In common with the rest of the church, the story of the history of the Diocese of Clogher is a story of a faith community, a community of communities that is united with Jesus Christ and with all other believers through faith and baptism. Like every other diocese in the Roman Catholic Church, its head is a bishop who is appointed by and in communion with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. Therefore, historically and theologically, the successor of St Peter and the successor of St Macartan and all the members of their communities are united. This is manifested in a number of ways, but especially when the Eucharist is celebrated.

Following the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, his followers formed communities in which they fulfilled his commands to ‘do this in memory of me’ (cf. I Cor. 11:24-25) and to ‘love one another just as I have loved you’ (John 13:34). The early use of the word ‘church’ or ‘ekklesia’ to describe these communities or assemblies emerged during the first century and is referred to in Acts 19:32,39,41. The writings of St Paul give evidence following the time of Christ, that, church communities sprang up quite quickly in Palestine across Asia Minor and as far as Rome (see, Romans 16:1, I Cor. 4:17, I Thess. 1:1). Each of these was regarded as a church in its own right, but they were also united to each other in Christ, through faith, baptism and in the forms or rites of worship they used. This continues to underpin the church’s understanding of itself as a communion.  

Origins and Development:

From the seventh century, as the church grew, its communities were formed into territories called dioceses (taken from a Roman term dioecesis, meaning a territorial administrative region). From the eleventh century, subdivisions of the diocese became known as parishes. In the case of Ireland, the dioceses developed a little later. It wasn’t until the early part of the twelfth century that the church here was organised according to the diocesan structure, it having been based around monastic settlements prior to this. As a result, the name of our diocese is derived from that of an older place of monastic and political significance where St Patrick placed his ‘trean-fhear’, or strong man, St Macartan in charge – Clogher.

The modern diocese of Clogher can trace its origins to the Synod of Rathbreasail in 1111 and to the later Synod of Kells-Mellifont in 1152 at which the boundaries of all the Irish dioceses were determined. The determining factor was principally the political boundaries of the day. As a result, the initial boundaries of Clogher were shaped by the political fortunes of the O’Carroll family of Airghialla, a political dynasty whose origins sprang from central Ulster and included the Clogher valley. By 1100 this family had settled in south Monaghan and shortly thereafter had incorporated not only all of Monaghan but most of Louth into the Diocese of Clogher. So much so that from 1132 until 1192 the Bishop of Clogher transferred his see and cathedral to the Abbey of Louth. Following the consolidation of Norman power, however, the see returned to Clogher and the diocese consolidated its westward expansion under another Airghialla sept, the Fir Manach.

By the early fourteenth century, the development of parishes was well underway. The following is a complete list of the parishes at that time, using modern spellings:

The Bishop’s Mensa –

Clogher (including most of the territory of the modern-day Tyrone parishes of the diocese), Donagh (including modern-day Monaghan & Rackwallace and Errigal Truagh)

Deanery of Lough Erne –

Termon Davog, Cúlmaine, Inis Muighe Saimh, Devenish, Botha, Lisgoole, Inniskeen (modern-day Enniskillen), Cleenish, Derryvullen, Derrybrusk, Aghavea, Aghalurcher.

Deanery of Clones –

Clones, Galloon, Kilmore with the chapel of Drumsnat, Tydavnet, Tyholland.

Deanery of Donaghmoyne –

Donaghmoyne, Ros Cluain (modern-day Carrickmacross and Magheracloone), Inniskeen, Killanny, Muckno, Cremorne (modern-day Aughnamullen, Tullycorbet, Clontibret and part of Muckno).

In the fifteenth century a new element entered the life of the diocese with the introduction of the Friars Minor. The ruling MacMahon family founded a house for them in Monaghan in 1462 but it was more than a century later before the Maguires introduced them to Lisgoole in Fermanagh, in 1580. 

