We use cookies to improve your experience, some are essential for the operation of this site.

St Flannan, Killaloe, Clare

(52°48′27″N, 8°26′44″W)
R 70 73
pre-1974 traditional (Republic of Ireland) Clare
now Clare
medieval Killaloe
now Killaloe
  • Tessa Garton

Please use this link to cite this page - https://www.crsbi.ac.uk/view-item?i=14371.

Find out how to cite the CRSBI website here.


A large aisleless cruciform early gothic church with a central tower over the crossing. The transept is almost central, with the choir slightly longer than the nave. Total length approx. 55 m., w. across transept approx. 39 m. (Nave 18.59m x9.14m; chancel 19.8m x 9.14m; N transept 7.21m x 5.86m; S transept 9.57m x 6.88m - Westropp). The choir has a large three-light E window, and there is a double window in the E wall of the S transept. Tall, narrow, pointed windows in the chancel, the N wall of the N transept, the S and W walls of the S transept and in the nave, with a single recessed exterior order (chamfered in the S transept and nave). The choir and transept contain a series of richly carved transitional or early gothic corbels. The W facade has clasping buttresses with angle rolls. Romanesque sculpture is also found on a number of features: capitals in the aumbries flanking the E window; a richly decorated doorway in the S wall of the nave; two reused grave slabs under the doorway; a font in the nave; a number of reused Romanesque stones incorporated into the fabric of the church, and some loose stones stored in the vestry. There is also a stone cross from Kilfenora in the nave.


First mentioned in the Irish annals in the late 10thc., Killaloe became the principal church of Brian Borumna's Dalcassian kingdom in Clare in the late 10th and early 11thc. It seems likely that a church was built at this time. At the synod of Rathbreasail in 1111 Killaloe was established as a see, with territory covering most of county Clare as well as large areas E of the Shannon, including the territories of Roscrea. Muirchertach mac Toirrdelbaig Ua Briain, a generous benefactor to the cathedral, was buried there in 1119, and there were close connections between the church and the O'Briain dynasty. Donnchad, Bishop of Killaloe 1161-64, was brother of King Toirrdelbaig Ua Briain, King of Thomond (d.1167); Consaidin, Bishop of Killaloe 1164-94, was Donnchad's nephew and Toirrdelbaig's son, and brother of King Domnall Mor O'Briain (d.1194) (O'Corrain). There is no record of ecclesiastical building activity at Killaloe during the 12th or early 13thc. A raid on Killaloe by the men of Connaught in 1185 may have caused damage to the cathedral (Gwynn and Gleeson 1962, 86-67). On the death of the anti-Norman Bishop Conchobair Ua h-Eindi in 1216, the chapter elected the archdeacon of Killaloe, Domnall Ua h-Eindi, but was forced to accept the Englishman Robert Travers, whose election was approved by Henry III in 1217. Robert Travers is said to have built a house in Killaloe 'by force' (AFM, III, 190-1). After an enquiry by the Papal Legate a decision was made in favour of Domnall Ua h-Eindi in 1221, and Robert Travers was formally deposed, although he appears to have remained Bishop of Killaloe until he was excommunicated in 1226. Domnall Ua h-Eindi went to Rome to seek Papal support and died there in 1226. The see remained vacant until the archdeacon Domnall Ua Cinneide succeeded as Bishop from 1231-52.

The cathedral was in disrepair at the end of the 17thc. The Chapter book records work on a choir screen in 1707, and repairs to the S aisle and W wall of the nave in 1707-11. The earliest record of the Romanesque portal is in an engraving of 1738 (Harris 1739, 1764, 1: 589) showing the exterior of the cathedral with a pointed doorway in three orders with chevron on arch and jambs. In the late 18th-19thc. a number of authors record a tradition that the doorway marked the site of the 'royal tomb' of Muirchertach O'Briain (d.1119). The interior of the doorway appears to have been blocked completely before being opened up by Bishop Mant in 1821. In 1934 a blank infill wall was replaced with a low sill wall and window, and a replacement E jamb was made in cement for the first order. The doorway was restored and opened up completely in 1998, and a new stone E jamb was inserted.


