Demonstrating that a laissez-faire attitude towards building without first securing the relevant permission is no recent phenomenon in Ireland: Burrishoole Priory, County Mayo. This Dominican house was established in 1469 by Richard de Burgo, who then resigned his secular position as Lord of Turlough and entered the priory where he remained until his death four years later. Unfortunately neither he nor the friars had thought to seek Papal approval before settling at Burrishoole, an omission that could have resulted in excommunication. However in 1486 Innocent VII instructed the Archbishop of Tuam to pardon their presumption and the occupants were allowed to remain in situ. They continued to do so even after the Reformation , a certain number of Dominicans recorded as remaining at Burrishoole into the 18th century on the site. It was only in 1793 that the church roof collapsed, thereby ensuring it became the ruin seen today.
St Paul’s in Cahir, County Tipperary was built c.1816-18 to a design by John Nash, one of only two churches from this architect in Ireland. Commissioned by Richard Butler around the time he was created first Earl of Glengall, the building cost £2,307 and is in the early Gothic Revival style with a plasterwork vaulted ceiling and the original pine box pews. On either side of the west front entrance are these carved heads, presumably representing Irish historic characters (note the shamrock on the breast of the crowned figure below). Might anyone know who they are meant to be?
The Augustinian order has been mentioned here more than once. Like the Franciscans, Augustinian friars were responsible for building some of Ireland’s best-preserved mediaeval monastic settlements, and also like the Franciscans their presence was particularly encouraged by Anglo-Norman settlers. The first Augustinians are believed to have arrived in Dublin some time before 1280 (the non-mendicant congregation known as Canons Regular of St Augustine had earlier been introduced into the country by St Malachy) and were settled in several other places by 1300. During this period and almost until the end of the 14th century, Augustinian houses could be found almost exclusively in areas where the Normans had established a presence. The invaders wanted religious speaking their tongue to run schools and already-extant houses tended to teach in Gaelic. This explains why the Augustinians were slower than other religious orders (such as the Cistercians or, again, the Franciscans) to spread throughout the country and also why the Irish houses continued for so long to be governed by the English province. Eventually in the 1390s the Irish Augustinians rebelled against this control and were granted greater privileges of self-government. Further expansion followed, including the establishment of a further eight friaries in Connaught.
Spread over more than three acres, the Augustinian Kells Priory, County Kilkenny is today one of the largest surviving mediaeval religious settlements in Ireland. It was founded on the banks of the King’s River in 1193 by Geoffrey FitzRobert; he had already established a church here a decade earlier. An Anglo-Norman knight, FitzRobert was married first to Basilia, sister of Richard de Clare (otherwise known as Strongbow) and then to Eve de Bermingham, widow of Gerald FitzMaurice, first Lord of Offaly (making her the forebear of the Dukes of Leinster). FitzRobert became known as Baron of Kells around 1204 when he was also appointed Seneschal (administrative officer) of Leinster. In his confirmatory charter to Kells Abbey he declared that he had founded the friary ‘for the salvation of my own soul and the souls of my predecessor and successors; for the honor of God and the Blessed Virgin; for the spiritual welfare of my Lord, William Marshall’ – who had advised the foundation and consented to it – and ‘at the desire and with consent of my wife Eva.’ In line with other Augustinian houses of the period, the first friars came from England, from Bodmin Priory in Cornwall.
