The Parish of Kilmore By Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich R.I.P
The name Kilmore, meaning ‘Great Church’, is today not only the title of an Irish diocese situated mainly in the counties of Cavan and Leitrim, but is also borne by eleven Irish parishes, one each in the counties of Armagh, Cavan, Down. Meath, Monaghan, Roscommon, Wexford and two each In the counties of Mayo and Tipperary. In all cases the present-day parishes have grown up around an early ecclelastical site venerated for its antiquity and for its’ special Importance in the locality in which it was situated.
Because of the frequency with which the name was met. in early Ireland, it was necessary to distinguish one Kilmore from its neighbour by the use of an appropriate epithet Hence when Armagh’s Kilmore first appears in the Irish Annals, it is known as Ceil Mor Enir, the Great Church of Mogh Enir, the latter being the ancient name of the level country between Loughgall and Portadown. From the 8th century on, the rulers of this territory belonged to the Ui Niallain sept, whose name is still perpetuated in the barony name of Oneilland.
Kilmore which was their principal church became usually known as CillMor Ua Niallain, and this form persisted until the 17th century Plantation. A local saint associated with the church was the priest Corc whose feast was celebrated annually on 4th April. In his honour the parish church was known as the church of St. Corc of St. Corcan.
Like most early Irish churches Kilmore was organised on a monastic basis until the 12th century Reform. From time to time the obit of one of its abbots is recorded in the Annuals of Ulster – Comarpach In 750, Crummael (who was also a Bishop) in 770 and Flaithbertach In 812 (A later Bishop of Kilmore named Dicuill died in 873). It suffered much in the internecine strife which often went on between neighbouring Irish Kingdoms, as for instance in 818, when its vice-abbot Dubinnrecht was wounded by raiding Leinstermen. Its proximity to Lough Neagh and Carlingford Lough, where the Vikings had establishment themselves in the 9th century, left it open to new marauders, and it was pillaged by them in 874. Many of the Irish monasteries took steps to defend themselves against the Viking raiders during the 10th century by the erection of strong, stone round towers, and It may be that the ancient tower of Kilmore, now incorporated in the local Church of. Ireland dates from this era.
When the present-day system of Irish dioceses and parishes was set up in the 12th century, Kilmore became a parish, using the old monastic centre as its parish church. The oratory there was burned down in 1150, yet it was important enough by the end of the century to have its religious superior in the running for appointment of Archbishop of Armagh. The local candidate, Maoliosa Mac Giolla Erain, was however passed over in favour of an O’Connor from Connacht, a close relative of Ireland’s last High King.
Now that Kilmore was a parish from about 1200 on, the existing canonical system of Ecclesiastical benefices was introduced into it. The Dean of Armagh became its Rector, the Chancellor of Armagh become its Vicar. Much land in the parish had belonged to the monastic foundation, and this now passed under the control of the Archbishop of Armagh who received an annual rent from the local families who farmed it. Such townlands as Ballytrue, Dromard, Lurgancott etc, in the north of the parish belonged to the family of MacGiolla Earain, later perhaps McGranes, who paid the Archbishop an annual rent of 8/6d (the equivalent of about £2.00 nowadays). The O’Cullen family occupied the townlands of Ballyhegan, Kilmacanty and Money and paid an annual contribution of 8/4d. The O’Halligans possessed the townlands of Ballywilly and Tullygarden for which they paid the Archbishop 4/6d annually. These local families, had the duty of providing for the upkeep of the parish church out of the rents which they received from their under-tenants, but they received no share of the parish tithes, two-thirds of which went to the Rector and one-third to the Vicar. Since both the Rector and Vicar were normally non-resident because they were respectively Dean and Chancellor of Armagh Cathedral, the care of souls at local level would have been entrusted to a curate. For this reason it is impossible to compile a list of the clergy who actually served the parish of Kilmore in medieval times. Occasionally, however, one of the local ecclesiastical families succeeded in having their nominee appointed to the rectory or vicarage, and these are the only, names which hove survived, thus in 1440 Gregory O’Halligan was deprived of his position as Vicar and was replaced by Maurice O’Cullen. In 1508 Henry O’Haran. or O’Fearon became Rector, and in 1543 John O’Cullen was deprived of the rectory by King Henry VIII because he had been appointed by the Pope. But since the Tudor writ did not run in Gaelic Ulster for more than a half-century to come, it is probable that Mass continued to be said in the old parish church of Kilmore, by local O’Halligan, McGrane and O’Cullen priests, until the beginning of the 17th century.
At the Plantation of Ulster the Barony of Oneilland was granted to a number of English Undertakers. These were the highest grade of planters and they undertook to bring English or Scottish tenants from Great Britain and not to have any Irishmen among their tenants. Two thousand acres in the Richhill area was created into the Manor of Mullalelish and Legacorry for Francis Sacheverall who took up residence in Mulladry. His grand-daughter married Major Edward Richardson, an officer in the Cromwellian army and the estate passed into the hands of the Richardsons.
