The tar on the wall and the bishop’s table

The investigation of graveyards and old churches sometimes leads to the recovery of hidden narratives, stories embedded not only in the architecture itself but also in the very legible nature of the surrounding historical evidence. Occasionally an exploration of the stories protected by the social memory of the local community leads one right back to the point of departure. Such a narrative was extracted from the roofless church of St Mochulla, built in 1702 on a hilltop overlooking the village of Tulla in east Clare. The church had served a mostly landed population until a new place of worship was constructed elsewhere in the village in 1816. The earlier structure was located on the site of a medieval parish church, surrounded by a graveyard within an early ecclesiastical enclosure, which most probably had an earlier foundation again. Since the disappearance in the 1960s of domestic goats from the Fair Green below the graveyard, ivy had flourished on the ruined church, endangering the integrity of the brick barrel vault high over the chancel and the several funerary memorials integral to the fabric.

The tar on the wall after ivy removal

Five substantial monuments within the walls commemorate the local gentry, among them the family of the antiquarian T. J. Westropp. The remains of the Molonys of Kiltannon rest in a large stone mausoleum outside the church, which, if Westropp is to be believed, lies directly on the site of its medieval antecedent. Unlike those families remembered within the church, the Molonys were of old Catholic stock; despite having turned to the established church for their spiritual needs, they realised an ambition—especially perhaps in death—to remain close to the old order. Kiltannon House, 3km to the north, would have been clearly visible from the vault, its demesne occupying the medieval tuath of Coiltenain, the ancestral lands of the O’Moloneys. Remarkably, the estate had been retained by the family owing to a clause in the Treaty of Limerick exempting from forfeiture the lands of officers serving within the city walls.

The burning of Kiltannon House on 15 September 1920 is generally accepted to have been carried out by republicans active in the hills to the north of the parish. A group of men, some armed with revolvers, rang the doorbell at 2a.m., claiming to be police. Their information was good: Colonel William Molony and his wife were in Dublin, leaving the house in the care of the butler, Philip McGrath. According to McGrath, the men locked the door and turned on all the taps before seizing the keys in the pantry. One key was helpfully labelled ‘Paraffin Store’; there was only petrol available, however, and this was poured over the oak staircase after the chair of the house had been stacked underneath. The raiders remained until the fire had taken hold. A photograph in the O’Callaghan Westropp Collection in Clare County Library shows the shell of the building, with most of the damage in the area of the staircase.

Kiltannon House

The compensation case brought by Molony was reported in the Clare Champion, and much was made of a card-table apparently given by Louis XIV to the colonel’s great-grand-uncle, Bishop John Molony. The table had been offered in restitution for a fit of pique displayed by the king over a game of cards at which the bishop was a guest. It had apparently perished in the fire, along with an extensive collection of shoes belonging to the colonel’s wife. The table was described as being of grey marble, inlaid with two hands of old French cards and a knave of diamonds torn in half as if they had just been thrown down. Beyond the knave was the ace of diamonds with several counters in red and white. On the top left-hand corner was a representation of a sheet of paper with an illegible or faded inscription beginning with a capital A followed by the word Man’s.

An interesting aside concerns a ring in the possession of Molony which entitled the owner to nominate a person for an education to the priesthood in the Jesuit College in Paris, founded by the bishop. Judge Bodkin KQ took a particular interest in the ring as he had a son in the order. One senses a moment of awkwardness in the proceedings that such largesse should be in the gift of a non-Catholic. The court awarded Molony £46,484 and his wife £1,910.16, with costs amounting to over £700, where £100,000 had been originally claimed.

Many reading the report in the Champion would have known that the house was being cleared of its contents for three days before its destruction and that the bishop’s table was now hidden a few miles away in the hills, where indeed it possibly remains. Some believe that the burning of the house and the misappropriation of its contents were organised by Molony’s steward, Charles Douglas, who had arrived on the scene later the following morning, as Kiltannon was still ablaze. Douglas related to the court how he had been able to save the family portraits from the fire and was to state further that he had found a note addressed to Capt. [sic] Molony on the lawn outside the house, claiming that the burning was a reprisal for his sheltering of soldiers and ’Tans. Significantly, the local RIC were not represented in court.

Nobody was prosecuted on account of the fire, although John Melody of nearby Clondorney was held in custody from July to December 1924 under the provisions of the Public Safety Act, ‘on strong suspicion of being concerned in outrages on the Moloney Estate’. Kiltannon was never rebuilt, although the servants’ quarters survived, and a modern house now occupies its footprint.

