History of the Diocese

The History and Antiquities of the Diocese of Ossory
St Kieran's College

Ossory is a diocese of just over 85,000 people in the south-east of Ireland.  It has forty-two parishes, gathered in thirteen pastoral areas, in the counties of Kilkenny, Laois and Offaly and covers an area of 1,972 square kilometers.

It is a diocese with a long history.  Our Patron Saint, and first Bishop, was St Kieran of Saighir who lived in the fifth century.

Through this website we hope to share, not only, important information on the many people, parishes, schools and committees that are the life of our diocese, but also some of the many and varied activities that happen throughout our diocese on a continual basis.

The coming of Christianity to Ossory is associated with St Kieran of Saighir (Patron of our Diocese), 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  (Patron of Kilkenny City) 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. The Diocese, then, remains largely the same in area today as it did in the time of St Kieran, being as it is, practically co-extensive with the civil division of Ossory. Abraham Brownrigg, in his preface to Carrigan’s “The History and Antiquities of the Diocese of Ossory”, notes that “no other Diocese in our country appears to enjoy these distinctions with the exception of royal Meath, which, too claims to be called after an Ancient Irish Kingdom, and to be coincident with it”. 

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 signalled 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 organisation 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, 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 reorganised 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 Cty 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 Hibemia 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, St Kieran’s College, 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. “Hiems transiit” – 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 Route’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 Brownrig 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 unrivalled 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. Bishop Laurence Forristal, a native of Thomastown and auxiliary Bishop in Dublin was transferred to Ossory on 30th June 1981. Bishop Forristal worked tirelessly to increase lay involvemnt in the life of the church in Ossory and among many great achievements was his establsihing the Diocesan Forum which still continues today. Having faithfully served the people of Ossory for twenty-six years, Bishop Forristal retired on 14th September 2007.  Bishop Forristal was then replaced by Bishop Séamus Freeman S.A.C. who had served as Rector General for two terms of the Pallotine Order from 1992 to 2004. Having served as Parish Priest of a Roman Parish he was appointed Bishop of Ossory on 14th September 2007. During Bishop Freeman’s time a significant project of work of restoration was begun on St Mary’s Cathedral. Under his guidance the sanctuary mosiacs and Cathedral windows were cleaned and restored offering all who enter the Cathedral the wonderful vista of the Apse behind the santuary and altar. Also during these years of works undertaken by Bishop Séamus a chapel to the Blessed Sacrament was created in the basement of the Cathedral along with works to bring to life a Cathedral cafe and the Cathedral bookshop which still serves the Diocese today. Furthering lay involvement in the life of our Diocese he oversaw the appointment of a Diocesan Pastoral Coordinator in Ossory to help ensure the realisation of our Pastoral Plan. He retired on the grounds of ill health on 26th July 2016. 

On the 3rd January 2018 at St Mary’s Cathedral Bishop Dermot Farrell was announced as the 95th Bishop of Ossory. Bishop Farrell, a priest of the Diocese of Meath, came to Ossory and was Ordained on 11th March March 2018. In coming to Ossory Bishop Farrell had extensive administrative experience having served on various boards and committees. During his time in Ossory Bishop Dermot continued to support and implement the Pastoral Plan and in so doing brought about the new Pastoral Areas in Ossory, the groupings of our parishes into 13 areas in which these parishes can collaborate together to help fulfil their pastoral activities. In January 2019 Bishop Farrell continued the work on St Mary’s Cathedral when he invited liturgical architect Paul O’Daly to visit with a view to restore the sanctuary and to place in it a new altar and ambo. Bishop Farrell helped the Diocese and parishes navigate the early, most intense, phase of the Covid pandemic and during that time, along with Bishop Denis Nulty, of Kildare & Leighlin offered weekly Masses to both Dioceses via local media. On 29th December 2020 it was announced that he was to be translated to Dublin as Archbishop- a move that took place on 2nd February 2021. 

Following that Bishop Denis Nulty, was appointed Apostolic Administrator of Ossory, caring for the Diocese and its people for the next two years – ensuring its pastoral activity continued unchecked. During that time he also helped coordinate the transition from the lay deanery structures to the new pastoral areas ensuring that these new realities were lead by a priest and lay co-coordinator. Also during this time Bishop Nulty oversaw the creation and installation of the new altar and ambo and the completion of the sanctuary works in St Mary’s Cathedral.

The coat of arms of the Diocese has a representation of St Kieran between two pillars. It appears on Episcopal Arms from the 18th century and on a beautiful book-plate of Archbishop Troy.

