Details of the sedilia at the west end of Kylemore church, County Galway. Designed by James Franklin Fuller, the building was intended as a memorial to Margaret, wife of industrialist and financier Mitchell Henry, who had died in 1875. During the previous decade Henry had already built the nearby Kylemore Castle, likewise to a design by Fuller. The church’s interior was seemingly inspired by that of Bristol Cathedral, which is in the 14th century English Decorated Gothic style. Pale sandstone from Caen was used for much of the work, hence the elaborate carving of the sedilia which is located beneath the west window.
One of the stained glass windows in the 16th century tower house at Tulira Castle, County Galway. This is in Edward Martyn’s former private library, redecorated by George Ashlin when he made over the whole property in the 1880s. The windows, featuring luminaries such as Chaucer and Shakespeare shown here, were designed by English artist Edward Frampton in 1882. The irony, of course, is that within decades of the windows’ installation many key figures in Ireland’s literary revival – not least another pair of giants, Martyn’s neighbour Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats – would gather at Tulira. Their presence there went unrecorded, at least in glass.
For more on Tulira Castle, see The Ascetic Aesthete, October 13th 2014.
The Gothic Revival mausoleum of the St George family at Drumacoo, County Galway. Dating from 1830, it was incorporated into the remains of a thirteenth century church on the site in order to receive the body of Lady Harriet St George, daughter of the second Earl of Howth.
In Ireland with Emily, first published in his 1945 collection New Bats in Old Belfries, John Betjeman wrote of the building,
‘There in pinnacled protection
One extinguished family waits
A Church of Ireland resurrection
By the broken, rusty gates
Sheepswool, straw and droppings cover
Graves of spinster, rake and lover
Whose fantastic mausoleum
Sings its own seablown Te Deum
In and out the slipping slates’
It was the misfortune of Edward Martyn that his appearance and character so frequently encouraged ridicule. A large, lumbering man with a passion for beauty in all its manifestations, he devoted the greater part of his life and income attempting to convert others in Ireland to his aesthetic beliefs, with only limited success. In his former friend George Moore’s entertaining, irreverent but not always credible memoir Hail and Farewell, Martyn is described as being ‘not very sure-footed on new ground, and being a heavy man, his stumblings are loud. Moreover, he is obsessed by a certain part of his person which he speaks of as his soul; it demands Mass in the morning, Vespers in the afternoon, and compels him to believe in the efficacy of Sacraments and the Pope’s indulgences…’ W.B. Yeats, another friend-turned-opponent with whom Martyn and Lady Gregory had helped to found Ireland’s National Theatre, was still less charitable, not least on the subject of his old comrade’s religiosity which the poet thought ill-became a member of the ruling gentry. Yeats proposed, ‘The whole system of Irish Catholicism pulls down the able and well-born if it pulls up the peasant, as I think it does.’ From this, he wrote snobbishly of Martyn, ‘I used to think that the two traditions met and destroyed each other in his blood, creating the sterility of the mule…His father’s family was old and honoured; his mother but one generation from the peasant.’ On another occasion Yeats called Martyn, ‘An unhappy, childless, unfinished man, typical of an Ireland that is passing away’. Both Moore and Yeats were baffled by the seeming contradictions in Martyn’s persona, not least his revelling in discomfort. Moore has left an account of Martyn’s accommodation in Dublin, a modest flat above a tobacconist shop on Leinster Street: ‘Two short flights of stairs, and we are in his room. It never changes – the same litter, from day to day, from year to year, the same old and broken mahogany furniture, the same musty wall-paper, dusty manuscripts lying about in heaps, and many dusty books … old prints that he tacks on the wall … a torn, dusty, ragged screen … between the folds of the screen … a small harmonium of about three octaves, and on it a score of Palestrina … on the table is a candlestick made out of white tin, designed probably by Edward himself, for it holds four candles…Is there another man in this world whose income is two thousand a year, and who sleeps in a bare bedroom, without dressing room, or bathroom, or servant in the house to brush his clothes and who has to go to the baker’s for his breakfast?’ Yet Martyn was wont to abandon himself to the same self-imposed hardship even when staying in his country house, Tulira Castle, County Galway.
