On a wall of the now-roofless 17th century church at Kilcommock, County Longford can be seen this elaborately carved limestone funerary monument which would appear to date from the early 1700s. Unfortunately the central plaque is missing and it is therefore now impossible to know in whose memory it was originally erected. Might some reader have the answer?
From the Dublin Penny Journal, December 13th 1834:
‘Sir, Permit me through the medium of the Dublin Penny Journal an opportunity of giving the public a brief description of the situation and scenery of Ballysaggartmore, the much improved residence of Arthur Keiley, Esq, situate one mile west of Lismore, on the north side of the river Blackwater. The porter’s lodge at the entrance to the avenue is composed of cut mountain granite or free stone, of a whitish colour, variegated with a brownish strata, which gives the whole a rich and pleasing appearance; it consists of a double rectangular building, in the castellated style, flanked by a round tower at either end, through which is a passage and carriage-way of twelve feet in the centre, over which is a perpendicular pointed arch, enriched with crockets and terminated with a finial; the buildings at either side of the gateway, although similar, form a variety in themselves; and the situation is so disposed as not to be seen until very near the approach; the gate is composed of wrought and cast iron; and is, I will venture to assert, the most perfect gothic structure formed principally of wrought iron, in the kingdom. It was executed by a native mechanic, and cost about one hundred and fifty pounds. Passing onward through the avenue, the road, which is perfectly level, leads through a beautifully romantic wood, neatly planted with all varieties of fir, and other forest timber; and is naturally enriched by a limpid mountain stream, which, after passing over some very considerable rocks, and gliding over the glen, falls immediately into the Blackwater; over this stream, which in winter is often very rapid, stands the bridge of which the prefixed engraving is a correct representation, consisting of three gothic arches, surmounted with richly embrazured battlements. A group of towers, embracing almost every shape and style of Gothic architecture, is erected at either end of the bridge; and the roadway leads under two very pretty obtuse Gothic arches. The greatest novelty in the whole is a round tower, erected on one of the arches. The stone used in the building has an agreeable reddish tint, and is all vermiculated, or, in other words, is a rusticated structure, which gives it somewhat the appearance of antiquity; this and the gate-house, was designed and built under the instruction of Mr John Smyth. Almost adjoining the bridge is a pretty tunnel, through which a road is conducted from the town to the upper grounds; and the avenue, which leads onward to the house, has nothing more to boast of than a continuation of neatly disposed wood and shrubbery.’
At some date in the late 18th or early 19th century land running to some 8,500 acres around Ballysaggartmore, County Waterford was bought from George Holmes Jackson of Glenmore by John Kiely (also sometimes spelled Keily or, in the Dublin Penny Journal, Keiley). On his death in 1808, this property passed to a younger son, Arthur. The best part of the Kiely estates went to Arthur’s elder brother , also called John Kiely, who inherited Strancally, further down the Blackwater river. There he commissioned the building of a new castle from the brothers George and James Pain. John Kiely junior had apparently visited Lough Cutra, County Galway (see Domat Omnia Virtus, January 27th 2014) built a few years earlier by the Pains and accordingly ordered something similar for himself, even though advised that owing to the nature of Strancally’s site it would be necessary ‘to move a mountain in order to make the ground high enough.’ Seemingly it took forty men two years to achieve this enterprise. Arthur Kiely meanwhile, on returning from the Napoleonic Wars in which he had fought, built himself a house in the grounds of Ballysaggartmore. Old photographs indicate this property looked not unlike a great many others of the period, being of two storeys with a bow at one end and a three-storey belvedere over the entrance. According to a later occupant, the building’s principal fault was a lack of internal corridors, meaning it was necessary to pass from one room to the next in order to move about the house. Nevertheless, one has the impression that Arthur Kiely was a man of social aspirations since in 1843 he changed his surname to Kiely-Ussher. (The Usshers were a long-established family in the area to whom the Kielys were related through their mother). This may have been at the instigation of his wife Elizabeth Martin of Ross House, County Galway (a great-aunt of the author Violet Martin). It has always been proposed that the elaborate building programme upon which Arthur Kiely embarked in the 1830s was driven by his wife’s ambition to outstrip her in-laws at Strancally. Of course she might also have been inspired by Lismore Castle where extensive work had already been initiated by the sixth ‘Bachelor’ Duke of Devonshire.
