Kilcoe Medieval Church – Revealed!

This beautiful medieval church sits on the shores of Roaringwater Bay, close to Kilcoe Castle. It was in danger of destruction by ivy but is being rescued – more on that in a minute. This (below) is what it looked like up to recently.

Kilcoe is the Church of Cóch – but who was St Cóch? For information we turn, as always, to what has become the bible for anyone interested in Irish Saints, the magnificent A Dictionary of Irish Saints by Pádraig Ó Riain. According to Ó Riain, the great St Ciarán (of Cape Clear and also of Seirkieran in Ossory), always spent Christmas here, with his foster mother, Cóch. Little is known of Cóch, except that she was of the people of the Corca Laoighdhe, with whom Ciarán also had a close association. She may have given her name also to Kilcock in Kildare. Her feast day is June 29th.

If the church was indeed founded by St Cóch, then there must have been a centre of worship here from very early Christian times, since typically a church grew up around the relics of a venerated and holy man or woman. Whatever the form of the original church, nothing survives of it now. Take a look at my post Mizen Magic 23: Croagh Cove, for what might have been there in, say, the 6th to the 10th centuries. 

Note also the proximity of the Church to Kilcoe Castle – a stronghold of the McCarthys, now magnificently restored by Jeremy Irons. It was normal for lords and chiefs to have ecclesiastical foundations close by, on land they had ceded for that purpose. The monks made sure that the lord’s soul would be saved by ceaselessly praying for him, and his endowment of the monastery or church gained him many indulgences, shortening his time in Purgatory.

Around the core of the original church was a burial ground, with burials placed on a hierarchical basis closer to or farther from the church. The bones or relics of the founding saint were often under or immediately beside the church, with the most coveted spots going to high-ranking individuals.* The association of ancient churches with burial grounds continued through the ages. Only in more recent times have modern cemeteries been established on new ground not associated with churches.

The Parish system did not evolve until the 12th century and parish churches were often simply an evolution of the older monastic church, occupying the same ground and with a continuation of the burial practice. What we see now at Kilcoe is a parish church, and although it may be based on a much older site, the architectural remains are solidly gothic, and probably 15th century – the same style of architecture we see in Kilcoe Castle. We can imagine the head of the McCarthy family of Kilcoe Castle crossing the drawbridge to hear mass or confess his sins in the little church under his patronage.

In recent years, the church has become more and more buried in ivy. You can see the condition of the exterior in the second photograph of this post, and of the interior of it (above) in a post I did way back in 2015, A Tale of Four Churches. Worried by the deteriorating condition a group of local people raised funds through Go Fund Me  for an assessment by a conservation engineer. That report is a detailed survey of every aspect of the church and makes numerous recommendations for remediation. From the report:

The church is in fair condition with its walls and main architectural features largely intact. However, the substantial ivy canopy and embedded ivy stems are damaging the masonry and, without intervention, there is likely to be significant loss of historic fabric in the short to medium term.

The ivy canopy on all walls should be reduced immediately by cutting back the ivy to the wall face. This should be preceded by an ecological assessment which may impact the timing and scope of the vegetation control measures (unless advised otherwise by the ecologist, cutting back of vegetation should be carried out between September 1st and February 28th). The ivy should not be treated with herbicide or removed unless conservation work can be carried out shortly after treatment and removal.

Kilcoe Church Condition Report
John Kelly (conservation accredited engineer)
David Kelly Partnership. Oct 2022**

When we visited yesterday we were thrilled to see that this work is underway, following best practice as advised by the conservation report. Although we are not sure of the details, it appears that the church itself is in private ownership, and that the landowner may be the one who has undertaken this work at their own expense. (Happy to receive further correction or confirmation of this, in order to direct appreciation appropriately.) 

And – now that this work is underway, the church is rising like a phoenix and once again it is possible to see the major features of this fine and important  piece of our heritage.

The church is a simple rectangle. The chancel, containing the remains of an altar table, is at the east end, and there is one doorway in the south wall. While this entrance, when viewed from inside, is a straight opening with a plain lintel, from the outside it is totally different – finely carved stone provides a graceful arched surround.

Two ‘basins’ are set into the walls, as are  two stone ‘cabinets.’  The basin on the south wall is a piscina, in which vessels were washed, and has a carved bowl, although it is hard to make out under under a cover of dark lichen.

The basin in the north wall is more visible now that some of the ivy has been cut back. It may have been a baptismal font.

There are two fine gothic windows, tall and slim, with carved ogival heads. The window is the south wall is now visible inside and out. It seems to have an asymmetrical splay, designed to let more light in. For a similar window – and indeed for more on what this church may have looked like – go to my post Mizen Magic 19: Church of the Angels.