To understand Tulira and how it now looks, one needs to know something of the history of the Martyn family. Supposedly descended from a Norman supporter of Richard de Clare, otherwise known as Strongbow, they liked to claim one of their number, Oliver Martyn, had accompanied Richard I on the Third Crusade. In return for this support, the king presented him with armorial bearings. More significantly, the Martyns settled in Galway and became one of the city’s mercantile ‘tribes.’ Like so many of the others of their ilk, during the upheavals of the 16th century they moved into the countryside and acquired large amounts of land, not least that around an old de Burgo castle which was in their possession by 1598. Somehow they survived the turbulence of the following century and were confirmed in the possession of their estates in 1710 when they were specifically exempted by Queen Anne in an Act of Parliament passed ‘to prevent the growth of Popery.’ This was thanks to another Oliver Martyn who, it was noted, during the recent Williamite wars, ‘behaved himself with great moderation, and was remarkably kind to Protestants in distress, many of whom he supported in his family and by his charity and goodness, saved their lives.’ As a result the Martyns of Tulira were confirmed in ‘their very extensive estates and in all their rights as citizens, proprietors, and Catholics.’ At some time in the 18th century, another generation of Martyns built a new house beside the old de Burgo tower. Nothing of this Georgian structure, seemingly three-storeys over basement, has survived, although the stable yard immediately behind the castle dates from that period. In the 1870s when Edward Martyn was still a minor the old house was demolished and replaced with a new residence. The impetus for this transformation seems to have come from his formidable mother. Mrs Martyn was born Annie Josephine Smyth of Masonbrook, County Galway. When she married John Martyn in 1857, her self-made father presented his son-in-law with Annie Josephine’s weight in gold: the sum was supposed to amount to £20,000. After only three years of marriage, John Martyn died, leaving his heir Edward aged just 14 months to be raised by the widowed Annie. The following decade, she embarked on Tulira’s transformation, the eventual cost of which is said to have been £20,000, the same amount as was handed over by her father at the time of her marriage.
Given that Edward Martyn was only in his teens when Tulira was rebuilt, it seems likely his mother was responsible for choosing the architect. Since she was an ardent Roman Catholic, it is not altogether surprising the commission should have gone to George Ashlin, who otherwise worked primarily for clerical clients. Ashlin was born in County Cork in 1837 and in his late teens was articled in England to E W Pugin, son of Augustus Welby Pugin (whose daughter Ashlin married in 1860). When, in 1859, the younger Pugin received the commission for the church of SS Peter and Paul, Cork, he made Ashlin a partner with responsibility for their Irish work, which included St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh. Ashlin remained in partnership with Pugin until about 1870 after which he set up his own highly successful practice. Tulira was his only major secular commission and regrettably no documents relating to the castle’s design or construction have survived.
In any case, for Mrs Martyn and her son, Ashlin designed a densely-castellated two-storey house directly linked to the old castle. In the centre of the asymmetric facade is a projecting three storey tower containing an arched Gothic door case and an oriel window immediately above; on the corbels of the latter are carved Edward Martyn’s initials and the date 1882 indicating this was when work concluded. On either side of the tower are polygonal corner turrets which once more are raised slightly higher than the roof parapet. The garden front shows a similar differentiation in surface rhythm thanks to the presence of further projecting towers. The house has always inspired mixed feelings. Moore, in his usual imaginative way, claimed he attempted to dissuade Martyn from undertaking the project: ‘walking on the lawn, I remember trying to persuade him that the eighteenth-century house which one of his ancestors had built alongside of the old castle, on the decline of brigandage, would be sufficient for his want.’ However, since Mrs Martyn was the driving force behind the enterprise, this recollection seems defective. However in 1896 Yeats and the English critic Arthur Symons stayed in Tulira after which Symons wrote in The Savoy that here he discovered ‘a castle of dreams’, where ‘in the morning, I climb the winding staircase in the tower, creep through the secret passage, and find myself in a vast deserted room above the chapel which is my retiring room for meditation; or following the winding staircase, come out of the battlements, where I can look widely across Galway, to the hills.’ Yeats was also enchanted, although his preference was for ‘the many rookeries, the square old tower, and the great yard where medieval soldiers had exercised.’ Much later, his verdict was more harsh, dismissing Ashlin’s design as being nothing better than ‘a pretentious modern Gothic once dear to Irish Catholic families.’
It is generally accepted that Mrs Martyn’s reason for rebuilding Tulira was to provide a comfortable home for future generations of the ancient family into which she had married. George Moore, most likely apochryally, claimed Annie Martyn had proclaimed, ‘Edward must build a large and substantial house of family importance, and when this house was finished he could not do otherwise than marry.’ Unfortunately she had not reckoned on her son’s lifelong dedication to celibacy and reluctance to linger in the company of women. When he endowed the foundation of the Palestrina Choir in the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin in 1904, for example, he stipulated ‘the said choir shall consist of men and boys only’ and that ‘on no occasion shall females be employed.’
