Antiquities of Ullard, County Kilkenny

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WE have left our carriages on what was once called ” The Street of Ullard ” ; houses lined the road where not one now remains ; a colony of Welshmen are reported to have settled here, and after many years’ residence to have emigrated to Newfoundland.

History of the Parish

Around the church and village were ‘ ‘ The Commons of Ullard.” All is now enclosed into fields, in one of which a bronze celt, some ancient coins, and other objects of antiquity have been found. The name of this parish, like many others in Ireland, is spelt in various ways, such as Illard, Ollard, and Erard : the latter appears in the “Irish Calendar,” 2nd May. (Ref: O’Donovan)

It is to be regretted that no mention of it is to be found in the “Annals of the Four Masters “; neither can I find it in “Ledwich,” “Archdall,” ” O’Halloran,” “Joyce,” or “Petrie.” Seward, in his ” Topographia Hibernica,” written in the last century, gives the value of the prebend as £1 6s. 8d. Irish. This taxation was probably taken in 29 (sic) Henry VIII., at the same time as that of the dioceses of Ferns and Ossory.

Lewis, in his “Topographical Dictionary,” written in 1837, merely describes the parish as formerly situated on both sides of the River Barrow, and partly in the county Carlow and partly in the county Kilkenny, and that it is a prebend of the Cathedral of Leighlin. His reference to the old church, with its richly embellished doorway and finely sculptured cross, is of the briefest kind. He dismisses them with the simple and truthful remark ” that they appear to be of some antiquity.”

In the ” Fiants ” of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, preserved in our Public Record Office in Dublin, mention is made of this parish in a few instances. In 156 2/3 (sic – ?prob means 1562 or 1563?) [March 8th] is a grant to Thomas Earl of Ormond and Ossory, of various lands, &c., in the counties of Kildare, Kilkenny, Wexford, &c., and, amongst others, ” one-third of Ollard, to be held in tail male, by the service of a twentieth part of a knight’s fee for all demands.”

Again, in a Fiant of the same reign, dated 30th May, 1601, a Pardon is granted to Morgan McBrian Kavanagh, of Polmounty, gent., and Ellinor Butler, his wife, and amongst others to Donagh McDavid O’Rian, of Illard, freeholder; also to “Walter buoy O’Rian, of Cowleroe, and Shane McDavid O’Rian, of Illard, freeholders, on the usual conditions, not to extend to murder, before they entered into action of Rebellion, nor intrusion upon possessions of the Crown, or debts due to the Crown.”

These Rians appear to have been large and ancient proprietors of land in this parish. In the same year as the above pardon is another granted to William Brenock, Conchor Mentana (this latter name has a Spanish sound about it), Brene O’Donohue, Robert Welshe, Shane Morchoe, and Harrie McEdm. Fynnollan, of Ullard, and a number of others in various localities, including the famous “Donell Kavanagh” the Spaniard, as he was called, of Clonmullen Castle, gent., and his daughter, Ellinor Kavanagh, the heroine of “Eileen Aroon.”

We now come to the only source from whence we have obtained any really valuable information of this ancient place, the Papers of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, written about the year 1839 by that dis- tinguished antiquary, the late John O’Donovan, LL.D., Eugene O’Curry, and others, and happily preserved in the library of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. From them we learn that this old ruin before us is a link between the ancient Irish and the Gothic styles, and probably dates from about the year 1120.

Description of the Church

The following are the dimensions of this church, as given by O’Donovan : Nave, 33 feet long and 22 feet wide ; the choir, 24 feet long and 18 wide ; but I find the dimensions given by the late Lord Dunraven in his ” Notes on Irish Architecture ” differ from the above in some respects. He makes the nave six inches shorter and one foot wider than O’Donovan, and the chancel in like manner is one foot narrower than it is given by O’Donovan. But the great attraction this ruin has for us here to-day is, no doubt, the fine triple-arched receding semicircular doorway (fig., p. 253), with its three wolf-like heads at the base and crown of the outer arch, within which we have the familiar zigzag pattern, and within this the second arch with its indented pattern and ornamentation, and inside this again the third and more modern arch. Let me direct attention to the heads and faces on the capitals of the pillars under the curved line of “pellets” on the outer arch and again between the second and third arches. These two latter heads are reputed to represent St. Fiachra and St. Moling, the latter of whom was recently treated of in a Paper in this Journal (1892, p. 377).

