St Brendan, Clonfert

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Feature Sets (4)


Nave and chancel church with the remains of a southern transept, the site of a northern transept , and a sacristy projecting northwards from the chancel. The nave appears to be the earliest part of the building, possibly dating from the 10thc., with antae projecting from both the east and west ends. The chancel is probably an early 13thc. addition, whilst the transepts, sacristy and tower are 15thc. additions. The impressive Romanesque west portal is probably an insertion to the original single cell building.


Founded by St Brendan the Navigator in 563. The burning of a stone church by the Ui Maine is recorded in 1045. Clonfert was chosen at the Synod of Rathbreasail (1111) as the centre of the diocese that corresponded roughly with the territory of the Ui Maine. Petrus O Mordha, who had been the first Cistercian abbot of Boyle, became bishop c.1152 and was drowned, possibly on his way to the Synod of Cashel in 1172. In 1414 the cathedral and abbey church were both in need of repair, and indulgences were granted for that purpose. Restoration work was carried out on the cathedral in 1897 by Mr Fuller, architect, during which the interior plaster was scraped. The cathedral and its environs are the subject of an ongoing conservation programme funded by the Heritage Council. Conservation works to the portal were initiated in the summer of 2002. The church is in current use by the Church of Ireland.


Exterior Features


W doorway

Round-headed, of seven orders surmounted by a steep tangent gable, capped by a bulbous finial. The jambs of the doorway are steeply inclined, the opening having an internal length of 1.53m at the base, and 1.39m at the springing of the arch. The width of this opening suggests the original presence of a further innermost order; this has been replaced by 15thc. work.

Fifth order

The square bases are very worn but retain traces of foliate carving. The jambs comprise pilasters with pseudo angle shafts. The entire surface of the shaft is decorated with elongated rosettes placed alternately in a horizontal and vertical position.

N capital: quite worn with a long narrow snouted beast with long whiskers and pointed ears biting the top of the shaft. Horizontally framed by a roll moulding.

N abacus: bottom half of abacus carved with four cats' heads, all too worn to discern specific features. The heads are surmounted by a foliate scroll.

S capital: quite worn but apparently as N side.

S abacus: four worn cats' heads surmounted by a foliate band.

The arch has twenty seven voussoirs of roughly similar proportion. Each are carved on face and soffit with a central, slightly flattened boss partially encircled by a cable moulding left open at the top where the ends bifurcate, forming outward and inward facing volutes. The spaces between the motifs are deeply hollowed. There is a roll at the arris.

First order, N side

The extremely worn bases are square in form with a torus and some traces of ?foliate carving on the W face, and a foliate spur at the angle.

Above the bases are pseudo-colonettes of circular profile. The surface is carved with lozenge motifs, each lozenge filled with four trilobe motifs arranged in alternate directions. The S jamb is badly worn.

N capital: quite worn on the angle but appears to be carved with a long frontal beast head projecting slightly from the surface of the capital, with ears carved high on the head pointing outward to either side. The angle head is flanked on W and S faces by two further beast heads. The carving on the W face is quite worn, but shows an equine head tucked into a long curving neck, large protruding ears, prominent nostrils and a curving jaw line. The carving on the S face is similar but better preserved, with incised decoration at the top of the head indicating a mane. The capital is framed by a narrow roll.

N abacus: The lower edge is decorated with four protruding frontal feline heads. Although quite worn each head is discernibly different; on the W face one has a sharply protruding snout, the other, a flatter, broader face. On the S face one has a flat face, the other is partially destroyed. Surmounting the cats' heads on both faces is a flat band with a fleshy running foliate scroll.

S capital: badly worn, but appears to have been carved in a similar manner to the N side.

S abacus: As N, although in better condition. On the W face one cat's head has a long, almost triangular face with worn features, the other has a broader face with protruding snout and flared nostrils. On the N face one has a broad face, the bottom part of which has been damaged, the other a narrow head with very feline features. All four have large hollowed triangular ears. The cats' heads are surmounted by a band of running foliate scroll.

In the arch are nineteen voussoirs of fairly uniform size. The faces of each voussoir are carved with a palmette-derived motif consisting of six leaves with outward-turning volutes at the base and inward turning volutes at the apex. A narrow roll defines the upper edge of the voussoirs. The soffit is treated in a similar manner but without the apex volutes. The arris is deeply hollowed between each palmette motif. Voussoir nos. 3 and 19 from the N are badly damaged.

