St. Catherine and Killybegs

That this patron saint of seafarers has found devotees in Ireland’s biggest fishing port is no surprise

St, Catherine's Well, Killybegs

St, Catherine’s Well, Killybegs

But that St Catherine hailed from Egypt, is both unusual and topical, with that country currently so heavily troubled.

She lived in Alexandria in early 300 AD.  How she came to be venerated in Killybegs is not exactly clear – but scholars think that this Coptic connection was brought to the western sea front by Egyptian monks via Spain.

P1120825Hidden in woodland close to St. Catherine’s Well – and in dire need of rescue – is her church.

St. Catherine's Church

St. Catherine’s Church

Built in the 1400’s – possibly by Mac Swiney Bannaght – for the Franciscan Third Order, who enjoyed expansion in the north-west of Ireland at that time

P1120759                                      But within living memory –  a roofless shell

P1120773                                  With trees that took root & tear the fabric of the church apart


Rónan Crehan & Kieran Keeney

 At such times you need a couple of heroes

P1120737                                       With a couple of good stones in their mixer

P1120804               To pound the Lime that shall rebuild this important graveyard wall

P1120709 Indeed it is the heroic work of the Donegal Historical Society who raised funds to begin the  daunting task of saving St. Catherine’s Church


The nave and chancel

To which many additions and alterations were carried out through the ages

P1120798This gothic door has helped date the site as being of fifteenth century character. Only the top of the door is now visible, due to ground leve raised by four hundred years of burials

Heritage Officer Hugh Boyle, at the entrance to the transcept

Heritage Officer Hugh Boyle, at the entrance to the C16th transept

Characteristic of the C16th, these heavy punch-marks identify the arch and transept as being of that time, as opposed to when earlier punch-marks were lighter, and later C17th punch-marks are heavier yet in styleP1120809The C16th was a time of inter-clan skirmishes typical of Gaelic Ireland and was followed by constant battle between the Chieftain Clans and Elizabeth of England

P1120777Hugh Boyle with his class of students have already carefully documented the contents of the graveyard and he shows me the earliest surviving gravestone on the site


The head stone of John Linsey

While the jury is out on how exactly these organic whirl patterns are weathered onto ancient lime render?

P1120764Still beneath blameless angels our ancestors do sleep



Greenlaw crest with deer – carved by Patrick Quinn in the mines of Drumkeelan


Patrick Finison’s tomb – the Provost of the Corporation of Killybegs – 1702

P1130142   In the scheme of ‘things’ –  this corner of the earth has only very lately been at peace

P1130100P1130098 Thoughts are with those who are currently caught in struggle, the likes of which this corner has witnessed repetitively, hard though it is to imagine from within the quiet embrace of St. Catherine’s graveyard wall.


18 thoughts on “St. Catherine and Killybegs

  1. I am a big fan from southern Texas,USA with a small project using lime plaster on an old stone cottage in northern Mexico.My progress was halted by drug wars but your lovely blog keeps my interest engaged.Muchos Gracias! Krysti Buckley

  2. Rocks and lime mortar can be hard work but there`s nothing tougher than fighting trees and their roots. Well Holly trees in my garden anyway . Lovely site this .

  3. By the way I have bought a large house with lime plaster walls inside and –nobody told me they go hollow. I have to drill holes and glue the bricks and plaster together .

    1. Trees do fierce damage to old buildings, but ivy is the worst culprit, and needs to be carefully removed, never pulled away causing further rupture. Sounds like the mortar in your house walls may have subsided in places? There is a special syringe-like tool for injecting mortar into wall holes.

    1. After a failed attempt to conquer the enchanted land near Raithlin O Byrne, on the floor of young Mc Sweeny’s boat was a ram’s horn. It hung in St. Catherine’s church –

      ‘where it remained till a period not very remote, and was constantly referred to as furnishing ocular evidence of the reality of Hy-breasail; the enchanted land.’

      (From McGinley’s ‘The Cliff Scenery of Southwest Donegal’ 1867)

      I searched for the horn. Now that really would’ve completed the story.

  4. My ancestors in the early days of Killybegs were Alexander Greenlaw and Patrick Finison whose stones are shown in your wonderful post. Those two families married into the Hamiltons, and Margaret Hamilton married William Devitt Their son, also William, my great grandfather, emigrated to Philadelphia in 1871 with his new wife. This the first time I have seen reference to the Greenlaw stone being carved by Patrick Quinn from Drumkeelan, and wondering where you sourced this information, as any information from these early years is very scarce.

    1. Hello and thanks for your query re the source of information for this article. Detailed historical and archaelogical research of the site has been carried out over a seven year period by a group of participants of the FÁS Community Response Team set up in 2001, funded by The Heritage Council and Donegal County Council. The results have been published in a delightful small book called ‘St Catherine’s Church and Graveyard and the Medievil Town of Killybegs’ published in 2008.
      This contains a precise record of the graveyard including the exact locations of the stones with scale drawings and inscriptions, as well as mason’s marks.
      Patrick Quinn, a stonemason at the mines of Drumkeelan, carved the Greenlaw memorial in 1902, which is typical of his style. He had a passion for botany, wildflowers and foliage, a theme which he would incorporate in most of his work. Local historian and keeper of the mines at Drumkeelan, Eamonn Monagahan, is quoted as being the source for information on Patrick Quinn.
      Exact inscriptions on the Greenlaw (first one undated) stones are as follows.
      ”This tomb was erected
      by Robert G
      Reenlaw for his fat
      her Alexander who de
      parted this life Feb 26th
      Aged 46”

      ”In memory of
      A.R Greenlaw
      The only beloved son of
      Aaron and Susanna
      Greenlaw who Fell Asleep
      in Jesus in the
      22nd year of his age
      December 18th 1902

      p.s The tomb for Patrick Finison (depicted in the post with carved ship) is from 1703 and probably represents the Corporation of Killybegs, as he was Provost.

    1. Great to see family from all over the world take an interest in their ancestory – the Greenlaws were a prominent family in the area and their family crest shows a stag’s head – other fine examples include the Nesbitt and Hamilton tombs.

  5. I recently found my GGGG Grandfather buried here. James Carr born 1777 died April 18, 1847. My mother and father had been searching for his grave for probably 20+ years. I have yet to see a photo of his headstone though. I believe that soon after his death, his wife, 3 sons, and daughter immigrated to the United States. We are looking forward to learning more about Killybegs and St. Catherine’s Church restorations. Someday I hope to visit! Amazing work! Also, do you know where I would find information about his children’s births in Killybegs? Thanks for any information you could possible give me to point me in the right direction.

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