They erected their new manor house at Legacorry, which came to be known as Richardson’s Hill, later shortened to Richhill. The house Is still occupied and Is probably the oldest inhabited house in Co. Armagh. The Richardson family, however, became extinct in the latter part of the 19th century, one of the last generation having been received into the Catholic Church and become a close friend of Cardinal Newman.
At the other end of the parish the townlands of Brackagh, Unshinagh, Ballylisk, Mullavilly. Ballyknock, Tamnaghvelton, Cornascreeb, Cabragh,. Cloncoose and Cordrain were, under the Ulster Plantation, formed into the Manor of Tamnavelton and granted to John Bourchier, M.P. for Co. Armagh in the Parliament of 1613. Neither himself nor his brother who inherited the estate had Issue, and the lands passed by marriage to the Fane family and ultimately to the Count de Salis It may be added that a few townlands of the parish of Kilmore such as Lissheffield and Creenagh were included in the grant made to the Copes of Dromilly and Loughgall.
From about 1610, then, no Catholic or native possessed land in the parish of Kilmore and the new owners were .supposed to lease their lands only to British tenants. While they introduced many such, they found it necessary to allow Irish Catholic families to remain also. Thus it was reported in 1622 that there were still 4 9 Irish families in the Richhill area. The pattern of a mixed population, with o Protestant majority and pockets in which Catholics remained numerous, was already emerging;
The Co. Armagh Hearth Money Rolls, based on a tax of two shillings payable on each fireplace, survive for the year 1664, and they show native Catholic names still prominent in certain townlands. Mullavilly had O’Hanlons, Fegans and McGees, Ballylisk had families of McGee, OToole and McDeele (McDowell?). Ballyknock had an O’Doherty, a McCann and an O’Lagan family in addition to a Watson householder, Tamnaghvelton was well planted, with Ardle O’Mulreeve (later anglicized to Mulgrew and Rice) the only native name appearing, Tamnaghmore had O’Hanlons, McGees and one Kieran family, while Cornascreeb had no names except Gaelic ones, the most prominent being O’CAlter with four families. The McGranes and O’Mullans were to the fore in Bollybreagh, the Raffertys and Keenans in Derryhale, the Fearons in Aghory. Legacorry Town (Richhill) had very few native names, while Bottlehill had one householder who answered to the name of ‘Widow Bledder”. This was still roughly the position a century later, for the Parliamentary Returns of 1766 Indicated that there were 791 Protestant and 491 Catholic families in the parish and one Catholic priest.
From the early 17th century on, with church buildings and endowments now in the hands of the State Church, it became necessary to set up a new framework which would serve the Catholic community. The old parish was maintained as the basic unit with much the same boundaries as before, but the priest had henceforward to assemble his congregation in the open air for Mass and administer many of the sacraments to the people in their own homes. He was often a native of the parish, living with his relatives, helping them in their agricultural labours and depending for his support on the two shillings per year contributed by each family or the shilling to one and sixpence donated to him at baptisms, marriages and funerals. He had little opportunity to make a deep study of theology but occasionally found his way to one of the Irish Colleges on the Continent.
The first of the new type of Catholic priests who served in the parish of Kilmore was James O’Halligan, no doubt a native of the area and a member of the family whom we have already met as tenants on the Church-lands. He seems to have been Parish Priest of Kilmore when the Rising of 1641 broke out and the old parish church was recovered for a time for Catholic worship. James O’Halligan said Mass once more in the old building and according to the Depositions made after the Rising he read in the church a document issued by the same as the Father James O’Halligan, P.P. of Armagh, who was captured by the Scotch Army at Charlemont in 164 2. Friar O’Mellan’s Journal describes him as ‘the upright priest and the excellent preacher’. He was offered his life on condition that he would conform and on refusing to do so was tortured to death.
The whole fabric of the Catholic Church in Ireland was severely shaken during the Cromwellian decade (1650-60), and as over a thousand priests had to leave the country it is doubtful if any priest managed to survive in the hostile surroundings of Kilmore parish during this era. The rebuilding of the Church structure was carried out under the providential leadership of Blessed Oliver Plunkett (1669-81), and during his primacy Father Niall O’Gormley served as parish priest of Kilmore. He survived the Primate’s execution, and in 1683 was one of those Armagh priests who petitioned Rome that Father Felim O’Neill. O.F.M., the son of Sir Phelim O’Neill, leader in the 1641 Rising, should be appointed as Blessed Oliver’s successor. No parish priest of Drumcree (Portadown) appears on this list, and it seems very likely that Father O’Gormlev acted as P.P. of the two parishes.
This was certainly the case with his successor as P.P. of Kilmore, Father Brian Kiernan. He was ordained at the Irish College of Seville in Spain in 1684 at the age of 24 and survived until well into the 18th century. After the first few years of his priestly career enjoying the new freedoms obtained by Catholics under James II, he was destined to serve the parish of Kilmore during the worst period of the Penal Laws. Having ordered all Bishops and regular clergy to leave Ireland in 1697, the government decided In 1703 to allow one Catholic priest to remain in each parish provided he offered two sureties of £50 each for his good behaviour. As no new clergy would be ordained and priests were forbidden to enter Ireland, it was hoped that in one generation the Catholic clergy would disappear. Brian Kiernan registered at Lurgan on July 10th 1704 as parish priest of Kilmore and Drumcree, and his two sureties were Edmund Hughes of Middletown and John Derry of Ballynamoney near Lurgan. He was then living in the townland of Tullymore in the Northern end of the parish.
