The present-day parish of Knockaderry Clouncagh which in turn corresponds to the medieval parishes of Clouncagh, Clonelty and Grange, was once known as the Tuath of Maghreny (Máigh Ghréine which translates as the ‘Valley of the Sun’). This area was ruled by local chiefs of the Uí Fhidheingte. Sources tell us that Uí Fhidheingte flourished in County Limerick from 377 AD and was recognised as one of the most prominent of the ancient kingdoms of Munster.
By circa 950 AD, the territory of the Ui Fidhheingte was divided primarily between the two most powerful septs, the Uí Cairbre and the Uí Coileán. The Uí Cairbre Aobhdha (of which O’Donovan was chief), lay along the Maigue basin in the baronies of Coshmagh and Kenry and covered the deanery of Adare, and at one point extended past Kilmallock to Ardpartrick and Doneraile. The tribes of Uí Chonail Gabhra extended to a western district, along the Deel, and into Slieve Luachra, corresponding to the baronies of Upper and Lower Connello.
Other septs within the Uí Fhidheingte were long associated with other Limerick locations; a branch of the Fir Tamnaige gave its name to Mahoonagh, while today Feenagh is the only geographical trace extant of ancient Uí Fhidheingte. Though the changes in the name of Uí Fhidheingte down to the modern Feenagh seem strange, they are quite natural when one takes into account the gradual change from the Irish to the English language with a totally different method of spelling and pronunciation and the omission of the “Uí” which was unintelligible to those acquainted only with the latter language.
Therefore, the lands around Knockaderry were settled since pre-historic times with the stone called Leacht Phadraig in Gurteen West likely dating from the Neolithic period. Local folklore has it that as part of his travels in Ireland in the 5th Century, St. Patrick visited Clouncagh where he rested a night in the townland of Gurteen West, in a place which was later part of the ‘priest’s farm’ and presbytery overlooking the present church in Clouncagh. This place is just behind where Seanie Hartnett lives with its magnificent crafted front wall. The land is owned today by a local farmer, Mike Wall. You can see the location on the old maps and it is marked as Leacht Phadraig. This was a stone on which it is said St. Patrick knelt in prayer. Unfortunately, although appearing prominently in early Ordnance Survey maps of the area it has disappeared without a trace in recent times.
Local legend has it that St. Patrick rested here on his way from Knockpatrick, through Ardagh on his way to Ardpatrick near Kilfinnane. It is said that he killed a huge serpent that occupied the fort in Clouncagh and three wells sprung up at the spot where the serpent lay dead. Indeed, it is believed locally that the three wells to the south of the fort were named by St. Patrick as Tobar Rí an Domhnaigh (Sunday’s Well), Tobar Mhuire (Our Lady’s Well), and Tobar Phadraigh (St. Patrick’s Well).
Unfortunately, local historian and academic, Dr. Liam Irwin, casts doubt and cold water on this local legend when he states that ‘the popular belief and tradition that St Patrick rested for the night in the area is sadly, groundless’ (Irwin, 149).
Cloncagh was an early ecclesiastical centre with a church, and a very large circular enclosure, and was said to be associated with St. Maidoc of Ferns. He is credited locally with the foundation of a monastery within the fort at Clouncagh. Again, however, no less an authority than Canon Begley in his acclaimed history of the diocese of Limerick, (Vol. 1) states that the association of Maidoc with Clouncagh is unsound. Again Liam Irwin agrees saying that ‘The popular belief that Christianity was introduced to the area by St. Maidoc is based on a misreading of medieval documents’ (Irwin, 149). However, the circular fort in Clouncagh which enclosed the monastic ruin and graveyard has been described by the noted Irish antiquarian, folklorist and archaeologist, T.J. Westropp, as being the largest ring fort in County Limerick.
There was also a vibrant church in Clonelty in the townland of Ballinoe and a monastic settlement in Grange and this site is still used as a cemetery to this day. From a cursory examination of placename evidence, there were probably other churches at Kilcolman, Kiltanna and Kilgulban.
Some parts of the parish were densely settled during the Early Christian era especially in and around the area of Grange civil parish, and on the low hills north of a line from Knockaderry village to Cloncagh with evidence of a considerable number of ringforts in these two areas. However, there are no ringforts in the southeast of the parish through the townlands of Gortnacreha Upper, Gortnacreha Lower, Ballyhahil, and Teernahilla. The reason for this is unclear, but as Geraldine and Matthew Stout have pointed out, these lowland areas, because of forest cover and poor drainage were not favoured for settlement, while free-draining hill slopes were, such as is found in the north of the parish around Knockaderry village (Stout, 47).
