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Ard Sratha (Ardstraw)

The ‘fifth’, or province, of the Ulaidh or Ulster people (Cúige Uladh) in ancient times, we are told, included everything north of a line between the rivers Boyne (Dundalk) and Drowes (Bundoran). About the time of St Patrick this kingdom came under attack, was defeated and reduced eventually to the area east of the Bann. The centre of Ulster was taken over by peoples known collectively as the Airghialla claiming a common ancestry and gathered into a sort of loose federation of tuatha or states. Uí Tuirtre were based in south Derry, a branch of which, descended from Fiachra, crossed the mountains into what we now call Tyrone and established a kingdom for themselves in the good land at the foot of Sliabh Troim (Bessy Bell) where the valley of the Derg meets that of the Strule. Perhaps they used as their centre the crannog in storied Loch Laoire (Catherine) (now Baronscourt), said to get its name from Laoire Buach, the great warrior mentioned in the Ulster Cycle of Mythological Tales, or the nearby lios and rath. The kingdom of Uí Fiachrach viz Ard Sratha may have included the modern parishes of Cappagh (Omagh) and Langfield (Drumquin) as well as the lower Derg and perhaps down river towards what is now Strabane, but almost certainly not Badoney, at least initially.

Ard Sratha owed its importance to good land and to the fact that it is at an important cross-roads, the Derg giving access to Fermanagh and south Donegal (to Lough Erne and the sea) and the other river valleys opening into central Ulster or towards Lough Foyle.

The bridge at Ardstraw was a frequent meeting place for those clans (Ó Gormlaigh v Ó Cairealláin; Ó Néill v Ó Dónaill) who wished to negotiate and make peace, with terms accepted and sworn to on the relics in the church.

Early Church Structure

The Church in Ireland began with bishops and priests, but became markedly monastic in character. It is worth remembering that when we use the term “monastic” in the context of the early Church we cannot make a direct exact comparison to our “monastic” life of today. Many of those “Monks” would have had a relative loose association with the Monastic way of life, may not have taken “religious vows” nor have been ordained, and did not necessarily live within the building of the “Monastry”. This process no doubt had many causes: shortage of secular priests, difficulty in establishing a system of maintenance for a new body of clergy in a society without coinage and where one’s position in society depended on ‘honour-price’, the fact that the ‘learned’ occupations were passed on within kin-groups, and the remarkable attraction shown by so many of the Irish towards monastic community life.. The Annals of Ulster preserve the names of some of Eoghan’s successors; Bishop Maol Forthartaig (d.680) Bishop Coibdenach (d. 707) Abbot Maengal (d. 852) and Aengus Mac Mael Curarda (d. 881) Guaire Ua Foraannain (d.981).

Ardstraw became part of the paruchia Columbae. (lit Sphere of influence – ruled by an Abbot -of Columba). In this context we must be aware that in early Christian Ireland church organisation was dominated and based on a network of great monasteries and their abbots, where as bishops had a purely spiritual sacramental role, confirming, ordaining priests, consecrating churches, providing spiritual direction. It is recorded that Mael Patraic who died in 932 was superior both of Drumcliff (Sligo) and of Ardstraw. The importance and wealth of Ardstraw (as Monastic centre) is attested to be the number of references to its stone church Damhlaic being raided or plundered! (1069, 1095 and 1099. It was sacked in 1101 by the king of Munster as he rampaged through the north.

The reform of organisation of the church, and in particular the drawing of Diocesan boundaries began in 1111 at the synod of Rath Breasail. The northern half of the country, to comprise the ecclesiastical province of Armagh, was to have sees at Armagh, Clogher, Ardstraw, Connor, Down and either Derry or Raphoe. It seems that the coming to end of the actual kingdom of Ui Fiachrach at the end of the 12th century also brought about the decline of Ardstraw as a place of ecclesiastical power, though it was still a place of wealth and stature. Bishop Muireadhach O Cofaigh moved his seat to Rath Lurg (Maghera) about 1155.