Portal or Doorway

A writer [Bloxham] on Gothic architecture says : “There was no portion of their religious structures on which the Anglo-Normans bestowed more pains in adorning and enriching with a profusion of ornamental mouldings and sculpture than the portals or doorways. They are found in every degree of variety, from extreme plainness to the utmost richness of which Norman ornament and sculpture was capable.”

Here in Ireland the same remarks would appear to be applicable to what is called the Hiberno-Romanesque doorways, which are now, I believe, very generally admitted to be of a date anterior to those of the Anglo-Norman period.

The Pellet ornamentation in this doorway must, when new and perfect, have formed a marked feature in its appearance. The pillars on either side appear to have rested on square granite bases with rounded mouldings. The angles of the walls are of roughly dressed stones. The walls themselves appear to have been originally built with “boulders” and what is known as coarse rubble, with very open joints, many of which it is evident have been filled up in the repairs done by the Board of Works and others. Parts of the walls appear to be built with stones of a different character from those used in the older portions, but granite is the chief material, [and you may have observed, in your drive here to-day from Borris, that it is not a scarce article in the neighbourhood.

Ancient Doorway at Ullard. file size 664w x 754h – 68kb

O’Donovan compares the doorway of this church to that of Killeshin in the Queen’s County, but I think he must have done so more from memory than from a careful comparison by drawings of the two. The differences appear to be very marked, and will be at once noticed by a careful comparison of photographs of them ; no doubt a certain similarity can be traced in many of the doorways of our ancient churches, and the same may be said of our crosses, but such questions of detail must not detain us now. O’Donovan considers the arch which divides the nave from the chancel to be two or three centuries later than the doorway, but this remark he applies only to the head of this arch. He compares the two round-headed windows in the south wall of the nave with those of Killeshin, and attributes them to the same date as the doorway.

Eastern gable and Windows

Of the eastern gable he says, that while the windows (more correctly two-light windows) are unquestionably not many centuries old, the gable itself is part of the original work. The stonework of this window, it will be observed, is of well- chiselled limestone. The built-up pointed arch in the north wall appears to have puzzled our learned antiquary, as he remarks, “He can’t think why or when it was placed there.” The next reference I have to call your attention to is that in the late Earl of Dunraven’s book, already named. After remarking on the round hole in the door-sill, which, he states, “He never saw before,” he draws attention to the “surface-ornament in low relief ” on the jambs of the door- way, and to the window over this doorway with the two figures on the top stone. He also remarks on the raised band round the outside of the south window “running up straight-sided to the apex, where it is crowned with a defaced head.”

You have, no doubt, already noticed the corbels which supported beams bearing a floor ; but the notices of the late Sir Samuel Ferguson on this old church, as given by Lord Dunraven, must now be considered. Writing to the late Dr. Petrie, in 1839, Ferguson says:


“Entering the chancel the first object that catches the attention is a flat, stone-roofed hutch covering the descent to a transverse vault or crypt, with a low arched roof, and lighted by a narrow slit in the wall at one end, while in the centre there is a recess containing some bones.

” In the north-east corner of the chancel a narrow square-headed door- way may be seen, with finely-chiselled jambs, on passing through which you come upon [the remains of] a stone staircase let into the thickness of the wall towards the gable, it is straight for the distance of about six or eight feet, when it becomes a spiral in a cylindrical chamber, now much dilapidated, but which, when perfect, evidently bulged at a height of about six feet from the ground in the angle of the interior corner, and thus presents the appearance of a partially developed round tower in the inside of the church, while the thickness of the wall admitted this exterior sweep without breaking the squareness of the exterior quoin” . . . . This spiral stair must have led to a chamber above, and would lead to the conjecture that there was a small, round belfry springing from the corner of the church.