It would seem that the Kielys’ ambitious building works of the early 1830s stretched their financial resources. Thus although there were plans to rebuild the main house in an equally lavish fashion, this did not come to pass. Once the new lodges and castellated bridge were finished, a programme of ‘improvement’ began on the estate, mostly involving the clearance of existing tenants and their modest cottages. And then came the following decade’s years of famine during which remaining tenants were unable to pay rents and found themselves treated harshly by their landlord. Arthur Kiely did not suspend reduce or suspend rent, as had others in his position around the country, but used non-payment as a justification for eviction and the demolition of any dwelling. In May 1847 a reporter from the Cork Examiner arrived in the area to see how people were faring. ‘Arriving at Ballysaggartmore,’ he wrote, ‘an awful sight was before my eyes, I found twelve to fourteen houses levelled to the ground. The walls of a few were still standing but the roofs were taken off, the windows broken in, and the doors removed. Groups of famished women and crying children still hovered round the place of their birth, endeavouring to find shelter from the piercing cold of the mountain blast, cowering near the ruins or seeking refuge beneath the chimneys. The cow, the house, the wearing apparel, the furniture, and even in extreme cases the bed clothes were pawned to support existence. As I have been informed the whole tenantry, amounting with their families to over 700 persons, on the Ballysaggartmore estate, are proscribed.’ By contrast, John Kiely at Strancally Castle was described in the same newspaper as displaying liberality to the local poor ‘commensurate with his extensive property. He has, at present and for the last season, employed the people, is busily and solely engaged in diffusing comfort and plenty among them…’ Understandably, Arthur Kiely’s behaviour at Ballysaggartmore inflamed opinion in the district and soon afterwards an attempt was made to shoot him as he entered the estate through the gates of that smart new lodge: the would-be assasin failed in his mission and fled on foot. A group of local gentry then offered a reward of £100 to anyone who could provide information leading to the arrest of the parties responsible. Seven men were tried, found guilty and deported to Tasmania. If the Kielys were already unpopular in the area, this incident only made them even more so. While circumstances for the country gradually began to improve, the same was not the case for this particular household.
In the aftermath of the famine, the Kielys’ fortunes never recovered, not least because there were no tenants left to provide them with an income. By 1854 Ballysaggartmore was being offered for sale through the Encumbered Estates Court but failed to find a new owner: one suspects the place’s unhappy history deterred potential purchasers. Finally in 1861 it was put on the market again and the main house and surrounding land were bought by William Morton Woodroofe: Arthur Kiely-Ussher died, not much mourned, the following year. The Woodroofes remained at Ballysaggartmore until the early years of the last century when the property was sold to the Hon Claud Anson, a younger son of the second Earl of Lichfield. Hitherto a rancher in Texas, in 1901 the Hon Claud married Lady Clodagh de la Poer Beresford, daughter of the fifth Marquess of Waterford and it is most likely for this reason that the couple chose to settle in her native county. However, they were not to enjoy the place for long because in 1922 Ballysaggartmore House was destroyed by fire. In any case by then the Ansons’ funds had likewise run out, according to Patrick Cockburn (a godson of their daughter) owing to ‘Claud’s overenthusiastic investment in Russian bonds prior to the Revolution.’ The house stood empty and derelict until pulled down some decades later. The front lodges, however, remained occupied, seemingly until the 1970s, after which they too were abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin. Now Ballysaggartmore is a public park, with walkways through the woodlands, and all that remains of the Kielys’ architectural and social pretensions are the buildings celebrated in December 1834 by the Dublin Penny Journal. Today they serve as a monument to misplaced ambition.
The stump of an 11th century round tower at Dysert O’Dea, County Clare. A little shy of six metres in diameter, this is one of the largest such structures recorded, believed to have risen to a height of 30 metres. However, the tower has been in a state of ruin probably since the 1650s and now serves as an attractive feature in the graveyard surrounding the 12th century church dedicated to its founder, St Tola.
Above is a view of Dripsey Castle, County Cork, a late-mediaeval tower house originally built by the MacCarthys of Muskerry. This was to have been the subject of attention here during 2014, but a great many other subjects intervened. Today seems an opportune moment to look at some of those interventions, buildings explored by the Irish Aesthete over the past twelve months, not least a number which, like Dripsey Castle, are now spectacular ruins.
Ireland is a country strewn with ruins, many of them the skeletal remains of once-great houses. Typical in this respect is Moore Hall, County Mayo seen in the first two photographs above. Dating from 1792, it is is believed to have been designed by Waterford architect John Roberts whose other house in this part of the island, Tyrone, County Galway is also now a mere shell. A Roman Catholic family the Moores were especially good to their tenants during and after the Great Famine but neither their charity, nor the fame of the last heir, writer George Moore, was enough to spare the house, maliciously burnt down by local members of the IRA in February 1923. For more on Moore Hall, see When Moore is Less, June 30th. Next can be seen two photographs of Mount Shannon, County Limerick, once home to John Fitzpatrick, first Earl of Clare. His successors were not as wealthy as their forebear and in 1888 the entire contents of Mount Shannon, including its superlative library, had to be sold to pay creditors. The house itself passed into other hands a few years later and survived until once again burnt out by the IRA in June 1920 (see A Spectacular Fall from Grace, January 20th). Dromore Castle, also in County Limerick lasted a little longer but then it was only built in the 1860s to the designs of Edward William Godwin. Commissioned by William Pery, third Earl of Limerick, Dromore never proved satisfactory (it suffered from damp) and the family seems to have abandoned it by the 1920s. It was sold at the end of the following decade to a local timber merchant but around 1954 the whole place was unroofed to avoid payment of property rates, a common fate for buildings at the time. Dromore was the subject of two features: Une Folie de Grandeur, December 30th 2013 and More and More Dromore, March 3rd.
