26 May 2022

Recalling St Patrick's time in Leitrim

Recalling St Patrick's time in Leitrim

The village of Dromahair is noted for several attractive English-style period buildings along its main street. Parallell to this street is a straight and narrow road known as the Back Line.

To the south-east, on raised ground, lies the area known as Drumlease with a picturesque Church of Ireland surrounded by a treelined cemetery, and further along the winding road to Kilcoosey and Manorhamilton a couple of housing estates that were built during the past two decades to accommodate an influx of young families. In Gaelic, Droim Lias means the ridge with a cattle pen.

Dromahair itself didn’t exist until about the early 19 th century. Before the Lane-Fox landlords based near Leeds in Yorkshire planned Dromahair village, entirely on land that they owned, Drumlease was the only place name found on ancient maps. The ruins of Creevelea Abbey overlooking the River Bonet were marked on some early maps, but in a rural townland today
known as Friarstown that gets its name from the Irish Baile na mBráthar, in memory of the Franciscan monks who founded the abbey in 1508.

In the early 5 th century AD, Drumlease was a spread-out cluster of raths on hilly places in the townlands today named Drumlease, Fawn, Corrigeencor, Kilcoosey and Bohey. Circular mounds of compacted earth and stone were covered by high wooden communal dwellings with roofs of wood and grass mixed with daub mud – all materials plentiful in the area. in 1508. Moats encircling raths, and souterrains, were for preventing domesticated animals, such as milking cows, dogs and possibly sheep, from wandering into surrounding forests at night, and for personal protection against groups of raiding parties.

Archaeologists have dated the majority of raths in Ireland to between 400 AD and 900 AD, although in some cases they surmise that some stone remains may go back to the Bronze and Iron Ages.

In a field adjoining the grounds of Drumlease Church of Ireland in Dromahair (completed 1816) are the wide contours of a rath. Old maps going back to the Ordinance Survey of 1835 indicate the existence of numerous traces of raths in the townlands of Fawn, Corrigeencor, Kilcoosey and Cloonlogher.

It becomes obvious that the countryside around Dromahair was well-populated by pastoralists and hunter-gatherers at the time St. Patrick and his rugged foot-slogging disciples arrived in the area during his evangelising travels. He stayed there for some time and was kept busy. Historical sources attest to this.

For example, Samuel Lewis in his pioneering Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) briefly states: “DRUMLEASE, a parish, in the barony of DROMAHAIRE, county of LEITRIM, and province of CONNAUGHT, on the road from Manor-Hamilton to Sligo; containing, with the village of Dromahaire (which is described under its own head), 3901 inhabitants. An abbey was erected here by St. Patrick, who placed St. Benignus over it; the site is said to have been that occupied by the parish church.” 
He was probably relying on folk memory and data related in the Book of Armagh (c.808 AD).

A Patrician text added to the Book of Armagh mentions Drumlease (Droim Lias). A later admirer of Patrick, named Tirechán, noted briefly, in Latin, that Patrick “went out to the regions of the Calrige Tre Maige and built a church at Drumlease and baptised many”.

Patrick founded a church, believed to be on the site of an old cemetery off the narrow Drumlease road that winds towards the River Bonet at a locality today called Killeen.

A visit to this stone-walled burial place indicates traces of a chapel where the old church could have been sited. The hill on which the site lies gives the visitor a panoramic view of the countryside looking towards Benbo mountain and Manorhamilton, but farm fields as we know them today did not exist then. Most of the countryside was covered in dense forests, teeming with wild animals such as deer, elk, foxes, wolves, wild dogs and wild hogs.

People lived in rath communities and were hunter-gatherers just beginning to clear forest for small scale cattle farming.
It was dangerous and tiring to trek through forests along mucky paths on the sides of hilly terrain, and to wade across marshland and river fords. St. Patrick probably had an entourage of men and women, some of these women members of religious congregations.

We can imagine Patrick and the men attired in gowns and cloaks made from animal skin, their hardened feet covered roughly in thicker hide. The men carried spears for hunting and protection. They had long beards and shaggy hair. They and the women may have worn large iron crucifixes. St. Patrick never wore a mitre – the way he is portrayed in numerous statues and religious pictures - as such bishop’s apparel was not designed and created until many centuries later.

Probably small advance parties trekked ahead of the main group to announce the arrival of Patrick’s party and seek shelter and food for the duration and stay. Members of the advance party communicated in a form of Old Irish and tried to assure the rath communities that Patrick’s intentions were peaceful.

I imagine that Patrick and his entourage spent a couple of weeks in the area, teaching, preaching and baptising. Some of his party remained Drumlease and its surrounds in order to consolidate the new community of faith and construct sacred houses. It is likely that there was a ford across the Bonet near the Drumlease site, at modern Killeen, and that open air baptisms of ‘the many’ took place here.

The Book of Armagh also states that a woman named Lassar became a nun and founded a religious community. She reputedly lived for sixty years in the area. No trace of the community house has so far been found. It was probably made of rough timber.

* Garreth Byrne is a member of the Dromahair Heritage group. He writes here in a
personal capacity.

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