Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin


One of the four suffragans of Dublin, Ireland. These two dioceses continued to be separate from their foundation until 1678, when, owing to the extreme tenuity of the episcopal revenues - about fifteen pounds sterling a year each - the Diocese of Leighlin was given in commendam by the Holy See to the Bishop of Kildare, Dr. Mark Forstall. The Diocese of Kildare includes the northern half of that county, the eastern portion of King's County, as far as Tullamore, and the two northern baronies of Queen's County, and it embraces the ancient territories of Offaly, Carbury, and Hy Faelain. Its direction lies east and west. The Diocese of Leighlin lies north and south, including one half of Queen's County, all County Carlow, and portions of Kilkenny, Wexford, and Wicklow Counties. It embraces ancient Leix, which connects it with Kildare and a portion of Ui Ceinnsealaigh. The united diocese is one of the largest dioceses in Ireland, comprising 1,029,829 acres; and the Catholic population according to the census of 1901, was 130,377, out of a total of 149,168.


When St. Patrick had preached the Gospel in the North and West of Ireland, he turned his steps to the South, and coming into Leinster from Meath by Druim Urchailli he passed through Straffan and Clane to Naas. Pitching his tent on its green, he there baptized its joint kins, Ailill and Illan, sons of Dunling, and Ailill's two daughters, Mogain and Fedelm. Their people seeing this soon embraced the Gospel also, and Patrick placed his nephew, Auxilius, as bishop at Kilashee, a few miles south of Naas, and Iserninus with Mac Tail as bishops at Old Kilcullen. From here he went towards Athy, founding churches at Narraghmore and other places, and, crossing the Barrow, continued his journey by Ballyadams and Stradbally to Morett. Here he built a church and then turning north re-crossed the Barrow south of Rathangan, and going by Lullymore, Allen, and Kilcock, he returned to Tara. These events occurred about the year 448. Later on St. Patrick made a second journey into Leinster, and coming to Rathvilly in County Carlow he baptized King Crimthan, his wife Mel, and his son and heir, Dathi. He translated Iserninus (Fith) from Kilcullen to Aghade. At Donaghmore in Ui Ceinnsealaigh he met his old friend Dubtach, the chief bard of Erin, who alone amongst King Laoghaire's hosts had stood up to salute him at Tara. He was accompanied by Fiacc, his gifted pupil and successor- apparent. Patrick, being in need of a suitable candidate for the episcopacy, consecrated Fiacc on Dubtach's recommendation, and placed him at Domnach Fiacc, midway between Clonmore and Aghold. Years afterwards he transferred him to Sletty, blessing his church there, and making his see quasi-metropolitan. This pre-eminence afterwards passed to Ferns, then to Kildare, and later on to Dublin. The fame of Fiacc's virtues and miracles followed him from Domnach Fiacc, bringing crowds of pilgrims to Sletty, and soon a large monastery grew up of which he was the first abbot. St. Fiacc practiced extraordinary austerities even in his old age, spending each Lent in the cave of Drum Coblai (the doon of Clopook), so that the fame of his sanctity still survives in the district. He died in 510. In the next century the See of Sletty was transferred to Leighlin, which means either "the half glen" or "the white plain."

