Kilmacduagh sits at the edge of the Burren, dominating the rural landscape some 5km south-west of Gort, in Co. Galway. In the medieval period, it was the most important church of the Uí Fiachrach Aidhne, a powerful local dynasty who held lands that stretched from the Atlantic coast to the mountains of the Burren and Slieve Aughty. By the twelfth century, Kilmacduagh had an enclosed settlement with the main church at the centre, at least three subsidiary churches, a round tower, the grave of the founder, Cólmán mac Duach, and a well dedicated to him. The settlement was transformed when the main church was enlarged as a cathedral and a monastery for Augustinian canons was established in the thirteenth century.
The origins of Kilmacduagh date to Colmán mac Duach’s seventh-century foundation which was endowed by his kinsman Guaire Aidne mac Colmáin, King of Connacht. Prominent branches of the dynasty held the hereditary ecclesiastical offices of Kilmacduagh. The lands were the responsibility of the O’Heynes, while the relics of St. Colmán – his crozier and his girdle that could only be worn by the chaste – were placed in the care of the O’Shaughnessys. When the dioceses were reorganised in the twelfth century, Kilmacduagh was established as the seat of a bishopric with St Colmán chosen as the patron and protector of the diocese.
The opening of the thirteenth century was a period of strife and destruction that would have had a devastating effect on the clergy and people at the settlement. Major military battles were fought at Kilmacduagh between the king of Connacht, Cathal Croibhdhearg O’Conor (d.1224) and his nephew and rival, Cathal Carrach O’Conor (d.1202), aided on both sides by Anglo-Norman allies. Further political warfare followed when Walter de Burgh (d.1271), 1st earl of Ulster, seized a sizeable portion of the Uí Fiachrach Aidne territory where he granted manors to his sons and to FitzGerald.
Despite the Anglo-Norman conquest, O’Heyne and O’Shaughnessy held onto their lands in the districts of Kilmacduagh and Gort. The O’Heynes were patrons of the Augustinian abbey and members of the family were buried there. Brian mac Eoghan O’Heyne granted land at the monastery to the canons, but other records on the circumstances of the foundation have not survived. The O’Shaughnessys too had associations with the abbey. A notable figure was Abbot Eugene O’Shaughnessy who was made treasurer of Kilmacduagh diocese in 1483 by Pope Sixtus IV (d.1484).
During the Reformation period, Christopher Bodkin (d.1572) was consecrated bishop of Kilmacduagh at Marseilles in 1533. He retained his see as an absentee after he was appointed archbishop of Tuam by King Henry VIII (d.1547) three years later, and he held both offices until his death in 1572. When the Augustinian abbey was officially suppressed, it was granted to Richard Sassanach (d.1582), 2nd earl of Clanricarde (Sassanach meaning Saxon or Englishman). The site and lands were leased to James Naylande in 1569 and then to the mayor, bailiffs and citizens of Galway in 1578. The canons probably remained at the abbey until Sir John Perrot (d.1592), Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, stayed at Kilmacduagh in 1584.
When Hugh de Burgo (d.1656), a Franciscan friar from the Irish College at Louvain, took possession as the Catholic bishop of Kilmacduagh, he had part of the cathedral re-roofed in 1649. Local people continued to venerate St Cólmán at Kilmacduagh long after the settlement was abandoned. A pilgrimage, called a ‘pattern’, to the saint’s church and holy well took place until the twentieth century on his feast day, celebrated on 29 October.
At Kilmacduagh, the Augustinian church and the east range of the domestic buildings are exceptionally well preserved. The chancel has high quality sculptural details that are characteristic of a group of masons, known as the ‘School of the West’, who were working on ecclesiastical buildings in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Kilmacduagh has an impressive array of other medieval buildings that include St Cólmán’s cathedral, the church of St John the Baptist, Templemurry (Our Lady’s church) and the bishop’s residence. The most striking building is the round tower which is leaning like its very famous counterpart at Pisa.
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County Galway – Things to see and do