KILLEEN CORMAC, COLBINSTOWN: AN ECCLESIASTICAL SITE ON THE KILDARE-WICKLOW BORDER
Killeen Cormac, Colbinstown: an ecclesiastical site on the Kildare-Wicklow border
Sharon A. Greene
Killeen Cormac is a site that has a far more interesting tale to tell that that represented in any discussion published on it so far. The most immediate feature that has understandably attracted most attention is the presence of seven ogham stones, remarkable for their number and also for their location in this part of the country. The corpus of ogham stones here also includes the only bilingual example with both ogham and Roman lettering.
The site consists of a natural gravel hillock adjacent to the River Greese, which was terraced. The terraces were edged with large slabs that bear some resemblance to the kerb stones on megalithic tombs (though early excavations disproved the theory that this was the original function of this mound (Macalister & Praeger 1929)). As well as the ogham stones there are at least two cross-inscribed stones, a pillar with an image of a cleric and numerous late grave markers. There is now no indication of the former presence of a church on top of the mound, a subject which has been debated in the past (Brash 1874, 167 vs. Shearman 1866, 253). The mortared stone wall that now encloses the site was built at the end of the 19th century replacing an earlier dilapidated, dry stone wall (Fitzgerald 1895, 382).
The site was curiously not mentioned by the original Ordnance Survey team in 1837 and first came to notice in Father Shearman’s 1866 article in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (Shearman 1866). It has since received the attention of notable scholars such as Lord Walter Fitzgerald (Fitzgerald 1900) and R.A.S. Macalister (Macalister 1914; Macalister & Praeger 1929). Macalister carried out an excavation to determine the nature of the mound in 1929 in which “every part of the mound which could be examined without disturbing recent graves [was] turned over” (Macalister & Praeger 1929, 249). This clarified the question of prehistoric origins (in the negative) and provided some evidence for the church in the form of some fragments of cut stone and, most interestingly, a “small granite gable finial” found in excavating along the north side of the mound (ibid, 252).
In the early 1980s the Cork-Dublin gas pipeline was constructed very close to the site, in fact running as close as 90 metres to the east of the enclosure (O’Donnell 1987). The course of the pipeline crossed a field boundary to the south of the site which was suspected to have at one stage been part of a larger monastic enclosure for the site; however the results of the excavation were inconclusive. No artefacts were recovered in the course of monitoring and no early features recorded. No geophysical survey was carried out (Hurley 1987, 2) and it has been noted that the successful discovery of archaeological deposits by monitoring archaeologists was dependant on the topsoil removal procedures, which were not always favourable (Sleeman 1987, 3). Therefore the small area excavated and the difficult monitoring conditions do not discount the possibility of there being further archaeological features in this field.
Apart from these two excavations, the only aspect of the site to have received attention in the last century is the ogham stones and the question of whether this is an example of the earliest Christian establishments in the country (e.g. McManus 1991; Swift 1996).
The name of the site has been interpreted variously as Cell Fine Cormaic (with suggestions that this is the Cell Fine where Palladius left the relics of Ss. Peter and Paul (Hogan 1910; Shearman 1866, 260) or Cell Ingen Cormaic ‘the church of the daughters of Cormac’ (Nicholls 1984, 548; Swift 1996, 14). Folklore claims a Munster king to be the source of the name, though ‘di ingen cormaic’ ‘two daughters of Cormac’ are listed among the early saints of the local dynasty of the Uí Dunlaige (ibid). This placename evidence in conjunction with the ogham stones which are linguistically dated to the 5th/6th centuries AD, suggest very early Christian origins for the site.
In the 13th century the site appears to have been known as Gris/Grys (Price 1953, 202), with a register book of the archbishops of Dublin known as Crede mihi (c.AD1280) referring to a church on the site (‘Capella de Gris’; ibid). Archbishop Alen’s description of the See of Dublin in 1530 also mentions the capella de Gris as belonging to the nunnery of nearby Timolin (White 1941, 209). The site was probably then a victim of the Dissolution as it does not appear as church or ruin in either the Down Survey of c.1654-56 or William Petty’s 1683 map of Co. Kildare. Noble and Keenan’s 1752 map of Kildare does however name the site as ‘Killincormuck’ and marks it with the symbol of a church.
The ogham stones at this site are largely responsible for our limited understanding of its full history. While the origins are early the historical evidence suggests that the life of this early foundation extended at least as far as the Reformation and it is hoped that future research will shed light on its changing functions over the centuries.
Brash, R.R. 1874 ‘On the ogam inscribed stones at Killeen Cormac’ Journal of the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland Ser.iv, Vol.iii, No.19, 165-182.
Fitzgerald, Walter 1900 ‘Killeen Cormac’ Journal of the Kildare Archaeological Society 3, 149-163.
Fitzgerald, William 1895 ‘Killeen Cormac inscribed stones’ Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Vol.5, No.4, 380-382.
Hogan, E. 1910 Onomasticon Goedelicum: locorum et tribuum Hiberniae et Scotiae. An index with identifications to the Gaelic names of places and tribes. Available at: http://publish.ucc.ie/doi/locus/C
Hurley, M.F. 1987 ‘General introduction’ in R.M.Cleary, M.F.Hurley & E.A.Twohig (eds) Archaeological Excavations on the Cork-Dublin Gas Pipeline (1981-82). Cork Archaeological Studies No.1, Department of Archaeology, University College Cork, 1-2.
Macalister, R.A.S. & Praeger, R. Lloyd 1929 ‘Report on an excavation recently conducted in Killeen Cormac, Co Kildare’ Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 38C, 247-261.
Macalister, R.A.S. 1914 ‘The “DRUUIDES” inscription at Killeen Cormac, Co Kildare’ Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 32C, 227-238.
McManus, D. 1991 A Guide to Ogham. Maynooth Monograph Series 4, Maynooth.
Nicholls, K. 1984 ‘The land of the Leinstermen’ Peritia 3, 535-558.
O’Donnell, M.G. 1987 ‘Killeen Cormac, Co Kildare’ in R.M.Cleary, M.F.Hurley & E.A.Twohig (eds) Archaeological Excavations on the Cork-Dublin Gas Pipeline (1981-82). Cork Archaeological Studies No.1, Department of Archaeology, University College Cork, 61-64.
O’Hagan, T. 2010 Kileen Cormac, Colbinstown, Co Kildare: Etymology, Hagiography and Archaeology (A Preliminary Report). Unpublished report.
Price, L. 1953 The Placenames of Co. Wicklow. IV: The Barony of Talbotstown Lower. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.
Shearman, J.F. 1866 ‘On inscribed stones at Killeen Cormac, near Dunlavin’ Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 9, 253-260.
Sleeman, M.J. 1987 ‘Monitoring the pipeline construction’ in R.M.Cleary, M.F.Hurley & E.A.Twohig (eds) Archaeological Excavations on the Cork-Dublin Gas Pipeline (1981-82). Cork Archaeological Studies No.1, Department of Archaeology, University College Cork, 3-4.
Swift, C. 1996 ‘Christian communities in fifth and sixth century Ireland’ Trowel 11, 11-17.
White, N.B. (ed) 1941 ‘Archbishop Alen’s Repertorium Viride’ Analecta Hibernica 10. Irish Manuscripts Commission.
An essay by Sharon A. Greene on Killeen Cormac, Colbinstown, an ecclesiastical site on the Kildare-Wicklow border. Our thanks to Sharon.