St. Laserian (also called Molaise) was the first bishop and patron saint of Leighlin, b. 566; d. 18 April, 639. He was the son of Cairel de Blitha, a Ulidian noble, and Gemma, daughter of a Scottish king. Part of his youth was spent in Scotland. On his return home he refused the chieftainship of his clan, went into retirement, and ultimately set out for Rome, where he studied for fourteen years and was ordained by Gregory the Great. Returning to Leighlin he entered the great monastery which St. Gobban had established, and soon found himself its abbot, St. Gobban having retired in his favour and gone into Ossory. This establishment soon became famous, and contained as many as 1500 monks. St. Laserian took the leading part in settling the Easter controversy. In the Synod of Magh-lene he successfully defended the Roman computation, and was sent by the council as delegate to Rome. There, in 633, he was consecrated first Bishop of Leighlin by Honorius I. On his return from the centre of Catholic unity Laserian pleaded the cause of the Roman practice so powerfully at another synod in Leighlin that the controversy was practically ended for the greater part of the country. The list of his successors, sometimes called abbots and sometimes bishops, is practically complete. The cathedral of Leighlin was built about the middle of the twelfth century in the plainest Gothic, to replace the original church of wood. It was plundered several times both by the Danes and by the native chieftains, and the great religious establishments of Sletty and Killeshin shared the same fate. In the reign of Henry VIII it was seized by the Reformers, was made a Protestant church, and has continued as such ever since. The sufferings of the Catholics were so intense during the persecutions which raged over Ireland for more than two centuries, that towards the end but a remnant of the clergy remained. What the number of the clergy was in these dioceses before the Reformation, we cannot say for certain; but from the ecclesiastical ruins we have the means of forming a fair estimate. Over these dioceses, at the present day, there lie scattered the mouldering ruins of 240 churches and 63 religious houses, bearing mute but eloquent testimony to the persecutions borne by the Catholics, and to the numbers of the clergy who suffered banishment or death. Nor were these convents small or unimportant; there were many large monasteries of the different religious orders, including the four great Cistercian Abbeys of Abbeyleix, Baltinglass, Duiske, and Monasterevan. The abbey church of Duiske, Graignamanagh, is one of the few abbey churches at present in possession of their rightful owners, and actually devoted to the service of the old religion. There were eight round towers in these dioceses, two of which are still entire, Kildare and Timahoe. The earthen rampart of the Pale can he traced for a mile between Clane and Clongowes College.

Abbey and Shrine of St. Brigid

Before the time of St. Laserian of Leighlin, St. Conleth and St. Brigid were the patron saints of Kildare. The latter was a native of the district, though born at Faughart, near Dundalk. In 487 she received the religious habit from St. Macaille, Bishop of Croghan in Offaly, and coming to Kildare formed a community of the pious virgins who flocked around her. Her first house was a humble cell under a large oak, which gave Kildare its name - Cill-Dara, the cell of the oak. The fame of her sanctity attracted such a concourse of pilgrims to Kildare that a city soon sprang up which included a religious community of men. To meet the spiritual wants of the new city St. Brigid requested the appointment of a bishop. Great deference was paid to her wishes, and, as she had recommended St. Conleth, he was consecrated the first Bishop of Kildare about 490. He had been leading the life of a recluse at Old Connell near Newbridge, was a skillful artificer in gold and silver; and the ancient crosier in the museum of the Royal Academy is believed to be the work of his hands. It is said that as bishop he made a journey to Rome, and returned with vestments for his church at Kildare, in which latter place he died, 3 May, 519. A fire was kept burning day and night at Kildare by St. Brigid for the use of pilgrims and travellers, and for the same purpose, as well as in memory of the saint, it was continued till the total suppression of the religious houses at the Reformation. The firehouse was a cell or vault twenty feet square, and its ruins existed till 1792. The first church of Kildare was probably of wood, and, being designed for two communities of different sexes, the nave was divided by a partition or screen. For an account of the church and its relies see BRIGID, SAINT. Kildare with its church was plundered and burned frequently. Sometimes it suffered from the Danes, sometimes from the native chieftains, and sometimes by accident. Its records give about twenty-five catastrophes of the kind. At the Reformation the cathedral was seized by the Protestants, and a portion of it was used for a church. The rest of the building became a ruin, and so remained till 1875-96, when it was completely restored by private contributions, and is now the Protestant cathedral.

Bishops of Kildare

The bishops of Kildare were frequently called abbot-bishops and bishops of Leinster down to the Synod of Kells. The record of succession is practically complete down to the union of the two dioceses. For the episcopal lists see, besides Gams and Eubel, Brady, "Episcopal Succession in England, Scotland, and Ireland" (Rome, 1877). Dr. Leverous (1497-1577) was consecrated Bishop of Kildare in 1555, and early in Elizabeth's reign, when the bishops of Ireland were summoned before the Lord Deputy to take the oath of supremacy, the Bishop of Kildare pre-emptorily refused, and being asked the reason of his refusal replied: "All ecclesiastical authority is from Christ, Who has never conferred it on a woman, even His blessed mother. How then can it be sworn that in future ages God would confer it on a woman?" He added: "The Apostle has commanded that no woman should dare even to speak with authority in the church much less to preside and govern there." He was deprived of his temporalities, forced to fly for safety to Adare, Co. Limerick, where he conducted a school, and finally returning he died at Naas, aged 80.