All of the townland placenames in the parish were recorded between 1200 and 1655. This is the only instance of this in West Limerick and is evidence of a land well-endowed with the trappings of human habitation since the early Norman period. Also, baile finds its way into the making of nine townland names, confirmation of land intensely settled throughout the medieval period. There is also evidence from the years of the Anglo-Norman Conquest of at least eight defensive structures being built within the parish to keep control of the newly acquired lands. This is a high density of such structures and likely indicates a land difficult to hold or perhaps a land highly prized. Rectangular enclosures were built at Ballybeggane, Ballynaroogabeg West, and Rathfreedy and moated sites were constructed at Ballybrown and Kiltanna, with two other possible sites at Rathfreedy and Ballynaroogabeg West.
The Civil Survey of 1654-6 gives details of the land ownership following the Plantation of Munster. Much of the land in Knockaderry was transferred to Colonel Francis Courtenay, a planter. In Clonelty civil parish Francis Courtenay held the following lands; Lissaniskie, Rathweillie, Ballynoe, Cuilbane and Ballyscanlane with an old ruined castle, two orchards and a mill. He also owned lands at Killgulbane, Athlinny, Ballynwroony, and Kilteana with ‘a stone house and an orchard upon it’. Cnockederry, Caharraghane, and Lisligasta were owned by Ellen Butler. In Grange civil parish, Irish Papists named James Bourke held Ballyrobin, and John Shihy owned Ballyearralla. The remainder of the parish was held by Francis Courtenay. These lands included Cloineiskrighane, Tyrenemarte, Ballyleanaine, Downegihye and Ballyngowne, Grangieoughteragh, Granghy, Ightaragh and Lissgirraie, Galloughowe and Ballymorrishine, Caruegaere, Dromuine, Gortroe, Movidy and Ardrin. In Cloncagh, Francis Courtenay owned Tiremoeny while Lt. Colonel William Piggott held Killnamony. The rest of the civil parish was owned by Irish Papists; Edmund Shehy held Ballynerougy, Gorteene, Charaghane, Ballykennedy, Ballybeggaine, Ballycolman, and Castlecrome, while William Fitzgerald owned Tyrenehelly (Simmington, 255-8).
In the late medieval period, there is evidence that tower houses were built at Ballynoe and Ballynarooga More (South) with other possible sites at Grange Lower, Knockaderry, and Ballymorrisheen. The church and tower house in close proximity at Ballynoe were likely indicators of the presence of a medieval village and the Civil Survey also notes that there was a mill nearby. However, this small urban centre was not to survive and by the early nineteenth century a new village had taken hold two kilometres to the north at Knockaderry, no doubt helped by the granting of a patent to John Jephson in 1710 to hold regular fairs in the village. Sean Liston points out that the combination of an important road junction between Dromcolliher, Newcastle West, and Rathkeale and the centre for a quarterly fair were the likely catalysts for the growth of a village at Knockaderry, and by 1841 there were seventy-one houses in the village (Liston, 10).
Regarding the records of the Catholic Church, in 1704, Hugh Conway, who lived at Gortnacreha was registered as a Catholic priest for Clouncagh, Clonelty, and Grange. During the early nineteenth century, the parish was divided with James Quillinan in charge of the Cloncagh side, and Denis O’Brien, parish priest of the Knockaderry side. When Quillinan died in 1853, O’Brien became parish priest of both sections of the parish (Begley, 630).
Clouncagh and Cloncagh seem to be interchangeable to this day on official documents and on signposts. According to Donal Begley, a native of Clouncagh who was Chief Herald of Ireland for 13 years until he retired in June 1995,
The civil parish or state parish is written as ‘Cloncagh’, and under this form are classified such records as census and valuation returns. In short ‘Clouncagh’ designated the Catholic parish and ‘Cloncagh’ the civil or state or Protestant parish (Donal Begley, 20).
In 1789 much of Knockaderry village was burned down when a candle set fire to some straw and the flames spread to neighbouring buildings. No lives were lost (Begley, 94).
In 1806 Knockaderry Parish had 450 houses and 84 Baptisms were recorded during the year.
The Census of 1821 records a population for Knockaderry Parish of 3,328, including 253 pupils at pay Hedge Schools. Pattern Day in Clouncagh was on St. Patrick’s Day.
