A Diligent Divine

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Those early Irish saints seem to have been an astonishingly sedulous lot. When not rushing from one side of the country to another so as to convert any remaining pagans to Christianity, they were founding monasteries which, almost without fail, soon attracted thousands of followers. Such apparently was the case with Máel Anfaid (Mael the Prophet), a son of Cathal MacHugh, King of Munster and disciple of St Carthage, who in the first quarter of the sixth century like so many of his ilk diligently established a religious house. In this instance the spot chosen was an island called Dair Inis (Isle of the Oak) in the river Blackwater, County Waterford. Naturally the enterprise flourished and by the early 8th century Molana, as the island had been renamed, was a centre for the Céili Dé (the Servants of God), a reforming group determined to improve standards in the Irish church. Around the year 720 Molana’s Abbot, Ruben Mac Connadh in conjunction with Cu-Chuimne of Iona, produced the Collectio Canonum Hibernensis. This work laid out the rules of Canon Law, drawing on earlier texts and regulations, and was widely circulated throughout the rest of Europe over following centuries. Molana is also believed to have housed the first proper library in Ireland, although none of the original manuscripts is known to have survived. As usual, the Vikings were at fault: on their way upriver towards Lismore and other rich settlements they regularly caused havoc on Molana. By the 11th century these despoliations, plus flooding caused by the Blackwater being tidal at this stretch, had effectively obliterated Máel Anfaid’s once-thriving monastery.

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The island’s circumstances improved around the time of the arrival of the Normans. Nearby a castle was erected at Templemichael, possibly by the Knights Templar who would take care the adjacent monastery was not subjected to further attacks. Then this part of the country came under the authority of one of Strongbow’s knights, Raymond ‘le Gros’ FitzGerald, described by Giraldus Cambrensis as “very stout, and a little above the middle height…and, although he was somewhat corpulent, he was so lively and active that the incumbrance was not a blemish or inconvenience.’ Around this time the island was given to the Augustinian Canons who would remain there until the 16th century watching over the tomb of Raymond who died around 1186. The buildings were extensively reconstructed in the 13th and 14th centuries and once more the community thrived. However, again as was common throughout the country, the 15th century brought trouble, with the abbot John McInery accused of simony, perjury and immorality: Pope Nicholas V deposed him in 1450. By By 1462 it was reported that although the Augustinian friars were caring for many poor and sick their buildings were in poor condition. Perhaps for this reason that same year Pope Pius II granted an indulgence to pilgrims visiting Molana on certain feast days and offering forgiveness of sins to all who contributed towards its repair and upkeep. Come the 1540s and the Reformation, a crown report on the establishment stated it comprised a church, cloister and all that was necessary for the operation of agriculture including 380 acres of land, three weirs for catching salmon and a water mill, the whole having a value of £26 and fifteen shillings. Initially ownership of the island was given to James FitzGerald, 14th Earl of Desmond but following the family’s rebellion against the English authorities it was reclaimed by the English authorities.
Molana was initially leased to an English sea merchant called John Thickpenny but a few years after his death in 1583 Queen Elizabeth granted it to Sir Walter Raleigh who owned adjoining land in Youghal. He in turn consigned it to his confidant, the astronomer, mathematician and ethnographer Thomas Hariot who it is sometimes said spent some time living on the island in what remained of the old monastery and working on various scientific theories. In 1601 Raleigh sold his entire Irish estate to that great adventurer Richard Boyle, future first Earl of Cork. A decade later Boyle gifted Molana and adjacent mainland of Ballynatray to his brother-in-law Captain Richard Smyth whose family would remain in residence there for some 350 years.

