Fr. Nicholas Sheehy Tomb Conservation Project 2010


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Shanrahan Survey




Shanrahan Cemetery

Archaeological survey text.

Edmund O’Riordan


University College Cork


The name ‘Shanrahan’ is no longer remembered as a civil parish or a Church of Ireland parish in south-west Tipperary, the parish now being referred to by its Catholic name ‘Clogheen and Burncourt’.  It includes the ancient parish of Ballysheehan.   However the name is still remembered as the name of a townland and the cemetery within that townland.  This cemetery which is situated about one kilometre west of Clogheen still serves as the parish cemetery for the community of Clogheen and district.  This report is the result of a survey of that cemetery with particular attention being paid to the ruins of the medieval parish church of Shanrahan contained therein. The graveyard also includes scant remains of a fifteenth century castle, the tomb of martyred parish priest, Fr. Nicholas Sheehy,  and the burial vault of  landlord O’Callaghan family – later Lords Lismore.

            The graveyard is situated to the north of, and at the foot of, a peak of the Knockmealdown mountain range, Knockshanahullion.  This 652 metre peak (Discovery Series Map # 74)) was more anciently known as Slieve gCua and appears as such in Cromwellian records.  (Civil Survey 1654)   The River Duag which runs right beside the cemetery and lends itself to the peaceful ambience of the place is a tributary of the River Tar and ultimately of the River Suir. A bridge over the river at this point was repaired as part of famine relief work in 1847 (O’Riordan 1995, 44) The  road across the bridge and running southwards over the mountain to Araglin and Lismore is said to be as ancient as the more renowned Rian Bó Padraig which is further to the east.

The surrounding landscape, described by geographers as bocage,  is very much of enclosed fields and field fences.  Across the river to the south the fields soon give way to forestry plantation in the care of Coillte while to the north  the land rises less steeply to the east-west running Clogheen/Mitchelstown road and continues on  across the valley to the Galtee mountains some six miles away.  The land in the vicinity is given over almost entirely to grassland due to the cold clayey nature of the soil in the vicinity.

            The wall on the east side of the cemetery measures 130 metres in length. The greatest width is 75 metres. A large area at the south side of the cemetery which contains modern graves is a relatively recent extension.  The river Duag  forms the boundary to the south but the ground of the cemetery is raised well above the river and enclosed behind a stone built wall. An internal pathway encompasses the entire graveyard.  To the northeast an farmyard and disused farmhouse detract from the overall tranquillity here.  An area of ground to the west of the graveyard serves, nowadays, as a car park.  An attractive stone stile on the west wall beneath a grove of mature Scots Pine trees offers access from the car park. To the north of the stile a blocked up entrance to the site was noted.  (These piers may simply be reinforcing piers.)  At this west and north/west side one is struck by the arc which is formed by the wall leading one to believe that this may be a site of great antiquity.  However, apart from this arc there is no evidence that the site was ever enclosed by a circular wall or embankment.  At the entrance gate on the north wall a pair of handsome iron gates are supported by well built sandstone piers.  Barely decipherable date  and initials reading ‘R.G. 1835’ were noted on the top of the west pier.  A small plaque dated 1991 reminds visitors that Fr. Nicholas Sheehy is still remembered by the local community.

Medieval Church

                Inside the graveyard and within twenty metres of the entrance the pathway passes beneath the tower of the ruined church.  This medieval parish church has undergone at least three phases of construction and reconstruction, finally being abandoned in the early nineteenth century by the Protestant Established Church community which it then served.   It now lies broken and roofless but enough is preserved for the student of archaeology to be able to decipher the various stages it has gone through.  A plan of the church is offered with this report and will augment the description given here.  The original building appears to have been  a small rectangular structure measuring 9.5 metres by 6metres .  This portion of the building, which subsequently became the chancel of the most recent church, is of uncoursed sandstone and limestone rubble and lime mortar construction. The north wall is almost entirely destroyed but enough remains to get measurements. A pronounced batter is evident on the original sections that remain.  By probing beneath the ivy on the internal west wall it was possible to make out the blocked up original entrance.  This became more obvious when access was gained to the tower through a window with the aid of a step ladder.  The entrance is more discernible from inside the tower.  A blocked doorway on the north side of the tower gave access to this doorway.  The tower itself has been added in two distinct phases.  It is debateable as to whether or not the tower was part of the original building but at some point in its history its upper windows were blocked up and five or six metres added to its height. The top of the tower has pseudo-battlements topped with coping stones. These are perfectly preserved on the west side but are in various states of disrepair on the other three sides.  The lower centre-pointed window of the tower, on the west side, measures 87cm wide and is approximately two metres high. The tower windows, which were blocked up, are now visible because the lime-mortar rendering has all but disappeared.  These windows which are evident on the west and north sides are round headed of  segmental arch construction.  The sandstone voissoirs are cut but not finely dressed.  The newer and higher windows, again on the west and north, are of fine ashlar construction, the lower part of these windows, up to the spring of the arch, being built with ashlar quoins.  These windows are pointed.  The south side of the tower was, in its most recent phase, faced with weather slating. The wall of the tower is 70cms in thickness.