During the Rockite Insurrection in 1822, the Knockaderry district was very much disturbed. On the night of Saturday 23 February 1822, a house was set on fire by the Whiteboys in Lissaniska and burned to the ground. Such was the lawless state of this part of the county that a letter in the Limerick Chronicle on 27th February from a correspondent near Rathkeale which was timed and dated at 9pm on Tuesday 26 February 1822 reported; ‘We are now at this moment looking out of the windows and are illuminated with houses on fire all about the country’.
The era of the hedge school phenomenon in Ireland was between 1750 and 1875. Hedge schools were the only means available to the Catholic population for the education of their children during this period. Generally speaking, these schools were sited in discreet locations. There is evidence to suggest that in the year 1824 here were three pay Hedge Schools recorded in the parish by an official report. Two in Knockaderry run by John Mulcahy and John O’Callaghan and one in Clouncagh run by Edward Conway which was located, according to Donal Begley, in the corner of ‘Hartnett’s Field’ on the Begley farm. The three schools had a total enrolment of 228. The first ‘official’ school in the parish assisted by the Board of Commissioners of National Education was established in the year 1832. This school was located in the village of Knockaderry and John O’Callaghan was appointed headmaster of the Boys’ School and Amelia O’Callaghan, his daughter, was appointed as mistress of the Girls’ school. John Croke, a relation of Archbishop Thomas Croke, the first patron of the GAA and after whom Croke Park is named, set up a hedge school in Clouncagh around 1850. William McCann and his family offered him a thatched house and local children such as the Aireys, the Baggots, the Begleys, the Hartnetts, the Hickeys, the Quaids, and the Walls made their daily trek to sit at the feet of Master Croke. The school flourished until the arrival of the first purpose-built national school which opened its doors in Ahalin in May 1867. After this, the school suffered a gradual decline although it continued to operate until the death of John Croke circa 1885.
During the nineteenth century, Knockaderry was a major centre for fairs in the district. Fairs were held on Ascension Day, 9th September, 29th October, and 19th December. Samuel Lewis in 1837 described the village as being on the road to Ballingarry ‘containing fifty-eight small and indifferently built houses’ (Lewis, 101).
Knockaderry village was the scene of many faction fights in the 1830s. These fights generally occurred on fair day when long-tailed families in the community met in combat on the main street of the village. These altercations were fuelled by alcohol. The major faction in the area was the Curtins who were joined on occasion by the Haughs and Mulcahys who fought the Connors’, Longs, and Lenihans. Some of the factions could muster large numbers to appear for them. On the 12th of September 1835, a report in the Limerick Chronicle stated that the Connors factions numbering three to four hundred strong paraded the main street of the village. The Curtins who were few in number withdrew.
In 1836 there was another Outrage Report of a riot that occurred between rival factions at the Knockaderry Fair held on Ascension Thursday. The opposing factions were named as The Three-Year-Olds and The Four-Year-Olds!!
During the 1830s the payment of tithes for the support of the Protestant Church was an issue that caused much tension among the Catholic community and this occasionally led to violence. On the 16th of May 1838, an Outrage Report for County Limerick stated that at Carrowmore, Cloncagh, two men serving tithe processes were surrounded and attacked by a large number of ‘country people’ and were badly beaten. This unrest followed largely as a consequence of the passing into law of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829 by the British Parliament. Writing in an article for the Knockaderry Clouncagh Parish Annual in 1990, Canon T. J. Lyons P.P. remarked:
The results of the passing of the Act were quickly acted upon in County Limerick. In Knockaderry and Clouncagh priests and people quickly organised themselves to build two churches, one in Knockaderry and one in Clouncagh. Fr Denis O’Brien opened and dedicated Knockaderry new church to St Munchin in 1838 and Fr Quillinan opened and dedicated Clouncagh church to the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1840.
On the night of January 6th, 1839, The Night of The Big Wind, the roof was blown off the old timber Mass House in Clouncagh. Within a year this Mass House had been replaced with a new church, St. Mary’s, which was officially opened in Clouncagh in 1840. John Cregan, who was reputed to be the last native Irish speaker in Gortnacrehy, was born on this night during the storm.
In the spring of 1839, a shortage of fuel manifested itself in the district following poor weather the previous autumn. According to the Outrage Reports County Limerick near Knockaderry village on the 21st of March 1839, 150 men and boys organised themselves and took matters into their own hands when they cut down and took away two acres of furze the property of Robert Quaid.
