The half-parish of Clouncagh/Cloncagh nestles in the heartland of rural West Limerick. It was formerly part of the Barony of Upper Connello and is bounded on the north by Rathkeale; on the east by Ballingarry; on the south by Kilmeedy and the west by its other half-parish, Knockaderry and Newcastle West. The townland and former civil parish extended over 4,540 acres of level pastoral land in the heart of West Limerick.
Clouncagh, in the recent past, was probably best known for its famous Creamery. The Co-Operative Movement had been founded by Sir Horace Plunkett in 1889 and had very strong roots in West Limerick. It was not surprising then that farmers in the Clouncagh area came together and formed the Clouncagh Co-operative Dairy Society in 1890. Gradually Clouncagh began to develop its butter-making skills and in 1939 they won the Read Cup, the most prestigious prize available to the butter-making industry in all of Ireland.
The first manager of the creamery was David O’Brien from Clonakilty. His son, Donnchadh O’Briain later served as Fianna Fail TD for West Limerick for 36 years – having the honour to serve as Parliamentary Secretary to Taoiseach Eamon De Valera for a number of years and also to Taoiseach Sean Lemass. He was one of the founding members of Fianna Fail and served as its General Secretary for many years and was first nominated to stand for Fianna Fail in the ground breaking General Election of 1933. He also served as Chief Whip for many years. He retired from politics in 1969.
The Creamery and Donnchadh O’Briain helped put Clouncagh on the map but, if the truth were told, there has always been a certain amount of confusion as to whether the place should be known as Clouncagh or Cloncagh. The placename has taken on several variations down through the years: Clouncagh, Cloncagh, Clooncagh, Cloencagh and Clonki. There are even greater variations in the Irish version with Cluain Catha, Cluain Cath, Cluain Coimdhe, Cluain-Claidheach and also Cluain Claidheach-Maodog, Cluainchladh-bhaith, Cluain-claidhblaim being some of these.
According to Donal Begley, another native of Clouncagh and former Chief Herald of Ireland until his retirement in 1995,
‘the oldest of those forms is Clonki which is formed from the root elements ‘cluain’ (a bounded area), and possibly ‘Coimdhe’, meaning the Lord, God. On that basis Clonki would signify ‘God’s enclosure’ – surely an appropriate name to describe the location of a monastery, abbey or church, such as we have in Clouncagh.
The Black Book of Limerick, a 13th– Century topographical survey of the Diocese of Limerick has a reference to a church in Cluonkai, and this is surely a reference to present day Clouncagh.
The more generally accepted, though not necessarily correct, form of the placename in Irish is Cluain Catha which would translate into English as ‘The Meadow or Enclosure of the Battle’. Meanwhile, for some time now, the anglicised versions ‘Clouncagh’ and ‘Cloncagh’ vie with one another for preference locally and the reality is that Clouncagh and Cloncagh seem to be interchangeable to this day on official documents, local signposts and in local usage.
Donal Begley, a firm believer that the correct version is Clouncagh, tells us that, traditionally,
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.
Rather mischievously the Wikipedia entry for Knockaderry claims that ‘during the ministry of Canon Timothy J. Lyons as parish priest, (1964 – 1994) the “u” in Clouncagh was dropped, although it can still be seen on some of the signs entering the parish’. As Donal Begley points out the ‘u’ in Clouncagh was dropped long before Canon Lyons came to the parish.
The monastic church in Clouncagh, nestling as it did within the graveyard and centrally located within the larger fort enclosure, was a centre of worship for the local Christian community until around 1700 when public Catholic worship in Ireland was proscribed by the Penal Laws. The present parish of Knockaderry – Clouncagh (bringing together the previous parishes of Cloncagh, Clonelty and Grange) seems to have come into being around 1700 when Knockaderry began to be used as a Mass venue. The village was also granted a patent for a fair in 1711 and so it became the new centre of economic activity in the area and the old monastic sites in Cloncagh and Clonelty and Grange, which had been the focus of activity for the previous one thousand years began to fade in importance. In the 17th and 18th Century the church in Cloncagh continued in use as a Church of Ireland church. By the early 19th century the church lay abandoned and in ruins.
