The state of many of our historic churches and graveyards in Ireland, is deplorable.  Many built in the medieval period (13th to 16th centuries), would have seen five hundred to seven hundred years of wear and tear, exposure to the elements, as well as undergone alterations and extensions. The later churches and graveyards, built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, would be in use for one hundred to three hundred years.  These lengthy periods of existence and activity, have obviously resulted in much deterioration.

Our state has done little enough to preserve most of these structures of great heritage significance. During the ‘Celtic Tiger’ moneys were always difficult to find, to carry out surveys, remedial works, etc. During my term as Cork County Council’s Archaeologist from 2000 to 2011, one of the first projects which I was involved in, was the survey of a large portion of the churches and graveyards in Cork County Council’s ownership. It proved difficult to get funding for this project.  The initiators of this survey were the Historic Monuments Advisory Committee (HMAC) of Cork County Council. A unique group, one of many such committees in Ireland, founded with the National Monuments Legislation in the 1930’s. Most of these committees are no longer working, and that of Cork County in the 21st century was one of perhaps only three extant committees in Ireland. The HMAC is comprised of specialised experts i.e. historian, architect, archaeologist, engineer, ecologist, who offer advice to the Council; therefore it is a meeting with the Councillors. The HMAC was a conscientious working group who knew what proper conservation of historic structures meant. It had the foresight to train a small number of men in the specialised craft of conserving historic fabrics. This team did a great deal of work, in particular to structures, which were in a seriously dangerous state.

Subsequently, a number of surveys of churches and graveyards were commissioned. These surveys sought to identify all historic graveyards in Cork County Council ownership and highlight areas of potential loss and destruction. A priority list was compiled of sites in Cork County Council ownership, which required urgent remedial action. Having seen most of these monuments in the last ten years, a large percentage required urgent works.  The surveys were undertaken by two archaeologists: primarily medieval churches by Eamon Cotter (2000) and primarily post-medieval churches by Bernard O’Mahony (2006).  These volumes are available in local libraries, or copies can be requested from the HMAC. A written and photographic survey was undertaken at each site. These surveys provided information on which monuments to prioritise for conservation works. Each report also gives background and cartographic information.  Since these surveys were undertaken, a number of historic churches have had minor conservation works carried out, such as Kilbonane (included in this report) near Aherla, Macloneigh near Macroom, Kilbarry, near Berrings, and others throughout County Cork. Major works have been undertaken at Moore Abbey, near Mallow, Coole Abbey near Castlelyons, Rathbarry, near Clonakilty, and Myross, near Castletownsend. However as the team consists of only three people currently for the entire County of Cork, it is not possible to carry out works on more than a handful of historic churches each year. Therefore many other churches continue to deteriorate even further. Nonetheless the results of the surveys continues to inform the HMAC in making decisions on intervention to prevent further loss of some features of historical, architectural, archaeological, artistic and cultural importance and assist in the creation of a priority list of sites in need of remedial conservation works.

Putting money into these archaeological monuments not only benefits the preservation of each structure, for its archaeological, architectural, historic, genealogical and touristic values, but also provides a safe place for people to visit the graves of their loved ones. These edifices are also a resource to provide various types of employment including giving those interested in the craft of conservation a trade etc. These structures will exist only once and their rescue would give us the enjoyment of having these memorials to our ancestors.

This paper intends to give a synopsis of two of these historic churches, which the reader can visit, and which are in the area immediately around Ballincollig. It is intended that the information gleaned from these two monuments will be useful, when visiting other historic church and graveyard sites. Another important survey for reference, carried out in recent times was that edited by D. Power et al in 1997; this survey consists of several volumes, according to their geographical divisions within County Cork; not alone does it give information on churches, but also on almost every type of archaeological monument known in Cork County, such as lime kilns, mills, megalithic tombs, etc. Kilbonane and Kilnaglory are the two sites, which are featured in this article, and are also included in this scholarly work by Power (ibid).