Fourth Order

The very worn bases are square with a torus. These support pseudo-octagonal shafts carved with lateral chevron, the points expanded into seven leafed palmette-derived motifs filling the spaces between the chevrons. The S jamb is more worn.

N capital: carved with two zoomorphic masks which fill practically the entire surface of the capital. The mask on the W face has a broad face with long, centrally positioned nose and ovoid eyes angled downwards toward the nose. A narrow moulding, used to accentuate the beast's cheekbones crosses the nose level with the eyes. Wide lips are arranged in a broad V-shape as if to indicate a grin. The ears are positioned high to the sides of the head. On the S face is another broad zoomorphic mask with a long, straight, deeply incised mouth slightly down-turned at the ends. There is a wide, long nose with flared nostrils and a straight fringe of hair covering the forehead. The ears are on the top of the head. The capital is framed by a continuous cable moulding.

N abacus: on the lower half of the abacus are four cats' heads. Those on the W face are quite badly worn, one has a broad head with slightly protruding snout, the other a narrow snout and broad forehead with fringe of hair. On the S face one has a narrow protruding snout, the other a broader forehead with fringe of hair. There is a band of running foliage above.

S capital: very badly weathered. What little carving is discernible indicates that the capital was similar to that on the N side.

S abacus: four cats heads on lower half. On the W face one has a long nose, smiling mouth, angled almond-shaped eyes and small pointed ears, the other a small 'button' nose, curled up jaw, bulging eyes and high forehead. On the N face both have wide snouts and one has curls between the ears. The heads are surmounted by a running foliate scroll.

The arch has thirty voussoirs of roughly similar dimensions, each carved with a solid disc on one face and a hollowed disc on the other, arranged alternately to form a solid-hollow-solid sequence on both face and soffit. Both solid and hollowed discs have a contouring incision around the outer edge and the solid discs are filled with varying motifs as follows; From the north

1. (soffit) Spiral motif.

2. (face) Worn, possibly a triskele.

3. (soffit) Completely worn.

4. (face) Ten petalled rosette.

5. (soffit) Central cross with open half circle terminals. The spaces between the arms of the cross are filled with pairs of kidney-shaped petals.

6. (face) Worn, traces of a lobe-terminal whorl.

7. (soffit) Very worn, possibly foliate motif with clubbed terminals.

8. (face) Floral motif with (?)six heart-shaped petals.

9. (soffit) Floral motif with five incised ovoid petals.

10. (face) Four interconnected triskele whorls.

11. (soffit) Central disc with radiating clubs

12. (face) Double contoured Maltese cross with convex terminals.

13. (soffit) Double contoured cross with circles in spaces between arms

14. (face) Geometric motif with triangles radiating from central point.

15.(soffit) Central boss with three radiating whorls.

16. (face) worn

17. (soffit) A central disc with eight sets of double lines radiating from it. A double line around the edge of the disc is overlapped by every second set of lines.

18. (face) Cross with tau terminals.

19. (soffit) Edge of disc outlined by a double line. Four semicircles with lobed terminals radiate from the edge lines to a centrally carved disc.

20. (face) Worn.

21. (soffit) Quadripartite whorl.

22. (f ) Four petalled floral motif.

23.(soffit) Six petalled floral motif.

24.(face) Worn, (?) Interlace.

25 (soffit) Triskele.

26. (face) Floral motif.

27. (soffit) Cross with fleshy tau terminals.

28. (face) Very worn.

29. (soffit) Curled snake.

30. (face) Worn (?) whorl.

Gable border

The gable is bordered by a double cable moulding, with delicate beading between the twists of the cables. The two cables are separated by a fillet. On the N side the double cable moulding terminates with a (?)beast head twisted into the spandrel. On the S side with beast head facing southward.