Diocesan and Parish’ boundaries were established at the Synod of Ráth Breasail (also known as Rathbreasail) in 1111. This Synod marked the transition of the Irish church from a monastic to a diocesan and parish-based church and many present-day dioceses trace their boundaries to decisions made at the synod. Our earliest records show that Fr Hugh Conway, who resided in Gortnacrehy, was registered and appointed Parish Priest of the former medieval parishes of Clouncagh, Clonelty and Grange, the rough equivalent of the present-day parish, in 1704. However, it wasn’t until 1853 on the death of Fr James Quillinan that Fr Denis O’Brien, who was Parish Priest in Knockaderry at the time, became the Parish Priest of the united parishes of Knockadery and Clouncagh.
In the 19th Century the Catholic Mass House in Clouncagh was situated just off the byroad, behind the present day church in land owned by the Begley family. This Mass House was severely damaged on the night of January 6th, 1839, ‘The Night of the Big Wind’. The roof was blown off and the wooden structure suffered other damage and yet amazingly within a year this Mass House had been replaced with a new church, St. Mary’s, which was officially opened in Clouncagh in1840. This is the church which still stands today having undergone numerous renovations down the years.
Over the gothic entrance to the church carved in limestone is the original inscription: Clouncagh RC Church Erected 1840. Inside the church there are also inscriptions to past parish priests who were revered by the local parishioners for their pastoral work in very difficult times. In the early nineteenth century the supply of priests improved and two priests were appointed to the parish, Fr James Quillinan for Clouncagh and Fr Denis O’Brien for Knockaderry. When Fr James Quillinan died in 1853 he was buried before the altar in Clouncagh as he had been the main driving force in the construction of the new church in 1840. Fr Denis O’Brien, who had built St Munchin’s Church in Knockaderry also in 1840, then took over as the parish priest for the united parishes of Knockaderry and Clouncagh. Both priests are buried in Clouncagh where there is also a separate memorial to Fr. O’Brien to the left of the nave near the altar. This reads:
This monument has been erected
By his devoted sister to the memory of
Rev. Denis O’Brien P.P.
Whose long and zealous pastoral charge
For 36 years has endeared his name
To his numerous and admiring friends.
He died 19th March 1868
Year of his age 60
Requiescat in Pace. Amen.
The Rev. Cornelius McCarthy is also buried within the church. He was ordained in 1848 and served in the united parishes of Knockaderry and Clouncagh and died on Christmas Day 1885. A commemorative plaque on the wall to the right of the nave reads:
Of the priestly virtues
And sterling patriotism
Of the Rev Cornelius McCarthy
Who ruled for eighteen years
As the much beloved pastor of these parishes.
It became accepted practice within the parish that the Parish Priest resided in Clouncagh and the curate, if there was one, resided in Knockaderry.
The site of the Old Graveyard and ruined church at Cloncagh, from which the area gets its name, was the site of an early monastic establishment possibly dating from the 7th – Century. Some have credited its foundation to St. Maedoc of Ferns, who died in 624AD, while others say that he may just have been its patron. The graveyard and ruined church is contained within a large circular enclosure, formed by an earthen bank and an exterior ditch (some of which has now been dismantled but visible in earlier OS maps). The diameter of the enclosure is 220 metres and it encloses an area of 9.38 acres. The church and graveyard are located centrally within the enclosure and the present day local roadway bisects it east to west.
Further evidence that the site is an early monastery is provided by three holy wells recorded in the vicinity, Lady’s Well (Tubbermurry or Tobar Muire), Sundays Well (Tobar Rí an Domhnaigh), and St. Patrick’s Well. Only St. Patrick’s Well survives. Caoimhín Ó Danachair, the prominent Irish folklorist wrote about St. Patrick’s Well in 1955 in Holy Wells of County Limerick:
St Patrick’s Well was celebrated for curing blindness. Visited especially on 17th March. The Legend goes that while praying at Leacht Phádraig (a rock about 1000 yards from the well, associated in tradition with the saint) St Patrick saw a serpent approaching the church, and banished it by throwing his prayer-book at it. The well sprang up where the book fell. A fish is seen in the well by those whose requests are to be granted. (p. 204).
There is a record of the burning of Clouncagh church in 1326 by the Irish in their war with the Normans. There are at least two burial chambers still visible today in the graveyard – one belonging to the D’Arcy family, local landlords and the others for members of the Tierney family.
