The greater part of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin dates from the first half of the 13th century but six hundred years later much of the structure had fallen into disrepair. Therefore the dean and chapter were extremely grateful when in 1860 the wealthy brewer Benjamin Lee Guinness wrote offering to underwrite a complete restoration of the building, the only condition being that he be subject to no interference: the project took five years and cost £150,000. One of the alterations made by Guinness was raising the floor of the nave to the same height as that of the choir. In the process, new tiles were laid down, of which these are an example, based on mediaeval designs and covering the entire nave.
‘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…
This church at Coolcarrigan, County Kildare has rightly been described by art historian Nicola Gordon Bowe as ‘a tiny gem of the Hiberno-Romanesque Celtic Revival.’ The building is not large and was built primarily – although not exclusively – for members of the family on whose land it stands. Seemingly prior to the church’s construction the first-floor room of a thatched house in the nearby farmyard was used for religious services, so one understands why in the early 1880s Robert Mackay Wilson decided to build something more suitable: the completed church was consecrated in 1885 by William Plunket, fourth Baron Plunket and, since the previous year Archbishop of Dublin (his statue can be seen on Kildare Place in central Dublin). Located in an opening of woodland, it has been in continuous use ever since, and services are held there on two Sundays each month.
Coolcarrigan church’s design derives from that of the 12th century Temple Finghin and McCarthy’s Tower at Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, believed to be the earliest instance of these two structures combined together (as opposed to being placed adjacent to each other). In the latter instance, they are part of a larger architectural ensemble, whereas here they stand alone. Furthermore, an unusual feature of the County Kildare site is that it is surrounded by a circular dry moat, access to the building only being gained by passing through a lych gate with its red-tiled roof: this is an architectural element more commonly found in the eastern counties of England than in Ireland. However, thereafter the Celtic spirit reigns throughout in this sturdy little granite building.
There has been some discussion about who might have been responsible for the church’s design, with the names of both James Franklin Fuller and Sir Thomas Drew advanced as the possible architect. No papers concerning the commission are known to survive, and a reference to the building in the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette of January 5th 1884, while noting the construction of the building ‘following the example of some ancient Irish churches,’ does not credit anyone with the work. In favour of Fuller is the fact that he was Diocesan Architect at this date, worked in the Hiberno-Romanesque style and built a number of other private churches. On the other hand, Drew’s 1910 obituary apparently mentions additions to Coolcarrigan and, like the estate’s owners, he was an Ulsterman. Unless new evidence comes to light, like so many other matters associated with religion, the architect’s name must remain a mystery.
We know a great deal more about the parties responsible for the church’s interior decoration. One of those who literally had a hand in the work was Douglas Hyde, himself the son of a Church of Ireland rector (indeed his grandfather and great-grandfather had likewise been Anglican clergymen). The future first President of Ireland and leading figure in the Gaelic Revival movement was an undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin at the same time as the Wilson’s elder son Robert and so came to know the family. Sadly, as one of the church’s windows explains, Robert Wilson died in 1887, three years after his younger brother; two of the Wilson’s daughters likewise predeceased their parents. All the siblings are commemorated here in stained glass.
Since he graduated from university in 1884, it must have been around that time that Douglas Hyde came up with the scheme for the texts which are painted onto the walls using a distinctive Irish alphabet. Given his background, Hyde would have been well-placed to choose apposite scriptural quotations. It is worth noting that the various items of church furniture such as table, lectern, reading desk, chairs and so forth are likewise carved in traditional Celtic patterns.