Although many people visit historic churches, some individuals are not familiar with the architectural parts to the church.  The classic architectural shape of a church is cruciform. The catholic vision of the church building has it divided into many symbolic parts, some of which are as follows:

  • The word nave is derived from the Latin word for ship, navis, is the body of the church and signifies Noah’s Ark and the Barque of St. Peter. This area is where the faithful stood during the ceremony.
  • The crossing is the area where the nave, chancel and transept meet. This area is usually vaulted.
  • The transept is the transverse arm of a cruciform church. The liturgy is observed facing east. The left side of the transept is called the North transept, and the right side called the South transept.
  • The sanctuary is detached from the nave by altar rails; it is the location for the tabernacle.
  • The apse is the often domed, semicircular or polygonal termination, near the altar.
  • The altar is revered because it is the place where sacrifice takes place, and the Tabernacle is usually kept.
  • The sacristy is where the liturgical vessels, sacred vestments are stored.
  • Narthex or ‘foyer’ is a porch-like structure, inside or outside the church; penitants had to wait here until they were reconciled.

The direction of the East denotes the Heavenly Jerusalem, and the route from which the Savour will return in splendour. West indicates death and evil.


KILBONANE (Cill Mhathnain), Muskerry East Barony.

Graveyard (Monument Number: CO084-012-01) & Church (Monument Number: CO084-012-02).  Cill Mhathnáin means Mathnán’s church, but it is not known who Mathnan was, if a Saint (Padraig O’Riain, Personal Communication).

Directions to the site:  Heading west from Cork,on the main Cork / Macroom Road (N22), turn left at Farran Cross (see sign post for Aherla); at the next junction turn right; go through Aherla Village; continue on this road (which leads to Cloughduv) taking the second left turn. This road will take you about 300m to the south. Here you will find the ruined church and graveyard, located on the side of the road, on a north-facing slope.  A small grassy area provides some car parking space .

At this church and graveyard of Kilbonane, there is a magnificent view from this location, overlooking the Bride Valley to the North, and also the countryside between Aherla to the east and Cloughduv to the west (Plate I.). Stickstown is down at the bottom of hill to the north. Nearby to the South is the crossroads, named Cross na teampul (crossroads of the church).



PLATE I.  Part of the magnificent view from inside the entrance way, to the north-west; an iron gate and stone pillar form the entrance, with an adjacent stile.


This graveyard seems to have been well maintained in the recent past. It is occasionally used for burial. Overgrowth is at a minimum, when I visited here recently from the months of April 2012 onwards. One of the most pleasant aspects of this graveyard is on arriving here, one discovers that it is a microcosm for flora and fauna including, a variety of lichens, wild flowers and butterflies. Other flora that thrive in this graveyard, as in many others, are grasses, mosses, and liverworts.  Lichens flourish on the headstones (Plate VII). Lichens make a significant ecological contribution by generating carbohydrates through photosynthesis, reducing carbon dioxide levels and fixing nitrogen. Indeed lichens are indicative of the levels of pollution of an environment, and some in fact thrive on pollutants. Other fauna at KIlbonane, throughout the year, includes a wide variety of birds, insects, bees, ladybirds, grass hoppers, small mammals etc. While visiting Kilbonane in April 2012, a few orange tip butterflies were fluttering around each site, and ladybirds were seen on some headstones.

Ecologists see that headstones/gravestones are a prime location for lichen, and promote the belief that stones should not be cleaned. Historians and genealogists prefer the removal of the lichen so that the stones can be more decipherable. From a more realistic point of view, removal of lichen will also remove part of the stone, which will result in deterioration and erosion. So, it is best not to interfere with lichen on headstones. Conservation throughout any historic graveyard is assessing all aspects within this unique environment and with the appropriate advice and adherence to all legislation, attention should be drawn to environment, memorials as well as materials.

With regard to graveyards, consideration must be given to the Wildlife Act; advice in this regard can be obtained from the local Wildlife Ranger. One important regulation is that the ideal time for cutting back vegetation etc is from September to March, hence there will be minimal impact on the flora and fauna in the unique ecosytem of this and any historic graveyard.

