St Tola, Dysert O'Dea

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Feature Sets (2)


The church consists of nave and chancel, 21.64m x 7.24m and 6.4m x 7.26m (see plan in Westropp 1900a, 416), both now roofless. The S nave wall is in line with the S chancel wall as far as a projection to W of S doorway, and appears to have been rebuilt to the N of an original line incorporating some stones with angle roll and fillet. The chancel arch is therefore not central in relation to the nave. The chancel arch is plain and of a single square order on slightly inclined jambs with chamfered impost blocks. The base of the E wall seems 12thc. (and in its original location) and retains some corner stones with angle rolls in the two lower courses on the NE corner and the third course on the SE corner. The N nave wall is extensively rebuilt, especially at the W end, and has a later Gothic window at the E end. The W wall is totally rebuilt. The chancel has three pointed E windows with plain chamfered mouldings on the exterior. The gable over the chancel arch has a belfry. The major Romanesque decoration of the church consists of the limestone S doorway (rebuilt, not in its original location) and the W window (rebuilt from fragments of a number of windows). There is a round tower near the NW corner of the church, and a 12thc. high cross in the field to the E of the church.


An Early Christian monastery was founded here by St Tola, subsequently bishop of Clonard (d.733-37) (AFM, AU, Gwynn and Hadcock, 1988, 383). A crozier (now in the NMI, Dublin) reputed to be that of St Tola was enshrined in the 11thc. The church had fallen into disrepair by the 17thc. (O'Murchadha, 1993, 40). The high cross was repaired in 1683 by Michael O'Dea, who may also have repaired the church ((Harbison, 1996, 335). The cross was recorded as broken in 1839 (O'Curry, O.S. letters, vol. I, p. 51) and re-erected in 1871; the head of Christ was cemented in place in 1883 (O'Murchadha, 1993, 38-39).


Exterior Features


S doorway, nave (rebuilt)

Round-headed, of four orders. Richly decorated with geometric, foliate and animal ornament and with radiating heads on the arch. The present arrangement of orders does not always match and the arches do not fit the jambs properly. The door may have been reconstructed from more than one doorway or from a doorway and chancel arch (Harbison, 1987, 11).

h. of opening 2.07 m
w. of opening (below imposts) 0.95 m
Fourth order

Bases: Chamfered bases with torus and large spurs alternating with inverted foliate motifs, the W base damaged.

Jambs: W. side: Detached cylindrical nook shaft in three sections, the lower two sections plain, the upper section with chevron running horizontally (badly worn and almost smooth in some areas).

E side: Detached octagonal nook shaft with four faces visible, in two sections, both with horizontal chevron but not matching each other - the chevrons of the upper section are more acutely pointed than the lower.

Capitals: The W capital has a human head on the angle flanked by interlaced strands of hair. The impost is integral with the capital (damaged). This has traces of interlace on the s. face and geometric ornament on the W face. The E capital (defaced) has vague traces of a human head at angle.

Arch: The arch there has 19 heads set radially, each on a separate voussoir. From W to E: animal (dog?) with section of jamb attached on E side and thus evidently from E side of original arch; humanoid monster with animal ears; three human heads; beast biting roll; two human heads; human head with strand of hair on forehead; narrow human head; human head with beaked mouth; griffin(?) with beak and scales, biting section of roll; human head with moustache; two human heads; beast biting roll; human head with lion-like mouth; two beast heads.

Inner order

No bases.

W jamb: Square in section with five courses decorated, the sixth course modern. S face worked with zoomorphic interlace (Urnes style).

E face: three rows of lateral chevrons (roll, hollow, roll) flanked by animal heads which emerge from the chevron mouldings into triangular fields between them. From bottom to top, on alternate sides of the chevrons: human head between biting monster heads; animal head and a second indecipherable projection from moulding; animal head; two animal heads addorsed; two animal heads turning upwards; two affronted animal heads with interlaced lappets or ears; foliage (broken) with grooved stem; foliage, trefoil leaf looped in grooved stem.

E jamb: Square in section with four courses decorated, the fifth and sixth courses modern. S face: undulating stems and foliate scrolls (Scandinavian style, possibly including snakes). W face: three rows of lateral chevrons (roll, hollow, roll) flanked by beakheads and mouldings ending in animal heads. From bottom to top, on alternate sides of the chevrons: moulding emerging from chevron and ending in animal head; then four beakheads, biting chevron; mouldings curling into animal or foliage interlace; beakhead, biting chevron.

Imposts: Plain, chamfered.