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The Smyths first built a castellated house but this was destroyed during the rebellion of 1641 and half a century later a Dutch-gabled building was erected on the same site. That was in turn replaced by the present house during the last decade of the 18th century. Designed by Alexander Dean of Cork the building is of eleven bays and two storeys over basement. Its situation with superlative views down river explain why at the start of the 19th century the Smyths decided to undertake work on Molana. First of all a causeway was constructed linking the island was to the mainland. This allowed ease of access to the picturesque ruins where certain structural changes were made, notably the insertion of a pointed arch entrance on the north side of the church. The building rightly dominates the site, measuring more than 55 feet with an undivided nave and chancel, the former being the oldest part of the building (12th century) and possibly incorporating an earlier church here. The 13th century chancel has ten large lancet windows, six to the south and four to the north, all almost thirteen feet high and concluding at the east end with a large window which still preserves fragments of the original decorated embrasure. To the immediate north is what remains of a two-story building, likely the prior’s residence, with a pointed doorway and spiral staircase. To the south-west lie the remains of the cloister at the centre of which a sculpture representing the monastery’s originator was erected. A plaque on the plinth below reads ‘This statue is erected to the memory of Saint Molanfidhe who founded this abbey for Canon Regular A.D. 501. He was the first Abbot and is here represented as habited according to the Order of Saint Augustine. This Cenotaph and Statue are erected by Mrs. Mary Broderick Smyth A.D. 1820.’ Elsewhere on the site and beneath a window another plaque was installed reading ‘Here lies the remains of Raymond le Gros, who died Anno Domini 1186.’ Old photographs show a funerary urn on the ledge above but this is no longer in place. Ballynatray – including Molana – has since changed hands on a couple of occasions but it is still possible to understand the place’s charm, not least when standing inside the house and looking upstream towards this romantic reminder of an ancient Irish saint’s sedulousness.

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À la française


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The remains of the former Franciscan Friary in Waterford City. It is believed to have been founded c.1241 by Sir Hugh Purcell (the belltower with its stepped battlements was added in the late 15th century) and remained in use for its original purpose for three centuries until the time of the Reformation. The site was subsequently granted by Henry VIII to a local merchant, Henry Walsh with a charter to convert part of it into an almshouse. This building has long been known as the French Church, having been used by Huguenots after they settled in Waterford towards the end of the 17th century.

It is entirely coincidental that today’s post – written a fortnight ago – should have a French theme. But the atrocities in Paris last night emphasise more than ever how we all have a duty to cherish our shared European heritage.

Carve the Year with Pride

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A detail of the carved oak chimneypiece in the entrance hall of Salterbridge, County Waterford. Although the core of the present house was built around the middle of the 18th century, it was subject to several alterations and aggrandisements thereafter. Some of these are sufficiently documented but the date of other interventions remains unclear. In the case of the entrance hall carving, even though the craftsman responsible for the work is nameless we can be sure when he undertook this task since the panelling to the left of the chimneypiece carries the year 1884.

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Sancto Carthago non Delenda Est

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Early Irish saints seem to have been a turbulent lot. Not for the majority of them lives of quiet contemplation (although they may have claimed a desire for such); instead they were caught up in political feuds and rivalries, sometimes even initiating disputes. The history of Saint Mo Chutu mac Fínaill, otherwise known as Carthach or Carthach the Younger, is typical. Born in County Kerry around the year 555 initially he became a monk under the guidance of St. Carthage the Elder. However in 580 he opted for the life of a hermit and built a cell at Kiltallagh where, despite the wish for solitude, he soon began to attract admirers. This in turn inspired the jealousy of two neighbouring bishops, so he moved to forced him to Bangor, County Down where he spent a year before returning to Kerry and founding a couple of churches. After visiting several other parts of the country, he founded a monastery at Rahan, County Offaly and composed a rule for his monks, an Irish metrical poem of 580 lines, divided into nine separate sections. Unfortunately he then found himself involved in one of the greatest religious controversies of the time: the date on which Easter should fall (the Roman and Celtic churches disagreed on the subject). This led to Mo Chutu’s expulsion from the monastery he had founded, so he and many of his followers moved instead to County Waterford where he established a new monastery at Lios-Mor, today called Lismore.

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The origins of the present Cathedral in Lismore bearing St Carthage’s name are unclear, but appear to date from the 12th century and owe their origin to Murtagh O’Brien, King of Munster. Likely of cruciform shape, some remains of the building survive, incorporated into the present edifice such as the Chancel Arch and perhaps portions of the transepts, including the windows. Like so many other religious structures, it suffered abuse in the 16th and 17th centuries, being almost entirely destroyed by Edmund FitzGibbon, the White Knight in the second half of the 1590s when he was serving as Sheriff of County Cork. Within the cathedral, at west the end of the nave, is a surviving tomb of the Magrath family, dated 1557 and elaborately carved-top, front, back, and sides: it is a rare survivor from FitzGibbon’s assault. The building was subsequently restored for Protestant worship and partly reconstructed by Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork, who by this time was in possession of Lismore Castle which he made his principle residence. In 1633 he wrote ‘God bless my good intentions and endeavours in this work. This day, I resolved with the assistance of my good God, to re-edify the ancient Cathedral Church of Lismore, which was demolished by Edward Fitzgibbon [sic] called the White Knight, and other traitors in the late rebellion of Mownster. The chancel of the church I did at my own expense, and put a new roof covered with slate, and now have given orders to have the ruins of the body and aisle cleared and to have the same new-built and re-edified as fair or fairer than it ever was before.’

