Abbots, Bishops, Coarbs and Erenaghs.


by Peter O’Leary


In the early days of the Christian Church in Ireland these terms were freely used and often misunderstood.  We will examine their correct usage, but must be prepared to find all sorts of misuse of the words when reading History of these times.


The Abbot was the ecclesiastical head of a Monastery.  He was an ordained priest, and was normally elected by his brethren for an agreed term, often seven years.


The Bishop was also a much used term and there were many more Bishops then than today.  Over 50 are recorded in the Country at one count which is probably understated.  A Bishop, like today, was also an ordained priest, and had the same duties as today as pastor of all the Christians in his area.  The Bishop was very often also the Abbot of a Monastery.


The Coarb (Comarba; heirs, successors) were members of the family which had bred the Saint.  They were normally married men and not ordained.  The office was hereditary to this family.  An example were the Clann Sinaich heirs to St.Patrick.  This relationship to the Saint gave them importance in the community, and often wealth as well.


The Erenagh is often confused with the Coarb but there was a subtle difference.  Like the Coarb they were normally married men and not ordained.  The office was hereditary to this family. They were a family who were chieftains of the Tuath in which the monastery stood and very often regarded their role as a sort of Lay Abbot alongside the Ecclesiastical Abbot.  An example is the family of O’Herlihy who were chieftains of the Tuath of Ballyvourney.  They were also the hereditary guardians of the sacred relics of St. Gobnait’s Shrine.


In later days the Erenaghs continued as chieftains of a clan, but also in their spiritual role as well.  The lands of the Tuath formed part of  Church property, and rent was paid to the Bishop of the Diocese and not to the overlord, who in the case of O’Herlihy,  was McCarthy of Muskerry.


The McCarthys of Muskerry had made a practise of “persuading” their under-lords to give up ownership of their property into McCarthy hands,  and accepting a much lower and less dignified position of servility.  This was done by putting great pressure on them, increasing their dues, and other means.


By 1655 when the Survey was made of the property of  McCarthy of Muskerry we learn that all the clans under his control had given up their rights in this manner, except for O’Leary of Uibh Laoghaire who had somehow managed to cling on to the old family property.


But there were also four other exceptions and they were the Erenagh families of O’Herlihy of Ballyvourney,  O’Healy of Donaghmore,  O’Long of Cannaway,  and O’Cremin of Aghabullogue.  Because the freehold of their land was held by the Bishop of Cork,  McCarthy was prevented from using his usual tactics, and these clans retained their lands.


It has also been believed for a long time that our Cronin clan were an Erenagh family, but we have no knowledge as to where they exercised their jurisdiction.