Ivy was carefully trimmed from the walls of the ruined church of Kilbonane by the craftsmen of the Historic Monuments Advisory Committee of Cork County Council, about two years ago (Plate IV). This has kept the structure in good stead. If the ivy was left uncut, then its weight could bear down on the walls and could cause severe structural instability.  The ivy would eat into the structure itself, if not carefully removed.

A grass-covered earthen bank encircles the church and graveyard (Plates I and III). It is stone-faced. In places it has been eroded in height and width but one can still discern the shape of this encircling element, which may represent evidence of an early ecclesiastical site with a bank and ditch surrounding a wooden church and associated buildings.

There are many inscribed headstones in this graveyard, as well as a number of low stone markers. Most of the burials in any historic Irish graveyard are located in the eastern and southern parts of the ‘yard’ of the ‘church’; however when the grounds become full then burial is extended to the west. In KIlbonane this tradition is followed, and burials in recent times were also placed in the northern side of the church. In medieval times, the northern side of the graveyard was not commonly used for burial, as this was the dark or evil side. Individuals who did not conform to the ‘norm’ were denied a Christian funeral, and buried at the northern side, or outside the perimeter of the graveyard i.e. at KIlbonane, outside the stone-faced earthen bank at the perimeter. So burials could exist under the field to the north of this monument. Such individuals would have included foreigners, suicides, murderers, those excommunicated, heretics, etc.

Unbaptized children were frequently buried outside the graveyard’s sanctuary, and at other times were given a small unmarked plot at the edge of the ‘yard; again small marker stones were placed on these graves, at a number of sites. These burials took place during the hours of darkness, without ceremony, and never in daylight; the infant’s mother would not have attended the burial. It was carried out discretely, usually by the father, in an unmarked grave.  Many mothers years later, regret not knowing where these graves are and in particular, are sad and often depressed that their child(ren) were never named.  Perhaps it is time, that this heart-rending matter is dealt with nationally (a national day of marking the burial place and naming the beloved infant).

Throughout the graveyard, many grave markers would have vanished over the years, some of wood would have decomposed, those of iron also disintegrated, and those of stone either removed or subsumed by burials etc. Many medieval graves probably had no markers. There would be thousands of graves such as this in Kilbonane, as in other medieval graveyards. The earliest recorded headstone noted by Power (1997), dated 1758. However, Brunicardi  (1913) indicated that one dated 1727.

The main access to the current Kilbonane graveyard is through a stone pillared entranceway (Plate I). Inside and adjoining the left entrance pillar, is a stone stile, used to step over this section of walling.  A wrought iron, probably late nineteenth to early twentieth century, gate is located in the entrance way (Plate II).  This attractive metalwork could do with some cleaning and paintwork, otherwise it will fast deteriorate, and portions of it will fall off.



PLATE II. The metal gate at the entrance to Kilbonane churchyard is probably late nineteenthto early twentieth century. This metalwork could do with some cleaning and paintwork, and repair, otherwise it will fast deteriorate, and portions of it will fall off .


This late medieval ruined church building itself consists of a single-cell, located in the northern part of the graveyard. It is built of random coursed rubble, mainly limestone but with some sandstone. The sources for both types of stone would have been quarried close by. The walls remain to their full structural height, and are in relatively good condition, though masonry is loose along the wall tops, and should be consolidated. However one exception is the window at the east end of the south wall, which collapsed in the recent past.  The outer face of the western wall displays evidence of two medieval building phases, which give this structure a date (Plate IV).

The ruined church of KIlbonane parish church is located in the northern half of the graveyard. The entrance to the church building itself is through a doorway with a pointed limestone arch on the western end of the south wall. Interesting architectural cut stone include a cone-shaped stoup (holy water font) on the inner face of the south wall immediately east of the doorway; an aumbry (cabinet in the wall, which was used to store chalices and other vessels) at the east end of the south wall; and a piscina (a shallow basin placed near the altar of a church, used for washing the communion vessels), which is located also on the south wall. A double ogee-headed cusped light windowsss can be seen in the east wall; this is blocked on the outer side of the wall by a memorial stone. The light for the west wall came through a simple single-light window.