The school of Kildare was among the most famous in Ireland (see KILDARE, SCHOOL OF). There were also great and ancient schools at Sletty, Killeshin, Tullow, Clonenagh, and elsewhere in the diocese. A synod was held at Geashill in 550 (most probably), a national synod at Clane in 1162, to establish codes of morality for both laity and clergy; a provincial synod at Tierhogar, Portarlington (28 Jul., 1640), to provide for the exigencies of the penal times, and a national synod at Tullow, in 1809, to condemn the teachings of the Abbe Blanchard.

Diocesan Writers

Among the writers of the diocese and the works attributed to them are the following: St. Fiacc of Sletty, a poem in Irish on the life of St. Patrick, a poem in Latin on St. Brigid, other compositions and prayers; St. Eimhin (Emin) of Monasterevan (about 600), the "Tripartite Life" of St. Patrick, the "Life of St. Congall," "Emin's Tribute (or Rule)," the "Lay of the Bell of St. Emin," etc.; St. Moling (see FERNS), a poem on Clonmore-Maedoc, one on the Borumha tribute of which he obtained the remission; St. Brogan of Clonsast, a litany in Irish on the B.V. Mary, indulgenced by Pius IX, a poem foretelling the Danish invasion, the lost "Book of Clonsast"; St. Aedh, Bishop of Sletty (698), a life of St. Patrick; Aengus the Culdee, 830, the "Feilire," the "Martyrology of Tallaght," "Litany of the Saints," "De sanctis Hiberniae lib. V," a history of the Old Testament in metre, the "Saltair-na-rann"; Siadhal (Sedulius), Abbot of Kildare, 827, notes on the Epistles of St. Paul; Anmchadh (Animosus), Bishop of Kildare, 980, the fourth life of St. Brigid; Finn Mac Gorman, Bishop of Kildare, 1160, the "Book of Leinster" - a most valuable historical work; Maguire, Bishop of Leighlin, 1490, the "Yellow Book (or Long Book) of Leighlin"; Gallagher, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, 1737-51, Irish sermons; Doyle (J.K.L.), Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin (q.v.); Rev. D.W. Cahill (q.v.); Comerford, coadjutor Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, history of the diocese in three vols., books of devotion; Rev. J. Farrell, sermons and lectures. Among the priceless works which have been lost to the diocese and Ireland are the following: the "Book of Clonsast," the "Book of Clonenagh"; the "Yellow Book of Leighlin"; the "Book of Kildare" - if it be not the existing "Book of Kells," as many suppose.

When the storm of persecution had spent its force, the revival of Catholicism was as marvellous here as over the rest of Ireland, and the following is a summary of what a century has seen accomplished in the diocese: Carlow ecclesiastical college, the first to be established in Ireland since the Reformation; 1 diocesan lay college; 2 colleges of religious; 21 convents with their schools; 9 Christian schools; 234 primary schools; 1 cathedral; 164 churches. There are 49 parishes in the diocese, with 133 secular and 18 regular clergy. The present occupant of the see is The Most Rev. Patrick Foley, D.D., b. at Mensal Lodge near Leighlinbridge, in 1858; ordained priest at Carlow in 1881; and, having spent the interval in Carlow College as professor and president, consecrated bishop in May, 1896. He is a Commissioner of National Education (1905) and a member of the governing body of the Dublin College of the National University of Ireland (1908).

COMERFORD, Collections relating to the diocese of Kildare and Leighlin (Dublin, 1883); O'HANLON, Lives of the Irish Saints (Dublin, 1875-); O'DONOVAN, Four Masters; IDEM, Ordnance Survey of Ireland; WARE-HARRIS, Writers and Antiquities of Ireland (Dublin, 1764); LEWIS, Topographical Dictionary (Dublin, 1839); SHEARMAN, Loca Patriciana (Dublin, 1874); WALSH, The Irish Hierarchy (Dublin, 1854); HEALY, Ireland's Ancient Schools and Scholars (Dublin, 1902), IDEM, Life and Writings of St. Patrick (Dublin, 1909); Irish Catholic Directory (1909).

E. O'Leary.

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