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Kilcoo Parish, County Down


Ir. Cill Chua 'Cua's church' or 'church of the hollow/expanse'


Village is 8.5km E of Rathfriland

bar: Iveagh Upper, Lower Half

Kilcoo, a parish of some 18,206 acres (Census 1871), is situated in the barony of Upper Iveagh and bounded by the parishes of Kilkeel, Clonduff, Drumgooland, Kilmegan and Maghera.  The Roman Catholic parish is in the diocese of Down, but only 14 of the 21 townlands in the civil parish are included in the ecclesiastical parish.  The other seven townlands - Aghacullion, Ballaghbeg, Ballyhafry, Burrenbane, Burrenreagh, Tollymore Park and Tullybranigan, all in the east of the parish - were united with the civil parish of Maghera in 1785 to form the Roman Catholic parish of Maghera or Bryansford (O'Laverty i 38, 42-3, 47).  The Anglican parish, on the other hand, is co-extensive with the civil parish and is included in the diocese of Dromore.  The reason for this confusion is undoubtedly the fact that Kilcoo was part of the old plebania or "mother-church" of Kilkeel which was disputed for centuries between the dioceses of Down and Dromore.  As late as 1837 the established church considered Kilcoo to be in the diocese of Down (Lewis' Top. Dict. ii 69), but it was probably transferred to Dromore in 1869 when Kilkeel was incorporated in that diocese. 

The old church of Kilcoo was situated in the townland of Ballymoney along the bank of the river Muddock and some traces of its ruins can still be seen today (O'Laverty i 40; ASCD 303).  It was burnt in 1641 and a new church was erected by the Anglican community at Bryansford in 1712 (Lewis' Top. Dict. ii 69-70); it was c. 1760 before a Roman Catholic chapel was erected in the village (O'Laverty i 64).  No early references to the medieval church have yet been discovered, presumably because it was a dependency of Kilkeel.  There are, however, a number of references to Kilcoo in the documentation of the early 17th century. 

As Kilcoo is a parish name it seems certain that the first element is Irish cill "a church" as opposed to coill 'a wood'.  Most names containing the element are pre-12th century in date (Flanagan, D. 1979(a), 4), but Kilcoo is not recorded in any early documentation of an ecclesiastical nature.  The name is not found in Irish-language sources, and the only Irish form we have is that obtained by John O'Donovan from his local informant Patrick Rice in 1834 (OSNB).  This form Cill a chúmhaidh (more correctly, Cill an Chumhadh) 'church of the grief or lamentation' has been explained by O'Laverty as deriving from the tradition that Saint Patrick was waked there (O'Laverty i 40).  This is probably a late re-interpretation of the name and O'Donovan himself preferred to derive Kilcoo from an earlier Cill Mochua (OSNB).  Mo Chua is an old Irish personal name which appears with great frequency in the early genealogies. 

One particular document records 59 bearers of the name among the early Irish saints (CSH §707.484-542), and one of the more important of these was Mo Chua of Balla in Co. Mayo who had associations with the monastery of Bangor (Watson 1926(a), 323). 

It must be stated that while an original Irish form Cill Mo Chua appears quite plausible, there is a problem in that there is no trace of the Mo in any of the anglicized forms.  By way of contrast, Cill Mo Chua in Co. Limerick is known as Kilmacow to this day (Ó Maolfabhail 1990, 105) and it is possible that the townlands of Kilmacoe, Kilmacoo and Kilmacow, which are also situated in the south of Ireland (Census 1871), are similarly derived from Cill Mo Chua as suggested by Joyce (iii 423).  On the other hand, Inishcoe, in the parish of Crossmolina in Co. Mayo, appears to be attested in Irish documentation as both Inis Cua and Inis Mo Chua (Onom. Goed. 463, 467), in which case our Kilcoo may be ultimately derived from Cill Mo Chua

There are other possibilities.  It could be argued that Kilcoo is simply derived from Cill Chua in Irish as has been suggested in some of the most recent works on Irish place-names (35-8).  If this is the case, Cua need not be a personal name as suggested by Flanagan (1979(a) 1), particularly as no such name appears to be recorded in early Irish documentation.  However, the element cua 'hollow, cavity; (empty) expanse' (DIL sv. cúa) may be a possibility as it is found in place-names such as Senchua, now Shancough in Co. Sligo (Onom. Goed. 595), Daire Cua, now Derrycoagh in Roscommon (Onom. Goed. 327), and Sliabh Cua, a mountain range situated on the Waterford/Tipperary border (Onom. Goed. 607).  Furthermore, there are a couple of early anglicized forms, Killcudua (Jas I to Down Cath. 179) and Kilcuda (CPR Jas I 190b), which are difficult to reconcile with any of these suggestions unless we dismiss them as scribal errors.  It is difficult, therefore, to decide the matter on the present evidence.  Finally, it should be noted that the form Lo. Kilcow et var. (Bartlett map) is an abbreviated version of Lough Kilcow for which see Lough Island Reavy.


Ó Mainní­n, M. (1993): Place-Names of Northern Ireland vol. 3, pp. 97-103, where the name is discussed in greater detail.

Additional Information

See also the village of Kilcoo

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Iveagh Up., Lr. Half
Parish in 1851
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