Origins of Kilcoole’s Name

Scholars tracing the origins of Kilcoole’s name have put forth two main theories. The first was an attempt to interpret the Anglicised spelling directly: Cill Chuile, “the church of the corner”, and draws on a reference from the Book of Leinster (c. 1160):

Bran Airdcheann, King of Leinster, and his wife Eithne, daughter of Domhnall Midheach, were killed by Finsneachta Ceathairdherc, son of Ceallach, at Cill Chuile Dumha, on the sixth night of summer precisely. Of this was said:

The death of Bran, evil the deed,

at Cill Chuile Dumhai,

Of Eithne, daughter of Domhnall Midheach,

was woeful to him.

The interpretation of Cill Chuile as “church of the corner” seems to fit the location of the ruined medieval church at the base of the Rock of Kilcoole. However, another reference within the Book of Leinster points to this Cill Chuile Dumhai being located in present-day County Laois, and the absence of further evidence linking Kilcoole to this name makes it the less likely explanation. This interpretation also assumes that the present-day pronunciation of Kilcoole was in use anciently, which we shall see was not the case.

The second and more widely accepted theory is that Kilcoole derives its name from a monastic cell or chapel founded by, or associated with, a man by the name of Comhghaill. There are many saints of this name recorded in Irish history. The earliest Saint Comhghaill (often spelled Comgall or Comhghall) was born around AD 510 and established a monastery at Bangor, County Down.

It is possible that a monastic cell or chapel at Kilcoole was founded by another monk of the same name. Likely this cell would have dated from the 6th of 7th centuries, the high point of Irish monasticism. Many nearby placenames also contain cill or cell, and could refer either to the presence of monks or to the chapels and churches that later developed to serve the rural population. No doubt the monastic centre at Glendalough influenced the establishment of religious centres along the Wicklow coast.

Early monastic cells were nearly always made of wood, and at Kilcoole this was also likely the case, given the extensive woodland that the area is believed to have supported prior to modern times. Besides the Rock itself, loose stone is rare enough in the area and would have required quarrying, an unlikely enterprise for an early Christian monk in isolated circumstances.

We cannot know the size of the population at this early stage, or how long monks inhabited the site. It is possible that no static population existed at Kilcoole until the establishment of a religious centre, and that centuries passed before the village grew up as an auxiliary to the religious site. We know that monks were present at nearby Kilmacanogue at least as late as 1294, and in the same document find that the “Churches of Kylcowyll” provided a papal tax of £2 as part of the Deanery of Bree (Bray).

The present church dates from the time following the Anglo-Norman conquest (late twelfth century). The church and parish at Kilcoole were important enough to be mentioned repeatedly in ecclesiastical letters of the medieval period, the earliest of which is from a letter of Pope Alexander III, dated AD 1179. The letter is written in Latin by someone with an obvious knowledge of Irish, confirming to the Archbishop of Dublin the possession of various churches, including “Cellcomgaill”. From the position in which Cellcomgaill falls in this letter, it is very likely located in the Kilcoole area.

Subsequent records switch to using Anglicised spellings:

  • AD 1179 – Cellcomgaill
  • AD 1190 – Killecohell
  • AD 1199 – Kilkoel
  • AD 1200 – Killquoil
  • AD 1216 – Kilcohul
  • AD 1280 – Kilcowyl
  • AD 1294 – Kylcowyll
  • AD 1531 – Kilcowl
  • AD 1533 – Kilcowill
  • AD 1567 – Kylcoyle
  • AD 1604 – Killcoole
  • AD 1619 – Killcowle
  • AD 1630 – Killcole
  • AD 1685 – Killcool
  • AD 1787 – Kilcoole
  • AD 1855 – Kilcool

From these names it seems that until at least the 17th century, Kilcoole (today pronounced “kill-cool”) was pronounced something like “kill-co-well” in the days before English became the common language. The severe population dislocations of the 1600s brought an end to Irish as the majority language in north Wicklow, and in recent memory even natives of the village have always pronounced it “kill-cool”, though some older inhabitants put a certain guttural emphasis on the second syllable which is reminiscent of the original Irish.