Exterior Features



Exterior Decoration

String courses

Interior Features


Tower/Transept arches

Vaulting/Roof Supports


Interior Decoration





Loose Sculpture


The Romanesque doorway is not in its original setting and has been rebuilt with the original exterior on the interior, and set over two reused tomb slabs. The 1998 restoration of the doorway has fully revealed the arch and jambs. Much of the carving on the interior at the upper levels is very crisp, and does not appear to have been exposed to weathering for any length of time. There are no door fittings and no sign of wear on the tombslabs, which form the threshhold, so that it appears never to have been used as a doorway in its present location. The doorway must originally have served as the W entrance to the Romanesque church. The crisp condition of the sculpture suggests that it was not exposed to weathering for long, nor left dismantled for any length of time, and must have been preserved in the interior. It has recently been suggested that the W wall and doorway may have been incorporated into the 13thc. cathedral as part of a choir screen at the W end of the chancel. It may have been moved from the choir screen to the S aisle in 1707-11, when work on the choir 'screen and portall' is recorded shortly before major repairs to the S aisle (Ellis and Moss, 1999).

The doorway appears to have been rebuilt accurately apart from some elements which are ill-fitting. The 1st order bases are carved from the same stone as the 2nd order and are evidently part of the original doorway. The surviving square inner jamb does not belong to the original doorway, since the cinquefoil bases provide for a jamb with five shafts or pseudo-shafts. (Could the loose shaft-ring in the vestry have come from these shafts?). The square jamb has no door fittings and is clearly not designed for a doorway. The capital matches those of the doorway but fits the square jamb. The jamb appears to be by the same workshop as the doorway, and must have formed part of another area of sculpture in the Romanesque church, probably a chancel arch. It remains unclear why the lowest jambstone is carved on three sides instead of two, and is more worn and in a different stone than the upper jambstones.

Other irregularities, such as some ill-fitting construction and the lack of a necking on the W jamb cap of 4th order, may be explained by the reconstruction of the doorway in its present position.

The large plain abaci, although of the same red sandstone as the rest of doorway, appear to be later inserts to raise the height of the doorway (Westropp, 1893, 196). The carving of the doorway exhibits a rich variety of motifs and techniques, from low relief foliage and animal ornament to high relief animals and human heads. The ornament incorporates almost the full repertoire of Irish Romanesque, as well as unique elements such as the scalloped jambs. The richness, intricacy and variety of the chevron ornament exceeds any other example of Irish Romanesque, and represents a late and 'baroque' elaboration of the style before it was superseded by early Gothic. The closest comparisons for the chevron designs are at Tuamgraney, Monaincha, and Annaghdown; the animal motifs are similar to sculpture at Corcomroe, Boyle and Ballintober. The sculpture belongs to a regional school and provides evidence of a distinctive western school of late Romanesque, which had a significant influence on the Transitional or early Gothic 'School of the West'.

Leask considered the doorway to be part of a cathedral built by Domnall Mór O Briain and attributed it toc.1180 (Leask 1955, 1: 151-2). Henry (1970, 167) also ascribed the doorway to the time of Domnall Mor, shortly after his accession in 1168. There is, however, no documentary evidence for the rebuilding of the cathedral by Domnall Mór, and the style of the doorway suggests a date ofc.1200. The monsters on the jambs, the mouldings ending in snakes and beast heads and the animals on the archivolt are closely related to sculptures at Corcomroe dated c.1205-10 and at Ballintober dated 1216-25. The absence of keel mouldings at Killaloe may indicate a slightly earlier date than the related sculpture with keel mouldings at Annaghdown (Garton 1981, 31-57).

The Romanesque cathedral appears to have been richly decorated, possibly with a chancel arch and windows in addition to the doorway. The reused capitals in the aumbries appear to belong to the same campaign of decoration. The loose sculpture in St Flannan's oratory is evidently by the same workshop, and there are other sculptures by the same workshop at Tuamgraney.

The tomb slabs appear to be contemporary with the doorway. The animal on the S tomb slab, although in shallow relief, is similar to those on the doorway, and the foliage scrolls are similar to those on the W doorjambs at Monaincha. Ringed crosses with stepped armpits are also found in the 12thc. at Monaincha and Roscrea.