Arch: The arch bears one row of lateral centrifugal chevrons on the face, formed by a roll, fillet moulding, and a row of lozenges on the soffit, also formed from roll, fillet and containing rosettes of radiating leaves. At the arris, the points of the lozenges interlock with those of the chevrons, creating a form of cogwheel edge. The chevron ends in inverted animal heads on the W side, and in inverted animal and human heads on the E. On the (interior) N face the arch is plain except for the lowest voussoir on the E side, which bears chevron similar to the S face.

Second order

Bases: Bulbous bases with spurs which alternate with triangular ornament.

Jambs: W side: octagonal nook shaft in two sections, with five carved faces visible, differently carved.

Lower section, from W to E: roundels with one four-petalled flower; octofoil rosettes; pairs of symmetrical leaves on upright stem; running foliate scroll; roundels.

Upper section, from W to E: pairs of leaves, interlace or knotwork (snakes?); four knotwork designs below six pairs of symmetrical leaves springing from sides of face; pairs of symmetrical leaves springing from sides of face; as previous face.

E side: cylindrical nook shaft in three sections decorated with spiral mouldings flanked by beading, and a top section crudely reconstructed of rubble.

Capitals: The W capital has a human head (broken) on the angle with small animals biting its ears. The impost, which is integral with the capital, bears interlace on the S face and running foliage scroll on the E face. The E capital has a human head (damaged) on the angle with small animals biting its ears. The (damaged) impost is integral with the capital (damaged).

Arch: The arch is scalloped with angular trefoil projections at the cusps (some diagonal tooling visible).

Third order:

No bases.

Jambs, W side: Squared order, E face: two plain courses, the third to seventh courses decorated with scrolling and undulating foliage of Scandinavian type. E face: one plain course, the second course partly decorated and the third to seventh courses with scrolling, undulating and interlacing foliage, on the S half of the face, leaving the N half plain.

E side: W face: the first four courses decorated with scrolling and undulating broad-leaved foliage; the fifth course with animal interlace; sixth course, smaller animal interlace with animals placed horizontally; seventh course damaged. S face: first course with scrolling foliage(?); second to fourth courses with animal interlace; fifth to seventh courses with irregular scrolling and undulating foliage with trefoil and quatrefoil blossoms.

No capitals or imposts.

Arch: Three rows of frontal chevron, formed by alternating rolls and fillets. The springers are misplaced. Some diagonal tooling is visible.


W gable

Round-headed, of one order with angle roll and slightly inclined carved jambs (see below). The window is a later reconstruction using fragments from several different Romanesque windows.

N jamb, from bottom: two stones carved with interlaced snakes biting an angle roll; a section of curved scalloped moulding; three stones carved with interlaced snakes biting angle roll as on the bottom two stones; two stones bearing broad-leaved foliage (Scandinavian style); multiple nested chevron.

S jamb: a quadruped (?dog) emerging from the angle roll to bite interlace which links with that on the next three stones, each of which bears a beakhead biting the angle roll with hair forming interlace; triple chevron, with mouldings connecting with the angle roll; cruciform pattern framed by curved mouldings overlapping angle roll; shallow geometric ornament; two chevrons with points laid on angle roll and small trefoil leaves in the triangular fields outside the chevrons; triple chevron, with mouldings connecting to angle roll, similar to the fifth stone.

All the stones bearing interlace on the N jamb belong to a coherent design, as do those on the S jamb. Plain arch. Inside, the window has a plain rounded splay, but the bottom stones of each reveal show traces of decoration. S reveal: plaitwork or knot design. N reveal: angle roll and curved moulding.

Exterior Decoration


Re-set stones

Set into the W gable, above the W window, are two loose stones, both with curved scalloped mouldings similar to the third stone of the N window jamb and evidently from the same original window.



In a field to the E of the church is a cross, raised on a tall square plinth and with a chamfered base cut to allow the addition of later inscriptions recording repairs. Made of two sections of grey limestone. The lower section of the shaft is trimmed at the top, and the two sections of shaft do not fit exactly. Harbison (1992, 83; 1996, 338) suggested that the two sections were not originally designed as a unit, although they appear to be products of the same workshop. The cross head has arms connected by a hollow curve with rolls set in hollows and is topped by a (modern) pyramidal capstone. There are sockets in the ends of the arms for the attachment of missing terminals. The shaft and cross head are decorated with figures in high relief on the E face, and with low-relief decoration consisting of panels of animal interlace and geometric designs on the other three faces.

d. of base 1.02 m
d. of shaft at base 0.375 m
h. of base 0.5 m
h. of cross 2.77 m
w. of arms 1.02 m
w. of base 1.28 m
w. of shaft at base 0.65 m
E face

Base: chamfered face with interlace (snakes?) above lower section cut back to fit the following inscription: 'This cross was newly repaired by Michael O'Dea, son of Connor Crone O'Dea in the yeare 1683'.