Spandrels: Within the spandrels of both sides of the arch are three heads set into a well-coursed, undecorated background. On the N side, the lowest head is small and awkwardly positioned at an angle, wedged between the gable border and outer order of the arch. The head is human and quite naturalistic in its depiction. It is roughly oval in shape, and without hair. Above this is a less naturalistic, but nonetheless human, head. It is larger, and not set at an angle. It is almost rectangular in shape, and again, appears to be hairless. The head above this is too damaged to decipher any detail. On the S side again the lowest head is awkwardly squeezed between gable border and arch, it is clean shaven, and again quite naturalistic. Above this, also arranged at an angle is a larger, bearded head. The third, uppermost head is not angled. It has rounded features, high cheek bones, large eyes and a down- turned mouth. The spandrels are separated from the gable proper by a string course decorated with a row of flattened pellets between two fillets. Above the string course is a blind arcade composed of six columns, all resting on double roll bases. Each of the columns has surface decoration. From N to S

1. (?)Octagonal in profile the surface is decorated with two stems with foliate offshoots interlocking with one another.

2. Circular in profile decorated with the same motif as the jambs of the fifth order of the doorway proper.

3. Circular in profile, encircled by five bands between which the column bulges outwards slightly.

4. Circular in profile decorated with a diaper of six-petalled flowers.

5. Circular in profile decorated with two vertical rows of beaded zig-zags meeting along the centre of the column to form a row of lozenges.

6. Circular in profile but too worn to discern the surface ornament.

The capitals of the columns are all decorated with different foliate motifs. The arches, outlined by narrow flat bands are filled with a narrow band curving under and over a row of well-spaced pellets. Under each of the arcades as well as in the space between the outer arcades and the gable border, are disembodied heads, seven in total.

1. Arranged at an angle between the gable border and first arcade column. This head is smaller than the others, with clearly defined cheeks.

2. A serene face looking downwards, with no facial hair.

3. A bearded face with well-defined cheeks, tightly pursed lips and eyes either closed or looking downwards.

4. A rounder, fatter head, with bulging cheeks and a down turned mouth.

5. A beard face with well-defined cheek bones and down cast eyes.

6. An apparently hairless head with rounded cheeks, small chin and down- turned mouth.

7. A smaller head, like no.1, placed at an angle between the gable border and outer column of the blind arcade. The head has a long, drooping moustache and clearly defined eyes.

The blind arcade is surmounted by a by a string course decorated with a row of flattened pellets between two fillets. The triangular head of the gable is filled with fifteen raised triangles arranged in ascending order in rows of five, four, three, two and one. Each triangular panel is carved in low relief with a floral motif. The five triangular panels in the lowest row are decorated with a design consisting of several flowers overlapping one another. All of the other triangular panels are decorated with eight petalled flowers. The spaces between the raised triangular panels are filled with human heads.

Bottom row (from N to S):

1. Worn head with pointed, forked beard.

2. Bald head with pointed beard, high cheek bones and straight mouth.

3. Rounder face with forked beard.

4. Bald head and plaited beard.

Second row (N to S):

1. Oval head carved in quite high relief, with straight mouth and rounded features and no beard.

2. Beardless head with a solemn expression and down-cast eyes.

3. Flatter head, quite badly worn, with straight mouth.

Third row (N to S):

1. Long face, high cheek bones and long split beard.

2. Bald head, clearly defined eyes and a short, split beard.

Fourth row:

1. Stern face with long split beard

The gable is surmounted by a finial which takes the basic form of an inverted cone with a bulbous base, central cross band and spherical terminal. Above this are three heads, from N to S the first is human, with rounded features and particularly large cheeks. The second has been almost completely destroyed and the third has a monkey-like appearance. During conservation work in 2002 it was discovered that these heads are a later insertion, and form part of the fill of a round headed window, located immediately above the portal which would appear to predate the insertion of the 15thc. tower.

Second order

The N base has been obliterated by modern concrete, but was probably square with a torus. The S base is square with some traces of (?)foliate carving. These supports pseudo-octagonal shafts carved with long thick convex bands of lateral chevron flanked by narrow fillets. The S jamb is more worn.

N capital: Carved on each face with a beast head in profile, snouts touching at the angle. Both beasts are depicted with ears high on their heads filling the top corners of the capital, they have long drooping jaws and almond-shaped eyes. An incised mane on the S face is just discernible. On the angle, filling the space beneath the two snouts, is a very worn, slightly projecting, boss, possibly representing a (?)human head. The capital is framed vertically by narrow cable mouldings and horizontally by narrow roll mouldings.

