To Lepers’ Hill

Townland tales

Fr Seán Noone, Pastor Emeritus in the Parish of Kilcommon, Erris, at the the old monastery wall in Pollathomas Graveyard.

A visit to the north Mayo townland of Knocknalower

Townland Tales
John O'Callaghan

Leprosy is not a disease we associate with Ireland these days, fortunately. Most of us will only have heard of the disease in Bible stories of Jesus curing and welcoming lepers rather than ostracising them to isolated places.
Some readers may be familiar with the story of St Damien of Molokai, also known as Father Damien, the Leper Priest. His original name was Joseph de Veuster, born January 3, 1840, in Tremelo, Belgium. He died April 15, 1889, Molokai, Hawaii, and was canonized on October 11, 2009. He was a priest who devoted his life to missionary work and became a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.
Cases of leprosy are known right up to the present day and in 2013, the first known case in Ireland in modern times was diagnosed in a Brazilian man, living in Co Meath. He had suffered a recurrence of his leprosy having first contracted it in Brazil, ten years previously. The disease is caused by a bacterium and can be treated.
Leprosy was common in Dublin in medieval times, and in the 14th Century a leper hospital was built near St Stephen’s Green. It was later moved out to the Dublin mountains and the area where it was sited became known as Leopardstown, in Irish Baile na Lobhar. There are other examples, all springing from the Irish word ‘lobhar’, a general term once applied to anyone feeling sick or infirm but latterly to one afflicted with leprosy. As well as ‘Leperstown’ in Dublin, there are other places in Cork, Tipperary, Galway, Clare and Carlow with lobhar in the placename, usually anglicised to ‘lour’, ‘lower’, ‘loura’ or ‘lure’.

Cnoc na Lobhar
In the parish of Kilcommon in north Mayo, a tiny hill, Cnoc na Lobhar (182 metres), shares its name with a small townland, called Knocknalower, ‘the hill of the lepers’.
Close by is the appropriately counterbalanced name ‘hollow of comfort’ or ‘Poll an tSómais’, anglicised to Pollathomas, on the shore of ‘Longstream Bay’ (or Sruth Fada Con, Sruth Mhada Conn) – an inlet of Broadhaven Bay that contains such a rich history. Sruhwaddacon is a difficult name to interpret: ‘sruh’ is short for sruthán, a stream; con means greyhound and fada is long, while mada/madra is a dog!
Knocknalower, located in the middle of a boggy expanse, is two miles south of Pollathomas National School. When approaching from the south, take the scenic link road on the western shore of Carrowmore Lake from Munhin Bridge (3.4 km west of Bangor), via Gortmore and Rathmorgan to Healy’s of Barr na Trá.
Munhin Bridge, comes from the ‘Munkin River’, a corruption of An Mhuinchinn – meaning ‘the narrow (river)-passage’, an important contributary channel through which Carrowmore Lough feeds the Owenmore River and flows to the sea.
The earliest known record of this river is from the Glenmasan manuscripts (c.1510) – in the Táin Bó Fliadhaise tale, where Muinceann was the ‘keeper’ of the bald cow.
Turn right in Barrnatra, continue for two kilometers and then turn left in Faulagh (from Fálach meaning ‘enclosure’). After another two kilometers you’ll be looking up at Cnoc-na-Lobhar on your left.

Famous son
One of the most ‘famous sons’ of Knocknalower is Fr Seán Noone, now in his 51st year as a priest, and coincidentally like Fr Damien born on January 3. He has travelled much during his long ministry to remote parts of the world. I visited him recently.
Author of two books, Fr Seán now lives at home again in Knocknalower, where he is Pastor Emeritus in the Parish of Kilcommon, Erris, comprising churches in Aughoose (Na hEachú, the fields), Inver (Inbhear, estuary), An Ceathrú Thaidhg (Tadhg’s Quarter), Cornboy (Corrán Buí, the yellow sickle) and Glenamoy (Gleann na Muaidhe, Múaí’s Valley, Moy Glen or Gleann na mBuaidhe, the Glen of the Victories).
Fr Seán’s first published work, ‘Where the Sun Sets’ (1991), considers about 150 townlands (their names, topography, origins, social history) in the four Catholic parishes of Ballycroy, Belmullet, Kilcommon and Kiltane. This has been an invaluable source and inspiration to me in my research into Mayo townlands.
His second book, ‘Crossing the Channel – An Amazing Adventure’ (2009), is autobiographical and gives an account of his upbringing and early education in Erris in the ’40s and ’50s.
It is a fascinating insight into the society of the time – during World War II – growing up in rural Ireland and his time spent as chaplain on cruise ships that took him to all of the continents in the world, including Antarctica.

Dr John O’Callaghan is a mountain walk leader who has organised and led expeditions both at home and abroad. He has served on the board of Mountaineering Ireland and is currently on the Irish Uplands Forum board. In 2012, he wrote the winning article that secured Westport’s accolade as the Irish Times’ ‘Best Place to Live in Ireland’.