Shaft: standing cleric wearing a mitre, with a volute-headed crozier in his left hand and an empty socket for attachment of the right arm. There is a recessed groove below the arm socket running down in a narrow V-shape to the hem of the robe.

Cross head: Crucified Christ wearing long, belted, sleeved tunic. The head of Christ is carved on a separate stone and was inserted into the cross head in 1883. A border containing pellets surrounds the cross arms. The rolls in the curved hollows between the cross arms bear spiral decoration on the E face.

N face

Base: a panel enclosing four standing figures (perhaps another once on the damaged w. side). The e. figure holds a crozier, and the two central figures hold a Tau cross between them. The scene has been variously identified - as the founding of a monastery (De Paor, 1956, 60), or as part of the Joseph story? (Harbison, 1981, 17).

Shaft, from bottom: geometric ornament forming a maze-like pattern similar to the bottom of the S face of the shaft; a vertical pair of confronted and interlaced animals; two vertical panels of interlaced animals, the upper one with the top of the panel and the heads missing.

Cross head: geometric meander design on the upright. A square socket on the end of the arm.


The plinth is made of corner-stones, probably from the church, possibly from the base of a chancel arch (O'Murchadha, 1993, 40) or from an altar (Harbison, 1992, 83). The angles have a roll moulding flanked by narrow ridges, which end at the bottom in beast-heads and snakes.

SE angle: damaged head on arris flanked by interlaced snakes.

SW angle: spirals.

NW angle: worn and damaged.

NE angle: dog-head with interlaced hair on angle roll.

N and S faces have central inset with geometric ornament in a step pattern forming cruciform designs. The N face has a recessed panel on the E side with (trial?) interlace carving.

S face

Base: man with outstretched arms flanked by panels of animal interlace on the upper chamfered face - probably Daniel in the lions' den. The lower section is cut back to fit the following inscription: 'Re-erected by Francis Hutchinson Synge of Dysart Fourth son of the late Sir Edward Synge Bart and Mary Helena his wife in the year 1871'.

Shaft, from bottom to top: geometric ornament forming maze-like pattern; pair of addorsed and interlaced animals; pair of interlaced animals with beaked heads attacking a human head; interlaced animal(s), with the top part of the panel and head(s) missing.

Cross head: key ornament on the upright. Square socket in the end of the arm.

W face

The base is damaged, with a later insertion at the bottom left. The upper chamfered face has one or two human head(s?) flanked by foliage palmettes - (Harbison, Henry and De Paor identify this as Adam and Eve; Roe as Paul and Anthony breaking bread in the desert).

Shaft, from bottom: part of a horizontal panel of animal interlace, broken off at the base; a panel of step pattern enclosing crosses; a pair of interlaced animals in a horizontal panel; a panel of animal interlace, broken off at top.

Cross head: on the upright, geometric ornament with step patterns forming crosses, broken off at the base. In the centre of the cross head are five raised lozenges decorated with rosettes and forming a cruciform design, with sunk lozenges between containing spiral ornament. There is animal and foliage interlace on arms.


The church, round tower and cross were probably erected on the site of the early Christian monastery in the 12thc. The nave may have been that of an earlier monastic church, extended by the addition of a chancel at the E. The nave was later extended to the E, and the eastern section of the S wall was rebuilt inside the old wall, leaving the chancel arch off-centre. Both the portal and W window of the church have been incorrectly reconstructed, possibly re-using fragments from the original doorway and chancel arch, and from a number of separate windows. It has been suggested that some of the sculpture used in the reconstruction of the church may have been brought from other sites, such as nearby Rathblathmaic (Harbison, 1987, 11; 1996, 336). The snakes, Urnes style foliage, and pellet ornament on the architectural sculpture and the cross are all closely related to the sculpture at Rathblathmaic. The capitals with angle heads belong to a type found particularly in Leinster in the third quarter of the 12thc. (see Killeshin, Timahoe, Glendalough, Duleek, Kilteel, and Kilmore), but also found in the west of Ireland at Annaghdown and Inchagoill. Arches with human and animal heads are a distinctive characteristic of Irish Romanesque (see Cashel, Cork, Inishcealtra, Inchagoill, Ballysadare, Clonmacnois and Clonfert) and were probably inspired by examples in England and Western France (Henry and Zarnecki, 1957). The detached angle shafts are closer to the forms of Anglo-Norman Romanesque introduced at Cormac's Chapel, Cashel, rather than the three-quarter angle shafts more commonly found in Ireland. However, other aspects of the sculpture, such as the style of the human heads, animal interlace and zoomorphic mouldings show distinctive Irish characteristics and the influence of Insular and Scandinavian traditions. The sculpture at Dysert O'Dea appears to reflect the influence of Cormac's Chapel, Cashel (1127-34), modified by native Irish traditions, and probably dates from around the mid-12thc. An impost block or angle capital decorated with a human head was discovered in 1985 in rubble outside the churchyard, and is now displayed in the Archaeology Centre in Dysert Castle [VI (i)].