N abacus: The lower half is carved with four cats' heads. The two on the W face are very badly worn, as is one on the S face. The other has a broad face and straight fringe of hair across its forehead. The top half of the abacus is decorated with a band of running foliage.

S capital: As N but in better condition. The lower lip of both beast heads curls under the head and curling hair carved in light relief is also discernible on the upper part of both heads. The projecting angle boss is quite damaged as on the N side, but some incisions, possibly representing hair, are visible.

S abacus: Lower half carved with four cats heads, better preserved than N side. On the W face one has bulging eyes, small nose and a smiling mouth, the other, a narrow, pointed snout, and thinly incised mouth. On the N face, one has a long broad face with clearly defined eyes, the other, a shorter face, curled up as if snarling. The upper half of the abacus is decorated with a running foliate scroll.

The arch has twenty four voussoirs of roughly similar size. Each voussoir is carved on the face with a beast head biting a deeply undercut roll. The tops of the heads all touch a slightly narrower roll. Each head has bulging eyes and ears at the top of its head but in detail all are different. From N to S they are carved as follows;

1. Narrow snout and broad forehead. The snout is carved with a series of Vs radiating outwards onto the forehead where they become foliate with circular terminals.

2. Incised lines carved on the snout give the head a snarling expression. The eyes are long and oblong and angled toward the centre of the snout. The ears are particularly small.

3. Narrow snout with nostrils flared. The eyes are particularly protrusive and ears large and pointed. There is a lobed fringe extending from the bridge of the snout onto the forehead.

4. Very worn but quite vulpine, with long narrow snout, bulging eyes and large pointed ears.

5. Central ridge along snout with a series of incised lines radiating upwards from it. The eyes are long and narrow and angled toward the snout. There is a five band ‘Urnes’-type interlace pattern with lobed terminals on the forehead.

6. Snout damaged. The eyes are carved in low relief and slightly angled. High forehead possibly with incised fringe.

7. Squarish snout. Large elongated eyes, a broad forehead with lobed fringe.

8. Very badly worn.

9. Snout badly worn. Large almond-shaped protruding eyes and ?foliate motif on forehead.

10. Broad snout with flared nostrils. Large protruding bulbous eyes and large pointed ears.

11. Very badly damaged, roll and snout gone. The top of the forehead and ears are still discernible.

12. Snout and roll are gone. There are large, double-contoured almond-shaped eyes.

13. Snout, roll and the right side of the face are gone, one ear and eye remain.

14. Most of snout and roll gone. Huge fly-like eyes, what remains of snout is narrow.

15. Part of roll and snout missing. Bulbous eyes and broad upper part of snout.

16. Large snarling snout with flared nostrils. The other detail is worn.

17. Very worn with long, narrow face.

18. Very worn, snout broken.

19. Long, narrow face, very worn, but some details of ?hair discernible.

20. Broad, squat face. ?Foliate motif on forehead.

21. Snout broken. Large protruding eyes and long ears bent forward.

22. Ridge down centre of the snout with radiating incised lines giving the impression of a snarl.

23. Very worn.

24. Very worn. On the soffit there is a concave moulding with narrow roll flanking the arris roll and a row of dimpled pellets.

Seventh order

No bases. The N jamb has a pilaster extending from ground level to abacus. The face of the pilaster is decorated with figure of eight interlace (Irish Urnes-type), with a variation in the size of the curves. The interlace design is based on thirteen cords, with ten crossings to each loop. There are two different loop sizes: one which occurs in lines of three across the pilaster; the other in lines of four. These occur in the sequence three-four-four-three along the pilaster. The terminals of the strands are small snake heads with bulbous eyes and rounded snouts seen in plan. On the top block there is a beast head with long, curling neck crossed by filiforms. The other five blocks are too worn to make out the detail of the carving, although the interlace is continued. The S jamb is the same as the N jamb, but in slightly better condition. The zoomorphic interlace is much better preserved and consists of a basic design of two beasts with double pad and claw feet and rounded terminal tails entwined with filiform snakes . The same pattern appears to be duplicated ?five times down the pilaster, suggesting the possible use of a template.