A Sheela na Gig adorns the west wall of the tower, but this is dealt with in the attached article from the Tipperary Historical Journal which was written by this student following the finding of another Sheela-na-Gig on this church while conducting this survey.

A walk around the church reveals some interesting detail.  At the south west corner of the building the quoins are clearly stones that have been incorporated from another building.  Counting upwards, as they appear in the photograph (not included with this copy), quoin  number three - one of four limestone quoins at this point -  is the most obvious reused stone.  The lower portion of the west face of this stone has a finely cut chamfer and chamfer stop.  A possible source of these stones was the fifteenth century castle at this site.  A ruined tower of this castle is dealt with below.  It will be noted that just above the two metre ranging pole and on the south facing wall the quoin is a sandstone voissoir and again is most likely from the old castle.  Two one metre wide splayed windows on the south side of the church were blocked up at some point. The walls of the church are, on average, 75 cms thick and are of uncoursed split limestone and sandstone rubble.  Some water rolled sandstone boulders are also evident.  This mixture of stone reflects the geology of the area with the sandstone mountains to the south and the limestone valley floor to the north.  The mortar is lime mortar made with what appears to be screened river gravel. The nave at the east side of the church which measures 5.60m by 4m appears to be a later addition and its addition to the original church necessitated the construction of a chancel arch of sandstone.  (Photo # 5)  The nave is narrower than the original building and the stones are not keyed into the original walls.  The walls of the nave are retained to their original height and carefully chosen but uncut sandstone coping stones are still in situ.

The most recent entrance seems to have been in the east wall.  This  1.5 metre opening had a round arch of brick construction.  The brick is of a light red colour.  It wasn’t possible to get a measurement of a full brick.  The Sheela na Gig which is dealt with in the attachment to this report is on the south corner of the east wall almost at ground level.  Inside the nave an aumbrey is noted at ground level on the south wall at 52 inches from the east wall. It measures 40cm wide and 35 in height and 30 cms in depth.  Without removing soil and debris it is impossible to get a more accurate measurement of height.  (Photo # 6)  The chancel arch, as already noted, is of sandstone voissoirs and measures almost three metres in width.

The north wall of the chancel is broken down and it is difficult to decide if there was a door or window here at one time.  A small buttress exists to a height  of 60cms at the west end of the north wall.  Four metres futher to the east an anomoly exists.  It has been represented on the attached plan as a buttress but, on reflection,  its size makes this seem improbable.  There is no sign of an opening here and the structure is solidly packed with stone.  It remains to a height of  two metres. 

Canon Burke in his History of Clonmel (1907, 436) records that at a General Session of Assize in Clonmel  in 1663, Robert Thornhill, a gentleman, late of Castlegrace, was charged that he had, with force of arms, destroyed the roof of the Church of All Saints at Shanrahan and taken the timbers and other material away for his own use.  Thornhill was found not guilty but nevertheless, he was bound to the peace.

Power (1907, 328)  states that Shanrahan is a place of some historical importance as the possible original see of St. Cataldus, afterwards bishop of  Tarantum in Italy.  He further states that the ruined church while dating from  centuries after Cataldus is “occupying doubtless the site of the original foundation”.

O’Donovan was less enthusiastic in his O.S. Letters (1840, 16) :

“The site of the original church of Shanrahan is occupied by the

ruins of a Protestant church of no great age and which is not worth

the  attention of the antiquarian.”

He goes on to say that the neighbourhood was very barren in antiquities.  It would have been impossible for O’Donovan to have known that beneath the plaster rendering of the church lay the evidence for the earlier medieval church . 

Burials have taken place over the years in the old church.  A plaque on the outside of the south wall states that this is the burial place of the Everards of Lisheenanoul.


The best source for the history of  Shanrahan Castle  is Fr. John Everard, who was parish priest of Clogheen in the early years of the twentieth century.   Fr. Everard’s article in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological society  was written from sources that were subsequently destroyed during the civil war burning of the Four Courts.  Everard states that the Castle was built by the Earl of Desmond in 1453.  He further states that the Castle was at one time, in the seventeenth century, a favourite residence of  Sir Richard Everard.  This is the same Sir Richard Everard who was prominent in the Confederation of Kilkenny and whose Burncourt Castle was destroyed during the Cromwellian campaign in Ireland.   However, the Civil Survey of Ireland notes that  Shanrahan Castle was, at the time of compilation of the survey, a ruinous old stump. (Civil Survey 1654, 350).  This would appear to cast doubt on the accuracy of Fr, Everard’s assertion. It is difficult to reconcile the ‘ruinous old stump’ description with the fact that Richard had recently lived there!

