Notes on the Foundation of the Diocese of Tuam

By Samuel J. Maguire

Is Benignus the Founder?

In the town land of Tonlagee, about three miles from Tuam on the Ballinrobe side, lie the ruins of a monastic settlement, which is known as Kilbannon, i.e. the Church of Benignus. It is said to have been founded by St. Patrick during his sojourn in Connaught and Benignus is venerated in the locality as having been its first Abbot.

This is the popularly accepted account of the foundation, but there is considerable controversy amongst authorities as to its veracity. The confusion arises from the fact that Benignus could not possibly have done the amount of work in Connaught with which he is credited in the various records and it is obvious that either the sources are false or that there was another Benignus associated with Patrick in the Christianising of the West.

Knox (Notes on the Early History of the Dioceses of Tuam, Killala and Achonry) gives the benefit of the doubt to the latter theory and holds that there were two Benignuses, one the son of Sescnen, who succeeded Patrick as Primate in Armagh, and the other the son of Lugni, who was Abbot of Druimlias Monastery near Dromahare before coming to Kilbannon. In this he is supported by The Book of Armagh, written in the early part of the ninth century, and which incorporates the Annals of Tirechan, which were compiled in or about 701 A.D. It states that

"Binean, son of Lugni, writer and priest and anchorite, was son of the daughter of Lugaith Maice Netach, to whom his mother's race gave an inheritance in which he founded a Church consecrated to God and dedicated to Saint Patrick."
"And Patrick marked the place for himself with his staff and himself first offered the Body and Blood of Christ after Binean had received Orders from him. And he blessed him and left him after him in his place."

Another note in The Book of Armagh states that Patrick left his pupil Benin in Druimlias where he was for seventeen years, and The Tripartite Life of St. Patrick contains a reference to the same foundation, stating that Patrick placed over it his pupil Benignus, who governed it for twenty years.

The question then arises as to why Benignus the son of Lugni, only received Orders when he came to Kilbannon if he had been twenty years Abbot of Druimlias. In fact, if he had been this time at Druimlias he could scarcely have been associated at all with St. Patrick in the foundation at Kilbannon, as the latter's journeying's through Connaught occupied no more than seven years entirely. Nor could Benignus of Driumlias have been the son of Sescnen who succeeded Patrick in Armagh and who died in 468 as the records of that Saint's activities do not allow for a protracted stay in Connaught. That outstanding authority on ecclesiastical history, Dr. Lanigan, refuses to admit the possibility of there having been a second Benignus. In his comprehensive study of the life of St. Patrick (Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, vol I) he does not refer to the Saint as having ever visited Kilbannon and he vehemently denies the possibility of his having founded Druimlias and of having left Benignus there. The reference to the other Benignus in The Tripartite Life he dismisses as having been introduced "merely to answer some objection against certain stories about the real Benignus, such as that of his having been Abbot of Driumlias."

Of the foundation as referred to in The Book of Armagh, Fr. Ryan (Irish Monasticism) merely states that it was "at some place that cannot easily be identified", but he acknowledges P. Grosjean's conclusion that it was at Kilbannon (AA.SS.Boll., T. iv Nov p. 178, n.8). Fr. Ryan refers to the foundation in his list of those entrusted to priests as distinct from bishops.

Jarlath, the First Bishop and Abbot of Tuam?

I have referred to this controversy because it is of relevance to these notes inasmuch as Kilbannon, if founded by St. Patrick, must have been the first Church in the Tuam district and the source from which the See has arisen. In addition, it was here that Jarlath, the first Bishop and Abbot of Tuam, is reputed to have studied under Benignus and to have been ordained by him. Jarlath was the son of Loga and of Mongfinn, daughter of Ciarduban of the family of Ceneann, who were of the Conmaicne. What is now the Barony of Dunmore was occupied by the Conmaicne de Cineal Dubhain and it may, accordingly be assumed that he was born in the Tuam district (see Harris - Antiqu. Ch.7). Tradition has it that in addition to studying under Benignus he was also a pupil of Enda of Aran for a time. His first foundation.

Thereafter it was Ard Ibair, the place where men wrought a crime; after that it became Tuaim Da Gualann, when Jarlath gave it his blessing There the chariot's shaft was broken; if anyone makes enquiry Tuaim Da Gualann (this is ...) was its name among the learned. Here ye have the true story, the reason of Tuam's name, when Jarlath had his home there, what time the Britons came. A red shoulder is that Shoulder since they joined combat there; each man slew his fellow: it was cause of great grief. Jarlath (called) thereafter the Britons to him after matins: he implanted the Faith in them, (and they heard him) preaching. (The next verse seems to refer to a miracle by Jarlath if we are to read mirbaile in line 46). This verse is illegible".

Until some years ago Tuaim Da Gualainn was accepted as meaning 'the tumulus of the shoulders' but nowadays 'Guala' is interpreted as being the surname of a local pagan chieftain. I can find no authority for this interpretation, however, and verses nine and ten are of particular interest in as much as 'guala' is specifically stated to mean a shoulder.

Of Jarlath's Church, Colgan in his Catalogue of the Churches of the Diocese of Tuam (AA.SS. 310) says: "Ecclesia cathedralis Tuamensis, sita Tuamiae, vocatur Tempull Iarlaithe, dicata S. Hierlation, primo episcopo Tuamiae, antequam haec sedes in archiepiscopalem erigeretur". There is no trace of this first Church of Tuam nowadays, nor do we even know the site upon which it stood. Presumably, however, it conformed in design with other foundations of the period and the following notes may therefore be of some interest.