Mrs Martyn also under-estimated her son’s partiality for asceticism: although Tulira was splendidly finished, Martyn preferred to live in the old tower. Here a stone staircase ascending the full height of the building leads to the first floor which served as his private library and still retains its oak floor and oak-panelled walls, as well as stained glass windows designed by Edward Frampton in 1882 and featuring literary figures such as Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dante. A door at the far end of the library provides access to a simple room where Martyn slept, according to Moore ‘with the bed as narrow as a monk’s and the walls whitewashed like a cell and nothing upon them but a crucifix.’ Above this is his private chapel, its fittings, including the benches and altar, apparently designed by Irish architect William A Scott, although the chimneypiece has the dates 1613 and 1681 carved into the limestone. An even more impressive chimneypiece is found on the third floor where the ceiling rises to the roof, allowing for the inclusion of a small minstrels’ gallery at one gable end.
Meanwhile inside the Ashlin-designed house, after passing through a modest entrance one reaches the great hall measuring some 31 by 32 feet and rising 42 feet, the full height of Ashlin’s castle. Here Edward Martyn would play the polyphonic music of Palestrina and Vittoria on a long-since lost organ. On a richly-tiled floor repeatedly decorated with the Martyn motto of Sic hur Ad Astra (‘Thus One Climbs to the Stars’) rest the bases of black marble columns, their capitals elaborately carved with figures. From here a massive staircase with quatrefoil balustrading leads to the galleried first floor where a sequence of arches is supported by further marble columns. Much of this room’s decoration is attributed to John Dibblee Crace, the English designer and decorator whose father had worked with Pugin on the Houses of Parliament in London. Crace produced designs for the hall’s main window but these were never executed, as it seems Martyn lost interest in completing the scheme for the castle’s interior decoration. However, on the ground floor a series of reception rooms, intended to impress those prospective brides who were never invited, have compartmented timber ceilings with the recessed panels painted in a delicate design, also by Crace. The drawing and dining rooms retain their polychromatic marble chimneypieces as well as stained glass bearing the crests of Galway’s tribes. The embossed red and bronze wallpaper in the dining room was hung when the castle was first built, with certain sections restored more recently by David Skinner who also made paper for a number of other rooms in the house.
Despite all that he had done, and all that he had tried to do in the fields of art, music and literature, Edward Martyn’s final years were grim, not least due to creeping ill-health. In her journal for September 1921, Lady Gregory his neighbour and former collaborator, noted, ‘He is anxious about money, has fears of his investment in the English railways, and is very crippled by rheumatism.’ Two years later she visited him at Tulira for the last time and afterwards wrote, ‘In the bow window of the library I saw Edward sitting. I thought he would turn and look round at the noise, but he stayed quite quite immovable, like a stuffed figure, it was quite uncanny…I went in, but he did not turn his head, gazed before him. I touched his hands (one could not shake them, all crippled, Dolan [the butler] says he has to be fed) and spoke to him. He slowly turned his eyes but without recognition. I went on talking without response till I asked him if he had any pain and he whispered: “No, thank God”. I didn’t know if he knew me, but talked a little, and presently, he whispered: “How is Robert?” I said: “He is well, as all are in God’s hands, he has gone before me and before you.” Then I said: “My little grandson, Richard, is well”, and he said with difficulty and in a whisper: “I am very glad of that.” Then I came away, there was no use staying…’
Three months later Edward Martyn was dead at the age of sixty-four, leaving instructions that his body be donated to medical science and the remains afterwards buried in a pauper’s grave. Along with his papers, he left the contents of his personal library to the Carmelites of Clarendon Street, Dublin and they are there still. His collection of paintings, mostly by Irish artists but including a Monet landscape and two works by Degas bought while holidaying in Paris with George Moore in April 1885, Martyn bequeathed to the National Gallery of Ireland. The rest of the castle’s contents, it can be conjectured, were still in Tulira after it was left to a cousin Mary, Lady Hemphill. In 1982 the fifth Lord Hemphill sold Tulira and its surrounding land, and at that time Sotheby’s conducted a house contents auction on the premises when many of the 430 lots once owned by Martyn were dispersed. Between 1982 and 1996, Tulira changed hands no less than five times, on one occasion being exchanged for a yacht, before being sold to its present owners. Since taking possession of Tulira, they have tried to acquire any items of furniture that formerly belonged to the house and have come onto the market, such as a Victorian oak centre table (from a house sale in Oxfordshire) and a set of four oak Gothic chairs of the same period all of which have been returned to the castle’s library. Under their guardianship one feels the spirit of Edward Martyn has returned to Tulira.