On the death of Primate Dominic Maguire in 1707 Armagh was without an Archbishop for seven years and serious dissensions broke out among the clergy. The chapter elected a priest as Vicar Capitular, the Bishop of Kilmore (the only surviving Bishop In Ulster) chose another, the Tyrone priests select ed a third and the priests of Armagh chose Father Brian Kiernan. He had t o walk very warily indeed, as the charge that he was exercising Papal jurisdiction rendered him liable to expulsion from Ireland and death if he returned. When Primate Hugh McMahon was transferred from Clogher to Armagh in 1714 he continued to have Brian Kiernan as his Vicar-General for the priests of Co. Armagh. Fortunately the document of his appointment has survived, copied, into a blank half-page in a MS. of sermons in Irish now in the British Museum. It is dated 5th October 1715 and a few lines from it will suffice to show how the Archbishop and his Vicar General, at a time when the exercise of Papal jurisdiction would have meant at least instant expulsion from Ireland, managed to conceal the real purpose of the document under an agricultural terminology:
A copy of the l ease given to Mr. Kiernan 5th October 1715:
(Whereas by the lat e alteration, arrived in the form of Ardmach all power of former managers is expired, Its my opinion that Mr. Bryan Kiernan shall in reference to those that were of his side during the debate of that used to make their Addresses to him or his partners continue in the same station, improve and manure the lands, resolve causes, except granting of leases, dismissorys and other prerogatives reserved by the Law to the landlord, etc.)
When that carefully worded document was drawn up, the Penal Laws were at their highest pitch of ferocity in the parish of Kilmore and throughout Ireland. No Catholic Church or Chapel existed in the parish, only Mass-gardens in the townlands of Ballywilly and Ballytrue. The 1731 Report on Popery indicates that while Kilmore had one popish priest, it had neither chapel nor popish school. If Father Brian Kiernan was still surviving, he would have been then a man in his early seventies and must have died soon afterwards.
The name of his successor in the pastorate of Kilmore is uncertain, but I suspect that it may have been a Father Con O’Neill. The name Cornelius O’Neill, Chancellor, is appended to a document sent to Rome in 1738 and now preserved in St. Clement’s Irish Dominican House. Kilmore was at that time the parish of the Chancellor in the Protestant Church, and the Catholic parish priest of such a parish often adopted the same title in order to maintain the Catholic claim to continuity with the pre-Reformation Church.
The next parish priest whose name is preserved is Father Owen Lavery, who baptised Father James O’Quigley In 1761. He is presumably the ‘one Popish priest’ ref erred to in the 1766 Parliamentary Returns. The local Protestant incumbent added the significant phrase: ‘Not a friar that I know of’, during Father Lavery’s pastorate. The Penal Laws were gradually easing off and small thatched chapels were being erected by the Catholics of most northern parishes. It was probably he who built Mullavilly Church in 1771.
He was succeeded about 1780 by Father Dudley Devlin, who thus came towards the end of the troubled primacy of Archbishop Blake. When Rome appointed Bishop Richard O’Reilly as his coadjutor in 1782, some of the Armagh priests were displeased that they had not been consulted, and Dudley Devlin was one of those who signed a letter of protest to Rome.
An old chapel was opened in Stonebridge. During the latter part of the 18th century.’ According to tradition only six people attended Mass there on Christmas morning; in 1798 because of the reign of terror carried on by the yeomanry and ‘wreckers’.’The chapels of Tartaraghan and Killyman had been, leveled to the ground during the preceding year, but we have no documentary evidence that either Mullavilly or Stonebridge suffered the same fate. The parish priest of Kilmore at the time was Father Arthur McParland, and he was one of three local priests called to a conference with a number of the Protestant landowners of the-area in an effort to prevent the ‘Battle of the Diamond’. His parish was one of those worst hit by the ‘wreckings’ and clearances which followed the ‘Battle’, and among the thousands of northerners who were forced to flee to Connacht we find natives of the parish of Kilmore settling in the Newport, Castle bar, Louisburgh, Westport, Crossmolina and Foxford areas of County Mayo, sometimes bearing testimonial letters signed by their parish priest.
Father McParland was transferred to Loughgall in 1799 and his successor in Kilmore was Father Hugh McCusker. The latter had previously been curate in Dungannon with the Vicar General Henry Conwell, but relations between the two men were not happy and the Vicar General asked to have him transferred. As there were a number of Father McCuskers in the archdiocese at the time, it Is difficult to be certain about his subsequent career. He seems however to have followed his predecessor from Kilmore to Loughgall. where he died on 9th January 1816, aged 64 years. A plaque to his memory was erected in the old chapel there.