Kilmalkedar is one of Ireland’s most significant ecclesiastical complexes, and it is beautifully situated overlooking Smerwick Harbour. Kilmalkedar takes its name from Chill Maolchéadair, in honour of its founder, the little known St Maolcethair, who died in AD 636, though the site is more commonly associated with St Brendan the Navigator. The complex covers an area of over 10 acres and includes a Hiberno-Romanesque church, a large stone cross, an ogham stone, a sundial, St Brendan’s House and a number of important ecclesiastical features.
Few traces of Kilmalkedar’s ancient phases are still visible today, and no large monastic enclosure can be seen. Early evidence comes from the ogham stone, which may date to the 6th or 7th century (see below), and the large cross near it may also date from that era. Kilmalkedar’s significance grew when it played a central role in the celebration of St Brendan. The church is situated on the Cosán na Naomh (the Path of the Saints), an important pilgrimage route that leads to the summit of Mount Brandon. This significance led to Kilmalkedar controlling an extensive parish, including numerous important ecclesiastical landmarks in its hinterland, such as St. Brendan’s Oratory.
By the beginning of the 12th century, the great province of Munster was largely split into two competing power blocks. Des Mumha (South Munster) was ruled by the Mac Carthaigs and their allies (including the Corcu Duibne of the Dingle Peninsula). Tuad Mumha (North Munster) was ruled by the Uí Briain, who were allied to the Ciarraige, the dynasty who controlled much of Kerry including the influential ecclesiastical centre of Ardfert. The ascendancy went back and forth a number of times. It was in the context of this dynastic power struggle that the wonderful Romanesque church of Kilmalkedar was constructed.