The two earliest of Coolcarrigan church’s splendid stained glass windows, memorials to the Wilsons’ deceased sons, were, according to Paul Larmour, not of Irish manufacture: ‘I would guess they are by Heaton Butler & Bayne the English firm. They did the stained glass in Clane and also in St. Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare (where J.F. Fuller was in charge, restoring the east end in the 1880s or 90s).’ However, the other three windows on the south and north walls, installed in 1911, 1912 and 1927 respectively, were all made by Clare-born Catherine O’Brien who for almost forty years from 1906 worked at An Túr Gloine (The Tower of Glass) the co-operative studio established in Dublin in 1903 by artist Sarah Purser at the instigation of Edward Martyn (a co-founder of the Abbey Theatre). An Túr Gloine’s output did much to encourage interest in the emergence of a national style in this medium, since for much of the 19th century new churches had imported insipid and generic stained glass from Germany and other countries. Hence the abundant use of Celtic designs in the Coolcarrigan windows, as also in the large pair in the west wall (dating from 1916), likewise designed by Catherine O’Brien and commemorating Robert Mackay Wilson and his wife Elizabeth. That above the altar on the east wall is the most recent window, installed in 1980 and designed by Patrick Pollen who almost three decades before had moved to Ireland in order to study at An Túr Gloine, and who only died four years ago.
As has been mentioned, Coolcarrigan church continues to serve the function for which it was originally intended, and continues to be scrupulously maintained by the present generation of the family who commissioned the building 130 years ago. So many churches, especially those formerly in the care of the Church of Ireland, have closed over recent years it is a rare pleasure to find one, particularly as here embodying the ideals of the Celtic Revival, still loved and in active use. Long may this remain the case.
The church is located inside the grounds of Coolcarrigan, the lovely gardens of which are open to the public at certain times of the year. For more information, see: http://www.coolcarrigan.ie
The tower of the church at Quin Friary, County Clare seen through one of its transept windows. Another of the outstanding Franciscan houses in Ireland, Quin Friary was established in the mid-14th century by members of the local MacNamara family. However, it was built on the site, and incorporated parts, of a castle built in 1280 by the Norman Richard de Clare in an unsuccessful attempt to subdue the same family: six years later this structure was attacked and burnt by Cuvea MacNamara who slaughtered most of its occupants. The subsequent friary had an equally bloody and incendiary history. In 1584, for example, Donough Beg O’Brian, having been half-hanged from a cart and his bones broken with the back of an axe was strung up while still alive from this same tower by Sir John Perrot; a few years later the building was again set alight by another of the O’Brians. Somehow, and with intermittent breaks, Franciscan friars continued to live on the site, the last resident only dying in 1820. Today there is little evidence of the friary’s turbulent past.
The uppermost section of the archway located on the southern wall of a former monastery at Dysert O’Dea, County Clare. The original religious settlement here is said to have been established by Saint Tola in the 8th century. However, the remains seen today mostly date from four centuries later. Among the building’s most notable features is this elaborately carved Romanesque doorway, which is ringed with nineteen human and animal heads, the one serving as keystone being notably narrower than any of its neighbours.
Writing of Askeaton, County Limerick in 1841, the unflagging Mrs Hall commented that ‘the object of principal interest here is the abbey. It stands at the opposite side of, and adjacent to, the river, and is a pile of very considerable extent and in tolerable preservation. It was founded in 1420 by James, seventh Earl of Desmond for conventual Franciscans, and was reformed in 1490, by the Observantine friars. James, the fifteenth Earl, died and was buried here, in 1558. In 1564 a chapter of the order was held within it. At the suppression of monasteries, towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth, after the destruction of Desmond’s power, this structure shared the general fate; but an abortive effort at its restoration was made in 1648, by the confederate Catholics; since then it has been gradually, though slowly, progressing to its present state. The church stands in the midst of the conventual buildings. It is a long oblong, from which a transept branches off at the north side, at the intersection of which formerly stood a tower, the ruins of which lie around in solid masses.’
Mrs Hall continued, ‘The east window is a broad and lofty opening of five lights, the mullions forming intersecting tracery at head. The transept opens into the church by two fair, broad and lofty arches. It is divided in its length by a range of three similar arches springing from plain pillars, and forming a lateral aisle. This portion of the building also contains some old tombs. The cloister, which lies at the south side of the church, is not the least beautiful portion of this interesting ruin. It is an area encompassed by low arched ambulatories, opening on a central square in a succession of small, neatly executed, pointed arches, twelve to each side. An old white-thorn occupies the centre. The refectory, dormitories, hospital, and other offices are all in fair preservation and, meet haunts as they are for “musing melancholy,” are not without their due attraction to detain the footsteps of the curious visitor.’
