The Great Church of St Ronán

By Peter O’Leary



The townland of Kilmore in Ballingeary has many old traditions surrounding it, and particularly the field which is believed to be the original Great Church of St Ronán ie. the cill mór of the name.


This is sited in a large meadow on Fionn Cotter’s farm, beside the main road between Ballingeary and Inchigeelagh, close to Loch Allua. The field is still called Cillín Leasa Rónáin which translates as "The Church of the Ringfort or Lios of Ronan". To be precise, on Map Reference W 162 671 on Ordnance Survey Map 85 in the Discovery 50,000 series.

This has been regarded as the site of the Great Church for many generations, and this belief has been supported by substantial evidence. This includes the enclosure like appearance of the site. The presence of a souterrain which was discovered in 1989. The memory of a cemetery in days gone by. The memory of a kileen used for the burial of still born babies up to recent times. The characteristic rounded sweep of the modern road where the builders avoided intruding on the ancient site. The identification of a possible Mass Rock adjacent to the site. The presence of a gallaun in a neighbouring field.

Further more flimsy evidence appeared one day to the writer who saw, on a hot dry day in the evening sun, the outline of a twin banked enclosure visible for a few minutes from the hill above the site.


Perhaps much more significant is the belief in a possible early Christian Site by the team of Archaeologists from Glasgow University who have been studying the evidence.


Who then was this St.Ronán who is commemorated in the Great Church? The only Ronán we seem to have left in our hagiographies is from Dromiskin in Co.Louth, a disciple of St.Patrick. It is unlikely to be him. Our Ronán is probably one of the many old Munster Saints the details of whose lives are now forgotten. Their names sometimes live on in the names of places where there is or was a church founded by them. Like St.Colmán (Kilcolman); St.Garbán (Kilgarvan); or St.Mochomóc (Kilmocomoge). Others include Sts.Fingen, Ruadán and Nesán. Names rarely used today. Many of these were disciples of St.Finbar. It is quite possible that our St.Ronán was a disciple of St.Finbar, or lived a few years later than him. But two of our churches are dedicated to St.Ronán, with St.Finbar, and his name is still used by local families in naming their children.

Let us consider what this Site was used for. It is very possible, and was common amongst such sites, that it has been put to different occupation and used for different purposes over the ages.


The first usage may well have been pre-Christian. Iron Age people could well have used this site for a meeting place or for ritual purposes. It would have suited their needs, and of course it was commonplace for Christian people who came later, to make use of a former Druidic site to ensure continuity and confidence amongst the local population.


Christian sites like this are usually dated to the period AD 650-1050. They are usually monastic -early types of monks; or eremitical i.e. hermits. The presence of such a monastery is often associated with proximity to the principal fort or residence of the local ruling family, who encouraged their establishment, and provided protection against attack from others who might be interested in robbing the monastery of it’s treasures.


We do not have much information about the homes of the chieftains at this time. One such was Tirnaspideoga ringfort, less than 3 miles away, which was associated with the crannog close by. The crannog appears on the old maps as Illaunyweahagane (Illaun Mhehigan) which suggests that Mehigan was the chieftain of this tuath. The O Mehigans were sub-chieftains and later bards to the O Mahoneys. We find one of their later territories in the land of the Western O Mahony, in Castle Meighan near Crookhaven. They probably moved West when the Western O Mahonys took over the territory of the O Donoghues.


Dating the Site in Kilmore


The presence of a souterrain may also help in preliminary dating of the site, since it has been observed that such structures are usually found to have been constructed and/or used between the 7th. and the 12th. centuries. AD.


It is quite possible that a change of local ruling family might lead to the decay and abandonment of the site as a church. There was such a change in the 12th.c. (supposedly AD.1192 but we can hardly believe such accuracy of dating). At about this time, the Eberian tribe called the Ui Eacha, or it’s sub-division named the Cinel Laoghaire (now known by their surname of O Donoghue), left the area under pressure from their kinsmen the Cinel Aodha (the O Mahoneys). At the same time, a new arrival were the O Laoghaire, who themselves had been driven from the Rosscarbery area.


The new ruling chieftains established themselves at Manninge where the ford crossed the River Lee (or Inchigeelagh today). Probably new Saints were revered, for example St.Finbar, St.Fachtnan and St.Colman. Probably new churches were built closer to the homes of the new ruling family and its sub-chieftains, further East along the valley of the Lee. It is probable that alternative places of worship arose at this time at Augheras, Ballingeary, Kilbarry, Coolmountain and Inchigeelagh, which made the old site of St.Ronán redundant.


But where there was a church there was usually also a cemetery. If people were being buried in Cill Mor for 400 or 500 years, then that tradition would continue despite the disappearance of the monastic settlement. Moreover it was the time of the establishment of secular parishes and bishops, following the Councils of Rathbreasail (1111) and Kells (1152) and these secular clergy would have taken every opportunity to replace a monastery by a network of secular parish churches.


Such large enclosures when abandoned, often became a place where clans or septs met. A market, feasting place or assembly place. Our site may have continued to serve a useful purpose even though now only sacred in that part which remained a cemetery.


By the 18th.c. there were still many cemeteries in the parish because it covered a large area, and there were problems caused by the distance to travel in burying the dead. Over the next two hundred years these difficulties were overcome by improved methods of transport, and the number of cemeteries decreased.


We know that most ‘kileens’ came into use at places where cemeteries had existed before. They were in effect a continued use of the site for burial but only for a smaller and more limited patronage. Famine burials are a point in case. Then children’s burial places. It is not difficult to understand the site becoming a ‘kileen’ over the passage of time.


All the above is purely surmise on my part, and has no historical support. How then can we move forward to hard fact from opinion, even if that opinion seems to fit the little historical knowledge available?


The answer almost invariably is by archaeological investigation. In 1989 the souterrain dramatically made it’s appearance when drainage work was being done in the meadow. This souterrain was investigated by Jerry O Sullivan and his archaeological team. They were sufficiently impressed by the possibilities indicated, to get funding in 1997 for a more extensive topographic and geophysical survey of the whole site. The Report of the team, the Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division, is cautiously worded. It was a one week preliminary survey, and there were no finds of burials or buildings in the main site in that short time. They are however satisfied that they have found "conclusive evidence of the backfilled ditch of a large earthwork enclosure." Reading between the lines, it appears that they are modestly hopeful of revealing Cill Mor as an important Early Christian Site, if they can get the necessary funding and mount a more detailed survey with more extensive diggings.


The Site has been recognised in the Cork Archaeological Survey -Mid Cork Volume- Site No.9209.