Artistic Heritage

Rothe's Silver Rosary

Rothe’s Silver Rosary

The diocese of Ossory is fortunate to have a rich artistic heritage.  Works of art in stone include the High Crosses of Western Ossory, the floriated French tombstones of the early Anglo-Norman period, the Hiberno Romanesque doorways of Freshford and Kilkeasy (sadly in ruin), the beautiful medieval tombs of O’ Tunney and Kerin, the 13th century Trinity in the Black Abbey, the medieval baptismal fonts and the hauntingly evocative crucifix in Johnstown.

One of the treasures of the diocese that did not survive the coming of Cromwell was the stained glass window in St. Canice’s Cathedral which so impressed Archbishop Rinuccini that he offered 700 marks for it.

Other treasures did.  The sumptuous Rothe vestments of red-figured velvet with opus Anglicanism are among the finest in the country.  Dating from the late 15th century they were probably made on the continent.

Rothe’s Spanish silver rosary dates from the first half of the 17th century as do a number of fine silver chalices, some of which are decorated with the instruments of the passion.  From the penal days comes a beautiful small chalice of 1652 and some years later the Kilmanagh monstrance.  The small silver cross of the Congregation of the Peace of 1621 is sadly missing.

The Rothe Monstrance

The Rothe Monstrance

Pride of place, however, must surely go to the Rothe monstrance, a very early example of the “sunburst” monstrance.  David Rothe had it made in 1644 for use in St. Canice’s Cathedral.  Silver-gilt and 59 cm in height, it was used during the Confederation period when the city was to witness grand liturgical ceremonies especially after the arrival of archbishop Rinuccini.  The central lunette is surrounded by small rays while the outer ring has a flamboyant radiant decoration.  This ring has a quotation from Rev 21:3: ecce tabernaculum Dei cum hominibus et habitabit cum eis, on the front; ipsi populus eius erunt. et ipse Deus cum eis erit eorum Deus.  Apocal. C.21, on the reverse.  The base has the inscription: “DAVID ROTH EPISCOP OSSORIEN. ME FIERI FECIT ANO. 1644. ORA PRO CLERO ET POPULO DIOCESSIS OSSORIEN.”After the death of   Bishop Rothe the monstrance was kept in his family and later passed to the Bryan family who presented it to St. Mary’s Cathedral in 1857.

Places of Pilgrimage

The pattern or feast of the patron saint of an area was once an integral part of popular religious practice in every parish.  An ancient institution, it was associated with holy wells and cemeteries and usually included Mass.  It was a great festive occasion, so much so that in 1629 David Rothe was worried about the outcome of a Government inquiry ordered in the wake of a recent pattern celebration in his diocese.  One of the best known patterns was that of St. John’s Well on 24th June which attracted people in great numbers from far and near.  In the second half of the 18th century, various edicts were issued designed to distance the church from these occasions that were frequently marked by faction fighting and intemperance.  The patterns continued into the following century and the demise of many only came in the quarter century or so before the famine.  Some survived and a number were renewed albeit in a different form later in the 19th century and even in recent years.

One of the oldest patterns in the diocese is that of St. Moling at Mullinakill.  Suspended in 1867, it was revived not long afterwards and is still celebrated annually on the first Sunday after the 20th August, the feast of St. Bernard.  The ceremonies are ancient – the taking up a stone from the stream feeding the well and leaving it on the altar (symbolizing the leaving behind of a burden), doing rounds of the well, stopping at various stations, saying prescribed prayers including the rosary.  By the well is an ancient alder tree from which people take twigs as a protection against fire and shipwreck.

Other places of pilgrimage include Lady Well in the parish of Ballyragget which has increased in popularity over recent years.  The pattern falls on 15th August and people come there until 8th September for various devotions which include Mass and the rosary. St. Fiacre’s well is a celebrated holy well where public devotions were carried out up to the early part of the 19th century and which has been revived in recent years.

Seir Kieran is perhaps the most important pilgrimage site in the diocese.  It celebrates the patron of the diocese on 5th March which is a day of special devotion for the people of the locality.  The procession is the highlight of the celebration.  After Mass everybody goes from the church to the well, round which two decades of the rosary are recited.  The well is blessed and all drink from its waters.

The next station is St. Kieran’s Bush, where the rosary is continued, and the last is the monastic site where the final decade is said and a hymn sung.  During the octave people continue to visit the well, reciting the rosary and making the rounds.  The climax of the celebrations is reached on the Sunday after the feast when crowds come to follow the processional route and recite the rosary. The pattern at Kennyswell in Kilkenny City has been revived even more recently.

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