The church interior is packed with burials, some of them recent, consequently the ground has been raised considerably (Plate V). Diagnostic features of the church no doubt remain buried beneath. A number of modern burials are too close to the church walls, and would be a danger to any individual if these graves are reopened in the future. There are several recent inscriptions on headstones throughout the graveyard  (Plates V and VI). The earliest visible headstone is dated 1740 (Power, D et al, 1997).




PLATE III.   Next to the entrance is a grass-covered earthen bank can be seen encircling the church and graveyard at Kilbonane. It is stone-faced and is evident by the curve in the road, heading in a south-east direction.






Plate IV.   Two phases of building can be clearly seen on this gable at the western end of the church ruins, at Kilbonane. The larger blocks of stone make  up the lower courses of one phase, while smaller stones comprise the later rebuild of the church.




PLATE V. The northern side of the church, where there are a number of modern burials. In the past burying at this side of the church would have been frowned upon by the regular church goer. However in more recent times, when the ‘yard’ became full with burials, then the northern side was used.



PLATE   VI.  Depictions of musical instruments on this headstone describes the talents of two popular brothers buried in this grave. Gravestones provide a variety of information on the people who used the graveyard, as well as those buried here, including demography, symbolism associated with the church, genealogy, history, the craftsmen who made the stones, etc.



PLATE  VIILichen on the surface of a headstone. Lichen thrive in a graveyard. providing information on the history of the environment.




KILNAGLORY ( Cill na Gluaire). Muskerry East Barony.  Graveyard (Monument Number: CO073-060-01) & Church (Monument Number: CO073-060-02).  Cill  means church, and gluair is bright or clear  (Padraig O’Riain, Personal Communication).

Directions to the site:  Heading west from Cork, on the main Cork / Macroom Road (N22), take the ramp left toward Ballincollig (West)/B. An Chollaigh (Thiar). At the roundabout, take the first exit onto Greenfield; road name then changes to Kilnaglory.



PLATE VIII. The entrance to Kilnaglory church and graveyard. The metal gate is in good condition, and is fixed in an upright stone pillared entrance.


The entrance to the church and graveyard of Kilnaglory is through a gateway, with stone pillars (Plate VIII). The parish church of Kilnaglory is situated at the centre of the graveyard.  From the first glimpse of this site, it is very obvious that vegetation has covered a vast amount of structural remains, and that this site has been neglected for many years. The architectural features which were evident by Power (1997) indicated that these ruins were of late medieval date. The diagnostic architectural pieces are most probably hidden beneath the overgrowth of vegetation. The church was repaired on a number of occasions in the 17th century. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the church had fallen out of use (Brunicardi, 1913). The graveyard is used occasionally. The earliest surviving headstone noted is 1760 (ibid).

The perimeter walling is covered, and burdened by the weight of ivy growth, which in the long term could destabilise this structure (Plate IX).  The perimeter walling around the graveyard, is solid in places, but there are many faults in several sections. One large crack occurs at the north-east end, which has resulted in the removal of capping. The perimeter walling, as seen from the roadside has some potentially serious patches, where stones have become dislodged, and could lead to greater damage. One section is at a dangerous bend on the road,  and has been in a bad condition for at least a decade; no attempt at repair is evident (Plate X).




PLATE IX. The perimeter walling around Kilnaglory church and graveyard. A large vertical crack is evident at the bend of this walling and immediately above it, the vertical cap stones are missing.




Plate X. A dangerous crack in the wall enclosing Kilnaglory at the roadside.


Building stone for the structures was quarried nearby.  The south wall and a remnant of the east wall survive. The weight of vegetation  on the structure has grown significantly in the last ten years; vegetation such as trees are growing from the walling, leading to a very dangerous situation, including cracking on the walls and a lot of loose masonry (Plate XI).  The south wall is dangerously leaning outwards.  A lot of masonry now remains as rubble.