The window at the east end, behind the altar, was particularly worrying, as ivy was threatening to get between the cracks and break it apart. It looks so much better now, and on the outside the hood mouldings can once again be admired.

The north wall of the church, outside, is a good place to see how the ivy has been carefully clipped. There’s an old chest tomb here which incorporates what might be the top of another gothic window – further exploration of this tomb is recommended in the report.

There is much more work to be done on Kilcoe Church, but what has happened so far is terrific and very encouraging. Compare the photo below with the second one in the post. They were taken from about the same place – and look at the difference! On behalf of all of us in West Cork, huge appreciation must go to everyone involved in the efforts to preserve it for posterity.

One last comment is that this church is a listed National Monument, so future work needs to be done in consultation with them.

*Churches in the Irish Landscape, AD 400 to 1100 by Tomás Ó Carragáin

**Many thanks to Isobel Towse and to Brigid O’Brien of Fastnet Trails for their leadership in raising funds to commission the report

Mizen Magic 19: Church of the Angels

It’s called Cill Cheangail but that doesn’t make a lot of sense as cill is a small church and ceangail means to tie or fasten. But hereabouts people call it Killhangle (sometimes spelled Kilheangul) and now it’s clear – aingeal (pronounced angle) is the Irish word for angels. This is the Church of the Angels, reckoned to be Late Medieval (maybe fifteenth century) in date. For the exact location of this church, see my post Mizen Magic 17: The Delights of Dunmanus.

I am lucky to have Brian Lalor’s Sketchbook – quick records he made of his visits to  sites during field trips with the Mizen Historical and Archaeological Society in the 1980s. This kind of record is invaluable to show changes over time – the bullaun stone that Brian records in his sketch above can no longer be found.

Parish Churches, that is, churches built specifically to serve the people of the neighbourhood, rather than churches in monasteries to serve monks or friars, are a medieval phenomenon in Ireland. Along with the building of these churches came the practice of burial inside the church (for high-status individuals) or outside it (for the rest of us). Many of these burial grounds are in use up to the present day.

The church itself is in a ruinous state but enough remains to see some of typical attributes of a small parish church of this time, such as the one in the illustration (not by Brian) above. It’s a simple rectangular structure, oriented E-W, with the door in the south wall. Several small aumbreys (cupboards) are built into the south and east wall. There’s a window in the east wall which is missing almost all its dressed stone surround but we can surmise that it may have been ogee-headed.

The other window is in the south wall and this is an interesting one – there’s a flat-headed lintel visible from outside and inside the embrasure is splayed unevenly to admit more morning light, especially in winter.

Most of the interior is filling up now with debris and a large holly tree and only one headstone is examinable. The style of this headstone is echoed in others outside, leading to the conclusion that it was the shape and decoration style favoured by a certain local stone carver. It’s quite a striking and elegant form.

Most of the people buried in Killhangle could not afford a carved headstone. Instead, graves were marked with simple field stones. We are told that in times past old people could pick out the grave of a long-gone relative from a memory still held in the family of the size and shape of such field stones.

Inscribed headstones, for those who could afford them, did not become commonplace until the 18th century. Headstones dating to the 1700s are actually fairly unusual in West Cork so when Brian deciphered one in Killhangle, he recorded it (not an easy task – see how much lichen covers the surface now) and wrote up his findings for the Mizen Journal.

Alas, an eagle-eyed editor thought he had made a mistake in his drawing, by including the word ‘who’ twice and took it upon him/herself to eliminate the first ‘who’. This led to a second article titled ‘James Mullins Who Who” in which Brian restored the missing who and explained that Seventeenth and early eighteenth-century English usage on tombstone inscriptions favoured elaborate and often tortuous abbreviations and word arrangements in order to balance the lines of the inscription.

Poor little James was only 10 when he died on the eve of St Patrick’s Day in 1709. He must have been beloved indeed – a headstone all to himself when most people had none.

Another practise seen in Irish gravestones is the carved footstone. Where the footstone is engraved, it is usually with the initial of the person named on the headstone. In the example above and below, James Noonan first buried his beloved wife Mary. When he was laid to rest, his footstone was added, with his initials, J. N.  You can see the footstone at the bottom of my photograph, and Brian has illustrated it below along with another one with the initials J M.

Killhangle is beautifully located, near the coast and with a rippling brook running through it. It is well looked after and several of the graves have flowers and evidence of recent visits.

It is obvious that local people respect and care for the last resting place of their family members. For them, this church truly is the Church of the Angels.

Thank you, Brian Lalor, for allowing me to use your sketches and pick your brains.