Lady Olivia Hedges-White was born at Macroom Castle, County Cork in August 1850. Her father, the Hon William Henry Hare Hedges-White was the second son of the first Earl of Bantry; he had added Hedges to his own surname in 1840 on inheriting the Macroom estate from a cousin, Robert Hedges Eyre. Following the death of his elder brother, the second Earl of Bantry, in 1868 William Hedges-White also succeeded to the Bantry estates, meaning he owned almost 70,000 acres of land in the county (for more on Bantry and the White family, see When It’s Gone, It’s Gone, September 8th last). The third earl married Jane Herbert whose family had owned the Muckross estate in neighbouring County Kerry since the mid-1650s: when the Herberts became immured in debt in the late 1890s, Muckross would be bought by Lady Olive’s husband. She had been the first of the third Earl of Bantry’s daughters to marry, followed in 1874 by her elder sister Lady Elizabeth to Egerton Leigh and then in 1885 by her younger sister Lady Ina to Sewallis Edward Shirley, 10th Earl Ferrers. Lady Olive’s husband, who she married in February 1871, was Sir Arthur Edward Guinness. Arthur Edward Guinness was the eldest son of Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness, first baronet, who greatly expanded the brewery in Dublin and thereby enhanced the family’s fortunes. He married his cousin Elizabeth Guinness with whom he had four children. Arthur Guinness might have been expected to enter the business like his father before him, but in fact he left this task to his younger brother Edward (later first Earl of Iveagh) to whom he sold his half-share of the brewery in 1876. Arthur Guinness’s interests were political and he was elected to his father’s seat in Parliament following a by-election after the latter’s death in 1868. He retained his place at a General Election the same year; unfortunately it was subsequently discovered his agent had bribed an elector and so he was forced to give up the seat. He was re-elected again in 1874 and remained a committed Unionist MP (and lifelong opponent of Home Rule) until raised to the peerage in 1880 as Baron Ardilaun. In 1852 Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness bought the Ashford estate on the shores of Ireland’s second largest lake, Lough Corrib, in County Galway. The house at its centre was originally a de Burgo castle and then a shooting lodge belonging to the Browne family. However in the aftermath of the Great Famine the first Lord Oranmore and Browne had been forced to sell the greater part of his land holdings; Ashford and its surrounding 1,179 acres were acquired through the Encumbered Estates Court by the Guinnesses for £11,005. Benjamin Lee and then Arthur Edward greatly enlarged both the house and estate, the latter eventually covering some 33,000 acres, much of which benefitted from judicious tree planting. As for the building, this likewise increased in size from 1873 onwards when Arthur Edward Guinness commissioned a large west wing designed initially by James Franklin Fuller and – following a deterioration in the relationship between architect and client – George Ashlin; by 1915 £1 million had been spent on this project. The new work connected the 18th-century chateau-style lodge of the Brownes with two de Burgo towers and then the greater part of the structure was encased in battlements so that the whole became known as Ashford Castle. Recalling a visit he made there in the 1880s, George Moore would later write, ‘Below us, falling in sweet inclining plain, a sea of green turf flows in and out of stone walls and occasional clumps of trees down to the rocky promontories, the reedy reaches and the long curved woods which sweep about the castle – such a castle as Gautier would have loved to describe – that Lord Ardilaun has built on this beautiful Irish land. There it stands on that green headland with the billows of a tideless sea, lashing about its base; and oh! the towers and battlements rising out of the bending foliage.’ Ashford was never a permanent residence for the Guinness family but used during winter months for shooting parties and as somewhere to entertain large groups of friends. The photographs above give an idea of such occasions; the first of them, taken in October 1878, featurs a young Oscar Wilde (whose father had a place on Lough Corrib) leaning on a balustrade on the extreme right. Even before his marriage, Arthur Edward Guinness would host weekends in the house, one of which was recorded in a privately-printed book, A Lay of Ashford, which seems to date from around 1869/70. Text and drawings were both by Colonel James O’Hara who lived with his wife and child at Lenaboy Castle on the outskirts of Galway city, a property only built earlier in the decade to the design of Samuel Ussher Roberts (grandson of the famous 18th century Waterford architect John Roberts). The book describes the entertainment laid on for the guests, not least the creation of a temporary ballroom so that a dance could be held for them. There was also boating