St Doulagh was an anchorite (or hermit) who lived in ancient times. No account of his life remains. Bishop Reeves assigns the year 600 as about the time when he lived. In the Calendar of Christ Church he is called ‘Episcopus et Confessor’ (a bishop and confessor). His festival, or patronal day, is celebrated on November 17th.
Anchorites were very numerous in Egypt, Syria and throughout the East and also in Ireland. They were not to be found in England and they were one of the features of the old Church in Ireland that distinguished it from the other Churches of Western Europe and connected it with oriental Christianity. Anchorites were unknown elsewhere in the rest of Western Europe and the early Christian Church in Ireland celebrated Easter at the same time as the Eastern Church, rather that at the time recognised by the Western Church.
Anchorites lived rather like hermits with minimal contact with the outside world. Even as late as the 17th century it is said that one lived in Kilkenny. Wherever the name “Desert” appears in an Irish place name it signifies a solitary place where an anchorite lived.
At the entrance up to the church stand a cross which is carved in granite which is exotic to the area as the local stone is limestone. The use of granite may suggest a pre-1300 date for the stone. The cross is shaped in the Latin style but the upper part has a suggestion of Patee or Maltese design. The lower limb is also splayed towards the base.
The modern church was built in 1864, the Rev W.S. Kennedy, M.A., being the Rector of the parish. The funds were provided by public subscription following the formation of an influential committee chaired by Lord Talbot de Malahide. The church was consecrated by Archbishop Trench on the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul in 1865.
The medieval part of the church is said to date from the middle-third of the 12th century.
The anchorite’s cell is directly under the Prior’s Chamber and they are connected by a spiral staircase. A few steps up from the Prior’s Chamber and you are in the living quarters of the monks who lived in the community and it is thought to have been divided up into a Refectory area and a Dormitory area.
Outside you find another significant feature – St Doulagh’s Well and St Catherine’ Pond.
The well is unique in that it is the only extant detached baptistry in the country. The interior walls were decorated in 1609 with fescoes at the expense of a Peter Fagan, brother of John Fagan of Feltrim. The frescoes represented the descent of the Holy Ghost on the apostles. They also depicted St. Patrick, St Bridget, St Columncille and St Doulagh dressed as an anchorite. No trace remains – they were defaced by Sir Richard Bulkeley of Dunlavin on his return from the Battle of the Boyne.
St Doulagh’s Church in the Diocese of Dublin
A Guide to St Doulagh’s Church