Ancient Stone Cross

Ancient Stone Cross single small image 75kb

Ancient Stone Cross details in 3 images 170kb


Let me now ask you to accompany me to the south-east corner of the burial-ground, and to direct your attention to the cross there standing. It is of the usual Irish character, and of granite, except the central part of the shaft, which has long been lost, and has, as you may see, been supplied by concrete. For the bottom portion of this shaft we are, I believe, indebted to the exertions of Mr. Patrick O’Leary of Graig, a member of our Society, and under whose guidance our steps will be directed during the remainder of this day.

The height of the cross is 14 feet. The late Mr. Henry O’Neill gave a representation of this cross, in the year 1857, in that splendidly-illustrated work of his, “The Sepulchral Crosses of Ancient Ireland,” a copy of which may be seen in our Museum in Kilkenny, and the examination of which will well repay an hour so spent. He thus describes the sculptures on the cross :

” The two figures at the top are possibly Saints Peter and Paul, the centre group Christ crucified, with two figures holding, one the sponge with vinegar and hyssop, the other the spear with which the Saviour’s side was pierced. This mode of treating the Crucifixion is very usual in such works.

” One of the cross arms has a figure playing a harp, probably intended for the Royal Psalmist. On the other cross arm is carved ‘ Abraham’s Sacrifice.’ ; We see the altar, with Isaac above it ; Abraham stands holding the sacrificing knife, and the ram in the upper corner completes the subject.”

On the shaft, the topmost portion only of which was forthcoming when O’Neill wrote, he describes the figures thereon as ” portions of two apes,” and says the carvings on the base are sufficiently plain without description.

But to return to the Harp, which we know was held in days of yore in such high estimation by the Welsh, if not by us, that it was one of the three things that were necessary to constitute a gentleman ; it could not be seized for debt, and no inferior person save the harpers of the princes were permitted to have one in their possession. But there is a special interest in the harp now before us ; it forms one of the subjects treated of by the late Henry Bunting, in his valuable work on the ancient music of Ireland, published just fifty years since, where, after speaking of the five harps on the “Theca,” or cover of the famous Stowe MS., dating from a period prior to 1064, and of a harp in an illuminated MS. of Giraldus Cambrensis, as well as of Dante’s reference to Irish harps, as mentioned by Galilei the elder, in these words, ” This most ancient instrument was brought from Ireland, where they are excellently made, and in great numbers, the inhabitants of that island having practised on it for many and many ages.”

[This takes us back to the xiiith century, Dante having been born in 1265.]

Bunting next notices the Harp on St. Patrick’s reliquary, as belonging to the century after Dante. A drawing of it is given by Bunting, who points out how it differs essentially from the one now before us, the front pillar of which is altogether wanting, and he adds: “The musical inquirer and general antiquary cannot fail to regard this harp with interest, for it is the first specimen of the harp without a fore-pillar that has hitherto been discovered out of Egypt.”

The drawing, given by Bunting, was taken from this cross by the late E. V. Alcock, Esq., of Ballynoe, county Carlow, when his father was Rector of this parish [1804 to 1836], and when no doubt the carving was much more clearly defined than it is now.

Bunting adds that, from the style of the workmanship, as well as from the worn condition of the cross, it seems to be older than the similar monument at Clonmacnoise [King’s County] “which is known to have been set up before the year 830.”

