Clonfert, Diocese of (CLONFERTENSIS, in Irish Cluain-fearta Brenainn), a suffragan see of the metropolitan province of Tuam, was founded in 557 by St. Brendan the Navigator, in a sheltered cluain or meadow near the Shannon shore, at the eastern extremity of the County Galway. The diocese was nearly coextensive with the tribeland of the Hy Many or O'Kelly country. It still contains twenty-four parishes in the southeast of the County Galway, including one small parish east of the Shannon, which formed a part of the ancient Hy Many territory. The renown of Brendan as a saint and traveller by land and sea attracted from the very beginning many monks and students to his monastery of Clonfert, so that it became a very famous school of sanctity and learning, numbering at one time, it is said, no less than three thousand students. Brendan was not a bishop himself, but he had as coadjutor, his nephew Moinenn, who, after his death, became an abbot-bishop and head of the monastic school. At a later period a still more celebrated man, Cummian Fada, or Cummian the Tall, presided over the School and Diocese of Clonfert. He took a leading part in the famous Paschal controversy and wrote a very learned work on the subject, known as his "Paschal Epistle", which fortunately still survives (P.L., LXXXVIII) and furnishes conclusive evidence of the varied learning cultivated in the school of Clonfert.
Clonfert being on the highway of the Shannon suffered greatly from the ravages of the Danes, and also of some Irish chieftains who imitated their bad example; yet the school and monastery lived on through those stormy times, and we have a fuller list of bishops and abbots of Clonfert than we have of any other see, at least in the West of Ireland. It was richly endowed with large estates of fertile land, and hence we find that the Bishop of Clonfert, according to a scale fixed in 1392, paid to the papal treasury on his appointment three hundred florins in gold, the Archbishop of Tuam being taxed only at two hundred florins. At the general suppression of religious houses by Henry VIII, the Abbot O'Gormacan, with the help of Clanrickarde, contrived to hold the abbey lands of Clonfert until his death in spite of royal decrees. Roland de Burgo became bishop in 1534, and being an uncle of the Earl of Clanrickarde was able to keep his lands and his see for more than forty years under Henry, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth. He was always a Catholic prelate, although it is probable that he took the Oath of Supremacy in order to get the temporalities from Henry VIII. Queen Elizabeth wrote to Sir H. Sydney suggesting the founding of a national university at Clonfert, on account of its central position on the highway of the lordly river, to be endowed with the abbey lands. But the project was never carried out.
The old cathedral of Clonfert still exists, and is one of the few ancient churches still used for religious worship, for it was seized by the Protestants in the reign of Elizabeth and has continued since in their hands. There is, however, practically no Protestant congregation. The church was small, being only fifty-four by twenty-seven feet in the clear, but its two characteristic features, the west doorway and east windows, are very beautiful examples of the Irish Romanesque. Brash, an expert authority, has described the doorway with great minuteness, and declares that in point of design and execution it is not excelled by any similar work that he has seen in these islands. Of the east altar-window he says, "the design is exceedingly chaste and beautiful, the mouldings simple and effective, and the workmanship superior to anything I have seen either of ancient or modern times." He attributes the building of this beautiful Romanesque church to Peter O'Mordha, a Cistercian monk, first Abbot of Boyle and afterwards Bishop of Clonfert. He belonged to a family of the highest artistic genius, to whom we also owe the noble arches of the old cathedral of Tuam, and the beautiful monastery of Cong.
In 1266, as we learn from the annals of Lough Ce, a certain John was sent over from Rome as Bishop-elect of the See of Clonfert. He must have received the sanction of the Crown, and could not be inducted to his see without the help of Walter de Burgo, Earl of Ulster. Hence we are told he was consecrated at the English town of Athenry as Bishop of Clonfert. This was on the Sunday before Christmas, 1266. He was also appointed papal nuncio, and we find (apud Theiner) a letter from Pope John XXI (1276) authorizing him to collect the crusaders' tax for the recovery of the Holy Land. This John, one of the few Italian prelates ever appointed to an Irish see, was a great benefactor to his cathedral church, and he is believed to have erected the statues and other carvings which decorate the western end of his cathedral. This can hardly be true, so far as the Romanesque doorway is concerned, for the Romanesque had then gone out for at least half a century as a feature in Irish architecture, and given place to the pointed style. It is said that he governed Clonfert for no less than 30 years, and was then transferred by the pope to the Archbishopric of Benevento in Italy, about 1296. It is doubtless true that John, with his artistic Italian tastes, finding in his diocese a cathedral of the best type of the Irish Romanesque, probably a hundred years old, did much to renovate and decorate with statuary the beautiful building. This no doubt would explain the ancient tradition that connects his name with the glories of the old cathedral. It is interesting to note in conclusion that Concors, an Abbot of Clonfert, was one of the three plenipotentiaries who were sent by Roderick O'Conor, the last King of Ireland, to conclude the Treaty of Windsor, in the year 1175, by which Roderick renounced forever the scepter and Kingdom of Ireland. The city of St. Brendan is now a vast solitude. The episcopal palace is falling into ruins; the beautiful church is there, but there is no resident clergyman, and only two houses, that of the sexton and the police barrack.