The earliest Churches were made of woven sticks plastered with clay and having thatched roofs. Later buildings were made of oaken planks and this form of building was popular up to the 12th century in districts where wood was the economic building medium. A church built in his fashion was called a 'Duirtheach' i.e. an oaken house. St. Cianan of Duleek is said to have been the first to have erected a church of stone and lime cement (called a daimhliag), but, unfortunately, we do not know for sure the date of this project. The Annals of Ulster, The Annals of Inisfallen and the Four Masters give 489A.D. as the date of Cianan's death, but Colgan refers to a Life of St. Mochua which suggests that the Church was not erected until about 540A.D. Petrie agrees that this was probably one of the first stone Churches in Ireland, and Ware (Harris ed. P. 137) quotes from the Office of St. Cianan: "That St. Cianan built a church of stone in this place; and that from thence it took the name of Damleagh; for that before this time the churches of Ireland were built of wattles and boards". Petrie (Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland p. 343-358) deals in detail with these duirtheachs and daimhliags.

The foundation at Tuam probably consisted of a stone oratory and in dimensions about 12ft x 8ft 6ins. (These are the measurements of the oratory at Inisglora built by St. Brendan, who was a contemporary of St. Jarlath). Being a teacher of some repute, a monastic community probably grew up around his Church and such establishment were usually surrounded by a dry stonewall, irregular in contour and not very high. This enclosing wall or cashel appears to have been erected merely to ensure privacy and not as a defensive measure. According to The Tripartite Life, all Patrician foundations conformed to a standard pattern, the surrounding wall being about 150 yards in circumference. Inside the cashel there was usually in addition to the church, a refectory, a guest house and the cells of the monks which were sometimes of a bee-hive design.

Examples of monastic settlements of the period may still be seen at Innishmurray off Sligo, Ard Illaun, Inishglora, Kilmainbeg, Illauncolumbkill, and other places throughout Connaught. Fr. Ryan (Irish Monasticism p. 285) deals comprehensively with this subject. With reference to monastic schools, this eminent writer says: "Though school buildings doubtless existed, we are justified in concluding from Bede that the highest form of instruction was of a more private and personal character, imparted by the distinguished teachers among the monks to students who visited them in their cells".

St. Jarlath is reputed to have dedicated his Church to Our Lady Assumed into Heaven, but this dedication may have been at a much later date. In fact many authorities suggest that such dedications were unusual in early Christian times in Ireland. Fr. Ryan agrees on this point, but he points out that they were not unknown. He adds that "at Glendalough one Church was dedicated to The Holy Trinity; another to Our Lady". In this he differs with Petrie, who states that "none of the ancient Irish Churches were dedicated to the Virgin, or to any of the foreign Saints, previously to the twelfth century ... and there is not a word in the ancient Lives of St. Kevin which would indicate that any of the Churches of Glendalough were so dedicated at the period when they were written".

St. Jarlath's Chapel, Tuam

A photograph of Saint Jarlath's Chapel, Tuam taken in 1953.

There is no record of the date of Jarlath's death but it must have occurred towards the end of the sixth century; and the historical sources contain very few references to his church during the next five hundred years.

Imramh Ua Corra

A series of tales have come down to us from ancient times which are known as Imramh meaning expeditions by sea and one of these stories Imramh Ua Corra, may be deemed of some relevance to these notes.

Conal Dearg Ua Corra, a Connaught man, had been married for some years to the draught of the Airchinnech of Clothar. Notwithstanding endless prayers to the Almighty they were childless and their discontent grew until eventually they decided to sell their souls to the devil in the hope that he would provide them with an heir. Their prayers were answered threefold as shortly afterwards there were born to them three sons at the same time.

The three children grew up sturdy and strong but instead of assisting their parents in farming the lands, they gathered around them a gang of ruffians and set out to murder every holy man and to destroy every church in the province. They commenced by destroying the Church at Tuam nor did they stop until they had wrecked half of the Churches in Connaught.

Eventually they arrived in Clothar where they planned to pillage the Church and to kill their grandfather the Airchinnech. They were both received kindly by the old man who offered them food and lodgings which they accepted in order to lull his suspicions. They arranged, however, to rise up during the night and to murder him and his household. But Lochan the eldest brother had a vision during the night wherein he was shown the joys of heaven contrasted with the torments of hell and summoning his brothers he told him of his experience. Apparently he convinced them that they should all repent of their evil ways for soon afterwards we find them seeking admission to St. Finnen's Monastery at Clonard.

St. Finnen placed them under spiritual guidance of one of his monks for a year and then ordered them to go and repair every Church they had destroyed. They complied with this instruction beginning with Tuam and ending with Kinvara at the head of Galway Bay. They then presented themselves before St. Colman and on his advice they decided to set out on a pilgrimage into the Atlantic. They had built for themselves a large curragh covered with hides and capable of holding nine persons and as they were about to set out, they were approached by a Bishop, a priest, a deacon, a musician and the man who had made the curragh, and all requested permission to accompany them on their adventure. The request was granted and they set out on a voyage which was full of the most fabulous and fantastic adventures imaginable.

Further details of Imramh Ua Corra would be out of place in these notes but the reader is referred to The Book of Fermoy and to O'Curry's Lectures on the Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History, p. 288