Pre Christian times

Arrival of Christianity

Norman Times

The Franciscans

The Penal Times





Pre Christian Times

It is evident from archaeological findings that there were people in the area that is now the Parish of Killoughy many thousands of years before the coming of Christ. Indeed, axe heads discovered just outside the Parish in 1976 are among a few Mesolithic artefacts found in Ireland outside of Ulster. They date from around 7000BC. It is not certain as to whether these artefacts were lost in this area by residents or travelling hunters at that time or whether they were brought here at a later date. These first Irishmen are believed to have come from Scotland, and spent most of their time hunting and fishing.

Later, more Scots arrived during the New Stone Age. Arriving around 3,700BC these settlers were the country's first farmers. They brought with them the ability to plant and till crops. These people lived in pit dwellings, probably with wooden houses. Most of what we know about them is written in the stone monuments they left behind them, in particular their tombs (e.g. Newgrange, Co. Meath which is dated approx. 3200BC).

With the Bronze Age, metalworking skills arrived in Ireland directly from the continent sometime between 2000BC and 1700BC. Soon, native inhabitants were producing ornaments and jewellery, often in gold. A Middle Bronze Age grave found in Coolanarney is the first evidence of inhabitation in the parish.

The Iron Age is thought to have begun in Europe around 1000BC but knowledge of the mining and working of iron is not thought to have been practised in Ireland for some 500 years later. When the Iron Age did come, it came at the hands of a new people - the Celts. Two groups of Celts are believed to have settled in Ireland. The first group coming through Britain and the second group arriving in the south-west most likely from the Iberian Peninsula (present day Portugal and Spain). It has been speculated that these groups took a long time to integrate both with each other and with the previously settled people.
We learn much about the people of this time from writings of the 7th Century AD and from some contemporary works of the Celts in Britain which describe life at the time. Raths and ringforts that are in evidence all over the country and in our parish were dwellings of the Celts, and similar dwellings continued to be built right up to the year 1000AD. There are at least ten such structures in the Parish of Killoughy, a good example being that opposite the new Cemetery between Lowertown Beg and Rathkerrigan.

The religious practice of the peoples in Ireland before the coming of Christianity is largely a matter of speculation. The theory that says the circle on the Celtic Cross represents the sun is well established, and it is likely that, as in ancient Egyptian and other pre-Christian cultures, these early Irish people worshipped the Sun as a God. What is certain, on the evidence of stone carvings and existing tombs, from a very early age the people that lived in our land were of considerable intelligence.

The Christian Era in Ireland

Tradition has it that St.Patrick brought the faith to Ireland in the year 432AD. There is also evidence of other preachers of the faith at that time. How many there were that came from Europe is not known. What is evident though, is that the message of Christ risen from the dead was met with little resistance and welcomed by the people. Unlike the spread of the faith in Europe, which was born of many martyrs, the faith spread in Ireland with little bloodshed. Ancient records speak of only one martyr at that time. The church organization as established by St. Patrick was not monastic, but by the very nature of these small Christian settlements, by the end of the fifth century they were taking the nature of the monasteries of later times.
Early in the sixth century, St. Finian set up a monastery and school at Clonard, where it is said the number of its monks, scholars and students numbered in the thousands. Among his students were Colmcille and Ciaran.
It is about this time that St. Brigid is said to have founded her first convent at Ballyboy and there is also a strong link between Brigid and the church at Killoughy. St. Illand (Iolladhan) appears as the leading figure at Rathlion where a school was established around 540AD. Illand was a cousin of St.Hugh of Rahugh.

During this early Christian period around 516A.D, as the result of the victory of the King of Tara over the King of Leinster, Firceall and thus Killoughy became part of the Kingdom of Meath.