on the lake and a picnic. Among those present who have been identified were the host’s youngest brother, Captain Lee Guinness, David Plunket, later first Lord Rathmore (whose older brother was married to the host’s aunt), Lord and Lady Clanmorris, Lord and Lady John Manners, Robert Algernon Persse of Roxborough, County Galway (a brother of Augusta, Lady Gregory), Miss Alice Eyre of Eyrecourt and sundry other members of local families: all appear in Colonel O’Hara’s book, as does Ashford itself before the house was so extensively altered. Olive Ardilaun liked to paint, and collected her watercolour in a bound album. Most of them depict the landscape around Ashford but as can be seen in the first painting above, she also reproduced scenes from the family house on the north side of Dublin Bay. This was St Anne’s, originally called Thornhill, an 18th century property which Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness had bought with fifty-two acres in 1835 from John Venables Vernon of neighbouring Clontarf Castle. The old house was pulled down in 1850 and replaced with another in the Italianate style. At the same time the name was changed to St Anne’s (after an old well on the site) and more land acquired so that the grounds eventually amounted to some 500 acres. As at Ashford, from 1873 onwards Arthur and Olive Guinness embarked on an ambitious extension to the main house, once more using the designs of James Franklin Fuller. The result, Mark Bence-Jones later wrote was ‘a palace comparable to the best of the mansions that were being built at that period in the USA by people like the Vanderbilts, in taste no less than in grandeur.’ This, the Ardilauns’ main residence, was where they held parties and balls during the annual season, hosting a house party each year during the week of the Dublin Horse Show and entertaining visiting dignitaries, not least Queen Victoria who came here for dinner in April 1900 (the future George V’s signature and that of his wife Mary can be seen in the visitors’ book for August 22nd 1897; he would spend a week shooting at Ashford in 1905). Even during their lifetimes, the hospitality offered by the Ardilauns was exceptional: few if any other Irish landowners had the income to entertain in such a grand manner. And with the dawn of the new century and changes in this country’s economic and political circumstances they increasingly became anachronisms, reflections of another era. Lord Ardilaun died in January 1915 but his wife lived another decade. The couple had no offspring and the widowed Lady Ardilaun, while materially comfortable, was an isolated figure during her final years: Lady Gregory described her as ‘a lonely figure in her wealth, childless and feeling the old life shattered around her.’ She gave up Ashford which went to her husband’s nephew, the Hon Ernest Guinness, and Macroom Castle, which she had inherited from her father and to which she was devoted as a descendant of the original MacCarthy family, was burnt out by Anti-Treaty forces during the Civil War; the grounds were sold to a group of local businessmen two years later. In a 1949 memoir Bricks and Flowers, her cousin Katherine Everett (née Herbert) gives a description of Lady Ardilaun at this time, fearful of the world in which she now found herself and, despite the Guinness money, occupying an increasingly decrepit St Anne’s, its gardens falling into decay, the roof of the winter garden leaking whenever it rained, the quantity of water sometimes so great it would knock out the central heating boiler in the basement. When the cold and damp became too intense, she would move with her maid and secretary to the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin. Lady Ardilaun finally died in December 1925 at the age of 75. All the pictures shown here come from a series of albums being sold by Adam’s at this year’s Country House Collections auction in Slane Castle, County Meath next Sunday and Monday, 12th and 13th October. For more information, please see: http://www.adams.ie/Country-House-Collections-at-Slane-Castle/12-10-2014?gridtype=listview
Looking not unlike a gigantic lemon squeezer: a hollow octagonal limestone obelisk with angled ribs and graduated elliptical piercings to faces. It stands in the grounds of Garbally, County Galway, an estate formerly belonging to the Trenches, Earls of Clancarty. It is sometimes proposed that the obelisk was originally the spire of St John’s Church at nearby Kilclooney after that building was damaged by fire. However an inscription on the base advises ‘This spire finished in December 1811 was erected from a design presented gratuitously by J. T. Grove Esq. Architect of the British Post Office and Board of Works to Richard Earl of Clancarty’. John Groves was an English architect and although he produced designs for a couple of other projects in Ireland, this is his only extant work here making it very much one of a kind. Garbally remained in the hands of the Trench family until the last century: since the 1920s it has been a school.