Financing Reform

Although the Twelfth Century Reform of the Church had to do with the establishment of dioceses and the raising of standards amongst the people (liturgical reform; who could appoint to Church benefices; keeping Sunday holy; marrying according to the norms of canon law; etc.), it raised a further problem. How was this new diocese, and the parishes which followed as a consequence from it, to be financed? In Ireland occupations were passed on in the clann (which was more like a limited company than what we mean by ‘family’. Not everybody in the clann would have had the same patronymic or descent). A bold decision was made to confide the financial management of the parish to the laity and to appoint in each parish an aircheannach, or erenagh as it is anglified. He was the head of the clann who farmed townlands - land was the form of only wealth then - which were set aside in each parish for the maintenance of the church and sustenance of the clergy - often the best land. The bishop had the right to appoint him if the succession broke down. He had to pay taxes to the bishop and receive him on visitation, provide hospitality for travellers, and in those days before seminaries when a priest was formed by apprenticeship to another priest, he must have had a role in the education of the clergy.

It is a measure of the importance of Ardstraw that four bailte biataigh and eight bailte bó were set aside for the Church i.e. 24 bailte bó (baile bó - ‘cow land’ - is the origin of ‘townland’), each of them supposed four centuries later to contain sixty Plantation acres. By 1610 the erenagh paid twenty shillings, the pastor and his vicar two shillings apiece, annually to the bishop. The erenagh of Ardstraw was Ó Farannáin, a branch of Cineál Eoghain. The earliest of the name are Maolbhríde (servant of St Bríd) Ó Farannáin who died in 1127 and Giolla Domhnaigh (servant of the Lord) who died in 1179. Donchadh was a canon of the Derry chapter in 1530 and the last certainly of the name to occur is Tarlach, vicar of Ardstraw in Bishop Montgomery’s Survey at the Plantation of Ulster. He was a contemporary of, and perhaps a relative, of ‘Denis O Farran’, pastor of Donaghedy and erenagh at Ardstraw. Since the name Farnan has disappeared in West Tyrone it is probable that the surname changed its form and has come down to us under another form derived from a byname. One possibility is MacCon Mí (McNamee), (See table of present day names in the Parish Baptisms) still common in the area, who occur amongst the clergy in late medieval West Tyrone although they are better known as filí, a poetic family - poets to Ó Néill, Ó Dónaill, Ó Gormlaigh, etc. It was not uncommon for poetic families to become involved in church matters.

Medieval Snapshot with Primate

We find the erenagh of the time fulfilling his function when Anglo-Norman Archbishop John Colton of Armagh conducted a visitation of the vacant diocese of Derry in 1397. He entered the diocese from Termonmaguirke, (Carmen - Carrickmore) and finding that the parish of Cappagh at Dunmullan did not have adequate accommodation for his entourage he moved on to Ardsraha to spend the night, having ordered the vicar and erenagh of Cappagh to send such supplies to Ardstraw as they would for their own bishop. They had an ox killed and had him followed him with the carcass. When he arrived at Ardstraw he sent for priest and erenagh and ordered them to provide security for his retinue and their belongings. Having attended to this they provided bread, butter, milk and meats and heat - it was October - for humans (fourteen of whom are named) and straw and fodder for their horses. The establishment at Ardstraw must have been substantial. The next day, at the request of the priest, Lochlann Ó Baoill (Laurencius Obogyll), the primate reconciled the cemetery, which had been polluted by the shedding of blood. He entered the church, said the litanies, blessed salt, ashes, water and wine and sprinkled the cemetery as laid down in the Pontifical. The erenagh provided ‘ad numerum vii caballorum vel circiter’ (about seven horses) free of charge to draw the primate’s carriage and to carry his food and gear on the journey to Urney, his next port of call.

It is worth noting that the Archbishop travelled by “carriage” which suggests that this area of Tyrone had roads and bridges at this stage. The present English word road derives from the Gaelic ród with possibly Norse word for “sea lane” having an input.