Medieval Ireland: St. Doulagh’s Church

Analysing a prime example of Irish medieval architecture and Dublin’s oldest stone-roofed church still in use- St Doulagh’s

Historical Significance 

St Doulagh’s Church, located just 10 kilometres from Dublin city in Fingal, is the oldest stone-roofed church still in use in Ireland, sits on the site of a historic monastic settlement founded by the Saint in the early 7th century. As an anchorite /hermit, it is strongly believed that St Doulagh lived in a cell with minimal contact with the outside world. 

This 12th century church was built as a hermitage, and includes a Hermit’s Cell, measuring 10ft. by 7.5ft. Similar stone roofed churches can be found at St Kevin’s Glendalough and Cormac’s Chapel in Cashel. The original built portion of the church measures 48 ft. by 18 ft., with a double roof of rough stone that is set with cement. The original walls are 3 ft thick, and the battlemented square tower was a 15th century addition.

Moreover, there is negligible literature available on the Saint’s life, therefore, it is challenging to create a comprehensive and cohesive narrative of the Saint and his Church primarily due to the 88 spelling variations of the name Doulagh. However, the earliest mention of the Saint is observed in 600 AD, which solidifies his paternal lineage and connects him with various notable Irish men, such as Malach, Sinell, and Fergus Mac Rosa.

In his lifetime, St Doulagh built a crude cell on the grounds wherein he interred himself, effectively creating a one man hermetic monastic site. People from the neighbouring towns would support him by offering food they could spare, treating this as form of spiritual penance, drawing parallels from the world of the mendicants. Since then, there was a historic tradition of anchorites inhabiting the cell.

In the 9th century, an early local veneration of his memory appears in the “Feilire of Aengus” wherein, he is introduced with the title “Duilech the beautiful of Clochar”. Nearly two centuries later, in 1171, on the same date the term ‘devout’ was added to his title. 

St Doulagh has since become the Irish Saint of Confessions and is hailed in martyrology as “Sanctus Dulech Confessor”. This change in title stems from the turn of the 15th century, when archbishop of Armagh Nicholas Flemming issued an indulgence of 40 days to those who visited and donated a tithe to chaplain Eustace Roch, the anchorite enclosed in the chapel at the time. It seems highly plausible that those who visited St Doulagh’s and its anchorite would come with and confess profusely. 

Theoretically, the act of confession, or contrition, is to seek absolution for the sins one commits. This serves a similar purpose to the  pursuit of indulgences and indicates that St Doulagh already had this association before Archbishop Flemming’s proclaiming. This tradition has continued as long as there have been anchorites. It has built an attitude of the mutually beneficial relationship between the anchorite, the Church and the community that still continues for those actively using the site. 

A Brief Timeline  

  • Evidence of a curved ditch north of the graveyard and the curve of the graveyard wall to the south east, suggests that there was an early Christian monastic enclosure here, as early as the 6th or even 7th century.


  •  The earliest part of the church, a stone roofed oratory with a pitched roof which created a small living space above the nave, dates to the 12th century. 


  • In 1186, Pope Urban IV assigned St. Doulagh’s to Christchurch, which was under the rule of a branch of the Augustinian canons.


  • There was a 3 storey fortified residence added to the west end in the 15th century which contained an anchorite’s residence on the ground floor and a prior’s chamber above, complete with fireplaces, a garderobe and a murder hole.  The stairs leading to the living quarters were rough and uneven, further evidence that this was a fortified residence. The erection of a tower also took place at this time.


  • Gun loops were added in the 16th Century. By this time, St. Doulagh’s was functioning as a church and a fortified residence. Around the 1820s, the church was in shambles and was consequently handed over to Rev William Studdert Kennedy as his parish in the 1850s.  He was very intrigued by the mediaeval part of the building. Consequently, he commissioned an architect to repair the older part of the church and replace the windows.  The 1864 building replaced the 1775 church at this time as it was considered more in keeping with the mediaeval section, echoing the pitch of the roof. Kennedy left the parish by Christmas 1864 after he was taken to court for desecration of graves. 


Flow Chart
The Journal of the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland, Fourth Series, Vol. 3, No. 22 (Apr., 1875), pp. 381-421


Leprosy as Theologically Complex

A hagioscope, like the one in St. Doulagh’s, allowed victims of Leprosy to observe and participate in the service as well as receive communion from outside the walls of the church. Leprosy, which attacks skeletal structure, focusing mostly on the skull, hands and feet further caused severe nerve damage that resulted in the hands becoming “permanently flexed” and caused “pressure erosions” on the side of palms or soles. This resulted in victims being oblivious to the injuries, making them more susceptible to infection from both leprous and non-leprous bacteria.