‘The further I advanced, the more gloomy did the scene become. Not a human being crossed my path – no herds of cattle – no flocks of sheep were to be found in the rank pastures, and no sound broke in on the almost unnatural stillness save the hoarse croakings of an ill-boding raven. The air was oppressive. Heavy clouds, surcharged with rain, hovered over my head and among the distant mountains was again heard the voice of the mighty thunder. I hurried forward. The path was scarcely perceptible, for the grass was long and rank, and wet with the preceding rains. At length, within the deep recesses of a grove of huge trees, I could trace the roofless gables of an ancient building. I paused, for it was a singular scene of utter desolation: it was manifest that no part of this ancient establishment had escaped destruction, save portions of the church. Looking upon the place in all its solitary wildness, it was difficult to conceive that it had ever been the abode of living men; and that the busy scenes of life, for such even a monastery presents, had ever been enacted here. The aspect of this spot was as if it were not only totally deserted, but unknown. With a feeling of awe I approached nearer the ruins. The dark clouds and the thick foliage cast an unwonted gloom over the place. Around the roofless building were many graves unfenced from the inroads of cattle or other animals. Many a cross of wood or stone was there – many a sculptured head-stone, overgrown with moss, rose from amid the green mounds, beneath which slept the mouldering remnants of many generations.
Cautiously picking my way, I at length gained the other side of the ruin, and stood in front of the ancient porch. It had been once handsome, and bore many marks of skilful workmanship; but the hand of destruction as well as of time had been busy here. The entrance was half choked with rubbish and masses of disjointed stonework. The noisome nettle and the henbane luxuriated, and out of the deep fissures in the walls grew masses of ivy and the spreading branches of an elder tree. Turning from the building, the view was still wild and solitary, but beautiful and unexpected. The waters of Lough Mask washed a pebbly strand not far from the spot where I stood. Two wooded islands cast their deep shadows on the lake ; and far to the left, bounding the broad expanse, rose the mountains of Kilbride and the towering cliffs of Glenbeg. As I gazed, heavy drops of rain began to fall, the clouds seemed heavy with mischief, and rolled onwards in long dark masses. In vain I looked around for some cottage or shed, into which I might hasten for shelter; the rain began to fall heavily, and a flash of lightning, succeeded rapidly by a clap of thunder, which reverberated awfully among the rocks and woods, drove me at once through the half choked porch into the interior of the ruins, perchance some friendly corner might there present itself. I found myself in the nave of the ancient conventual church. No portion of the roof was left: a large ash tree grew in the centre, luxuriating in the rich accumulations around and over the side walls thick masses of ivy clustered, affording me a precarious shelter…
My blood ran cold as my eye pierced the gloom and rested upon objects the most abhorrent and disgusting. Large stones thrown from the walls were scattered around and among them were the sad relics of bodies once instinct with life. I counted no less than sixty skulls! To remain was impossible. Though vivid flashes of lightning threw a momentary glare around, and loud and continued bursts of thunder proclaimed the tempest at its height, I hastily left the spot, and as I gained the open glades of the park, felt much relieved that this my first and probably last visit to the old abbey of Ross was achieved.’
From The Saxon in Ireland, or the Rambles of an Englishman in Search of a Settlement in the West of Ireland, by the Rev. John Hervey Ashworth, 1851.
‘The ruins of the Franciscan convent at Ross, near Headford, in the county Galway, are popularly styled the Abbey of Ross. In the early records this convent receives the name Ross-Errily or Ross-Traily, which is a corruption of the Irish name Ross-ne-threallagh. It was delightfully situated on the south bank of the Black river, in the parish of Kilursa; and its ruins still attest its former magnificence. The Four Masters and Luke Wadding register its foundation in the year 1351; and the latter adds that it was a most retired and lonely spot, surrounded on all sides with water, and approachable only by a narrow path which was formed of large blocks of stone.
Before the close of the fifteenth century it attained special eminence among the many Franciscan institutions of the kingdom; and its property comprised the townlands of Ross, Cordara, and Ross-duff, amounting to about thirteen hundred statute acres. It was from the hallowed precincts of this monastery that a colony went forth to found the convent of Donegal, so famous in our annals. A provincial chapter of the Franciscan order had assembled in Ross-Errily to deliberate on matters of private interest, when Nuala O’Connor, daughter of O’Connor Faily, and wife of Hugh Roe O’Donnell, hereditary chieftain of Tirconnell, came, accompanied by a goodly array of gallow-glasses, to present an humble memorial. This petition of the Lady Nuala set forth the anxious desire of the faithful of Tirconnell to have amongst them some religious of the order of St. Francis to be their guides in their heavenward journey by precept and example. The favour was soon granted, and before the close of 1474 the foundations were laid of the far-famed monastery whose ruins are still met with at the head of the lovely bay of Donegal.
In 1538 the convent of Ross-Errily shared in the storm of persecution with which the reckless monarch Henry the Eighth assailed the church of our fathers. Indeed the Franciscans were in a special manner exposed to the rage of the English monarch. They had energetically opposed his wished-for divorce, and now they should pay the penalty of their zeal. Two hundred Franciscans were thrown into prison; thirty-two of them were bound with chains, and exposed to every insult; others were banished, and some, too, were put to death.