In 1840, the important minor gentry in the parish were D’Arcy Evans of Knockaderry House, James Sullivan of Chesterfield House, the Meade family of Dromin House, Dromin Deel, and the Fitzgerald family of Moviddy. D’Arcy Evans was the largest resident landlord holding 918 acres. Almost seventy percent of the land was held by absentee landlords, such as Lord Clare and the Earl of Devon who were the largest landowners in the parish with 1,629 and 1,208 acres respectively. An analysis of the Tithe Applotment Books in the 1830s shows that the holdings of tenants ranged from less than an acre to several hundred acres with the average size being thirty-two acres. Many people lived in poverty at the lower end of the social scale with ninety labourers recorded as having less than five acres (Liston, 19, 29, 30).
In the Summer of 1840 the parish was surveyed by a team led by the renowned scholar, Dr. John O’Donovan as part of the Ordnance Survey National 6” Map series. They recorded the antiquities, and the topographical features and settled on a definitive version of the various townland names which were to appear on the eventual maps produced by the survey teams. O’Donovan spent July and August 1840 in Limerick and he signed off on his work on the parish of Clonelty and Clouncagh on 25 July 1840. He was assisted in his work in Limerick by Padraig Ó Caoimh and Antaine Ó Comhraí.
O’Donovan records numerous landlords and ‘sundry Gentlemen’ owning the various townlands in the former parish of Clonelty: Aughalin with its 565 statute acres was the property of Robert Featherston who also owned extensive lands and property in Bruree, County Limerick; Ballybrown was the property of Thomas Locke, Esq.; Ballynoe was the property of the Court of Exchequer; the Glebe of Knockaderry was the property of James Darcy Evans and Knockaderry itself in 1840 was the property of Major Sullivan under James Darcy Evans; Kiltanna with its 370 acres was the property of Wellington Rose, Esq.; Rathfredagh was the property of Thomas Cullinan; Lissaniska East was the property of Lord Chief Baron O’Grady while Lissaniska West was the property of Thomas Locke, Esq.
The Census of 1841 records the population of the three civil parishes as Grange: 708; Clonelty: 1437; and Clouncagh: 1389. 52% of parishioners were living in one-room mud cabins.
The Great Famine struck the parish between the years of 1845 and 1847and many were forced to enter workhouses. Many died of famine fever and many others are forced to emigrate. The Census of 1851 records the population of the three civil parishes of Grange, Clonelty, and Cloncagh as Grange: 490; Clonelty: 942; Cloncagh: 872. Overall, in the civil parishes of Clonelty, Grange, and Cloncagh during the decade of the Great Famine from 1841 to 1851, the population fell from 3,524 to 2,686. The 1851 returns also included 382 females in an Auxiliary or Temporary Workhouse which was located in Knockaderry House. Ignoring the workhouse returns the population loss was thirty-five percent.
The Census of 1851 records that the population of Knockaderry village stayed fairly steady falling slightly from 366 to 346. This figure stands in stark contrast to the neglected state of the village today with a population no higher than fifty people. The Census also records that 50% of the surviving population were Irish speakers or at least had some knowledge of the Irish language. This figure, rather than being a positive figure illustrated the success of efforts to eradicate the Irish language from common discourse in the locality, mainly through the efforts of the national school system.
Begley, Donal. John O’Byrne Croke: Life and Times of a Clouncagh Scholar. Private publication, Modern Printers, Kilkenny, 2018.
Begley, Rev. John. The Diocese of Limerick from 1691 to the Present Time. (Vol III), Browne and Nolan, Dublin, 1938.
Curtin, Gerard. Every Field Had a Name: The Place-names of West Limerick, Sliabh Luachra Historical Society, 2012.
Irwin, Liam. The Diocese of Limerick: An Illustrated History, ed. David Bracken, 2013.
Lewis, Samuel. A History and Topography of Limerick City and County. Mercier Press: Dublin and Cork, 1980.
Liston, Sean. ‘The Community of Grange, Clonelty and Cloncagh, 1805-1845’ unpublished M.A. in History and Local Studies Thesis, University of Limerick, 2001, pp 19,29,30.
Simmington, Robert C., The Civil Survey, County of Limerick, Volume IV, Published by the Stationery Office, Dublin, 1938.
Stout, Geraldine, and Matthew. ‘Early Landscapes from Prehistory to Plantation’, in F.H.A. Aalen, Kevin Whelan and Matthew Stout (eds), Atlas of Irish Rural Landscape, (Cork, 1997).