Recent removal of the ivy from the church exposed a memorial of a different sort that connects back to the period immediately after the Troubles. Patrick Houlihan hailed from the neighbouring parish of Feakle and was a prominent member of the local IRA during the War of Independence, operating in the hills along the Clare/Galway border, from where he had led an ambush at Ballyturin House in May 1921. Houlihan took the anti-Treaty side and in 1927 was returned for Fianna Fáil in both general elections. While not from the immediate locality, his defeat in the 1932 election, at the very time his party finally held the reigns of power, had an effect on his supporters in Tulla, a minority in a village considered a Cumann na nGael stronghold. Houlihan’s re-election in January ’33 certainly left a distinctive trace on the archaeological record of the church, for on the night of his victory his supporters placed two barrels of tar on the wall plates at the western end of the nave directly overlooking the village and set them alight. Here they burned for several days, sending the molten tar down the walls, where it remains to this day. This act of
reclaiming the church in a politically inspired action can also be seen as being highly symbolic when one considers the historical baggage associated with the structure, with its physical links to the Ascendancy and to the old authority.

There is no direct evidence connecting Houlihan with the burning of Kiltannon; it would appear likely that Douglas himself concocted the note pointing the finger at republicans, some of whom certainly assisted in the removal of the contents of the house prior to its destruction. The fire, however, is unlikely to have happened without Houlihan’s knowledge, as he was billeted in the area prior to an attack on Scariff barracks three days later. A recently published history of the IRA in Clare makes no reference to Kiltannon and there is little biographical information available on Houlihan, apart from local lore which attests to his running mate Eamonn de Valera’s displeasure at his use of strong language and his enduring association with physical-force republicanism. Perhaps of more significance, however, was Houlihan’s involvement in legal proceedings over the summer and autumn of 1933, when it was alleged that he had promised to marry a neighbour’s daughter, then a minor, after having first seduced her. He was deselected in 1937 and failed to take the seat as an
independent. He died in 1963, three years after William Molony.

The recovery of the tar on the wall and the hidden history of the burning of Kiltannon has prompted an examination of the received homogeneity of political and social factions in east Clare during both the War of Independence and the period immediately after. In Houlihan’s case, an election rally for his candidacy in 1937 united old IRA comrades who had taken an opposing stance during the Civil War. His county council seat went to John Melody, who held it until 1950. Molony, for his part, was never to see his table again, and his estate was eventually subdivided by the Land Commission. He was awarded £27,500 in August 1922 by the Property Compensation Commission (with 350 guineas costs), and his wife was awarded £500. If, as has been suggested, Molony had conspired with persons unknown to have Kiltannon destroyed, then his was a poor return.

Molony’s situation can be compared to that of his contemporary and neighbour George O’Callaghan Westropp, whose family memorial was also exposed with the removal of the ivy from the church walls. Despite his Unionist politics, he played a major role in the organisation and political representation of the farming community of Clare, and Maryfort, his house, had survived the conflict. When considered alongside the destruction of Kiltannon, the irony of the circumstances of Maryfort’s demolition at the hands of his eccentric son still rings true.

The tar on the cornice

The monument linking Molony and Houlihan has been conserved by the parish as a ruin. The replacement of missing quoins and cornice fragments with newly cut local limestone has had its critics, but the stone will weather in a number of years, becoming less incongruous, retaining nonetheless a sharpness to differentiate it as repair. The removal of the ivy has also altered the church visually; nevertheless, the works undertaken on the chancel vault and window opes have at least made the structure safe and accessible again to the community and its visitors. The preservation of the tar as a cultural artefact has, however, become entwined with this ongoing dialogue regarding the church’s eventual presentation. For the time being, lack of funding has delayed a decision over whether or not the walls should be rendered and the tar obscured, and it remains today on the church as physical testament to a half-remembered past. While the church and its monuments have been reclaimed and conserved, the bishop’s table remains the great lost relic of the parish. If its location is preserved in the social memory of the rural community in the hills above Tulla, there seems little indication that it will ever be divulged to a wider public below.

A mason's mark of an angel, recovered from under the ivy

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3 responses to “The tar on the wall and the bishop’s table

  1. William Joseph Moloney

    It is generally known that my Irish fore fathers were of the Kiltannon sept.My great grand father Michael married a Catherine Glennon a family member which were employed by the Moloneys’ Michael married Catherine and they came to N.S.W. in 1839 and Victoria in 1842.This site is of particular interest to me and very helpfull to a man trying to put to-gether the story of the Kiltannon Moloneys’. I have just reached the age of 81 years and the last of 6 children. Thank you for all this wonderfull information. Regards Will Moloney Mornington Victoria Australia.

    • Will,
      I am really glad you called & am looking forward to communicating with you & your daughter.
      My husband is Trevor Mooney, whose father was Gerald Mooney son of James & Emily (Kelly) Mooney. I don’t know if you ever met Gerald, he didn’t say much about his family.
      Talk to you soon
      Sue

    • Hi Will,
      Are you still following the Kitannon Molony’s story?
      Gerry

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