New trials awaited the convent of Ross-Errily in the reign of Elizabeth. In an inquiry which was made in the commencement of her reign, it was found that “the site of the monastery of Ross-Errilly or Ross-Railly was one acre of land; that it contained a church, a cloister, a hall, dormitories, chambers, and cellars; a cemetery, three small gardens, and a mill, which for want of water, could work only in winter”. By royal patent the tithes attached to the church were granted to the portreve and burgesses of Athenry; whilst the monastery, with its property, was allotted to Richard Burgh, Earl of Clanrickarde. This nobleman, however, whose family had long been the patrons of the Franciscan convent, privately restored it to its owners. The crown, finding the friars in 1584 again in possession of the monastery, made a grant of it to an English courtier, who plundered it of its library, monuments, and books, and expelled the religious. He was soon, however, anxious to part with his ill-acquired property, and two years later we find it once more purchased by Clanrickarde and restored to the children of St. Francis. The close of the century saw Ross-Errily transformed into an English garrison which was destined to curb the Western chieftains, and prevent them from joining the ranks of O’Neill and O’Donnell in the north.’
From The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. V, No. I, October 1868
‘In 1617, two Irish Franciscans, Fathers Purcell and Mooney, were resident at Louvain, where they and their Order had, after their expulsion from Ireland, been protected by Albert and Isabella, then joint sovereigns of the Netherlands. Fr. Mooney, at that time Provincial, and far advanced in years, had been in early life a soldier, and served in the Desmond wars. Purcell was a man of great learning; and, from materials supplied him by his superior, wrote, partly as a dialogue, a Latin history of his Order, so far as it related to their Irish establishments. This interesting MS., the original of which is in the Burgundian Library at Brussels, the Rev. C. P. Meehan, of Dublin, has translated and published. Fr. Mooney’s recollections of this monastery are thus afforded by his ancient scribe and modern commentator:
“Never was a more solitary spot chosen for the habitation of a religious community than that one on which Rosserilly stands; for it is surrounded by marshes and bogs, and the stillness that reigns there is seldom broken, save by the tolling of the church bell, or the whirr of the countless flocks of plover and other wild birds that frequent the fens which abound in that desolate region. Another remarkable feature of the locality is, that the monastery can only be approached by a causeway, paved with large stones, over an extent of fully two hundred paces, and terminating at the enclosure, which was built in 1572 by Father Ferrall Mac Egan, a native of Connacht, and then Provincial of the Irish Franciscans.He was, in sooth, a distinguished man in his day, far-famed for eloquence and learning, and singularly fond of Rosserilly, which he used to compare to the Thebaid, whither the early Christians fled for prayer and contemplation. He died in our house of Kilconnell, where he made his religious profession, and there he awaits the resurrection – peace to his memory! As to the church of Rosserilly, it is, indeed, a beautiful edifice; and the same may be said of the monastery, which, although often garrisoned by the English troops during the late war, is still in excellent preservation. Cloister, refectory, dormitory, chapter house, library, and lofty bell tower, have all survived the disasters of that calamitous period; but, in the twenty-sixth year of the reign of Elizabeth, the friars were forcibly expelled from their beloved retreat.”
The friars, however, soon returned, and remained in quiet possession for long after, till Sir Arthur Chichester, then Lord Deputy, directed O Donnell, or Daniel, Archbishop of Tuam, to turn them out; but that good and learned Protestant sent them word privately of his intention, and they saved themselves and their effects by flight. One good turn deserved another; and this kindness was repaid in 1641, when, after the massacre at Shrule, Father Brian Kilkelly, then Guardian of Rosserilly, hearing of the atrocities which were enacting within a few miles of him, hastened to the spot, succoured the wounded, and brought the Bishop of Killala’s wife and children to his monastery, and treated them with the greatest kindness.’
From Lough Corrib: Its Shores and Islands by Sir William Wilde, 1867.
‘Although there is nothing in the town [of Headford, County Galway] of interest, yet the tourist should by all means pay a visit to Ross Abbey, about 1½m. distant, one of the most extensive and beautiful buildings in Ireland, built at the close of the 15th cent. by Lord Granard for Observantine Franciscans and granted to the Earl of Clanrickarde at the suppression of religious houses. Including the religious and domestic buildings, it covers a very large space of ground on the banks of the Black river, and overlooking a considerable tract of bog. It is the cemetery of many good Connaught families and probably contains more grinning and ghastly skulls than any catacomb, some of the tracery of the windows being filled up with thigh-bones and heads – a not uncommon way of disposing of these emblems of mortality in Irish abbeys.
