The coming of Christianity to Ossory is associated with St. Kieran of Saighir, the “first-born of the saints of Ireland” (Promogenitus Sanctorum Hiberniae). His foundation at Saighir Kieran flourished for many centuries. Not far distant in Aghaboe, St. Canice founded a monastery in the 6th century which grew in importance, giving Feargal to the church of Salzburg and eventually becoming for a time the site of the bishop’s see.
The diocese of Ossory, “Ireland’s oldest bishopric”, was probably co-terminus with the ancient kingdom of Ossory. Its present boundaries were set at the synod of Rathbreasail. It includes most of the county of Kilkenny (except for the parishes of Graiguenamangh and Paulstown), part of Co. Laois and the “island” parish of Seir Kieran in Co. Offaly. For a time in the 13th century its boundaries extended as far as the Barrow and included Graiguenamanagh.
Already before the arrival of the Anglo-Normans the winds of change had been blowing from Continental Europe. The coming of the Cistercians to Jerpoint probably around 1160 and to Kilkenny had already signaled the passing of the old Celtic order, and soon the Canons Regular of St. Augustine were firmly installed in Saighir Kieran and Fertagh and had set up new foundations in Aghmacart, St. John’s, Kilkenny, Kells and Inistioge; their sisters were in the nunnery of Kilculiheen.
The transfer of the Cathedral from Aghaboe to Kilkenny in the last decade of the twelfth century, the foundation of a cathedral chapter and the establishment of a parish system through the system of tithes introduced by the Anglo-Normans radically transformed the ecclesiastical organization of the diocese. More than half of the new parishes were in the hands of the religious, while the rest were run by the secular clergy – mostly the dean and chapter of St. Canice’s. A few were in the hands of lay patrons. In the 13th century the Dominicans came to Aghaboe, the Black Abbey in Kilkenny and Rosbercon. Because of their importance in the diocese the suppression of the monasteries in the wake of the reformation led to enormous changes.
It was only at the beginning of the 17th century with the arrival of an increasing number of priests from the continental colleges and the appointment of David Rothe first as vicar apostolic and then as bishop (1618-50) that the Church began to reorganize. Rothe was the most prominent bishop in Ireland – at one stage he was the only bishop in the country – and he took a leading role in this renewal as well as publishing a number of important works. In Ossory the old civil parishes were reorganized into twenty nine or thirty unions, clerical conferences were introduced, confraternities established, and ecclesiastical legislation was updated. Rothe’s prominence in the country and the relatively peaceful state of Kilkenny led to the Confederate ‘parliament’ meeting in the city in the 1640s. That period saw a flowering of religious and political activity in Kilkenny particularly during the stay of Archbishop Rinuccini, the Papal Nuncio. The Cromwellian invasion led to a period of great difficulty for the Church with the poet priest Bernard Fitzpatrick who was vicar general, martyred in 1653 and others forced to flee.
James Phelan’s episcopacy (1669-95) was a period of renewal. The number of priests increased, diocesan synods were regularly held, chapels were built or restored, and the people were able to worship in relative safety. Protected by the Butler web of contacts Phelan ordained almost one eighth of the priests of Ireland on the 1704 list during his twenty-seven year episcopacy, more than any other bishop in the country.
The passing of the act of 1697 saw the exile of Bishop Daton and many regular clergy but some priests remained and the registration of 1704 meant that they could serve their flocks in relative peace apart from a few years around 1714. New chapels were constructed and apart from another brief period of difficulty in the 1740s the Church slowly recovered. As the population increased in the latter half of the century the need to divide the large parishes was felt and extra priests were required. It was really in the first half of the 19th century that most of the large parishes were divided and that the situation that obtains today was largely reached. The 18th century saw three Dominican bishops in Ossory, two of whom were significant figures on the Irish stage – Thomas De Burgo who wrote Hibernia Dominicana and John Thomas Troy who later became archbishop of Dublin.
The last quarter of the 18th century saw the level of tolerance towards Catholics gradually improve, and with the passing of the relief act of 1782, which enabled Catholics to found schools, a turning point was reached. The diocesan school that was founded in Kilkenny was the first of its kind in the country. Its motto, “Hiems transiit”, reflects this moment. Two years later schools for the education of poor boys and girls were founded in the city. By the 1790s upheaval on the continent led to the need for the provision of education for priests at home and in 1792 the college opened its doors to students of philosophy and theology, the first college in Ireland to do so. The Presentation Sisters arrived at the end of the century and soon afterwards the Christian Brothers – both providing education for those who could not afford it. The many churches built or renovated in the 1790s reflected the changing position of the Catholic community. The winter indeed had passed.
The early part of the 19th century saw the clergy of Ossory led by Richard O’ Donnell oppose the Veto and support O’ Connell. Bishop Marum succeeded the pious Bishop Lanigan and he in turn was succeeded by a Carlow man, William Kinsella. Church building continued apace between 1811 and 1845, with the new St. Kieran’s College, a number of new parochial churches and the beginning of a new Cathedral (1843) making a definite statement about the growing self-confidence of the Catholic community. Bishop Edmond Walsh oversaw the completion of St. Mary’s Cathedral and consecrated it in 1857. The year 1849 saw the founding of the Callan Tenant Protection Society by two curates in Callan. It was a society that was eventually to have a profound effect on the land agitation in the country.
The ‘Callan Case’ achieved great notoriety both at home and abroad between 1868 and 1875 as Robert O’ Keeffe, the parish priest of Callan, Bishop Walsh, his successor Patrick Francis Moran (1872-84) and Cardinal Cullen became involved in civil court proceedings. Moran made a notable contribution to many areas of life in the diocese during his twelve year stay in Ossory – local ecclesiastical history, liturgical reform, the renovation of churches, the addition to St. Kieran’s. Ashlin was his trusted architect. Moran was heavily involved in education on a national and local level. He brought the Mercy Sisters to Callan, the Sisters of Charity to Kilkenny and the Sacred Heart of Mary Sisters to Ferrybank. He became archbishop of Sydney in 1884 and Australia’s first cardinal the following year. He also found time to publish an edition of Archdall’s Monasticon Hibernicum, his three volume Spicilegium Ossoriense and David Rothe’s Analecta. The clergy were already quite involved in political life at that time and were to become more involved in the land question and later still in the co-operative movement – a largely unwritten chapter in their history.
The diocese had only three bishops between 1884 and 1981 – Abraham Brownrigg, Patrick Collier and Peter Birch. Bishop Brownrigg made additions to the Cathedral, brought the St. John of God Sisters to the diocese and promoted Canon Carrigan’s work on the history of the diocese which eventually bore fruit in 1905 with the publication of a four volume history of unrivaled value. During Patrick Collier’s time work continued on St. Mary’s Cathedral, and a number of churches were built and renovated. Peter Birch, bishop in the heady days after the Vatican Council, oversaw changes in the liturgy and in the churches themselves. It was a period of great change and adaptation not just for the Church but for society in general. Much work was done in Ossory for those afflicted by poverty and suffering from disability, work that saw Bishop Birch achieve national prominence. The suspension of the seminary in St. Kieran’s College in 1994 marked a watershed in the history of St. Kieran’s and of the diocese. But the college continues to have an active role in adult religious education and formation through the Maynooth Outreach Programme and its connection with Ossory Adult Faith Development