The carving he thus describes : ” One hand only of the performer is shown, it probably being beyond the art of the sculptor to exhibit the other. The harp is held on the knee, the musician is not clothed, and yet here, and in the Clonmacnoise case, they are both associated with representation of churchmen and others in rich dresses.” He then goes on to reason on the apparent strange connexion between this harp and those of Egypt, and of the progress of our early eastern colonists to this country ; but, seeing what we have before us to-day to get through, this is neither the time nor place to enlarge further on this subject. I must refer all those who are interested in this matter to Bunting’s work, and to those of Ledwich, Sullivan, and other writers, where I doubt not they will find much to interest them.

Marble Statue of St Fiachra

A further antiquity of Ullard, according to Most Rev. Dr. Comerford (whose absence to-day we must all regret), consisted of a marble statue of St Fiachra, or Eiaghrach, (Pronounced in this locality “Feroch.) the founder of the first church here, about the latter part of the sixth century, which, traditionally, was carried off from here to grace the cathedral of St. Lazerian at Old Leighlin. Its virtue consisted in –any one praying before this statue obtained the object of his petition, except the natives of the locality to which it had been brought.”

Whether this valued statue has been broken up like so many others or buried by the “natives of the locality,” as they are styled, I know not, but Old Leighlin can no longer boast of its possession. Mayhap, finding its virtue unserviceable to themselves, they parted with it to some of their neighbours, where it may now be working in all its pristine power.

O’Ryans Castle & Killeen

O’Donovan, after describing the church and the cross, concludes his remarks on this parish thus : “I find nothing else of antiquarian interest here but the site of an old graveyard, which gave name to the townland of Killeen, and the ruins of a square tower, over the Barrow in the townland of Clogh-Aiste [now called Clohasty]. I have no historical reference whatever to either.”

The castle here mentioned by O’ Donovan belonged to the O’Ryans. Mr. G. D. Burtchaell informs me that, although marked on the map of the “Down Survey,” it is not mentioned in the accompanying description. This conveys the idea that it was in ruins at the date of that survey, about 1655, when Edmond Bian, of Knockballyrubbock, and others of his name appear to have held most of the land about it, including Clohasty, Knockbarron, &c., the other chief proprietors being Lord Galmoy and the Duke of Ormond. This church of Ullard is not marked on the map, but is described as being in ruins.

General Desecration of the Ruins, sometimes used as a ‘dancing-saloon.’

Before we proceed to St. Fiachra’s Well, in the adjoining field to the north, I wish to draw your attention to the neglected state of this fine old ruin and its surroundings, and I trust our Council may be able to devise some plan that may lead to better care of them. It is only within the last few days that I have been informed by Mr. O’Leary of some of the pellets on the western doorway having been lately broken off by some mischievous and sacrilegious person. There is no one in charge I am told, but I cannot help thinking that a strong remonstrance from our Society to the local Board of Guardians would be productive of benefit. The local Guardians might be induced to bestow a passing thought on the old place, and to keep the weeds cut and the ivy within bounds, for unless this latter is done it will rend the walls asunder, and leave us but a mass of broken stones and rubbish to view on our next visit.

It is difficult to speak in measured terms of the desecration of this consecrated ground by converting the walls of this still sacred edifice and of the ground near us into a “ball-alley,” and, I believe at times, I might say a dancing-saloon. Surely the good sense of the people whose relations lie beneath our feet should prevent, in future, this horrible outrage on our best feelings, and, if necessary, the aid of the Board of Guardians might be invoked to stop such evil doings.

St. Fiachra’s Well, a safeguard against drowning.

And now for the well. The great virtue of its water consists, it is said, in securing the possessor of a little of it from death by drowning, and as we all have to cross the silvery Barrow, and other rivers, several times to-day before we reach our homes, you will have an opportunity of providing yourselves with this valuable safeguard.

Dr. Comerford mentions a donation of a silver “ciborium,” chalice, and crucifix to the chapel at Graig from a grateful parishioner who, when in peril on the sea, invoked the aid of St. Fiachra, and so reached the shore in safety.

