Through the door of history

 

Many speeches have been made at a national level about the need to preserve heritage, but it is at a local level that actions have the most impact. Clare County Development Board recently sent an open letter to local voluntary and community groups, outlining a proposed heritage seminar.

Gerard Madden, a local historian and secretary of East Clare Heritage, wrote back with an exasperation shared by local heritage groups across Ireland "A heritage seminar sounds like a good idea if those involved in it over several years are allowed to express their disappointment and frustration with State and semi-State bodies.

"The timing is particularly apt for us as we are strongly contemplating closing down our centre and disbanding due to a complete lack of State or semi-State support. The Heritage Council is the only organisation that supports us on a regular basis, and is the only body with a proven track record in promoting heritage at a local level."

In a factual attack underlining the lack of support from the relevant bodies, Madden writes: "We have not received one shilling in support from Shannon Development since 1992, and it is the agency charged with promoting tourism in the region." He also reports having survived "without FAS since about 1996, when it demanded that we arrange an £11,000 overdraft facility before it would sanction a scheme".

St Cronan's Church in Tuamgraney, Co Clare, between Killaloe and Scariff, is believed to be the oldest church in continuous use not only in Ireland but probably throughout these islands. The 10th-century structure dates from at least 964, for that is the year Cormac Ua Cillin of the Ui Fiacgrach Aidhne, Coarb of Ciaran and Coman, the person responsible for its building, is known to have died. An entry in the Chronicon Scotorum describes Cormac Ua Cillin on his passing as "an old man both wise and a bishop".

The church is simplicity itself. The western portion as built by Cormac Ua Cillin is dominated by the remarkable square lintelled doorway, decorated with a flat architrave band through which generations have passed on their way to worship for more than 1,000 years. This section of the church is said to have been rebuilt in 969AD, while Brian Boru made further repairs in about 1012, according to the Annals Of The Four Masters.

The St Cronan honoured by the church is believed to have founded a monastery on this site before 550. Inside, near the top of the east gable, is a carved head believed to depict him. Also recorded is a reference to the building of a round tower (the same tower that Brian Boru is said to have repaired), no trace of which remains, although stones used in its construction may still be on the site. St Cronan's monastery was twice destroyed by Vikings, in 886 and in 949. It is about then that building may have begun on the present church.

The church has undergone changes during the centuries. When the scholar John O'Donovan visited in 1839, by then already well engaged in his work for the Ordnance Survey, he was unimpressed and did not go inside. "The present church of Tuaim Greine is of no antiquity, and there is nothing there by which the antiquarian can be interested but a rude castle," he said, in a reference to O'Grady's Castle, the 15thcentury tower house that still stands.

Yet this little church has retained a sense of ancient self. The Church of Ireland community continues to pray here, holding services once a month. The church yard has been a burial ground for both communities. Among those who lie here are the genealogist Edward MacLysaght (1887 to 1986), author of the three-volume study Irish Families and the Guide To Irish Surnames. Other graves include those of the parents of the novelist Edna O'Brien, who was born in Tuamgraney.

Situated at the roadside, the church also serves as East Clare Heritage Centre. The words are inscribed relatively unobtrusively on a stone arch over the side entrance leading into the churchyard.

The centre is the work of a local voluntary group, formed in 1989, that acquired a long lease on the church to conserve and restore it as far as possible, as well as, most importantly, celebrate the history of this part of east Clare, an area that includes the beautiful seventh-century monastic site of Holy Island, or Inis Cealtra, in Lough Derg, on the lower Shannon.

Groups such as East Clare Heritage have been established all over Ireland, but the Tuamgraney venture is unique for the emphasis it places on heritage rather than more blatant commercial tourism.

In 1990, the group was approached with an offer of a fine three-light stained-glass window, the work of the artist Alfred Child. The "Ascension" window, featuring the risen Christ with two angels, was then at risk in the disused parish church of Kilfinaghty, Sixmilebridge, Co Clare, where it had already been vandalised.

East Clare Heritage had the window, commissioned in 1906 by a Miss Ivers in honour of her parents, restored and placed in the east window. Outside, the sun appears and reappears behind passing clouds, and causes a light show of colours to cross the interior of the church.

A wonderful 12th-century Romanesque window, with V-shaped decorated chevrons forming its arch and sides, dominates the otherwise plain north wall. Of the four windows in the south wall, two are particularly beautiful; one is decorated with a fret pattern, the other has a spiral design.

High in the south wall is a Romanesque head, carved in sandstone. The face has a stern expression, perhaps reminding visitors that this is a house of God. In 1990, only the nose was visible beneath layers of plaster. Restoration work revealed the entire head. Having sought advice, the volunteers worked to reclaim as much of the original interior as possible.

An extraordinary selection of artefacts has been collected, from ancient stones to church furniture, domestic utensils, even copies of Edna O'Brien's books.

Mary Robinson, as president, opened East Clare Heritage Centre in 1991. Ten years later, on a quiet Sunday, the only sound comes from Tuamgraney handball alley. The church is locked, and seems set to remain so. "There is no money. We have tried, but there is only so much a volunteer group can do," says Madden.

"We have stopped writing to the Minister, Sile de Valera, as it's a total waste of time. This part of east Clare must not be high profile. Neither Duchas nor Clare County Council have responded to numerous submissions."

If more philosophical than bitter, he is certainly disappointed. While acknowledging grant aid from the Heritage Council, Madden feels that, having done valuable work, not only on the church but also promoting Holy Island and creating a dignified and evocative Famine memorial park, the group can do no more. Heritage, he feels, is not about grand new gestures in Dublin. "It is about places like here, a church like St Cronan's."