The figure sculpture on the base of the high cross reflects earlier 10thc. traditions, while the decoration of the cross with a crucified Christ and a standing ecclesiastic in high relief is typical of a group of 12thc. crosses in north Munster. The placement of the crucified Christ above the standing ecclesiastic (which may represent the authority of a bishop or St Tola) is similar to the arrangement on the 'market cross' at Glendalough. Harbison (2000, 55) has suggested that the cleric's arm socket originally held a removable bronze reliquary. There are a number of similarities between the sculpture of the cross and the church. The elongated head and down-turned mouth of the ecclesiastic on the cross are very similar to some of the human heads on the arch of the doorway. The Urnes style animal interlace on the S and W faces of the cross shaft is very similar to that on the door jambs, and the floral and pellet designs are similar to motifs on the doorway and also on fragments at Rathblathmaic. Some of the geometric designs on the cross also suggest the possible use of a metalwork prototype. (De Paor, 1956, 60-71; Cronin, 1998, 142). Thus the sculpture on the high cross is closely related to that of the church, and it seems likely that the same sculptor or workshop was responsible for the doorway, window and cross at Dysert O' Dea as well as some sculpture at Rathblathmaic.


  • F. Henry and G. Zarnecki, 'Romanesque Arches Decorated with Human and Animal Heads' JBAA, (1957), 17-19.

  • G. Macnamara, 'The Ancient Stone Crosses of Ui Fearmaic, County Clare', JRSAI, 29 (1899), 246-55.

  • P. Harbison, The High Crosses of Ireland. Bonn 1992, 83-86.

  • F. Henry, Irish Art in the Romanesque Period 1020-1170A.D. London 1970, 130-32, 162-65.

  • H. Roe, 'An Interpretation of Certain Symbolic Sculptures of Early Christian Ireland' JRSAI, 75 (1945), 5-6.

  • L. De Paor, 'The Limestone Crosses of Clare and Aran', JGHAS, 26 (1956), 53-71.

  • H.G. Leask, Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings. Dundalk 1955,I, 151.

  • E. O'Curry, Ordnance Survey Letters Relating to the History and Antiquities of County Clare (Unpublished Typescript), I, 51.

  • P. Harbison, 'An Ancient Pilgrimage 'Relic-Road' in North Clare?' The Other Clare 24 (2000), 55-9.

  • P. Harbison, and J. O'Brien, Ancient Ireland. London 1996, 92, 120.

  • P. Harbison, 'Dysert O'Dea', in 'The Limerick Area: Proceedings of the Royal Archaeological Institute', Archaeological Journal, 153 (1996), 335-8.

  • P. Harbison, 'Iconography on the Dysert and Kilfenora Crosses: A Romanesque Renaissance' , The Other Clare, 5 (April, 1981), 16-19.

  • P. Harbison, 'The Otherness of Irish Art in the Twelfth Century', (ed). C. Hourihane, From Ireland Coming: Irish Art from the Early Christian to the Late Gothic Period and its European Context. Princeton 2001, 102-20.

  • P. Harbison, `Two Romanesque carvings from Rath Blathmaic and Dysert O'Dea, Co Clare' NMAJ, 29 (1987), 7-11.

  • R. Cronin, 'Late High Crosses in Munster: Tradition and Novelty in Twelfth-Century Irish Art' in (eds.) M. Monk and J. Sheehan, Early Medieval Munster. Archaeology, History and Society. Cork 1998, 138-46.

  • S. O Murchadha, 'Diseart Tola and its Environs', The Other Clare, 16, (1992), 53-57; 17, (1993), 36-42.

  • T. Garton, 'Masks and Monsters: Some Recurring Themes in Irish Romanesque Sculpture', in (ed.) C. Hourihane, From Ireland Coming: Irish Art from the Early Christian to the Late Gothic Period and its European Context. Princeton 2001, 121-40.

  • T.J. Westropp, 'The Antiquities of the Northern Portion of the County of Clare', JRSAI, 3 (1900a), 415.

  • T.J. Westropp, 'The Churches of County Clare and the Origin of the Ecclesiastical Divisions in that County', PRIA, 22 (1900b), 141.

  • T.J. Westropp, ' The Churches with Round Towers in Northern Clare', JRSAI, 24 (1894), 25-34, 150-59, 332-40.

View from cross looking W.
General view from SW.
View from E.
General view from S.
Interior, looking E.


Site Location
Dysert O'Dea
National Grid Reference
R 28 85 
now: Clare
now: St Tola
Type of building/monument
Parish church  
Report authors
Tessa Garton