A new reality:  

The sixteenth-century Reformation had only minimal effects here during its early stages, but following the Council of Trent (1545-63) a new phase of church reform began. A synod was held in Clogher in 1587 to promulgate the decrees of Trent. It was the onset of dispossessions and plantations from the early years of the seventeenth-century, however, that forced a new and harsh reality on the church in Ireland, and especially in this diocese, particularly following the Irish defeat at the Battle of Kinsale in 1603. In general, the natives were to become the tenants of the new landowners and the Roman Catholic churches and properties were forfeited to the Crown. Over the next century and a half, bishops were forced to leave Ireland and the parish and diocesan structures came under severe pressure as the number of priests was severely restricted. It was during this critical period that the friars became crucial to keeping the faith alive. The Dominicans played a central role in south Fermanagh and in parts of Monaghan, while the Franciscans helped to keep the faith alive in mid and south-Monaghan.

Among the many people from the diocese who suffered for the faith during this trying period, two may be cited. Connor Maguire of the Magherastephana branch was executed in London for his part in the 1641 rising and was denied the ministry of a priest before his execution at Tyburn. At the height of the Cromwellian period, Heber MacMahon, Bishop of Clogher, was put to death near Enniskillen in 1650, while leading an army following the death of Owen Roe O’Neill.

The seventeenth century was one of enormous economic, social and political change in Ireland. The change in land ownership was profound. In 1600 Catholics owned nearly all the property; by 1700, while they still formed a majority of the population, their ownership was reduced to about 20% of what they had held previously. In addition, political power had transferred to a new ruling class and Catholics had lost their places of worship, while, depending on the political climate, priests were not officially permitted to minister in Ireland. The defeat of the Stuart King, James II, at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 brought to an end any realistic hopes of Catholic political restoration.

As the seventeenth century rolled into the eighteenth, a series of laws restricted the rights of Catholics to practice their faith and, in effect, banned them from holding any public office or even accessing education. The political and religious pressures are best explained by the accounts of Bishop Hugh MacMahon. Bishop Hugh was one of three closely-related MacMahons from the Dartrey area of west-Monaghan, the others being Brian and Ross. All three of them became Archbishops of Armagh in succession. Bishop Hugh MacMahon (Bishop of Clogher 1707-15) has left us an account of life in the diocese in 1714, some of which is worth quoting as it gives us a picture of the life of the church here at that point in time.

During these years a person was afraid to trust his neighbour lest, being compelled to swear, he might divulge the names of those present at Mass. Moreover, spies were continually moving around posing as Catholics. … Greater danger, of course, threatened the priests, as the Government persecuted them unceasingly and bitterly, with the result that priests have celebrated Mass with their faces veiled, lest they should be recognised by those present. At other times Mass was celebrated in a closed room with only a server present, the window being left open so that those outside might hear the voice of the priest without knowing who it was, or at least without seeing him. And herein the great goodness of God was made manifest, for the greater the severity of the persecution the greater the fervour of the people. Over the countryside, people might be seen, on meeting signalling to each other on their fingers, the hour the Mass was due to begin, in order that people might be able to kneel down and follow mentally the Mass which was celebrated at a distance.[1]

Due to a strange loophole in the legislation, one priest was allowed to minister in each parish, provided that he was registered with the authorities on a substantial bond for his good behaviour. On this shaky foundation, the counter-reformation parishes of Clogher began to emerge. During the second half of the eighteenth century, as the threat of a Stuart restoration abated, the penal laws, especially those relating to the leasing of land, began to be relaxed.

