Situated on a rise in the flood-plain of the River Nanny at a point where it changes from a S-N course to a W-E course, and the river is c. 350m to the SE. St. Patrick is thought to have established the earliest stone church in Ireland here at what came to be known as Daimhliag Chianáin – Cianán’s stone church – from which the name ‘Duleek’ is derived. Patrick placed Cianán over it as its first abbot and bishop, but this is likely to be a late legend (Bradley 1980-1, 48-9). Cianán is said to have received Patrick’s own copy of the gospels, which were retained as a relic until a late period (Cogan 1862-70, 1, 23). Cianán was descended from the local sept of the Cianachta of Brega, and is not associated with any other churches. The recurrence of copper vessels in tales associated with him suggest a pagan origin for Cianán. According to the annals he died in AD 489, which would make him a close contemporary of St. Patrick. (Cuffe 1965, 187-92; Ó Riain 2011, 166-7)
The deaths of abbots are recorded fairly consistently from AD 749 (Cuffe 1965, 192--4) and the first Viking raid occurred in 830. However, the next raid did not occur until 878, after which there appears to have been no other attack recorded until after the battle of Clontarf in 1014. After the battle the bodies of Brian Boroimhe and his son, Morrogh, were brought to Duleek on their way to Armagh for burial. Thereafter, eight raids or burnings are recorded up to 1170, some led by Irish groups. In 1123 the Gaileanga burnt eighty houses at Duleek and the High King, Murchad Ó Maelseachlainn, was lucky to escape with his life. In 1147 the cloigteach or round tower was struck by lightning, and two years later Dermot MacMurchada, king of Leinster, and his Dublin allies plundered the abbey. (Cogan 1862-70, 36-7; Gwynn and Hadcock 1970, 75)
Duleek was chosen as the centre of a bishopric at the Synod of Rathbreasail in AD 1111, but was de-selected in favour of Clonard the following year. Duleek continued to be regarded as part of the Armagh province until c. 1174 when it was merged with other centres into the diocese of Meath, based on Clonard. Thereafter, St. Cianán’s church became parochial, and it seems to have been administered by the Augustinian priory of St. Michael’s (Brooks 1953a, 145). Only a few decorated stones remain of the earlier building, and one of these, a face-corbel (dims 0.42m x 0.23m; H 0.18m), the hair of which morphed into interlace bands indicates that the church was rebuilt in a Romanesque style in the 12th century. This corbel, the only surviving evidence of this construction phase was brutally damaged by vandals in June 2014 and the stone has been removed for safe-keeping. A parish church (ME027-038013-) developed on the site of St. Cianán’s church, and the cartulary of Llanthony Secunda, dated 1381, makes it clear that the saint’s grave, i.e. the remnant of his church, was incorporated into the N part of the chancel (Brooks 1953, 295).
That there was an early church at Duleek is amply demonstrated by the presence of two high crosses, the round tower, and early cross-slab within an ecclesiastical enclosure (dims c. 325m N-S; 38m E-W) that has become fossilised in the street system, being bounded by Larrix St. N-E, Main St. E-S-SW, and a curving lane connecting Main St. and Larrix St. SW-N (Swan 1983, 269). The early features are within a subrectangular graveyard (dims c. 100m ENE-WSW; c. 30-50m NNW-SSE) defined by masonry walls, whose headstone inscriptions have been recorded (O Boyle 2001). A cross-slab that was described as rectangular (max. dims 1.35m x 0.39m; T 0.2m) with a double-ringed incised cross (Bradley and King 1985, 45), whose arms do not extend beyond the ring, has been removed for safe-keeping (O Boyle 2001, 129). The round tower survived into the high middle ages and is visible now as a concave hollow (C 3.5m; H 14.3m) that tapers as it rises on the N side of the tower at the W end of the parish church. At the top a pointed doorway leads to the second floor of the church tower (Leask 1960, 3, 25; Barrow 1979, 169-70).
The North cross is N of St. Kienan’s Church of Ireland church, now converted to a restaurant, and the top of its base (dims 0.5m x 0.45m) is visible. The sandstone ringed cross (dims at base 0.37m x 0.21m; H 1.82m; Wth 0.97m) has edge moulding and a tenon on top for a missing cap. The E face is devoted entirely to panels of interlace with seven bosses at the crux. The W face has the family of Mary, an angel bringing bread to the Virgin, and the parents of Mary on the shaft. The W side of the head has a Crucifixion with two soldiers, and St. Anthony and St. Paul decorate the extremities at S and N respectively. The top has SS Paul and Anthony defeating a devil. The N and S faces are all devoted to interlace, apart from the ends of the arms that have fabulous beasts. (Harbison 1992, 1, 76-8)
The South cross is now in the S aisle of the parish church. The sandstone head of a ringed cross is set in an undecorated pyramidal base (dims at base 1.05m x 0.85m; H 0.63m), with which it might not have been originally associated. The cross-head (H 0.9m; Wth 1.05m T 0.2m) has a roll moulding on the outer edge of the ring that connects with bosses at the extremities on the E face. The W face has a Crucifixion with two soldiers at the centre where Christ’s head is supported by two angels and the extremities of the cross have decorated bosses that are connected by the moulding on the outer edge of the ring. (Harbison 1992, 78-9)
The above description is derived from the published 'Archaeological Inventory of County Meath' (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1987). In certain instances the entries have been revised and updated in the light of recent research.
See the attached aerial image
Compiled by: Michael Moore
Date of revision: 14 August, 2014
Amended: 18 August, 2014Description Source: National Monuments Service, Department of Arts, Heritage Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.