Written by archaeologist Christiaan Corlett
Virtually nothing survives of the history of Clone Church near Ferns, yet the archaeological remains there tell us that this was an important site.
Indeed, it seems to have been a place of some significance around 5500 years ago, during the Neolithic, and a stone decorated with incised arcs in the graveyard may have belonged to a nearby megalithic tomb that has long since been destroyed.
It is fitting then that this decorated stone from such an ancient tomb was used much more recently as a headstone to mark the grave of someone from the local community. Of course, the modern graves here are the last in a long burial tradition focused around a Romanesque church, built in the middle of the 12th century, at a time that Ferns was the seat of a newly established diocese, beside the royal seat of the MacMurchada kings of Leinster.
Megalithic Rock Art from Clone Church, photo courtesy of Christiaan Corlett
It was probably constructed around the same time as St Mary’s Abbey in Ferns, but the church here at Clone is quite different. Unfortunately, time has not been kind to Clone church, much of which had already collapsed by the beginning of the 19th century. In 1956, Wexford County Council undertook repairs to save the church from further collapse. This did save the building, for a time at least, but the building began to deteriorate once again, which prompted the Office of Public Works to carry out a more thorough conservation project.
This provided an opportunity to take a much closer look at the church and the interesting variety of features that can be found here. It was previously thought that the church had a relatively simple flat headed door frame at its west end, typical of the 10th and 11th centuries, but it is now clear that this was a round headed doorway, in keeping with the Romanesque tradition for arched portals and windows.
Clone Church as Viewed in November 2010, photo courtesy of Christiaan Corlett
All the former windows of the church had disappeared when the eastern part of the building collapsed, and until recently only fragments of one window had been identified. Now we have evidence for at least three if not four windows, and we can begin to reimagine a small but well-lit church.
Returning to the doorway, when the church was repaired in 1956, a series of carvings were placed in a straight line across the west gable, over the doorway. However, earlier photographs and antiquarian drawings show that these were placed in an arc directly over the door, no doubt complimenting the former arched head of the frame. Recent conservation has shown that these heads (both human and animal) were finely carved with intricate details not previously obvious.
One of the heads clearly represents a king and it is tempting to suggest that this is a portrait of Diarmait MacMurchada, the infamous king of Leinster who founded St Mary’s Abbey in Ferns around 1162.
But we also know that this was already an ancient site by the time the Romanesque church was built. Precisely how old is not clear, but it seems that it was directly linked with St Aiden himself and may have been a place of pilgrimage. This earlier phase is represented by the presence of three cross slabs, as well as a rare example of a stone sun dial (now on display at the visitor centre beside Ferns Castle).
Though a relatively small and discrete site today, the church site at Clone has a long and complex history, much of which has been hiding in the rubble and long grass waiting to be discovered. We are now finally able to appreciate the complexities of this unassuming site and I am confident that further exciting discoveries will continue to be made here in the future.
Acknowledgment of Support
This blog is number five of a ten-part series entitled Discovering Medieval Ferns which has been funded by the Rediscovering Ancient Connections – The Saints (Ancient Connections) Project.
Ancient Connections is an ‘inter-reg’ cross-border arts and heritage project linking Pembrokeshire and north Wexford, which strives to revive the ancient links between these communities, allowing them to rediscover their shared heritage and trade knowledge, experience, and skills.
Ancient Connections have also funded a major academic volume, also entitled Discovering Medieval Ferns, upon which this blog series is based.
This volume, which includes fifteen papers from an interdisciplinary team of twenty+ scholars, aims to highlight the remarkable history and archaeology of medieval Ferns, focusing on intriguing discoveries from recent excavations and research programmes.
The volume, which is the most complete picture to date of the origins and evolution of medieval Ferns, will be published by Four Courts Press later in 2023.