            In 1752 Pope Benedict XIV ordered all remaining Irish bishops on the continent to return to Ireland in order to re-establish a functioning diocesan system of governance and to implement in earnest the decrees of the Council of Trent. Before this, things were already improving in Clogher. Between 1747 and 1801, Bishops Daniel and Hugh O’Reilly – uncle and nephew and natives of Cavan – were successively Bishops of Clogher. Bishop Daniel had been President of the Irish College in Antwerp before his appointment as bishop. In 1774 he moved his place of residence to Carrickmacross where Hugh also lived. By 1780, it was possible for Catholics to lease land, including land for the building of churches. It was from this period that several substantial churches were built across the diocese, including Carrickmacross and Enniskillen. These were replaced by new churches in the second half of the nineteenth century. (The last outdoor Mass Garden in the diocese was at Lisglasson in Clontibret parish, a site used as a place of worship until the building of St Mary’s church there in the 1850s.) Other important innovations from this latter part of the 1700s were the first diocesan statutes and the creation of a Diocesan Chapter of Canons in 1789 to assist the bishop in the governance of the diocese.

19th century Renewal:

The first half of the 1800s was a period of intense renewal and re-structuring within the diocese. It was also a time when the bishops re-asserted their authority, especially regarding the appointment of priests and the provision of appropriate structures for education and the formation of the priests and people. Bishops James Murphy (1801-24), Edward Kernan (1824-43) and Charles McNally (1843-65) all, in their own way, strove to establish the authority of the bishop and to put in place the diocesan and parish structures that have lasted to the present. Chief among these was the foundation of St Macartan’s College in Monaghan as the Diocesan Seminary in 1840, its first students being admitted in 1848. Other work included provision for the ongoing education and formation of clergy, the holding of diocesan conferences, the celebration of liturgy and the building of churches, to name but a few. The attainment of Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the onset of national education emboldened Catholic communities around the diocese as they asserted themselves amidst the turmoil of famine, social change and increased political agitation.

            The second half of the 1800s saw an ascendant church both here in Clogher and throughout Ireland. This manifested itself in the building of churches and schools. Many of the fine churches of the diocese date from this period, such as Bundoran (1859), Carrickmacross (1866), Enniskillen (1875), Castleblayney (1861), Fivemiletown (1872), Ballybay (1878), Clones (1891). These were mirrored by a number of smaller churches in rural parishes, all of them enabling the Christian communities throughout the Church of the Diocese of Clogher to come together in praise and worship, to celebrate the Eucharist as Jesus had commanded. But undoubtedly the biggest undertaking was the building of St Macartan’s Cathedral in Monaghan during the years 1857-92. Begun by Bishop McNally, the work was continued and brought to completion under his successor Bishop James Donnelly (1865-93). [Insert link to Cathedral page] The completion of the Cathedral, the Bishop’s House (1900-01), and many new churches and schools, gave physical manifestation to the growing confidence and prestige of Catholics across the diocese at that stage. This was matched by their increased political and electoral strength, which, interactive with an Irish cultural revival, was to have longer term impacts for over a century.

Bishop Donnelly was succeeded by Bishop Richard Owens (1894-1909). One historian has commented:

Under Dr Owens one gets the impression of the diocese working smoothly like a well-tended machine with the momentum built up under Dr Donnelly and operated with the minimum of episcopal intervention by an able body of clergy….[2]

This sense of confidence was added to by the increasing presence in the diocese of communities of religious orders. The Sisters of Mercy were the first to arrive, to Enniskillen in 1856 and then to Castleblayney in 1905, followed by the Sisters of St Louis, in Monaghan in 1859 and Carrickmacross in 1888, the Irish Christian Brothers, to Enniskillen, briefly, in 1865 and to Monaghan in 1867 and the Passionists, to The Graan in Derrygonnelly parish in 1909. As the decades progressed, other religious orders came to establish a presence in the diocese. These included the Presentation Brothers (Enniskillen), the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (Ballybay), the Patrician Brothers (Carrickmacross), the Franciscan Missionary Sisters (Hope Castle, Castleblayney), the Holy Ghost Sisters (Beech Hill, Monaghan), the Monfort Fathers (Monaghan), the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (Tanagh) and the De La Salle Brothers (Ballyshannon). Some of these orders and communities continue to have a presence in our diocese today.