One of the most notable events associated with Kells Priory was a Lenten visitation made to the establishment by Richard de Ledrede, Bishop of Offaly in 1324. An English-born Franciscan, de Ledrede had been appointed to his diocese seven years earlier by the Avignon Pope John XXII. The bishop appears to have been caught up in a family feud that chimed with his own wish to prosecute heretics. In the nearby city of Kilkenny, a wealthy merchant woman, the four-times married Alice Kyteler, had been accused by her third husband’s children of practicing witchcraft (cited as a heresy in a papal bull issued by John XXII the following year). Among the activities in which it was said she engaged were regular carnal relations with a demon. Alice’s son from her first marriage, William Outlawe was also named as being engaged in not dissimilar practices to those of his mother. The two were ordered to appear before de Ledrede and answer the charges brought against them. However, Alice went to Dublin where she sought support from the Chancellor of Ireland, one Roger Outlaw, presumably a relative of her late husband. Meanwhile her son William found help from the Lord of Kells, Arnold le Poer (tellingly, Alice Kyteler’s fourth husband was also a member of the le Poer family). Ignoring the consequences, Arnold le Poer arrested Bishop de Ledrede and imprisoned him in Kilkenny Castle for seventeen days, until the date for William Outlaw’s appointed appearance before the ecclesiastical court passed. What had begun as a trial for witchcraft now became a battle between the secular and religious authority: Arnold le Poer for example, described de Ledrede as ‘some vagabond from England.’ Ultimately, however, the so-called vagabond proved victorious. Alice Kyteler fled the country, her son confessed to heresy and was obliged to do penance, and a family servant, one Petronilla de Midia was flogged and burnt at the stake, the first person in Ireland to suffer this fate.
Kells Priory is sometimes known as Seven Castles due to the tower houses found around its outer walls which give it a fortress-like appearance. The towers were probably constructed in the 15th century but would have been of more assistance earlier, since on three occasions the place suffered from assault. The priory was first attacked and burnt by William de Bermingham in 1252, then by a Scottish force under Edward Bruce in 1326, and the following year by another member of the de Bermingham family.
Now the site appears divided into two sections, a lower to the north and closer to the river, this being the priory proper. It was rightly dominated by a church opening off the central cloister although today the most powerful presence is that of the 15th century Prior’s Tower to the immediate east: this has been extensively reconstructed and re-roofed, and rises higher than any of the other surrounding structures. To the south and on higher ground a large enclosure with five towers was developed in the 15th century, presumably in response to increasing lawlessness in the area. Known as Burgess Court, this section was once thought to have contained a mediaeval lay settlement but that does not appear to have been the case. More likely it was used to protect lifestock, and indeed the occupants of the adjacent priory.
Visitors to Kells today often comment on how they find themselves alone, despite the proximity of Kilkenny city and the scale of the ruins. Intermittently efforts are made to encourage greater interest in the site, but a large part of its appeal would be lost were the place to be overly-frequented. Best to come and discover for yourself the secret of Kells.
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.
Cistercian monks first appeared in Ireland in 1142 with the foundation of Mellifont Abbey, County Louth on the instructions of St Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh. The Cistercians were a reforming order established in Cîteaux, Burgundy at the very end of the previous century to counter what was perceived to be the decadence of the Benedictines in houses like Cluny. Cistercian monks sought to live in remote sites far from existing settlements and their buildings reflected the same desire for austerity: as a rule the order’s monasteries were designed to be simple and utilitarian, and devoid of superfluous decoration. The same was also true of their churches where ornamentation might distract the monks from prayer and reflection. In a much-quoted and influential passage from his Apologia written in 1124 St Bernard of Clairvaux denounced the overly-elaborate religious buildings of the period: ‘But in the cloister, in the sight of the reading monks, what is the point of such ridiculous monstrosity, the strange kind of shapely shapelessness? Why these unsightly monkeys, why these fierce lions, why the monstrous centaurs, why semi-humans, why spotted tigers, why fighting soldiers, why trumpeting huntsmen?…In short there is such a variety and such a diversity of strange shapes everywhere that we may prefer to read the marbles rather than the books.’ The outcome was that Cistercian abbeys remained notable for the purity of their architecture such as can still be seen in the ruins of the former house at Boyle, County Roscommon.
