Catholicism in Meath

From the beginning of the twelfth century, the Irish church had entered a period of recovery and revival from the effects of repeated Norse raids and internal warfare. Synods were held, laws were enacted, and the diocesan system was overhauled, bringing new religious orders from the continent. This reform was cut short by the Norman invasion. From the outset, the newcomers made determined attempts to control and dominate the church. When the Irish born Bishop of Meath died in 1191, he was succeeded by an Englishman. In 1216 King John directed his justiciar that no Irishman be promoted to any Bishopric, and later legislation was aimed against the admission of any Irish to monasteries or parishes in the territories where English law was observed. In 1205 the capital of the diocese was changed from Clonard to Trim, which was the most important centre of Anglo-Norman power in Meath.

The civil parish is the smallest ecclesiastical unit, its origin goes back to the 5th or 6th century, before which it represented an ancient political unit of area. Very often in the Patrician age the chieftain, on conversion, handed over a portion of his Dun to the Church and a clerical community was installed there. The tiny tribal area ruled by the lowest grade of king became the parish and remained remarkably stable in bounds and extent throughout the centuries. The main function of the parish church and chapels of ease was pastoral care and to facilitate the rites of birth, marriage and death. The upkeep of the parish was maintained by the levying of tithes. These tithes supported the rector, or in the case where the parish was appropriated to a religious institution, a part of the great tithe was retained by the vicar. With this income, the priest was also responsible for maintaining the chancel of the church, while the people were responsible for the upkeep of the nave.

In early Christian times, the Irish Parish was a group of monastic settlements under the jurisdiction of one abbot. Dunshaughlin had its own bishop until a synod of Kells in 1152, when six of the ancient Sees of Meath were amalgamated into one, centred at Clonard. Culmullen and Knockmark were separate entities. Most modern-day parishes represent a union of smaller parishes and the Catholic union of Culmullen and Knockmark with Dunshaughlin probably did not occur until the late seventeenth century. The Irish development was entirely monastic; the bishop occupied a subordinate position as the authority belonged to the abbot. A Bull of Pope Alexander 111 confirming the possessions of the See of Dublin mentions as parochial churches only St. Thomas, St. Nicholas, and St. Werburges, all in the city or suburbs. Tithes are mentioned in the Bull, but as late as 1214 the Archbishop had complained that some of his dioceses had refused to pay their tithes. The group of parishes belonging to the monks of St. Thomas which had a simple development shows how early the Norman settlers had begun to organise the parish system. The rural deanery of Skryne was very extensive and stretched from modern-day Kentstown to Moyglare and contained thirty two parishes. Of these six Moyglare, Kilmore, Culmullen, Derrypatrick, Knockmark and Kiltale) were appropriated to St. Thomas. The church of Knockmark was granted to St. Thomas between 1192 and 1202 by William Fitz Allen “with the lands which I and my father assigned to it”. Simon de Rochford who became Bishop of Meath in 1192 was one of the witnesses and the church is named in confirmation of St. Thomas’s possessions in 1202. The other five parishes which included Culmullen originated in a grant of Leonisius de Bromiard, the ancestor of the Fitz Leons of Culmullen and was earlier than 1191, since it was confirmed by Eugenius, Bishop of Meath, who died in that year.

The wording of the grant in the Latin script would suggest that parochial organisation was not complete. Whether the church in Culmullen had, at this stage, been built is unclear. This grant was confirmed in 1202. Simon de Rochford died in 1224 and the next two bishops reigned briefly, one for two years and the other for one year. In 1230 a Dublin Canon of St. Patrick’s, Trim, Richard de Nangle, was elected bishop by the clergy of Meath. His main focus was to regain the income (tithes) of the parishes which were impropriate to the abbeys, which included St. Thomas, which had in total fifty nine parishes from Meath, Dublin, Kildare, Wexford and Kilkenny. The bishop also sought to regain control over the structures through which the sacraments, the Mass, and the rituals of parish life were made available to the people of the parish. Pope Gregory IX ‘1227-1241) set up a commission, which sat in Drogheda, to examine the appeal by the t9shop. This commission settled the income of the vicarages which were impropriate to the Augustinian Abbey of St. Thomas. In the list of Parishes which had vicars, the vicar of Knockmark got ten marks (6.13s.4d.), Culmullen six marks (4). The abbey and monks were to present vicars or chaplains to the parishes to be instituted by the bishop. The bishop was to have an ongoing responsibility for supervising the parochial clergy. In Meath over half of the parishes were in monastic control for most of the middle ages and u was only at the Council of Trent (1547-1554) that all the responsibility for the faith of the people was concentrated in the hands of the bishop. In general terms, one third of the tithe went to the local clergyman. The standard income of the chaplains was three marks (.E2), which was the equivalent of a year’s wages to an unskilled labourer in thirteenth century England. In 1704 the Parish Priest was living in Cultrumer, on the back road leading from Culmullen Cross to Pelletstown. As the penal laws were in force, the catholic clergy were forced to keep a low profile.

By Neill O’Riordan 
Excerpts taken  from the Dunshaughlin and Culmullen Parish 2007 Jubilee Commemorative booklet By Michael Kenny RIP

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