Evidently Mrs Hall (and presumably her husband too) was greatly taken with the remains of Askeaton’s Franciscan friary, since she devoted more attention to the site than was often the case in the course of the couple’s diligent investigations, and more than she did to anything else in the immediate area. And why not, since the former religious house is one of the most attractive mediaeval ruins in the entire country, and the greater part of it has survived in exceptionally good condition.
The town of Askeaton lies to the west of Limerick city and is sited on the river Deel which a couple of miles further north flows into the Shannon estuary. Its situation gave the place strategic importance and hence at the very end of the 12th century Hugo de Burgo established a castle here: it subsequently became a stronghold for the FitzGeralds, Earls of Desmond, the dominant family in this part of Munster. They remained in possession until the late 16th century and the castle itself suffered extensive damage in 1652. Now under the care of the Office of Public Works it has been undergoing interminable repairs for far too many years and remains closed to the public, thereby ill-serving the local community.
Although Mrs Hall was accurate in most of her commentary, her crediting the seventh Earl of Desmond with the foundation of Askeaton’s Franciscan friary appears to have been incorrect. Since its origins are generally dated to c.1389, the man responsible would be the poetically-inclined Gerald FitzGerald, third Earl of Desmond. But let us not become too pedantic, especially since hard and fast evidence is unavailable. What matters more is that the buildings are evidence of how the decorative arts flourished in late-mediaeval Ireland and were put to use in the ornamentation of religious buildings.
The friary having been completed in the early fifteenth century then enjoyed 100 years of undisturbed occupancy before the disruption of the Reformation, the Desmond Rebellion, the upheavals of conquest and resettlement which so much of the rest of the country also underwent from the 1540s onwards. In 1579, for example, Sir Nicholas Malby, then Lord President of Connacht, having failed to take the neighbouring Desmond castle, instead attacked the friary and apparently slaughtered several of its occupants. But those Franciscans were a hardy bunch and repeatedly returned to their house; during the confederate wars of the 1640s, for example, it was repaired and re-occupied. Seemingly members of the order remained in the locale well into the 18th century and part of the site was used for Roman Catholic services until the construction of a new chapel in 1851.
As can be seen, the glory of Askeaton friary is its cloister, unusually located to the south of the church and remarkably intact considering the assaults the building underwent in earlier centuries. Again reverting to Mrs Hall for guidance, we note that each of its four vaulted sides feature twelve pointed arches supported by cylindrical columns with richly moulded capitals; the ancient whitethorn bush standing in the centre of the courtyard to which she referred, and which was much commented on by other observers in the 19th century, has since been removed and the space looks rather bleak without it. All of the arch pillars are original save two which were stolen in the 19th century and have since been replaced. A column on the north-east corner of the cloisters features a medieval carving of St. Francis of Assisi displahing his stigmata. The face is more worn than the rest of the figure because it used to be believed kissing it would cure toothache.
Given its excellent condition, proximity to Limerick city and inherent beauty, one might expect Askeaton friary to be a popular destination for visitors. In fact visitors to the ruin are unlikely to find anyone else there. Should this be a cause for lamentation? Of course it is important that the national heritage be duly appreciated and celebrated, Yet experiencing Askeaton friary alone allows one to engage in what might be described as a Thomas Gray moment, an opportunity to revel in that ‘musing melancholy’ to which Mrs Hall so rightly referred. And who could resist that cloistered self-indulgence?
Founded in the late 12th century, St Mary’s Cathedral in Limerick contains many attractive features, not least the only surviving mediaeval misericords in Ireland. The lip of these seats was designed to allow members of the cathedral chapter to rest during long services without being seen to sit down, hence their name which derives from the Latin word ‘misericordiae’ (acts of mercy). Those in St Mary’s date from 1480-1500 and are carved in oak from the woods of nearby Cratloe, County Clare. Each one is different and they feature both men and beasts, the latter real as well as imaginary. There are 23 misericords which at some date in the 19th century were removed from the main body of the church and stored in the crypt. Thankfully they survived and can now be seen in the north transept.