The sixth century in Ireland has been called the heroic age of the monasteries. The end of the seventh century saw the birth of what is known as the Golden Age. This was the era of high art in Irish history, beginning with such masterpieces as the Book of Durrow and the Ardagh Chalice. The care and skill used to produce the artefacts of this age are a testament to the value the believers placed on their faith and the respect they had for the word of God expressed in the scriptures. Script work such as that found in the Book of Kells and metalwork as displayed in reliquaries and book shrines such as St.Manchain's Shrine in Boher indicate a highly skilled people. The hours of painstaking work, in book-painting and metalworking with millefiore manufacture and filigree working made these treasures a desirable hoard for the Vikings who arrived at Lambay Island in 795 and travelled up the rivers of Ireland in the 800's. Unfortunately, the precious metals were more valued by the Vikings and many of the manuscripts were consigned to the lakes and seas of Ireland.
An interesting effect of the Norse attacks of the ninth century was an increase in the links between Ireland and continental Europe and what became known as the 'wandering' Irish bishops. Irish missionary work had already begun in Europe. Now, wanting to protect some of the artefacts the monks brought them abroad. Some of these monks and bishops achieved high status in Europe and in some circumstances were looked on suspiciously by other prominent figures. In the middle of the eighth century St. Boniface wrote to Pope Zachary accusing St. Virgil of Saltzburg of heresy. St. Virgil, or Fergal, had been the Abbot of Aghaboe in Ossory. The Pope had already sided with Virgil in a previous dispute with Boniface over the Sacrament of Baptism.

Norman Times

The Church in Ireland in the eleventh century continued to be organised and administered by the monasteries. There appears to have been dissatisfaction with this system, particularly among towns where there remained a sizeable Norse Christian community. Early in the eleventh century Dublin sent priests to Canterbury to be consecrated as bishops. Waterford and Limerick soon followed suit, and soon the Archbishop of Canterbury began to take an interest in Ireland and even to claim jurisdiction over it. Both in 1093 and 1103, St. Anselm wrote to the King of Munster, a man noted for his battling skills, encouraging him to do something to bring about the reform of the church in Ireland. He cited some irregularities in relation to marriages and the ordinations of bishops as a reason for doing so. The King then gave his support to Gilla Espuic, bishop of Limerick, who along with Cellach of Armagh and Malchus of Lismore managed to call a national synod of the Church near Cashel in the year 1110. The decision of this synod was for reform but it was not until forty-two years later that this became a reality.

When, at the Synod of Kells in 1152, the boundaries of the dioceses of Ireland were finally agreed, the Diocese of Meath was born of the amalgamation of the three ancient dioceses of Duleek, Kells and Clonard and covered most of the territory of the ancient Kingdom of Meath. Firceall and Killoughy thus became part of the Diocese of Meath and remains so today. This was a time of the building of great churches and cathedrals with their Gothic architecture. Apart from some very fine examples such as Christ Church in Dublin (1172), very few of these buildings survived the following centuries. Indeed, very little remains of the Cathedral Church of Meath built in Trim during the first decade of the 1200's. Measuring 136ft. by 30ft. and with walls 40ft. high and 5.5 ft. thick, at its time, it was the largest church in the country.

Today, the parish of Killoughy forms part of a sub-division of the Diocese known as Clara Deanery. This has an historical foundation as at one time Rathlion and Killoughy were daughter churches of Ardnurcher (Horseleap). Ardnurcher features frequently in medieval records. With Norman associations, the Four Masters record the erection of a castle in Ardnurcher in 1192. Ardnurcher became the largest parish in the medieval diocese with daughter churches at Rahan, Killoughy, Rathlion, Ballyboy, Drumcullen and Eglish.

In 1400 the parishioners of these parts addressed a petition to Rome containing "that by reason of the distance of their country, eight English miles, as well as of wars, access to their parish of St. David's [Ardnurcher] for divine offices and the Sacraments, baptisms and burials, is very difficult especially in the rainy season; and that, if to the chapel of St. Colman of Lynally were subject the chapels… it would be fit for erection into a parish church". In fact the people of Firceall were not happy with the inclusion of their territory in Ardnurcher which had been decided by the Normans. The petition was granted in 1421 by Pope Boniface IX and Rathlion and Killoughy were among the chapels annexed to Lynally.