Usually a fort, especially one as big and imposing as the one in Clouncagh would be referred to as a ráth or a lios or a dún in Irish. We have to wonder why this is not the case with the great fort in Clouncagh. Indeed, within the parish there are examples of townlands with names such as Lisanisky (Lios an Uisce) or Rathfredagh, while the neighbouring parish to the north is Rathkeale (Ráth Caola). However, Clouncagh seems to be an exception to the rule, probably because of its vast size. In his extensive writings on the ancient churches and ring forts in County Limerick, noted Irish antiquarian, folklorist and archaeologist, T.J. Westropp M.A. M.R.I.A., mentions ‘the great fort of Dromin at Clouncagh’. He classes it as the largest ring fort in County Limerick. This fact is interesting in itself because Limerick has 2,147 ring forts taking up approximately 317 acres. P. J. Lynch who surveyed the parish of Knockaderry – Cloncagh in 1944 as part of the Irish Tourist Association Topographical and General Survey tells us that ‘locally it is considered to have been a seat of Government in ancient times’.
The Irish version of the name Cluain Catha, seems to imply that it is named after a battle but as Donal Begley has already pointed out this is but one possible translation of the placename. There is very little reference to be found in official sites of any significant battle and very little in local folklore although we do have the reference to the fact that the then wooden church was ‘destroyed by war’ in 1326 and was rebuilt.
The following account is found in the Schools Folklore Collection (1937 – 1939) from the Convent National School in Ballingarry. The teacher’s name is Sister Mary Treasa. In my opinion, it is a perfect example of local folklore stepping in with its own narrative in the absence of any concrete historical evidence to the contrary and there may also be some evidence of nationalism insinuating itself into the mix!
One young contributor to the Collection wrote:
Clouncagh means Cluain – Cath. The Meadow of the Battle. It derived its name from a great battle fought there in the 17th century between the Irish and the English. The Irish were successful in that Battle. The victors followed the retreating army from Clouncagh across the country to Ballinarouga. Ballinarouga means the town of the rout. It got its name from the fact that the English troops were put to flight there.
However, while this claim is at best very fanciful it is true that the townland of Ballinarouga (‘The Townland of the Rout’) lies directly to the east of the ring fort enclosure in Clouncagh, and it is also interesting to note that the townland of Gortnacrehy (‘The Field of the Plunder’) also lies directly to the south. So even though there is no historical evidence of major battles being fought there it does seem that, going on the evidence of the local placenames alone, there were a fair few skirmishes in the area surrounding the monastic settlement in Clouncagh. The very fact that the battle, and not the fort itself is remembered in the placename leads us to believe that like many other important monastic sites in Ireland the fort at Clouncagh may have been a great source of dispute and contention in the dim and distant past. Is not the fact that the site was surrounded by impressive defensive ramparts but further evidence of its historic importance in the local area?
As I have already discussed here the renowned scholar and antiquarian, John O’Donovan visited and surveyed the parishes of Clonelty and Cloncagh in the summer of 1840 as part of preparatory work for the 6” Ordnance Survey Map being developed at the time. Dr O’Donovan was a noted historian and the translator of The Annals of the Four Masters, an Irish-speaking scholar and scribe, and he was the Ordnance Survey’s overall Names Expert during their survey conducted between 1824 and 1846. It was O’Donovan’s responsibility to enter all the Irish versions of names into the Names Books, in addition to the English spelling recommended for the published maps. In effect, his role was to standardize the translations of the Irish placenames into English and as far as the Ordnance Survey were concerned his word was law.
The vast majority of placenames in Ireland are anglicized versions of Irish language names. In many cases this entailed adapting the original Irish names to a standardized English phonology and spelling. Gerard Curtin in his fabulous book, Every Field Had a Name, tells us that all of the townland placenames in the parish of Knockaderry and Clouncagh were recorded between 1200 and 1655. Curtin tells us that this is the only instance of this occurring in West Limerick and is evidence of a land well-endowed and densely populated. So when O’Donovan surveyed the parish of Knockaderry in 1840 he found a rich vein of placenames containing often mysterious and sometimes unexplained echoes of the past.