The Irish Aesthete takes this opportunity to wish all readers a very Happy Christmas and hopes they receive as much rest as those clerics who once celebrated the occasion by settling onto a misericord.
The founder of Methodism John Wesley first visited Downpatrick, County Down in June 1778 and in his journal noted that at the top of the town ‘stands the Abbey, on a hill which commands all the country. It is a noble ruin and is far the largest building I have seen in the kingdom.’ Back in Downpatrick in June 1789, he wrote, ‘In the afternoon we viewed the venerable ruins of the Abbey. Great men have talked of rebuilding it for many years; but none moves a hand towards it.’ Wesley was here precipitate, because a year later, some of those ‘great men’ did indeed undertake a complete restoration of the old building.
According to legend, when St Patrick came to preach the Christian message in Ireland in 432 he landed at Saul, County Down and after converting the local chieftain Dichu, there he established his first church. Patrick is said to have died at Saul almost three decades later after which his body was placed on a cart drawn by two untamed oxen with the understanding that where they stopped would be his burial place. That spot was where the Downpatrick’s Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity now stands.
The association with Ireland’s patron saint meant the hill at Downpatrick soon became a place of worship, although it only assumed this name – as Dún Phádraig – in the 13th century. In any case, it was already the site of an historic settlement: in the second century the Alexandrian Ptolemy mentioned the town (as Dunum) in his Geographia. Meanwhile from around the time of St Patrick onwards the dominant ruling authority in this part of Ireland was the Dál Fiatach dynasty which had its chief royal site in Downpatrick, thereby confirming the place’s political as well as religious importance.
With regard to the latter, a monastery was established at the site of the saint’s burial. This foundation had a chequered history. It was plundered by Viking invaders on a number of occasions and later the stone church and round tower were burnt after being struck by lightning. In 1124 St Malachy became Bishop of Down and undertook a restoration of the building, establishing an order of Augustinian Canons Regular there. These were replaced later in the century by the Norman knight John de Courcy after he had ousted the last King of the Dál Fiatach and seized control of this part of Ireland. De Courcy invited Benedictine monks from St Werburgh’s in Chester to Downpatrick and that order remained responsible for the site until Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Before the end of the 12th century the remains of St Patrick had been joined by those of Ss. Brigid and Columba. But this was not enough to preserve the church from further vicissitudes: it was damaged by an earthquake in 1245 and then burned by Edward Bruce in 1315.
Following the suppression of monasteries, in 1539 Down Cathedral was laid waste by the then Lord Deputy of Ireland Leonard Grey, Viscount Grane who is said to have stabled his horses in the building. Thus it fell into a ruinous state even though in 1609 James I granted the cathedral a charter dedicating it to the Holy Trinity and providing for a Dean and Chapter. So although successive deans continued to be installed, the cathedral was in too poor a condition to be used for services. (In fact when Robert Echlin, Bishop of Down and Connor undertook a visitation of his diocese in 1622 he found all but ten of Down’s churches were in ruins.)
Jonathan Carver’s The New Universal Traveler published in 1779 describes the cathedral as being ‘yet venerable in its ruins. The roof was supported by five handsome arches, which compose a centre aile of twenty-six foot broad, and two lateral ailes each thirteen foot wide. The whole length of the structure is a hundred foot. The heads of the pillars and arches, the tops of the windows, and many niches in the walls, have been adorned with variety of sculpture in stone, some parts of which yet remain. Over the east window, which is very lofty, are three handsome ancient niches, where are the pedestals on which it is supposed the statues of St. Patrick, St. Brigid and St. Columb formerly stood.
