of King Charles II in 1671.

A short 15th-century doorway in the north wall of the chancel leads into a rectangular building attached to the north-east of the Chancel. In the 19th century, this was known as the Lady Chapel, although it may have been a sacristy or chapter room, or the O’Brien Chapel mentioned by earlier historians of the cathedral. It may have been built at the same time as the main building, and at first may have served as a transept.

Here there are two lancet-type windows, a broken two-light window, arched recesses and a low double piscina.

The chancel and the nave were separated in 1837 and by 1839, ‘thirty-six feet of the east end’ was without a roof. The nave, which is 20.6 metres long and 6.3 metres wide, was rebuilt and refitted as the Church of Ireland parish church with a grant of £42 from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners.

‘A pile of emigrants’ luggage, with a rabbit hutch or birdcage overhead’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The west wall of the nave has crude, stepped gable that has been compared to ‘a pile of emigrants’ luggage, with a rabbit hutch or birdcage overhead.’ There is a small bell-turret at the apex that is topped by a small stone pyramid. There is a carved head of a bishop over the door into the south porch.

Two grave slabs that have been moved into the south porch have effigies representing a 14th century unnamed Bishop of Kilfenora, with a mitre, crosier and episcopal ring, and a priest or nobleman of the 14th century, holding a book.

A grave slab in the south porch representing an unknown 14th century Bishop of Kilfenora (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Inside the parish church, the large square stone baptismal font possibly dates from around 1200. The bishop’s throne was donated in 1981 for the enthronement of Walton Empey, Bishop of Limerick and Killaloe, as Bishop of Kilfenora.

Today, the cathedral remains in a partially ruined state. The National Monument Service carried out restoration work in the early 2000s. The ‘Lady Chapel’ or north transept was fitted with a glass roof in 2005 to protect the remains of the three high crosses that were moved there.

The ‘Doorty Cross’ in the Lady Chapel or North Transept (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The finest of these high crosses is the Doorty Cross with a carving of bishop, possibly representing Saint Fachan. The shaft of this high cross was reused in the 18th century as part of the gravestone of the Doorty family. In 1955, it was reunited with the upper part of the cross, which until then had lain in the chancel of the church.

The ‘North Cross’ has survived relatively intact. Unlike the other crosses on the site, it does not have a ringed head, but has distinctive carved ornamentation.

One of the high crosses was moved from to Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, in the 19th century.

The ‘North Cross’ has survived relatively intact (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Today, Saint Fachan’s Cathedral is only remaining Church of Ireland parish church in the Diocese of Kilfenora. It is grouped with Drumcliffe (Ennis) group of parishes, where the Rector is Canon Robert Hanna, and the Dean of Kilfenora is the Dean of Killaloe, the Very Revd Gary Paulsen, who is also the Dean of Clonfert and the Provost of Kilmacduagh.

The last Roman Catholic Bishop of Kilfenora, James Augustine O’Daly, died in 1749. A year later, in 1750, the diocese was united with Kilmacduagh. In 1883, Kilfenora and Kilmacduagh was merged with the Diocese of Galway.

Today, the bishops of Galway and Kilmacduagh are styled Bishop of Galway and Kilmacduagh and Apostolic Administrator of Kilfenora, because Galway and Kilmacduagh are in the Province of Tuam and Kilfenora is in the Province of Cashel. This means that, in Canon Law, the Pope remains the Bishop of Kilfenora.

The carved head of a bishop above the door into the South Porch of Kilfenora Cathedral (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2018)