20th Century – Changes:

 The twentieth century was one of change and transition for the diocese and its various communities. The most notable change, and one which had a vastly far-reaching effect, was the partition of Ireland in 1921, resulting in the division of the diocese between two political states. Not only was the diocese divided, but parishes such as Clones, Roslea, Errigal Truagh and Carn (Pettigo) were divided too. These seismic changes were accompanied by economic hardship and political turbulence, resulting in decline in the population of the diocese until the 1960s.

Despite such trials, the practice of the faith was strong, while the ethos of the new southern state was distinctly Catholic in outlook. Events such as the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 1932, The Holy Year of 1950, the Marian Year of 1954 and the celebration of the Patrician Year in 1961 were moments for demonstrating the strong, confident and authoritative stance of the church in Ireland. Education reforms in Northern Ireland enabled, even forced, the diocese to establish a second seminary, in the form of St Michael’s College, Enniskillen, in 1957, which assumed the role played by the Presentation Brothers’ school in the town since 1899. The church of Clogher was guided through these major events by bishops such as Patrick McKenna (1909-42) and Eugene O’Callaghan (1943-69).

The 1960s brought changes within the universal and local church. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was a key moment as the church came to a new realisation of itself as the People of God, a people in communion with Christ and with each other, rather than just a monarchical and hierarchical structure that had dominated the mindset and practice since the Council of Trent. The most visible signs of these changes were those concerning the liturgy: the introduction of the vernacular languages (Irish and English) in place of Latin, changes to the design of churches to facilitate the ‘full, active and conscious participation’ of the assembly in the celebration of the Eucharist and other liturgies and the introduction of a range of ministries in every church community giving expression to the baptismal calling of all. Most especially, and particularly relevant in a cross-border diocese such as Clogher, there was a renewed emphasis on ecumenism and inter-church dialogue. In this area of church life, much progress has been made in terms of building relationships, even amidst the renewed political troubles in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s until the late 1990s. The changes of this period were introduced and their reception guided by Bishops Patrick Mulligan (1970-79) and Joseph Duffy (1979-2010).

Side by side with these changes were other challenges, particularly those posed to the church by an increasing level of secularism in Irish and Western society and the accompanying changes in the cultural, economic and social spheres. Added to these were the impact of a major revelations and scandals involving priests and church leadership concerning sexual and physical abuse of children and women over many decades. As Bishop Liam MacDaid (2010-16) noted at his Episcopal Ordination in July 2010, these horrific acts brought the church to its knees, showing its fervent need of God’s mercy.

21st century – Challenges and Opportunities:

The early decades of the twenty-first century have been very challenging for the church in Ireland. But they also point to opportunities for the church to be a sign and a source of unity in an increasingly fragmented society. In 2013, Bishop Liam MacDaid introduced the concept of parishes working together as Pastoral Areas in the delivery of the church’s pastoral ministry. In some respects, these seven pastoral areas mirrored the territorial boundaries of the earlier life of the diocese. Moreover, through their collaboration, they are an expression of the local church as a communion of God’s people realising the church’s mission in the world today. Into the future, these Pastoral Areas will be the vehicle through which the Body of Christ in this place will carry out its mission.

Today, the Church in the Diocese of Clogher is strong in faith, yet smaller in stature. Its thirty-seven parishes are still vibrant communities of faith, hope and charity where people seek to build up the kingdom of God at this time and in this place through prayer and worship and by the witness of their lives. The diocese has just under sixty priests and two deacons in active ministry in those communities, sharing the church’s mission with a growing body of lay people to whom will be entrusted much of the future work and ministry of the local church in the years ahead. These church communities continue to be faithful to the mandate of Jesus Christ, to make disciples of all the nations, to observe his commands and to know that he is with us always; ‘yes, to the end of time’ (Matthew 28:20).

[1] P.J. Flanagan, ‘The Diocese of Clogher in 1714’, Clogher Record vol. 1, no. 2 (1954), p. 42.

[2] Patrick Mulligan, A History of the Diocese of Clogher: a short guide to its history (Enniskillen: Clogher Historical Society, 1986), p. 29.