Adjoining to the east end of the cathedral are two square columns, one of which is solid and the other hollow; and in it are twenty winding steps, which are supposed to have led up to the roof…There are no ancient monuments remaining in the old abbey, but at the distance of about forty foot from the cathedral, stands a round tower, sixty-six foot high. The thickness of the walls is three foot, and the diameter within, eight foot. On the west side of it is an irregular gap, about ten foot from the top; near a third of the whole circumference being broke off by the injury of time…’
In 1787 the Hon. And Reverend William Annesley, son of the first Viscount Glerawly, and brother of the first and second Earls Annesley, was appointed Dean of Down and immediately began making plans for the restoration of the ruined cathedral under his care. In this he was greatly helped by Wills Hill, Earl of Hillsborough who in 1789 was created first Marquis of Downshire. In July of that year the Dean and Chapter met in Downpatrick and passed a resolution committing themselves to the old building’s reconstruction, assisted by Dean Annesley agreeing to give £300 of his annual tithes for this purpose. Lord Downshire provided £568 (and embarked on a lengthy letter-writing campaign to raise funds from other potential donors) and in 1790 an Act of Parliament granted £1,000 from George III provided an equal sum was raised by subscription. The total cost was estimated to be in the region of £5,000. In fact this much had been expended by 1795 when the building was reroofed by otherwise still insufficiently restored; the east window, for example, was glazed in April 1800 and the floor reflagged. Seats were being put in a year later and the organ arrived in July 1802. But as late as July 1810 the third Marquis of Downshire could write that he had visited the building ‘the restoration of which had been promoted by my ancestors, and I am much concerned to observe it still continues in an unfinished state.’ While services were already held there the cathedral was only ready to be consecrated in 1818, the octagonal vestibule and gothic tower at the west end of the building being added in 1826.
The architect responsible for rebuilding the cathedral was Charles Lilly about whom we know relatively little, although he appears to have originated in Dublin. Lilly was active in County Down during this period: he carried out work for Dean Annesley at his residence Oakley House and also designed the new gaol in Downpatrick in 1789, as well as receiving a number of other public and private commissions. Architectural historians are inclined to be unenthusiastic about his work on the cathedral, regarding it as excessively heavy-handed. It is certainly regrettable that he should have pulled down the old round tower, seemingly on the grounds that it was unstable. And he is criticized for having retained little of the old building, preferring to create his version of a mediaeval cathedral.
On the other hand, one wonders after 250 years of neglect how much was capable of being retained. Furthermore Lilly’s interpretation has a great deal of charm, and none of the turgid heaviness often found in full-blown 19th century cathedral restorations. Down Cathedral displays the delicacy, even frivolity of Gothick, as opposed to the earnestness of Pugin-esque Gothic Revival. The interior is full of light and movement and rhythm, the tiered box pews – those closest to the centre aisle given a series of bow fronts like houses on a Regency terrace – adding a certain theatricality to the space. This impression is enhanced by the line of boxes directly beneath the organ case of the pulpitum: these would not look out of place in an opera house. It may not be historically correct, but Down Cathedral is a delight, its slender sprung arches lifting one’s eyes heavenwards. St Patrick would surely approve of that.
Passing through the village of Kilconnell, County Galway one sees an extensive range of ruins to the immediate west of the main street. Here in a field grazed by sheep who look blithely impervious to the architectural glories around them stand the remains of a former Franciscan friary.
There has been some discussion about the precise date of the building’s foundation, perhaps because it is proposed to be on the site of an earlier religious settlement established in the sixth century by St Conal, or Conall (of whom there seems to have been more than one). Hence the Irish placename Cil Chonaill, meaning Conall’s church. In any case, if monks did live here before the Franciscans arrived no evidence of their presence remains. It is most commonly suggested the friars established their house around 1414 at the request of and with assistance from William O’Kelly, Lord of Uí Maine – one of the oldest and largest kingdoms in Connacht that included much of this part of the country – who died in 1420.
Kilconnell Friary is more elaborate than most such Franciscan establishments. The original body of the church consisted, as was always the case with this religious order, of a single long nave continuing into a choir of similar proportions. A cloister to the immediate north of the church then ran east to a two-storey domestic range that held offices below and a dormitory above. Only the east and part of the south range of the cloister arcades survive but these are notable for the variety of stonemason’s marks carved into them.
