St Carthage, Rahan, St Carthage

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Feature Sets (4)


A nave and chancel church, with rebuilt nave. The church originally had northern and southern cells opening off a barrel-vaulted chancel with an upper chamber (of which the curved base of the vault springing remains). There is an entrance to a small staircase in the N wall at the E end of the chancel, with a slab with a Greek cross set over the lintel. There is a round-headed splayed window in the S wall at the E end of the chancel, and two round-headed niches in the N and S walls at the W end of the chancel. The large E window is modern, with reused 13thc. interior mouldings at the edge of the splay. The circular window in the E gable was probably reset in this position during the 1732 rebuilding. Romanesque sculpture is found on the chancel arch, the E window and on a loose scallop capital located on a ledge on the N side of the nave.

When the wall surrounding the church was stripped of its ivy covering in 1995, a small fragment of Romanesque carved stone was revealed (due S of the chancel of the church).  


The site was reputedly founded by St Carthach who formed a community of 867 monks. The deaths of three coarbs are mentioned at the site during the 12thc.


Exterior Features


E window

A circular window reused in the E gable. (Leask gives dimensions as 7.5 ft diameter including the 5" border). It is splayed, and has three rows of lateral chevron on face and soffit, carved point-to-point, separated by beading on the face and by beading (between chevron row one and two) and wedges (between the following rows) on the splay (accurately illustrated in Leask, but impossible to see from the ground). The lozenges formed between the points are filled with a variety of decorative motifs, including human heads and snakes. The triangles formed outside the chevron on the face are decorated with foliage, snakes and interlace. The label has beading and shallow geometric decoration on the face and bosses on the chamfer.  

Exterior Decoration


Reset sculpture, church boundary wall

The curved section of stone is carved in shallow relief with a running fern motif contained within two narrow bands, a row of beading, and a row of bosses along the chamfer.

height 0.133 m
width 0.34 m

Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches

Chancel arch

Of three orders, with plain unmoulded arches in well cut ashlar. The jambs have bulbous bases and three-quarter angle shafts flanked by wedges, and carved capitals.

There is diagonal tooling visible on the plain surfaces of all the orders, except the angle shafts, which have vertical tooling. Fine-grained grey limestone.

h. of capitals (with necking) 0.27 - 0.28 m
h. to top of abaci 1.93 m
w. at base of arch 2.52 m
First order

S respond: bulbous bases at the angles, with foliage palmettes in the centre of the face. Three-quarter angle shafts flanked by wedges. The capital has human heads at the angles, carved in shallow relief, with foliage palmettes between the heads on the central face. The heads have angular features; high set ears, almond-shaped eyes, and a moustache and beard ending in spirals. The W and E faces of the capital are plain. The head at the SW angle is mostly broken off, apart from the ears and the edge of the hairline. The abacus has a beaded band at the bottom of the face, and spiral bosses on the chamfer. The SW corner of the abacus is broken.

N respond: Angle shafts with bulbous bases as on S respond, but without foliage decoration on the face of the base. The capital has human heads at the angles, similar to the S respond, both heads are well preserved, with shallow-carved foliage palmettes between the heads on the central face. The E face of the capital is plain adjacent to the head, and the beard and moustache do not end in spirals. There is a small palmette beside the head on the W face. The abacus is similar to the S respond, with the NW corner broken off. The arch is plain and square.

Second order

S and N responds: bulbous bases, supporting three-quarter angle shafts flanked by wedges. Multi-scallop capitals with low cones and a large undecorated area above the plain shields. The abacus has plain bosses on the chamfer. The angles of the capitals and abaci are broken. The arch is plain and square.

Third order

S and N responds: bulbous bases support three-quarter angle shafts with multi-scallop capitals similar to those of the second order. there is some damage on the angle shafts and capitals. The abacus on the N jamb is similar to that of the second order, with plain bosses, broken at the corner. The abacus on the S jamb is almost entirely broken away, but a fragment remains on the W face showing the same design with plain bosses.

Loose Sculpture


Triple scallop on the face and double scallop on the sides, with a projecting square block for insertion in the wall, at the rear of the capital. The cones are decorated with shallow-carved foliage, and take up slightly less than half the height of the capital, leaving a large undecorated shield. The capital evidently comes from a colonnette flanking a doorway, and is similar to those on the doorway of the small church at Rahan.


d. 0.30 m
h. 0.22 m
w. 0.20 m


The church has suffered at least two major interventions since its original construction. The presence of late medieval windows in the fabric suggests a reworking in this period. It may also have been at this stage that the original stone roof of the chancel was removed as square slabs of stone, comparable to those used on other early stone-roofed churches have been reused in the fabric of the second church at the site, which also incorporates a reset Romanesque portal. The current nave of the church dates to 1732, and it may have been at this point that the circular window was transferred from its original location (possibly in the west façade of the church) to the east gable. Stylistically, the Rahan sculpture, in particular that of the east window, is very close to the Nuns' church Clonmacnoise (Offaly) where an almost identical form of label with pellets is used on the W doorway, and similar chevron with bosses and heads in the notches decorate the third order of the chancel arch. The bulbous bases of the chancel arches at Rahan and Clonmacnoise are also similar. The capitals with angle heads are a common feature in Irish Romanesque; similar examples are found at Killeshin and Timahoe (Laois), St Saviour's Glendalough (Wicklow), Kilteel (Kildare), Duleek (Meath), Kilmore (Cavan), Inisfallen (Kerry), Inchagoill and Annaghdown (Galway). Some details of the capitals at Rahan appear to be unfinished, a feature which may originally have been hidden by paint. The Rahan sculpture is unusual in a Hiberno-Romanesque context in its use of hard carboniferous limestone, a stone which only comes into common usage for sculpture from the early 13thc.

The carved fragment reset into the church boundary wall has identical decoration to that of the outer rim of the circular window in the E gable. As the stones of the window do not fit tightly together, it is possible that it was originally slightly larger and incorporated this piece. An almost identical motif is found on the label of the doorway to the Nun’s Church at Clonmacnoise, suggesting a date in the late 1160s for this piece. The wall was probably constructed at the same time as the reconstruction of the church in 1732 (the date is carved above the door). Some pieces of ashlar are also incorporated into the wall. However, this is the only visible sculpted stone.


  • B. de Breffny and G. Mott, The Churches and Abbeys of Ireland, Dublin, 1976, 26.

  • E. Fitzpatrick, and C. O'Brien, The Medieval Churches of Offaly, Dublin, 1998, 56–65.

  • F. Henry, Irish Art in the Romanesque Period, 1020-1170, London, 1970, 150,152, 178–9.

  • H. G. Leask, Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings, Dundalk, 1955, I, 142–44.

  • C. O'Brien and D. Sweetman, Archaeological Inventory of Co. Offaly, Dublin, 1997, 209.

Chancel, general view
Chancel, general view


Site Location
Rahan, St Carthage
National Grid Reference
N 26 25 
now: Offaly
pre-1994 traditional (Republic of Ireland): Offaly
now: St Carthage
medieval: not confirmed
Type of building/monument
Parish church  
Report authors
Rachel Moss, Tessa Garton 
Visit Date
16 April 1995 and 14 Feb 1998