O’Donovan describes the castle thus:

“To the south of this [church] is a fragment of a military round

tower of rude masonry and about forty feet in height.  It is said

to be a part of a large castle, the walls of which some scattered

fragments are still visible, but no idea can be formed of the original

extent of the building.” (1840,17)

                All that remains of the castle today is an ivy covered tower approximately 15 metres in height. A north south measurement of the tower was noted at 3.36metres with a projection of broken wall attached on the north side measuring 2.20m.  This wall measures 1.25 in thickness.  It is D shaped rather than circular.  The presence of the remains of a fallen tower at a mere 5 metres from the standing tower might indicate that this was a small rectangular castle with towers at two or more corners. 

Both towers were constructed of uncoursed sandstone rubble with some split limestone rubble.  The mortar is lime mortar with river gravel.  A pronounced batter was noted on both the upright and the fallen tower.

Everard also gives us an idea of why the castle remains are so scant.  He asserts that the stone was removed by ‘vandals’ to build farmsteads locally.  In light of this assertion it is interesting to note that a stone in the North wall of the cemetery and bounding the farmyard, shows definite sign of having had a previous use.  (Photo # 7)

 Some of the field fences of the neighboring farm are constructed of stone of a type superior to that which one might expect in a field fence in this locality.

It is interesting that Fr. John Everard is buried at the foot of the castle tower.

Fr. Sheehy Tomb

            In 1766 Fr. Nicholas Sheehy was hanged in Clonmel after a rigged trial.  This was the era of the Whiteboys  who struck fear into the heart of the Landed Protestant ‘gentry’.  Fr. Sheehy was sympathetic to Whiteboy ideals and so became a marked man.  He had been charged with murder even though no body had ever been produced. Following his execution his head was severed from his body and wasn’t buried with the rest of his remains until twenty years later.  Those remains are interred in an altar tomb of limestone between the Castle and the Church in Shanrahan.  (Photo #8)  The tomb itself  is joined to the tomb of a Fr. Gleeson who was Fr. Sheehy’s predecessor in Clogheen.  In 1898 the local community erected a plaque on the tomb and a railing around it.  The railing was supplied by this student’s great grandfather.  (Photo #9) The plaque was supplied by the noted Tipperary stonecutters Brackens of Templemore.


            To the west of the Church stands the burial vault of the O’Callaghan landlord family, later Lords Lismore. Here in a cellar lie the remains of successive members of that family whose residence was at Shanbally Castle.  The building is of fine ashlar limestone construction. The building is said to date from the late eighteenth century.  Inside the building a large marble plaque on the south wall is in Latin.  A photograph (#10) is included below.  A sketch plan of the building is also included below.  Two limestone centre pointed windows on the west wall measure 70cm in width and 1.42m in height . The original louvred timber slats have been replaced by iron bars.   An iron gate guards the limestone centre pointed entrance. The 30cm limestone is finely cut with a chamfer at both sides of the architrave.   The slate roof is still in perfect condition as is the plaster ceiling. Stone slabs line the floor of the vault.  A trapdoor gives access to the burials below.  Oral tradition has it that Fr. Sheehy hid in this vault during the days that he was on the run from the ‘gentry’ of  South Tipperary during the eighteenth century.


            Surprisingly, given the antiquity of the place,  no medieval grave slabs are present here.  One of the oldest gravestones is that of John White and his wife. It is a plain rectangular slab of slate. It reads:

‘Here lieth the body of John White and wife who died March 25, 1741.  Aged 66years.’

As with other graveyards this graveyard at Shanrahan mirrors societal divisions in death as in life.  One section of the cemetery was, from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century, set apart for the wealthier Protestant community.  Here one reads the names of mill owners, doctors, officials, merchants and military men from Clogheen’s eighteenth century military barracks. One of the first gravestones one sees on entering is to the memory of Constable Hatton of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Men and women and a few children with English names seem out of place here until one considers Clogheen’s history.

            That same history is also reflected in the number of Stones marking the parents of people from the United States of America.  Parish Priests from Philadlephia and New Zealand erected stones to their parents in the early part of this century.  A recent plaque commemorates the memory of thirteen children from the local Hogan family who emigrated in the nineteenth century.  It was erected by members of the VanLoan and DeFalco family, a sure sign of the cultural diversity which greeted the emigrants of the last century as it does today.

Here also in Shanrahan is the grave of  Lord Sackville of Knole in Kent, England, who died in 1966.  Having spent the last years of his life in Clogheen his wish was to be buried here.  A few metres away lie the remains of the poor Irish whose graves are marked with simple stones.  There are no Irish language inscriptions here.

            And so, in modern times, the archaeologist visitor to Shanrahan can reflect on the tradition of an early ecclesiastical settlement in Shanrahan, ponder the ruins of a medieval parish church with its two Sheela-na-Gigs, and regret the destruction of a fifteenth century castle.  Here, too, one can contemplate the ironies of life that sees, in death, the coming together of Lords and peasants, beggars and Ladies, English and Irish, Catholic and Protestant.