Later in the 15th century, and rather unusually, a large square tower was erected at the central point and running the full width of the church; it still rises three storeys higher than the former roof line and can be sighted across the surrounding countryside. It has very handsome vaulting the piers beneath which sport a couple of delicate carvings of an angel and an owl. Around the same period a south aisle was joined to the nave by an arcade as well as a south transept accessible from both nave and choir, with a small chapel added to the immediate east in the 16th century. These adjuncts make Kilconnell larger and finer than the majority of its sister houses in Ireland.
What further distinguishes Kilconnell Friary from other such churches is its exceptionally impressive collection of niche tombs found lining the walls of both nave and choir. The former holds the most elaborate of all, located just inside the west entrance on the north wall. The upper section is dominated by an ogee canopy with flamboyant stone tracery and capped by a carved panel containing two figures widely believed to represent St Patrick and St Francis. The base of this monument is given over to a long slab featuring six further figures, each identified by name: St John the Evangelist, St Louis of Toulouse, the Virgin, St John the Baptist, St James Major and St Denis of Paris. There has been some speculation why two French saints should appear on this tomb, but perhaps the explanation lies with the family responsible for its erection; unfortunately it is unknown who that might have been.
Another similarly flamboyant gothic tomb, albeit without the carved figures, can be found on the north wall of the choir, this one associated with the O’Daly family and another on the opposite side is an O’Kelly tomb of marginally less splendour. The main windows are also particularly good, including those in the south aisle and transept but best of all, and probably latest, is that on the west wall.
Kilconnell Friary’s prominence, apparent in its size and decoration, remained long after other religious establishments were closed as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1540s. Although occupied by English troops in 1596, twenty-one years later it was claimed that the buildings were intact and still in use, with a community of six friars. Their lands were granted by James I to the Norfolk-born judge Charles Calthorpe in 1616 and in 1667 Matthias Barnewall, 8th Baron Trimlestown, who on Oliver Cromwell’s orders had been transplanted to Connacht from his family estate in County Meath was interred inside the friary, as commemorated by an armorial tablet set into the wall of the former sacristy.
There were still friars on the site in 1709 and a few remained until 1766. Seemingly the last one, who had been acting as a parish priest, only left in 1801. Long before that date, however, the buildings had become ruinous: an engraving included in Francis Grose’s Antiquities of Ireland published in 1791 shows the church roofless, its walls already half-smothered in foliage (in fact the image suggests the structure was in poorer condition then than is the case today).
In his Tour of Connaught (1839) the Rev. Caesar Otway wrote ‘The shell of the abbey is as picturesque as can be, where there are neither hills, rock, lake nor river, and but a few distant trees to improve the scenery; perhaps its ivy-mantled tower and time-tinted roofless gables, with all their salient angles, producing the happiest effects of light and shadow, are better in keeping with the waste and desolation that preside over the place, destitute as it is of any modern improvement or decoration whatsoever.’ So it remains to this day, a monument to the glories of late-mediaeval Ireland still unadorned by modern improvements and still mostly frequented only by a flock of disinterested sheep.
The 13th century church at Kilfane, County Kilkenny is now a fine ruin, notable for its adjacent castellated presbytery and also for being home to a stone effigy known as the Cantwell Fada. Carved from a single slab of limestone is a knight looking decidedly dapper in his suit of chain mail. One leg daintily crosses over the other not in demonstration of a mediaeval dance step but, it is believed, to indicate the knight’s participation in a crusade. His large shield bears the arms of the Cantwell family and it is therefore presumed the figure commemorates Thomas de Cantwell who died in 1319 and whose family, of Norman origin, were once Lords of Kilfane. Most likely the carving was the lid of a sarcophagus since lost. Over two metres high, it is the tallest such effigy in Ireland or Britain.
I shall be writing more about Kilfane and its picturesque Glen and Waterfall in a few weeks’ time.