In the same field with St. Fiachra’s Well, and between the well and the road, are two ” bullans ” ; one, with a double hole in it, is under an old thorn-bush, and the other is nearer the road in a very large block of granite. An excellent photograph of the latter has been taken by Mr. Julian G. Butler, copies of which can be obtained from Mr. White of Inverness, as also a beautiful photograph of the Doorway of the church.

The Abduction Clubs

There now remain but two other ” Antiquities of Ullard ” to be noticed. Within a stone’s-throw of where we stand are the remains of the house once occupied by James Strange, or Strang, as the name is locally pronounced, so intimately connected with an unhappy tale of the last century, as described by Mr. J. E. Walsh, afterwards Master of the Rolls in Ireland, in his little book, now rare and difficult to get, entitled “Ireland Sixty Years Ago,” and written over forty years since. There you will find the full particulars of two of almost the last of the doings of the “Abduction Clubs” of Ireland. One occurred in the north of Ireland, the other in this county and parish.

These clubs were chiefly composed of young devil-may-care fellows, who bound themselves to assist each other in carrying off, by force if necessary, young heiresses, and forcing them to marry them. It is represented as being, at the period I am speaking of, “a common mode of courtship ” ! In the case I am going to speak of, two girls, aged about fourteen and fifteen, and named Catherine and Anne Kennedy, natives of Rathrneaden, in the county Waterford, attended a play at Graig, which we visit this afternoon. It was on the 14th April, 1779. They were accompanied by their mother and aunt. The two girls were seized ; an armed party surrounded them ; swords and pistols were exhibited, and in spite of all the opposition a party of the girls’ friends could give, they were dragged into the street, surrounded by men in disguise, called “Whiteboys,” placed on horses, each with her would-be-lover behind her, and surrounded by an armed guard. They had to ride all night.

Garrett Byrne, of Ballyann, in the county Carlow, and James Strange, of Ullard, were their captors. They were urged to marry these men, and all manner of threats were held out to them if they would not. The next day they spent at Borris, and from thence travelled for five weeks through the counties of Waterford, Kilkenny, Carlow, Kildare, and Dublin, where they were placed on board a small vessel, and sailed for Wicklow, and here they were at length rescued by a Mr. Power and an armed party, while some of their guards were on shore. The unhappy and exhausted girls were restored to their friends. Byrne and Strange escaped to Wales, where they were captured on the 6th July following. They were brought to Kilkenny and tried on the 24th March, 1780, found guilty, and executed, in spite of great efforts that were made to have their lives spared.

Such is the story that is connected with the place I have spoken of, and which we shall pass on our way to Graig. It is the last of the ” Antiquities of Ullard,” with the exception of a modern antiquity, the account of which will only detain you a few moments. Some of you may have heard a saying, and not a friendly one, which has found its way through half Ireland :

“May you die roaring like Doran’s bull! “

Well, this too had its origin not a hundred yards from where we stand. Close to the old house at the other side of the ” Street of Ullard,” where several generations of the Devine family live, and have lived, there was a fanner named Doran, who had a famous bull, the admiration of the district. He had also a favourite dog, a great ally of the bull’s ; unhappily, a wandering mad dog bit Doran’s dog, and his dog bit his friend the bull, who went raging mad.

With difficulty, and not without danger, the bull was got into an outhouse, with a low thatched roof ; the door was barricaded with all manner of implements, such as harrows, carts, &c. The raging animal, finding himself a prisoner, became more and more violent. Young Devine, a daring young fellow, mounted the roof of the outhouse, gun in hand, and making a hole in the thatch, reconnoitred the bull, who no sooner saw his head through the thatch than, making a spring at him, his long ” crumpety ” horns got caught in the beams, and he was there suspended, with his hind legs on the ground. He roared savagely until despatched by a well-directed bullet from Devine’s gun, and ever after the saying spread, ” May you die roaring like Doran’s bull.”


Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Volumn 23 – 1893 – at the Internet Archive
The information at the Internet Archives has the wrong year – it should read 1893.


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