N abacus: On the lower half are five worn cats' heads, surmounted by a band of running foliage.

S abacus: five cats' heads surmounted by a band of foliage.

The arch, springing from the inner half of the pilaster, has thirty voussoirs. The voussoirs each have a circular profile and are carved with figure-of-eight, single strand interlace similar to that occupying the pilasters. Resting on the outer half of both N and S pilasters are two blocks which follow the slant of the arch, decorated in a similar manner to the pilasters. Above these two stone courses is the springing of the tangent gable.

Sixth order

No bases. The jambs are coursed with the fifth order jambs. The shaft is separated from the pilaster by a narrow roll which terminates at either end with an open semicircle. The pilaster, continuous from base to abacus, is decorated with a free-flowing foliate design of a continuous vertical stem with trilobe and combined trilobe and spiral offshoots. At the top of the pilaster four smaller stems form an interlace pattern terminating in ovoid leaves.

N abacus: three cats' heads, all too worn to discern specific features, surmounted by a band of running foliage.

S abacus: as N, also very worn.

The arch has thirty voussoirs, each of similar proportion, carved with a hemispherical boss. Each hemispherical boss is treated in a different manner as follows: from N to S:

1. Very worn.

2. Very worn.

3. Incised floral motif.

4. Worn (?)interlace motif.

5. Foliate scroll.

6. Zoomorphic single strand interlace.

7. Zoomorphic single strand interlace.

8. Very worn (?)fret pattern.

9. Very worn (?)interlace.

10. Central circular fret pattern with foliage around the edges.

11. Central pellet with eight radiating stems of fleshy foliage.

12. Interlaced foliage.

13. Interlaced foliage.

14. Central flower with 'kidney'-shaped leaves around the edge.

15. Worn.

16. Worn.

17. worn

18. Tangled zoomorphic interlace.

19. (?)Foliage.

20. Worn.

21. Very worn ?interlace.

22 . Worn.

23. (?)Geometric.

24. Damaged.

25. Central whorl with beast head terminals.

26. Worn.

27. Zoomorphic interlace.

28. Worn.

29. Circular central fret.

30. Worn.

Third order

The bases are covered by modern concrete. These support pseudo-colonettes of circular profile. The entire surface of the colonette is carved with small discs enriched with pellets, joined to one another by short straight sections. The spaces between each disc are filled with lozenges formed by two narrow rolls. The bottom two blocks ( of five ) are badly worn. The S colonette is more worn

N capital: carved with three frontal beast heads, that on the angle projects slightly from the surface. Each head has a long pointed snout, high rounded forehead and pointed ears on the top of the head. Each beast has a clearly defined jaw line, almond-shaped eyes angled toward the snout and a ridge running along the centre of the snout with radiating incised lines. A vertical cable moulding and horizontal roll moulding frame the capital.

N abacus: the lower half of the abacus is carved with four cats' heads with alternately broad and narrow heads. Above these is a band of fleshy running foliage.

S capital: as N but in better condition.

S abacus: on the lower half are four cats' heads. On the W face one has a broad forehead and narrow snout, the other a broad roundish face. On the N face one has a long, protruding snout, the other is badly damaged. These are surmounted by a band of running foliage.

The arch has twenty-eight voussoirs, each carved on face and soffit with a patera placed between an outer roll moulding and cable moulding at the arris. Each of the paterae has its corners hollowed out to form a rounded lozenge shape. The paterae are all decorated with an eight petalled floral motif. From the N nos. 1, 5, 6, 8, 11, 12, 18, 19, 27, 28 are damaged.


E window

Two light, round headed window. Both lights are framed by coursed continuous roll mouldings. The outer framing roll continues around both lights to sill level. The sill is formed from a broad roll moulding, extending beyond the width of the windows, with two broken terminals. One of the terminals, stored inside the cathedral, takes the form of an upward-turned animal head. A gable-shaped roll moulding joins the two lights, with a large foliate boss below.

Interior Features

Interior Decoration


Reset pilasters

Two pilasters reset inside the door, may have formed part of the original chancel arch.

N side: six and a half blocks of stone carved on the face with two rolls of lateral chevron separated by rows of pellets, with large, six petalled flowers in the spandrels. There is a broad arris roll flanked on either side by a fillet. At the base of the arris roll the fillets spiral outwards. The reveal is more or less obscured, but the tops of three rolls of lateral chevron are just visible.