His work on this survey was rigorous and meticulous, so much so that the Ordnance Survey of Ireland Names Books are sometimes referred to as ‘O’Donovan’s Name Books’. O’Donovan spent July and August 1840 in West Limerick and he signed off on his work on the parish of Cloncagh and Clonelty on 25 July 1840. He was assisted in his work in Limerick by Padraig Ó Caoimh and Antaine Ó Comhraí (Ó Maolfabhail, xvii). Ó Maolfabhail recognises the validity and status of O’Donovan’s work when he tells us that by 1840 there were only four other counties to be completed as part of this nationwide survey and so, therefore, O’Donovan had huge experience gained already as part of his work on the survey. This experience stood him in good stead in his attempts to standardize the translations of placenames from the Irish to the English and in trying to make sense of the etymology of the various placenames he came across (Ó Maolfabhail, xvii).
The Orthography Section of the Names Books provides the various spellings for each townland or place and the Authority Section gives the source from which these variations were derived. This was a controversial part of the Survey, especially in the Irish-speaking areas of Ireland. Thomas Larcom, the head of the Ordnance Survey, and, John O’Donovan, had a clear policy when it came to the variant spellings and meanings of Irish place-names, which was to adopt ‘the version which came closest to the original Irish form of the name’. O’Donovan is following on from long accepted practice the advice and ground rules laid down by such experts as his friend and fellow academic Patrick Weston Joyce who wrote the book Irish Local Names Explained which dealt with the process of anglicizing Irish placenames. Joyce, a Limerick man from Ballyorgan, near Kilfinnane, tells us that the governing principle in anglicizing placenames from the Irish is that ‘the present forms are derived from the ancient Irish, as they were spoken, not as they were written’. He goes on to say that there had been a long standing procedure whereby ‘those who first committed them to writing, aimed at preserving the original pronunciation, by representing it as nearly as they were able in English letters’. In my view, the over-rigorous application of standardization by O’Donovan fails to take account of local variations of pronunciation and so, to this day, we are left with a dissonance between the spelling and the local pronunciation of Clouncagh.
O’Donovan, in his extensive travels throughout Ireland as part of this nationwide survey, would have come across many placenames with the popular prefix ‘Cluain’ and he seems to have decided that this should be universally rendered as ‘Clon’ in the accepted Anglicised translation. We are very familiar with many of these placenames today throughout the length and breadth of Ireland: Clonmel, Clontarf, Clonlara, Clontibret, Clonmacnoise, Cloncagh, etc. Even though his Name Books refer to ‘Clooncagh’ and ‘Cloonelty’ they would later appear as Cloncagh and Clonelty in the 6” map which was produced by the Ordnance Survey in 1843. So, dare I say it, we have none other than the eminent John O’Donovan to blame for giving us ‘Cloncagh’ despite the mild-mannered objections of many locals to this day; especially those who continue to pronounce the placename with a ‘u’.
Referring to the origins of the placename in his Name Books, he is at pains to balance the two vying possibilities: on the one hand, he acknowledges the monastic site and the possible connection to St Maedoc, while on the other hand, he states that, ‘The name, however, is now pronounced by the natives as if written Cluain Cath, which if correct would signify Battle-Field.’
In his Name Books he also references numerous historical documents which mention Clouncagh and references one story which may be relevant to the origins of the placename. He quotes from, the noted priest and academic, Dr John Lanigan’s, The Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, V.II, p 338:
Maidoc was remarkable for his hospitality and benevolence. On being informed that some relatives of his were prisoners in Hy-Conall Gabhra (141) he went to that Country, although far distant from Ferns, for the purpose of delivering them and did not desist until he induced the Chieftain, otherwise very harsh on this point, to give them up. It is added that this Chieftain was so affected by the Saint’s (p.339) conduct that he granted him a place called Cluain-Claidheach, in which he erected a Monastery (142).
In my opinion, this may go some way to explaining why Clouncagh (Clauin Catha) is an exception to the rule mentioned earlier: the fort was gifted to St. Maedoc and changed from being a fortified place to a place of worship and monastic activity as far back as the 7th century. In a way, the fort was, in effect, a trophy of war and so retained its original name to remind people of its history. Donal Begley seems to agree with this view and he asks the question:
Could it be that Cluain Catha means a ‘trophy’ townland to remind us of a notable victory won by the fort men against an enemy on the ‘battlefield’?