In the middle ages, a leper would have been immediately recognisable as their appearance made them “othered” in the society, a symbol of corruption and immorality, hence the disease becoming a physical manifestation of their supposed “sin”. They were further believed to be undergoing their time in purgatory and were excluded from entering the church in order to maintain the sanctity and hygiene of the space.


Hagioscope or Lepers Squint, St. Doulagh’s

Observing the built history 

As observed by Peter Harbison in his article in 1982, leaving out the possibility that the present church may stand on the site of one or more earlier wooden churches which have vanished without trace, we must try to visualise the nature of the stone church when it was initially built. But, in order to do so, we can start by attempting to establish the chronological relationship between the central square tower and the stone-roofed parts of the church on either side of it. 

If we proceed into the eastern part of the old church, we can observe that the ceiling of what is now the vestry is divided into two unequal sections ( or lengths) – a longer one to the east with a pointed vault and a shorter one to the west with four-part vaulting. As Harbison notes, each of the two sections displays a slight difference in masonry. 

Moreover, when we mount the stairs from the vestry to the croft above, we can observe two arches, a broader one on the left, which supports the east wall of the tower above, and a more pointed one on the right. This latter arch consists of regular masonry which was designed to hide the that to the east, there is jagged masonry exposing a cross-section of the vaulting stones of the croft. 

Harbison further expands on this, as “the presence of this jagged masonry, taken together with the change in the style of the vaulting slightly to the west below it on the ground floor, provides evidence of a complete break in both floors of the building here. This break shows that the stone-roofed section of the church still existing to the east of the break originally had an extension further westwards which was torn down at some stage to make way for the erection of the tower which stands immediately to the west of the masonry break. From this we may conclude that the part of the building to the east of the masonry break is older, and that the tower was a later addition.” 

Harbison also notes, “The masonry of the croft walls at the western end approximates to that at the eastern end, it can be noted that it uses the light stone known as calcareous tufa much more sparingly and scrappily than it is used in the croft at the eastern end, suggesting that in the western croft, its presence may reflect a re-use of the tufa utilised in that part of the church which was demolished to make way for the building of the tower and the same may also be true of at least some of the stones forming the roof at the western end of the church.” 

Celtic Cross
Celtic Cross, Entrance to St. Doulagh’s

Furthermore, at the entrance to the church grounds stands a non-local granite cross. The use of granite suggests a pre-1300 approximate date for the stone. The cross is plain but the upper part has a hints of Maltese design and the shaft is also wider at the base. 

The Holy Well

Historically, the presence of a holy well on the grounds of St Doulagh’s enabled its parishioners to engage and perform numerous “folk liturgies”. These well-side liturgies were relatively flexible, shaped by the landscape and narratives created about these places through their continued use. These rituals typically consisted of individuals or groups “performing the rounds” or circumambulating the well multiple times while reciting prayers at various intervals. 

At the end of these rounds, votives or offerings would often be presented and left near the wells as symbols of these prayers. Drinking or sipping from the well or blessing oneself with its water was also common practice. The rounds can be traced back to pre-Christian traditions from around the time of St Doulagh, and could have been a reason he chose to settle on this site. Regardless of whether the well was amassed into the spiritual realm of the Church’s grounds by St. Douglah, the community hereafter, or a pre-Christian tradition that remained, it prevailed in its ornate charm and still stands today within the church’s domain.

The folk-lore from which Holy Wells can hail, are cemented in the spiritual field of the forests that often surround these sites. In many cultures, trees are considered sacred as they have a connection to all levels of spiritual life. Their roots reach down into the ground while their branches stretch towards the sky, connecting what is above and below with the Earth. Trees sacred to a parish, and to the early Christian and pagan settlements were called bile. In addition to holy well sites, early medieval missionaries often built their foundations near these local bile. 

These two types of sacred sites are featured prominently in Iron Age sagas, often seen in the medieval lives of the saints, and today are considered an expected complement. Both transferred in patronage from tutelary deities to heroic saints, who are often credited with the creation of these trees by leaving a staff thrust in the ground overnight next to a water source, which they then used to baptise all those who were converted by the miraculous germination. 

Conclusively, St. Doulagh’s Church offers an exquisite experience to its visitors and provides a comprehensive outlook on Medieval Ireland. It remains as an inspirational place for architectural historians, theologists and Irish history enthusiasts. The historical background along with its intriguing features makes it one of the most underrated tourist attractions within County Dublin. 


Gandharva Joshi
Gandharva Joshi

One comment

  1. Wah! Wah ! How on earth did you know about this Saint and his ⛪

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