S side: decorated as N side

S pilaster section
h. 1.55 m
w. 0.31 m
N pilaster section
h. 1.47 m
w. 0.34 m

Loose Sculpture

Fragment of a stone shrine housed within the church. The fragment is probably the top of a 'house' shrine. It consists of two rolls decorated with thinly incised lateral chevron, surmounted by a triangular head. Another fragment of the shrine, with traces of paint, was removed from the church some years ago. (Information Christy Cunliffe, Clonfert).


d. 0.17 m
h. 0.12 m
w. 0.115 m


The doorway at Clonfert is the largest portal from the Romanesque period surviving in Ireland. The depth and richness of carving of the arch, together with the eclectic range of forms employed also sets it apart from other Irish portal sculpture Structurally and organisationally Clonfert reflects contemporary European trends. However, in its ornament it demonstrates a degree of local insularity. The thinly incised motifs of the first, fourth and fifth order jambs echo the spirit of metalwork such as the ornamented garments of the figures on St Manachan's shrine. The third and fourth order jambs find parallels in stone on the hood mould of the Priest's House, Glendalough and the second order jambs at Donaghmore respectively. The pilaster interlace is ultimately of Scandinavian origin. That on the face is particularly close to the tubular bands of ornament on the rear face of the market cross at Glendalough. The beast head capitals are of a type found in several buildings of the north midlands area including Kilmore, Co. Cavan, the sedilia at Boyle Abbey, Co. Roscommon and the Nun's Church, Clonmacnoise. The cats' head abaci are also paralleled at the latter building. The inner order volute ornament is a western French motif most unusual in an Irish context. The roll-biting beasts, in the same vein as English and Continental beakhead, occur on the doorway of the Nun's Church at Clonmacnoise, and also have close parallels with metalwork such as the Cross of Cong and St Manachan's shrine. The lozenge paterae of the third order have quite a close parallel on the doorway at Mona Incha, Co. Tipperary, although at that site the floral forms within the lozenges differ, whereas at Clonfert they are all the same. The disc and cable motif of the fifth order is comparable to a similar form found on the Irish horn reliquary of Tongres and also the arm reliquary of St Lachtain. In stone its closest comparisons are at Quennington, Gloucestershire and Avingdon, Berkshire. The hemispherical bosses are reminiscent of stone bosses found on a number of Irish high crosses, large bosses on 12thc. metalwork from the midlands such as St Manachan's shrine and of a wooden boss recovered during excavations at Wood Quay in Dublin. Although other examples of tangent gables are found in Ireland none retains such elaborate decoration as that at Clonfert. O'Keeffe suggested that the blind arcade above the portal is representative of an airdam, but the treatment of the blind arcade is more decorative than architectural and a source in fine metalwork or possibly paint seems more likely. Diminutive rows of heads set into a gable are found at Adel in Yorkshire. Irish parallels suggest a date of c.1170-80 for the doorway, the source of some motifs drawn from metalwork in the possession of the monastery, some of it locally made.


  • A. Clapham, 'Some Minor Irish Cathedrals', Archaeological Journal, 106, 1952, 16-39.
  • C. Cunniff, Clonfert: The Bog Island of the Grave. Unpublished Research Project for Cert. in Local History, NUI Maynooth, 1999.
  • H. Crawford, 'The Romanesque Doorway at Clonfert' JRSAI, 42, 1912, 1-7.
  • F. Henry, Irish Art in the Romanesque Period 1020-1170, London, 1970, 159-162.
  • H. G. Leask, Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings I, Dundalk, 1955, 137-142.
  • R. R. Brash, 'Clonfert Cathedral', The Irish Builder, Sept 15, 1896.
  • T. O'Keeffe, 'The Romanesque Portal at Clonfert and its Iconography' in From the Isles of the North; Early Medieval Art in Ireland and Britain. C. Bourke (ed.), Belfast, 1995, 261-270.
Clonfert cathedral from SW.


Site Location
National Grid Reference
M 6 21 
now: Galway
now: St Brendan
Type of building/monument
Cathedral church  
Report authors
Rachel Moss