In his beautiful book, Thirty-Two Words for Field, Manchán Magan illustrates the richness and variety which the Irish language bestows on those seemingly anonymous expanses of indistinguishable fields which surround us in our beautiful countryside. He tells us that Cluain is ‘a meadow field between two woods’. This suggests a fenced off or bounded meadow, and would aptly describe the fort enclosure at Clouncagh. Today, we can but surmise as to what took place on this holy site and the significance of the placename associated with it. It may be that it was the focus of local rivalry between warring chieftains in pre-Christian times, or indeed, as was very common in early Irish society, it may have been the location of numerous old fashioned cattle raids like the famous Cattle Raid at Cooley. Or, as John O’Donovan suggests in another one of his references to olden manuscripts it may indeed have been gifted to St Maedoc by the local chieftain as a reward for restoring his daughter to life. He references a story from The Life of St Maedoc:
Before the entrance of that fort the Man of God fasted for three days. The fast being ended, the daughter of the Chief … died suddenly. The wife of the Chief, knowing that this fact was the cause of a miracle, brought the lifeless body to St Maedoc. And the servant of God being requested by her mother and by her attendants, resuscitated her from death. ……. The Chief seeing this now, did penance and left his relatives liberated to St Maedoc, and offered him the place which is called Cluainchladh-bhaith (Cluain-claidhblaim) and the Holy Man erected a Monastery there, and blessing the place itself and the Chief who gave it, retired from thence.
Today as one stands at the gateway to the old cemetery in Clouncagh the semi-circular rampart to the north of the roadway is still clearly visible while the ramparts to the south have been eroded over time and removed by local farmers trying to improve their farmsteads. Today also there is only one well in the fields to the south – St. Patrick’s Well still stands forlornly as a reminder of former glory.
So, we can see that the confusion as to whether Clouncagh or Cloncagh is the correct modern version of the placename is still contentious. Our Ordnance Survey maps, our County Council, other government agencies, indeed the Diocese, all still rely on long-outdated information found in the old civil parishes documentation and so they still refer to the place as Cloncagh while the locals with their generations of lore and accepted pronunciation seem to prefer Clouncagh. As with the etymology and orthography of other placenames in our community, such as Aughalin/Ahalin for example, local lore is often ignored and disregarded as not having sufficient authority.
In reality, I suppose, the more we delve into the blurry past the more we realise that placenames don’t correspond to a single event and are more often the accretion over time of mundane common speech which is finally calcified by someone of the calibre of John O’Donovan who stops the spinning wheel of discursive meaning and sets it in amber for future generations as he did in July 1840. Mixed metaphors aside, I suppose, we must seek forgiveness for our desire to ascribe heroic meaning to a placename if at all possible and human nature being what it is if we can entwine some simplistic nationalism in the knot then more’s the better!
Meanwhile, the locals, including such esteemed scholars as Donal Begley continue to plough their lonely furrow and seek to have restored the only version of the placename acceptable to them: Clouncagh (Cluain Catha). However, whatever our preferences the reality is that it is impossible to know with absolute certainty what the correct version is and that ensures that the original etymology of many of our placenames will always be up for discussion and debate.
Bailiúchán na Scol, Imleabhar 0500, page 171
Begley, Donal. A Wayside Farm by the River: Clouncagh Remembered, Privately Published by the author. Printed by Reads Design, Print and Display Dublin. 2015.
Begley, Donal. John O’Byrne Croke: Life and Times of a Clouncagh Scholar. Print and Design: Modern Printers, Kilkenny. 2018.
Curtin, Gerard. Every Field Had a Name – The Place-Names of West Limerick. Sliabh Luachra Historical Society, 2012.
Joyce, P. W., Irish Local Names Explained (1923). Scholar’s Choice Edition, Creative Media Partnership, LLC, 2015.
Knockaderry Clouncagh Parish Annuals
Lanigan’s, Dr John (1758 – 1825), The Ecclesiastical History of Ireland.
Manchán Magan, Thirty-Two Words for Field: Lost Words of the Irish Landscape, Gill Books, Dublin, 2020.
Ó Danachair, Caoimhín, Holy Wells of County Limerick, in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. LXXXV, 1955.
Art Ó Maolfabhail, Logainmneacha na hÉireann Imleabhair: 1 Contae Luimnigh, (Baile Átha Cliath, 1990).
O’Donavan, John. Ordnance Survey Name Books
Quilty, Pat. Knockaderry Clouncagh Graveyards, a West Limerick Resources grant aided project, 2014.
Westropp, T.J., “A Survey of the Ancient Churches of the County of Limerick”, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, XXV, 327 – 480.
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