The Franciscans

The arrival in Ireland of the Franciscans would prove to be of major significance to the life of the parish. The following is an excerpt from a Franciscan history. It describes the arrival of the order and the difficulties that became an issue for the whole of the country, including Killoughy as a result of the Protestant reformation and the decision of the King by the Act of Supremacy to declare himself the Supreme Head of the Church.

"As, in the year 1226, St Francis lay dying a small group of his followers were already on their way to Ireland. They landed at Youghal, Co Cork, and from there made progress through the country. Theirs was a simple way of life dedicated to God and to the service of the Lord they found in the people. So great was the impression they made that within a decade or so they were being invited into the territories of local rulers and being aided financially to found friaries.

Though political upheaval and the ravages of the Black death in the 14th century slowed down the growth of the Order, by about 1430 reform from within and the general rebirth of Irish culture added fresh momentum to the Franciscan movement. The friars ventured into new areas, especially in the north and west, so that by the end of the Middle Ages friaries in Ireland totaled 57.

The suppression of the religious houses began in 1537 at the instigation of Henry VIII and involved great hardship for the Franciscan Order and for Irish religious in general. Not only did it deprive the friars of places in which to live, it also hindered the training of new members. The accession of Elizabeth I to the English throne aggravated the situation.

Yet, in spite of these obvious difficulties and the ensuing persecution, the first half of the 17th century is rightly regarded as the Golden Age of Irish Franciscanism. The Colleges opened on the continent of Europe for the training of young friars became centres of learning and culture, which contributed greatly to the Irish tradition. Louvain is associated with the Four Masters, Rome with Luke Wadding. At the same time all the old Franciscan sites in Ireland had new communities assigned to them before Cromwell brought a new degree of persecution and martyrdom to the Irish Church."

The main Franciscan settlement in our area was Killeigh, which was founded in 1293. In 1598 the Friars were expelled and the buildings demolished. Some Friars remained around the district but they had all departed Killeigh by 1766. The Friars took refuge, first in Killurin and then at Cully Lane in this parish, where the last Friar died in 1780. Cully is of major importance in the Religious history of this entire area as it was one of the few places that provided the priests for the celebration of the sacraments. The settlement at Cully was established sometime after 1677 following an appeal to Pope Innocent XI by Charles O'Molloy who requested a foundation in Rahan Parish. The foundation was built at Cully instead, which forms a boundary with Rahan but is located in Killoughy parish. All that remains today of the settlement at Cully is a gable wall.

The Penal Times

The various rebellions against the English forces took their toll on the parish of Killoughy as did the Penal Laws. Fr. Shaw describes in his history the decline in population during the years of the Great Rebellion and the mission of Oliver Cromwell by quoting from an Irish poem. The poem describes how during the reign of Queen Elizabeth (c.1600) Calvach, the Chief of the Molloys having invited to his house nine hundred and sixty people for the feast of Christmas, entertained them there for twelve days. In contrast at the time of the Down Survey (c.1653) the population of the parish is recorded as being 272 inhabitants.

With the introduction of the Penal Laws from 1695 to 1746 the practice of the faith was severely tested. All bishops, priests and members of Religious Orders were ordered to leave the country, unless they took an Oath of Allegience. No priest could enter Ireland from any foreign country. It was hoped that with no priests entering the country and with no bishops to ordain priests in the country the priesthood would in time die out. Defying the penal laws, priests remained in the area taking shelter in the woods and usually travelled in disguise. Colleges, such as St. Isodore's in Rome and that of Paris, were already established in Europe for the education of the clergy. These priests returned home in disguise. Fr. Francis O'Molloy, a cousin of Charles O'Molloy who had requested the establishment that led to the building of Cully, was a professor of Theology at St. Isodore's, where he produced a Catechism for the use of the faithful. Fr. O'Molloy died on his journey home in 1677, having spent forty years on the continent. The Irish College in Rome is the last remaining seminary still educating students for the Irish dioceses. St.Isodore's remains for the education of Franciscans. Some former seminaries such as the Irish Colleges in Paris and in the Louvain are now Irish cultural centres.