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The upheavals of the 1640s put an end to further work being undertaken on the cathedral but after Charles II’s Restoration in 1660, once more the building benefitted from attention, this time under the architectural supervision of Sir William Robinson who from c.1670 onwards served as Surveyor General of Ireland. When Richard Pococke visited Lismore in 1752, he noted, ‘The Castle and Cathedral are on a hanging ground, some of which is covered with wood over the Blackwater: From the Castle and the Warren behind the Cathedral is a fine view of the river both ways, of the meadows on each side, of the wood on the hanging ground and of the Cascade from the Salmon Weir…the Quire part of the Cathedral is very old, built with sort of Pilasters at the corners, and long narrow windows on each side and at the end. It was founded by St. Carthage als. Mocoddy who was driven by King Blathmac out of the Abbey of Batheny in the County of Westmeath. He first founded an Abbey of Canons Regular of St. Augustine, where the Castle now is: He also founded a School or University here, which was afterwards governed by St. Cataldus, who in process of time became Bishop of Tarentum.This cathedral was repaired by Munchus King of Munster in 1130. The body of the church is a modern building, probably of the time of King Charles 2d. The Chapter house is a good room, there are remains of the staircase in it, and signs of a room above in which they might keep the Archives of the Church. In the church are remains of the tomb of a Magrath in 1557 probably a relation of Bishop McGrath.’

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Certain residues of the 18th century can still be found inside St Carthage’s cathedral, such as the classical carved oak screen separating nave from chancel which dates from the 1730s and a slightly later oak pulpit on the southern side of the nave. However Nicholas Carlisle’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (published 1810) commented that Lismore’s cathedral, ‘being in indifferent repair, is about to undergo a thorough renovation.’ Clearly the earlier improvements undertaken had proven insufficient, because over the next few decades the building was largely reconstructed. In 1833 the Dublin Penny Journal informed readers that the cathedral in Lismore ‘being in a state of complete dilapidation, was a few years since, taken down and rebuilt from the foundation, under the supervision of Mr Morrison.’ This was Richard Morrison, although a local architect called James Dwyer is believed to have overseen the actual work. This involved the restoration of the nave and transepts and the complete rebuilding of the chancel: the latter in its current form is therefore a Morrison structure with its splendid vaulted roof and arched windows. The east window above the altar contains painted glass executed by Dublin artist George McAlister at some point before his death in June 1812 (he left a commission for Tuam Cathedral’s windows incomplete).

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In 1827 the Chapter of St Carthage’s Cathedral agreed ‘That a plan for the erection of a new tower and spire, and repairs of the isle [sic] made by Messrs Payne, to be completed for the sum of £3,500 which has been commenced under the direction of the Dean of Lismore, is unanimously and highly approved by us.’ The Messrs Payne referred to were brothers George and James Pain who had come to Ireland some time around 1811/1812 to supervise the building of Lough Cutra, County Galway (for more on this house, see: Domat Omnia Virtus, January 27th 2014). At Lismore cathedral they were responsible for adding a square tower with corner pinnacles to the west end of the building. Above this climbs a slim octagonal spire supported by flying buttresses. The Pains also worked on the interior of the nave, bringing its appearance into line with that of Morrison’s chancel by adding a fan-vaulted ceiling and giving the windows arches. They also added the gothic memorial to Dean John Scott which simultaneously serves as a doorway at the west end of the nave. No wonder that by the time Thackeray visited Lismore he could write ‘The church with the handsome spire that looks so graceful among the trees, is a cathedral church and one of the neatest kept and prettiest edifices I have seen in Ireland.’ Such remains the case some 170 years later. St Carthage’s, with its further additions such as a Burne-Jones window in the south transept and the Cotton Library off the north transept (see Sapientia in Libris Exsistit, October 15th 2012) remains neatly kept and elegant, and indubitably well worth a visit.

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Bright and Light

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The entrance hall at Camphire, County Waterford. Dating from the 1840s and attributed to Sir Charles Lanyon the present house was built on the site of an earlier dwelling and beside a castle, parts of which still remain. A pair of Ionic columns separates the entrance from the staircase hall, the first floor of which features a four-sided gallery providing access to the main bedrooms, the whole being lit by a dome at the top of the building.