There is a variety of headstones in the church’s yard (Plate XI).  The overgrowth of grass prevents the visitor from seeing the site to its full potential.  Ten years previously, when Cotter examined the site, some architecturally interesting stonework was apparent, but is now no longer visible; hopefully they are hidden in the dense vegetation growth.







PLATE XI. A variety of mainly modern headstones in the church’s yard, which includes a celtic cross, a typical type in the Irish graveyard. The ruined medieval church in the background is overburdened by the heavy weight of vegetation; walling is leaning, perhaps as a result of this load.


REFERENCES.                                                                                                                                Brunicardi, MHJ (1913), The Ruined Parish Churches of the Diocese of County Cork, Unpublished MA thesis, University College Cork.

Cotter, E (2004), Condition Survey of Churches in County Cork (in the care of Cork County Council, Volumes I & II, Cork County Council.

O’Mahony, B (2006) Condition Survey of Historic Graveyard of County Cork., Cork County Council.

Power, D (1997), with E. Byrne, U. Egan, S. Lane and M. Sleeman, Archaeological Inventory of County Cork. Volume 3: Mid Cork. Stationery Office, Dublin.






feb 28 2011 KILCREDAN, 004


feb 28 2011 , KILCREDAN, 007

Following a cleanup in Kilcredan graveyard

   feb 28 20 kilcredan , 009





  • Do seek archaeological and ecological advice before work commences and when a plan has been carefully considered.


  • Clear the site using only hand strimmers or other hand tools.


  • Leave all hummocks in the ground; they may mark structural and archaeological features.


  • Do seek archaeological advice on any tilting monument before attempting to rectify it.  In many cases the monument will have carried out all its moving and will be better off left as it is.


  • Maintain existing pathways using local gravel, small stones and grit.


  • Keep all repair works to a minimum (stabilize and conserve). Natural decay is in keeping with the graveyard and represents the age of construction. 


  • Designate dump-sites away from graveyards/cemeteries.
  • Prevent rust on ironwork by ensuring all ironwork is properly painted.



  • Ensure where practicable that all unused buildings are kept weather proof. 


  • Retain boundary walls, hedges and banks.


  • Retain healthy trees.


  • Ensure that vegetation is managed correctly and that it is not unnecessarily disturbed. Overgrown vegetation can often provide an important habitat for animals, insects, birds, and plants.  It can also make the setting more attractive to visitors. Excess cutting of grass can result in soil erosion.


  • Do provide a stone, a replica rather than an historic stone, for the tradition of incising crosses.







  • Do not start without professional advice and a plan to work on. Experts include an archaeologist, an expert in the conservation of historic structures and the local wildlife ranger.


  • Do not use weed killer as it leaves the soil exposed and in turn causes erosion around the monuments and gravestones.  This can lead to the exposure of foundations.  The use of chemicals can also lead to the uptake of damaging salts into the stone.


  • Do not burn off vegetation, or use total spectrum weed killers; the growth of weeds will increase. Do not burn rubbish on site.


  • Do not dig graves near walls, they can cause structural damage.


  • Do not carry out unlicensed excavation, this includes the removal of rubble from collapsed walls.


  • Do not use machinery to clear or level the site.


  • Do not level off pathways. Do not use grave slabs for paving.


  • Do not lay new pathways without consulting an archaeologist.


  • Do not remove gravestones or monuments without archaeological advice and supervision.


  • Do not pull ivy off buildings, fragile gravestones or tombs/memorials.


  • Do not use wire brushes or sandblasters; these will result in erosion of the stone.


  • Do not apply paint to gravestone inscriptions, this will erode the stone.


  • Do not repoint any masonry without professional advice. Do not use ribbon pointing on old boundary walls or buildings.


  • Do not remove trees, uproot ivy trees, plants without professional advice. 


  • Do not remove any roots of felled or fallen trees as this can cause further damage.


  • Do not plant wild plants without seeking expert advice.


  • Do not use historic stones for incising crosses; provide a replica or

             alternative instead.




© 2012-2020 Catryn Power All Rights Reserved

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