Fr. Shaw, in his history relates that, during the Penal times, in the Parish of Killoughy 'history does not record, neither does tradition recall, a single instance where a Killoughy Protestant hampered a Catholic in his worship of God; on the contrary folklore pays tribute to the Protestants of this parish who sheltered priests in those difficult days'. This was in spite of the fact that the landlords were bound to co-operate with the authorities.
Killoughy does have its martyr, though, in the person of Fr. Edward Molloy. History records that around 1691, the Parson of Lynally reported Fr. Molloy to the Protestant bishop of Meath stating that he had taken over the Church at Ballyboy and was saying mass constantly therein. One night while visiting Biddulph's house (Rathrobin), a man named Horan from Clonaslee arrived informing the priest that he was urgently needed for a sick-call. Biddulph advised Fr. Molloy against going, but the priest felt it was his duty to go. There was no sick person, but a house surrounded by soldiers. They arrested Fr. Molloy and took him to Brittas where he was hanged at the order of Col. Dunne. His body was decapitated, his head being displayed on a spike at the gate of Brittas, his body being buried under the hanging tree. Some nights later, during a thunder storm, some men from Killoughy travelled to Brittas, dug up his body and buried it without the head in the vestry of Rathlion church.
This story was borne true when on the 10th June 1985 the skeletal remains of a headless body were discovered in a shallow grave in the ruins of the vestry. The remains were re-interred in the same plot and a headstone in honour of Fr. Molloy has been placed over his grave. Today, Rathlion has become a place of pilgrimage, its serene surrounds and striking history making a deep impression on the visitors from Britain, the European Continent and further afield.


The effects of these troubled times are well documented, but the faith of the people remained strong. A relaxation of the Penal Laws and eventual Catholic Emancipation in 1829 allowed for a new freedom of religious expression. By 1835 the climate allowed the construction of a new church at Mountbolus. The dedication of the parishioners of the time to this project resulted in the splendid church that graces the parish today. This new-found relief was, however, short-lived as just ten years later the effects of the famine brought new hardship to the people. The famine brought sickness, death, and emigration.

Throughout the history of the Christian era in Ireland, we see many occasions where the faith of the people was severely challenged. Strangely, as we read in the scriptural accounts of the early Church (e.g. Acts of the Apostles, letters of St. Paul), during these times of persecution the Lord sustained and strengthened the faith of his people. Following the Famine, and with the building of churches after these sad times, the practice of the faith was realised in numbers never witnessed before and brought a fresh spirit of evangelisation.

The history of Modern Ireland is still being written. This history lists people of our own generations who are people of faith. It lists members of our own families who have dedicated themselves to the spreading of the message of the Lord, a message that has the same urgency today as it had in the days of St. Illand, during the heroic age of the monasteries, the golden age, the Middle Ages, or in the life of Fr. Molloy and the Irish Martyrs.

Looking back on our history, we see that the faith found its expression in a wide variety of forms. As we face the years of the new Millennium, the importance of the Child born in Bethlehem is no less now than it was 2000 years ago. The Gospel, which is Good News also for the people of our time, will find new means of expression. Already we see the media of radio, television and 'Information Super Highway' as a channel for God's message. This modern phenomenon whereby we refer to the world as 'the global village', also challenges us to participate in the affairs of the world as never before, bringing with us our talents, our particular culture and our faith. We have, with the power of God, the ability to look to this great new future with hope.

People generations from now will sit down to write a history of our time. As we have endeavoured to be generous to our forebears, may we give them cause to be generous to us. As they look to our present age, perhaps what we consider great will appear insignificant to them. However, since what has occasioned the writing of this History is the Great Jubilee of the birth of Christ, we trust they will be glad that despite the struggles we have kept alive our Christian heritage.