The influence of this late Romanesque style at Killaloe can be seen in the transitional sculpture of the 13thc. cathedral, of which the chancel and S transept remain largely intact. The N transept has been rebuilt and closed off, but retains a 13thc. window in the N wall, and the W parts of the nave wall have been rebuilt. The sculpture and mouldings of the chancel and transept are characteristic of the 'School of the West', and comparisons can be made with other examples at Boyle (W end of the nave), Ballintober, Corcomroe, Inishmaine, Abbeyknockmoy, Drumacoo and Kilmacduagh.

The richly undercut chevron of the E window is found in the E windows at Killone and Temple Jarlaith, Tuam, the chancel vaults at Corcomroe, and the doorways at Drumacoo, Cong, and Noughaval. The foliage decoration of the capitals and corbels includes both low relief ornament similar to that found at Boyle, Ballintober and Cong (and Corcomroe), and some in higher relief similar to Drumacoo and Kilmacduagh (where the capitals of the chancel arch include undercut inverted lilies similar to those on some of the Killaloe capitals and corbels). The animal and figurative sculpture also has parallels at Boyle and Ballintober. One of the capitals at Boyle has a row of figures with short tunics similar to those on corbel 3 on the N wall of the chancel at Killaloe.

Leask considered Killaloe to be an early work of the 'School of the West', possibly begun c.1200 and the W end c.1225. He suggested that the E window could be by the same mason as that at Kilfenora, possibly with subsequent influence from Christ Church Dublin. Gleeson suggested that the cathedral was rebuilt during the episcopate of Conchobair Ua hEindi (c.1195-1216), and the S transept under Robert Travers (1216-21) or c.1225.

If the proposed date of c.1200 is accepted for the late Romanesque doorway, a date in the 1220s seems likely for the transitional work at Killaloe. There is however, no record of ecclesiastical building activity at this time, and the relationship between bishops and chapter was not conducive to a major building campaign.

The high cross from Kilfenora is one of a group of six or seven limestone crosses set up in Kilfenora. The decoration with the crucified Christ combined with geometric ornament and interlace is similar to that of the West cross at Kilfenora, although less finely carved. (For further discussion, see Kilfenora.)

W. Harris (ed.), The Whole Works of Sir James Ware concerning Ireland. Dublin 1764, I, 589.
D. O'Corrain, 'Foreign connections and domestic politics: Killaloe and the Ui Briain in twelfth century hagiography', in (ed.) D. Whitelock et al, Ireland in Early medieval Europe. Studies in memory of Kathleen Hughes. Cambridge 1982.
E. Dunraven, Notes on Irish Architecture. London 1875-7, II, 69-71.
P. Dwyer, The History of the Diocese of Killaloe from the Reformation to the Eighteenth Century. Dublin 1878, 462-3.
A. Gwynn and D. F. Gleeson, A History of the Diocese of Killaloe. Dublin 1962.
A. Gwynn and R.N. Hadcock, Medieval Religious Houses: Ireland. London 1970, 86-87.
P. Harbison, The High Crosses of Ireland. Bonn 1992, 120-21.
F. Henry, Irish Art in the Romanesque Period (1020-1170 AD). London 1970, 135, 167.
J. Ellis and R. Moss, 'The Conservation of the Romanesque Portal at Killaloe: exposing the history of one of Clare's finest carved doorways' JRSAI, 129, (1999), 67-89.
S. Kierse, Historic Killaloe - A guide to its Antiques. Limerick 1982/3, 29.
L. De Paor, 'The Limestone Crosses of Clare and Aran', JGAHS 26 (1955/56), 58.
H.G. Leask, Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings. Dundalk 1955, I, 151-2; (1960/66),II, 54-58.
E. Owen, St Flannan's Cathedral, Killaloe: A Short History. Ballinakella 1992.
G. Petrie, The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland. Dublin 1845, 274-5.
T. Garton, 'A Romanesque Doorway at Killaloe,' JBAA, 134 (1981), 31-57.
T.J. Westropp, 'Killaloe: its ancient palaces and cathedral (part II),' JRSAI 23 (1893), 187-201.
T.J. Westropp, 'Killaloe: its ancient palaces and cathedral (part I),' JRSAI 22 (1892), 398-410.
T.J. Westropp, 'The churches of County Clare,' PRIA 22 (1900), 158.