The ch. has a nave, choir and S. transept, with a slender and graceful tower arising from the intersection. Attached to the nave are N. and S. aisles, and a chapel running parallel with the S. transept. The latter, together with the S. aisle, are separated from the nave by round-headed arches with octangular piers. Two round arches also divide the transept from the aisles, and two blocked ones from the chapel on the E. In the W. chapel of the S. aisle is a small monument of the O’Donnells, 1646. The nave is shut off from the choir by a broad-headed segmental arch. The latter part of the ch. is lighted on S. by 4 double-light trefoil windows; and on the S. side of the altar is a double-arched niche used as an ambry. The E. window is dec. with very delicate tracery, and is worth notice as is also the moulding of the W. door, close to which is the stoup for holy water. To the N. of the nave are the cloisters, which are in good preservation. The area is small and surrounded by 10 beautiful pointed arches about 3 ft. high, the entrance of the passage within being under round-headed arches…
From the N. of the choir runs a long chapel lighted by E. Eng. windows, those of the N. side having ogee heads. A projecting building also on the N. of the choir was probably the Abbot’s residence, and beyond the N. transept is the kitchen with ample fireplace and spout for carrying the water away, also a stone reservoir and pipe connecting it with the river, probably used as a fish vivarium. On the E. side of the kitchen is the guesten-hall, in which there is an aperture communicating with the kitchen for the entrance of the viands. Probably there is no ruin in the kingdom showing the domestic arrangements to greater advantage than Ross, which on this account deserves to be attentively studied.’
From A Handbook for Travellers in Ireland, John Murray, 1866.
‘Besides the common quantity of these remains tossing all about, there was an immense heap lying outside the church, and as these bones seemed to have accumulated for ages, and as the place from the vicinity of the river was very damp, this immense “ossarium” if I may so name it, was covered with all sorts of verdure, mosses, lichens, sedums, saxifrages, and wild strawberries just showing their fruit between jaw-bones. It was curious to see skulls like wrens’ nests, and thigh bones as green as cabbage-stalks; the dry bones had, as it were, assumed a new mode of existence, and again served as the basis of a new life. It really was a scene on which a person might ponder and phrenologise; and I confess no collection of human bones I ever saw interested me more – no not even that far-famed congeries which at Cologne assumes to be the remains of St. Ursula’s eleven thousand virgins.
The cloisters of Ross are quite perfect – as perfect as those of Muckruss or Quin; but they have not the picturesque accompaniment, like those at Killarney, of a magnificent yew-tree in the centre. The dormitories, the chapter-house, the cellars and kitchens, are all (as far as walls go) perfect. There the friars, living in a damp and low situation, had need of fires, and they took care to have them. I never saw such huge fire-places. The kitchen hearth would not disgrace the largest at Oxford or Cambridge. In one of the corners of a huge apartment, which seemed to be a scullery, there is a circular excavation, cased with cut stone, too large for a well, in all likelihood a place for holding live fish, which taken out of the adjoining river, no doubt were kept here for ready use.
Altogether this abbey seems to have formed a little town in itself, having no entrance but the one, and its walls high and thick; it was a sort of stronghold and, no doubt, in the lawless times before the reformation, afforded an asylum for the weak and persecuted, as well as a sanctuary for the criminal. If any one wishes to see an Irish monastery in perfection, with all its “menage“, they will before passing on to Cong, and before visiting the western highlands of Ireland, take a view of Ross Reilly which was founded by Lord Granard in the fifteenth century, and was placed under the rule of the Franciscans. It, like many others, was repaired by the Roman Catholic clergy in 1604.
On leaving this abbey, I could not resist the desire I had to bring away one of these moss-bewigged skulls in order to show it to some phrenological friends in Dublin, and as we had no means of secreting it, and justly apprehended that if we returned the way we came through the field where the people were working we might be ill treated (as perhaps we deserved) as robbers of the dead, we had to keep along the margin of the river, and not only disentangle ourselves from its windings, but leap over, as best we could, the numerous and wide drains that lay in our way, with no small fear of being caught and well beaten. We, however, effected our retreat to our jaunting car, and secreted our skull, which may be seen in all its verdant beauty in the library of the Royal Irish Academy.’
From A Tour in Connaught, by the Rev. Caesar Otway, 1839.
Ross Errilly Friary is today under the care of the Office of Public Works; the skulls once littering its precincts (and sometimes taken away as souvenirs) are no longer to be seen…