Cloneen Church and Graveyard
A large early medieval nave (int, dims. 13.5m E-W x 6.8m N-S ) and chancel (int. dims, 10.7m E-W ; 5m N-S ) church situated in the northern side of a large rectangular graveyard containing 18th and 19th century headstones. The church itself is in a ruinous condition of which the east gable and chancel arch survives intact.
There were two doorways into the west end of the nave of the church located directly opposite each other in the north and south wall of the nave. In the northeast corner of the chancel there is a recumbent seventeenth century grave-slab dedicated to Richard Bermingham who died on the 25th of June 1672. This slab was first recorded by Mr James Brennan, classical teacher of Gurteen in 1854.
The church itself appears to be an early medieval parish church possibly built by the Anglo-Normans when the parish was established at Cloneen in the thirteenth century.
The Berminghams may be the original Anglo-Norman lords who could have been responsible for the construction of the medieval parish church.
ln the Civil Survey of 1654 Richard Brymiidgham (Bermingham) is listed as proprietor of the lands of Ballyhomuck which consisted of 109 acres, of which 89 were arable, 24 acres of pasture and 5 acres of woodland, all of which was valued at 10 pounds per year (Simington Vol, 1, 167). This is probably the same Richard who died in 1672 and whose memorial is now located in the northeast corner of the chancel. In the Civil Survey he is listed as an Irish papist in 1649. Upon these lands in 1640 there were two small cottages and a little grove of wood which yields some small timber (Ibid. 167).
ln the Ecclesiastical taxation of the Diocese of Cashel in l 302 AD the church at Cloneen or Clonynger was valued at 49 shillings (CDI Vol. 111, 284 ). The church in l640 was a vicarage belonging to the Bishoprics of Cashel. The glebeland of Cloneen church consisted of 2 acres of arable land which was worth 5 shillings a year and was situated in the lands of Milltowne. The church and the glebe were the property-y of the church. There appears to have been a small settlement clustered around the church which in the Civil Survey is referred to as a towne (Simington Vol. 2, 381)
During a tidy up of the graveyard a medieval floriated grave-slab was discovered lying inside the church at the base the south wall of the nave. From its position on the ground and from traces of mortar on the surface of the slab it appears that the grave-slab was re- used as a building stone in the fabric of the south wall of the nave. The slab itself consists of a coffin-shaped sandstone slab which survives in two portions, unfortunately there was a third middle portion which is now missing. The upper portion represents the top of the slab and measures 0.60m in length, 0.4 6m in width at its broken top, 0.40m in width at its broken base and 0.11m in average thickness. This portion tapers inwards from top to base. The lower portion represents the base of the slab and measures 0.15m in length, 0.23m in width at its broken top world and 0.17m at its base. The middle portion of the slab which connected the two pieces is now missing. Originally the slab would have measured approximately 1.25- 1.35m in overall length’, 0.50m top width; o.17m base width; average thickness 0.11m. The top portion of the slab is incomplete and the top of the scripted cross is missing. The slab is decorated with an incised six-armed floliated cross with a central knop halfway up the incised shall of the cross . Originally 4 of the diagonal arms of the cross head denominated in a fleur-de-lis symbol of which only the lower sinister (1eft) and dexter (right) quadrants survive. Interestingly the two horizontal arms of the cross have rectangular terminals which is an unusual feature for floriated grave-slabs. Another interesting and unusual feature is the presence of a roll moulding which runs around the edge of the sandstone slab framing the floriated cross. The final interesting and unusual feature is the lack of symmetry in the size the Fleur-de-lis terminals, the terminal on the sinister (1e1t) side of the cross is much larger than the terminal on the dexter (right) side.
The coffin-shaped slab with the roll moulding framing the edge of the slab was either a coffin lid for a sarcophagus or as a cover for a slab-lined grave. The presence of the roll moulding may suggest that it was used as coffin lid for a sarcophagus. It is more usual to find a chamfer running around the edge of the medieval grave-slab. The slab is very unusual in several aspects of its design and form and does not sit comfortably into any one of the groups assigned by Denise Maher in her Study of the Medieval Grave Slabs of County Tipperary, 1200-1600 A.D.
In this study she came up with seven classes of medieval grave-slabs. The Cloneen slab can be compared favorably with her group 4 or Seven Armed Cross Slab group. However it also shares some features with her Group 1, Group 2 and Group 3 slabs, It has elements from several types of medieval grave-slabs and it appears to be a transitional style grave-slab incorporating elements from several types. The shape and style of the Fleur-de-lis, the use of the roll moulding and its tapered form along with the use of sandstone suggest a thirteenth century date for this grave-slab. The rectangular terminals of the horizontal arms of the cross can be compared with the 11th and 12th century cross slabs at several early monasteries in Ireland.
Could the Cloneen Slab be an example of a grave-slab using native Irish symbolism and mixing it in with the new Norman influenced symbolism?
Maher’s transitional slabs or Group 1 slabs were found in a tight geographical region around Kiltinan church, Baptist Grange and Coolomundry graveyards. All of these churches are located on the adjoining Six inch sheet and could lie part of a regional group although the symbolism on the Cloneen slab sets it apart from the aforementioned group.
The Cloneen grave slab may have been the grave cover of an Anglo-Norman lord or patron of the parish church and one is tempted to speculate that it may have been one of the grave covers of the first Berminghams who came to Cloneen possibly in the late 12th early 13th centuries. The other possibility is that it belongs to the grave of one of the wealthy Irish aristocratic families who are mixing the old symbols with the new symbols of thirteenth century Ireland. The fleur-de-lis as a symbol, was the emblem of the kings of France. According to legend Clovis, King of the Franks, first chose it as the emblem of his purification by baptism when he embraced Christianity (the lily symbolizing purity) , However it was first used by Louis V11 (1137- 1180) on a royal seal and later became a popular symbol for the graves of aristocratic families in France, England and Ireland.
In 2005 a historical plaque was installed in the Old Church to commemorate its discovery. The plaque in now held in South Tipperary County Museum in Clonmel.