Under its abbot Maurice O’Duffy the monastery at Boyle was the first successful Cistercian settlement in Connaught, the monks from Mellifont arriving on the site in 1161. Several efforts had been made in the years immediately preceding to establish a house elsewhere in the area but to no avail. Fortunately the Boyle monastery received support from the MacDermots, Lords of Moylurg who governed over this part of north Roscommon. Nevertheless, even before the building’s completion Boyle Abbey was sacked by the Anglo-Norman adventurer William de Burgo in 1202. Twenty-five years later, the abbey had become involved in a religious dispute known as the ‘Conspiracy of Mellifont.’ In essence, this was an argument between Irish monks and those from France and England about what form the cloistered life should take. Whereas the latter wished to impose uniformity of practice among members of the order, the Irish appear to have retained some of their own traditions, such as monks occupying individual cells rather than participating in communal living. Eventually in 1228 Stephen of Lexington, abbot of Stanley Abbey in Wiltshire (and future abbot of Clairvaux) was sent by the Cistercian General Chapter on a visitation to Ireland with the intent of ensuring obedience. Several abbots, including that of Boyle, were removed from their position (and often sent to houses in England or France) and Boyle itself was affiliated to Clairvaux rather than Mellifont so as to ensure it did not slip back into the old ways. A mere seven years later, the monastery was was attacked and plundered by forces under the command of the Lords Justices including Maurice FitzGerald; this army took possession of the premises, seized all goods, vestments and chalices, and stripped the monks of their habits in the cloister. There were further attacks in the later Middle Ages when Boyle became caught up in feuds between the warring MacDermot and O’Conor clans.
Boyle Abbey exemplifies mediaeval Cistercian architecture while in some respects differing from it. In addition, owing to the length of time taken to construct the church, this building includes elements of both the Romanesque and Early Gothic styles: it was only in 1218, almost sixty years after the monks first settled on the site that the church was solemnly consecrated. The monastery was laid out according to the usual Cistercian plan, around a central cloister garth. To the immediate north of this lies the church, with the chapter house and abbot’s parlour on the east side, and the kitchen and refectory on the south. and the dormitory a church on the north side of a roughly rectangular cloister area, with a chapter house for meetings of the monks on a second side, and a kitchen and a refectory on the third (with access to clean water from the river immediately behind this range). The gatehouse lay on the west side, as did public access to the church. The last of these remains the best preserved part of the complex. It features a barrel-vaulted 12th century chancel with 13th century lancet windows above the crossing. To the west of this, the main body has a nave with side aisles, a transept to the north and south of the crossing, each with a pair of chapels on the east wall. A massive tower at the crossing rises to some sixty feet. In the nave the most striking feature is the difference between the piers on the south and north sides. The former are squatter with rounded arches, the latter’s pointed. And contrary to Cistercian disapproval of ornament, many of the corbels and capitals, especially those to the west end of the church, are carved with elaborate designs, some featuring humans and animals.
The Cistercians remained at Boyle Abbey until the 16th century when the turmoil experienced some three hundred years earlier befell them again. Although Henry VIII introduced legislation in the Irish Parliament in 1537 for the the dissolution of the country’s monasteries, his authority did not actually run throughout Ireland and so the majority of houses continued as before. However, Boyle became caught up in a family dispute among the MacDermotts and in 1555 the abbey was burnt, followed by further assaults in the following years. In 1569 the abbey as granted by the English crown to Patrick Cusack of Gerrardstown, County Meath although ostensibly there was still an abbot of Boyle, Tomaltach MacDermot. In fact its last abbot was Glaisne O Cuilleanain, executed in Dublin in 1584. Five years later it was granted to William Ussher on a lease of twenty-one years and six years after that the old abbey was besieged by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone with a force of some 2,300 men. In 1603 Boyle was leased to two English soldiers, John Bingley and John King, the latter finally taking possession of the property, along with more than 4,000 acres in 1617: the Kings remained a dominant presence in the area until the last century. As for the abbey, now renamed Boyle Castle it became a military barracks and accordingly suffered further, with much of the stone of the cloisters being dismantled and recycled elsewhere. Only the main body of the church remained relatively immune to deprecation, hence its condition today. Boyle Abbey is now in the care of the state and in recent years has benefitted from an extensive programme of restoration, although the large glass corridor built along the north side of the church will not be to everyone’s taste. Resembling a bloated greenhouse it is supposed to protect the building from the elements. However given the rest of the site has no such covering the protection on offer is rather limited. Ignore this latest addition and revel in the superior taste of the Cistercians.
Two windows on the south wall of the former St Catherine’s church in Louisburgh, County Mayo. The building dates from 1828 and in design is typical of churches erected during this period with support from the Board of First Fruits. It has been out of use for religious services for more than two decades.
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.
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.’
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.’
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).
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.