St. Mochua

Published in Local History Review, 2008

Revised in 2008 for the Heritage Week series of Heritage Stories, organised by Co. Kildare Federation of Local History Groups and narrated by Mae Leonard on KFM Radio.

The missionary work in Ireland of St. Patrick is well known but what is less well known is that Christianity did not extend to the entire country for at least two hundred years after the death of St. Patrick. The missionary work that St. Patrick began other native Irish missionaries took on after his death and slowly brought Christianity to the remainder of the country. One of these early seventh century native Irish Christian missionaries was St. Mochua.

Linedrawing of St Mochua by Billy McAndrew

Mochua, who was also known as Crónán, lived and worked in an area now covered by North Kildare and South Dublin. His father, Lugaidh, and his mother, Cainer belonged to the Ikeaty tribe of North Kildare. The family were of royal background descended from Cathair Mor, a famous King of Leinster in the second century. Mochua was the youngest of six brothers all of whom also became missionaries. It’s not known for definite when Mochua was born but it’s thought to have been about the year five hundred and seventy AD, approximately one hundred years after the death of St. Patrick.

Mochua’s missionary work extended along the eastern section of the Slí Mór, one of the five principal roads in the country at the time. The Slí Mór extended from Dublin Bay to Galway Bay and passed through the centre of North Kildare. At the beginning of Mochua’s missionary career there were only two Christian churches on the section of the road between Dublin Bay and the Bog of Allen. One at Taghadoe founded by St. Tua and the other at Donadea founded by St. Patrick. (There were other church buildings close to the Slí Mór, for example, Donacumper near Celbridge.)

Mochua’s principal missionary work took place in Clondalkin where he founded a Monastery and was appointed its first Abbot. It’s also known that he served as a Bishop at this time. In time this early Christian settlement developed into the modern day town of Clondalkin.

Mochua founded another church at Celbridge where the Slí Mór forded the River Liffey. It is likely there was pre-Christian religious activity in Celbridge centered around a spring on the west bank of the Liffey. It appears that this site flourished as a centre of Druid importance for almost 150 years after the death of St. Patrick until St. Mochua took over this site. He gave the spring a Christian meaning and it became known as a Holy Well. In later years it was named, ‘Thobor Mochua’, Mochua’s Well. The site of the early church that Mochua built in Celbridge was less than half a mile from the well and on the site of the ruins of the later St. Mochua’s Medieval Church in Tea Lane Graveyard. It’s interesting to note that the placename, Celbridge, comes from the words Kil-drought, which refers to the ‘church of the bridge’. The church in question is the early St. Mochua’s church. The Christian settlement that followed the building of the Church eventually developed into the present-day town of Celbridge.

Moving further south along the Slí Mór, between Taghadoe and Donadea, there was an area where there was no church at the time. Situated close to this section of the road in the townland of Raheen was an ancient Iron Age burial site where pre-Christian ritual activity took place. Mochua built a church at the nearest section of the road to this burial site. A Christian community emerged close to the new church and the area became known as ‘Bal-Raheen’, the community or settlement of Raheen. This was the beginning of the first Christian community in the Rathcoffey area. It’s not possible to put an accurate date on when Mochua built this church but it’s likely to be about six hundred and twenty AD. The site of this church is in a now disused graveyard close to Balraheen Crossroads where the fragments of a later stone medieval church wall survive.

The Slí Mór west of Donadea crossed the Bog of Allen through a series of fertile islands in the Bog. One of the biggest of these islands is named Timahoe, or ‘Tigh Mochua’, Mochua’s House. Reverend Michael Comerford, Co-agitator Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, writing in 1883 indicated that St. Mochua had a house in Timahoe and gave his name to the area. He also wrote that the early Christian church in Timahoe was dedicated to St. Kynog. To date it’s not known what connection St. Mochua had with St. Kynog. However, it’s obvious that St. Mochua lived in the area and it may well be that he regarded the area more in terms as his neighborhood than as a mission centre.

St. Mochua died at his monastery in Clondalkin on the sixth of August, six hundred and thirty AD and his relics were enshrined there for many centuries. In the period following the Norman era devotion to St. Mochua gradually declined. Details, however, survive of a pattern continuing at St. Mochua’s Holy Well in Celbridge in the late eighteenth century. Pilgrims travelled from as far away as Clondalkin on the fifth of August, the eve of St. Mochua’s feast day, for the pattern day on the sixth. It’s also likely that pilgrims also travelled from the Rathcoffey area and other surrounding areas.

The memory of St. Mochua was revived in Rathcoffey in 1930 when the then Parish Priest of Clane and Rathcoffey, Father Laurence Keogh, built a new school in the village and named it, St. Mochuo’s National School.1 In 1993 historians in Timahoe honoured the memory of St. Mochua by naming their new historical society in the area as, St. Mochua Historical Society.

Three years ago in 2005 a revival of St. Mochua’s Feast Day began in Clondalkin with an Ecumenical Service in St. John’s Church of Ireland on the site of St. Mochua’s monastery.

Two years ago in 2006 Celbridge Historical Society, with assistance from the local Community Council, repaired the damaged Tobar Mochua monument, which once stood close to the Holy Well in Celbridge, and reinstated it in a prominent position on the Mill wall. There are two parts to this monument. One part is an inscribed stone which reads, ‘ancient Tobar Mochua ornamented to St. Mochua 1783’. The second part is likely to have pre-dated the latter section. It consists of the carving of a head of a bearded man presumably representing St. Mochua. There is a slight indentation on his forehead, which many believe may have come from pilgrims touching it throughout the centuries.2

Last year in 2007 the ancient St. Mochua Feast Day commemoration was revived by Rathcoffey Historical Group with a well-attended Ecumenical Service in Rathcoffey Church at which Father Paul O’Boyle, Parish Priest of Clane and Rathcoffey, Reverend Kevin Ronne [Ron-nay], Rector of Clane, and Deacon John Hillis officiated. It was followed by an enjoyable social gathering in Rathcoffey GAA Centre.

On the sixth of August this year, 2008, the annual St. Mochua Ecumenical Feast Day commemoration was held at Coolcarrigan Church close to Timahoe at the invitation of Deacon John Hillis and the St. Mochua Historical Society, Timahoe. Mr Hillis was assisted in the service by Father Paul O’Boyle, Parish Priest of Clane and Rathcoffey, and Father Connor Harper S. J., Clongowes Wood College. The attendance at the event exceeded all expectations and was followed by a most pleasant social gathering at Kelly’s Lounge in Timahoe. It’s hoped that next year, August 2009, the service will be held in Celbridge, the fourth area of the county associated with St. Mochua.

Now in the new millennium the annual Feast Day of St. Mochua has been revived. St. Mochua is again being commemorated in these parts as the most important early Christian missionary of the late sixth-early seventh century since St. Patrick in all of the four areas that he has been associated with in the Northern half of County Kildare and South County Dublin.

Biographical note:
John O’Donovan, The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters.
Rev John O’Hanlon, Lives of the Irish Saints, Volume 8.
Joe Williams, St. Mochua and the Round Tower.
Hermann Geissel, The Road on the Long Ridge.

My thanks to Dermot Rattigan for assistance in editing this article.

  1. The School is named from the Latin version, ‘Mochuo’.
  2. Personal communation with Anne McNeill, Celbridge.