Even when great houses like Moore Hall or Mount Shannon were newly constructed the countryside was already speckled with ruins, predominantly of medieval religious properties. Typical in this respect is Askeaton Friary, County Limerick seen in the first two photographs above. This was founded in the early 1420s by the Franciscan order and remains notable for its intact cloister with twelve arches to each side. (See A Cloistered World, February 10th). In neighbouring County Galway, the Franciscans also established a great house at Ross Errilly (To Walk the Studious Cloisters Pale, July 14th) which survived until late in the 18th century. Much beloved by romantically-minded Victorians, Ross Errilly was described by John Murray in his 1866 Handbook for Travellers in Ireland as probably containing ‘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.’ Ross Errilly remains, but the bones have been tidied away.
Nor are any on display in the graveyard of St Mary’s, Kilkenny (see Let’s Talk of Graves, of Worms and Epitaphs, October 20th) which lies in the centre of this ancient town. Around the old church the principal families of the area erected memorials to themselves, making this the finest single collection of Renaissance-style and later tombs in Ireland, including a number of arcaded altar monuments. St Mary’s is due to be restored for civic use but one hopes this will not destroy the character of the graveyard.
There are always a number of important houses in Ireland looking for new and sympathetic owners. One of these at present is Milltown Park, County Offaly (see Waiting to be Woken, July 7th). A blind oculus set into the facade’s pediment is the date 1720, although this may have been added later. Still, Milltown is an important early 18th century property which until now has always belonged to the Spunner (more recently White-Spunner) family and reflects that unbroken continuity.
In County Wicklow, the history of Mount John was charmingly told in Elizabeth Hamilton’s 1963 memoir, An Irish Childhood which recounted her early years living in the house until it was sold by her parents in 1914. Now it is for sale again, and whoever acquires the property will discover it was constructed over several phases, the east-facing front with its large reception rooms and bow ends most likely added some time around 1800. A feature of the facade is its finish of vertically hung slate, which have long been painted white. (See An Irish Childhood, September 29th).
On the other side of the country, New Hall, County Clare is one of the most architecturally important houses currently on the market. New Hall has been attributed to Francis Bindon, although this is open to question. What cannot be doubted is the beauty of this property, with its mellow brick façade focussed on a central balustraded and urned octangular bow window incorporating pedimented front door and concluding on either side in bows. Inside are stucco’ed rooms and in the entrance hall an immense organ that proves to be a cupboard. New Hall was explored over two weeks in Leaving the Empty Room, August 18th and New Blood for New Hall, August 25th.
It is at times impossible not to grow despondent over the want of interest, especially from regional and central government, in the preservation of Ireland’s architectural heritage. In late November Senator David Norris denounced the state of O’Connell Street, Dublin. This is supposed to be the state’s principal thoroughfare and yet for many years it has looked as shoddy as a shanty town with gaping sites and gimcrack shops and games halls. Developed by Luke Gardiner in the middle of the 18th century as Sackville Mall, O’Connell Street was once the capital’s premier address. Its seemingly unstoppable decline was discussed here much earlier in the year (see On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, February 3rd).
Another cause for concern is the threatened sale of the remaining contents of Bantry House, County Cork. During the early decades of the 19th century, this great building was filled with treasures by the second Earl of Bantry. Since then successive generations of the family have struggled to maintain the building and gradually disposed of items from the collection. What is still in place includes valuable French tapestries, some associated with members of the French royal family. These were due to be auctioned on the premises last October but the event was cancelled owing to the absence of a relevant licence. However, it is important to remember the sale has only been postponed and is likely to take place during next spring, thereby diminishing still further Ireland’s collective cultural heritage. The predicament of Bantry House, and the issues it raises, were discussed in When it’s Gone, It’s Gone, September 8th.
Another ongoing scandal is the condition of Aldborough House in central Dublin. After Leinster House the biggest Georgian private residence in the capital and a testament to the second Earl of Aldborough’s ambition, the building was completed in 1798, just two years before the Act of Union rendered such properties surplus to requirements. Although much of the surrounding grounds were lost to public housing in the last century, the building itself survived in reasonable condition in public ownership until the state telecommunications company Telecom Eireann was privatised in 1999 and Eircom (as the organisation was renamed) offered Aldborough House for sale. Six years later it was bought for €4.5 million by a company called Aldborough Developments: contrary to its name, this allowed the house to slide ever further into decay. Aldborough House was sold a few months ago but the new owner does not appear to have any interest in its welfare, if the photographs above – taken just last week – are an indication: windows are left open to the elements, the roof is no better than was formerly the case and the ground immediately behind is being used – presumably with approval from a consistently indifferent Dublin City Council – for parking and car washing. The fate of Aldborough House remains, as described on January 13th, A Thundering Disgrace.
Lest it seems this blog is all gloom, there have been more cheerful circumstances to report, not least various weeks when attention was given to the restoration of an historic building. One such is Ballinderry Park, County Galway, bought by its current owners in 2001 and since then benefitting from a full and sympathetic overhaul. Dating from the first half of the eighteenth century and largely unaltered except for the addition of a two-storied return to the rear, Ballinderry’s finest feature is its staircase which, together with the principal reception rooms, give the building an air of what the owners rightly describe as ‘solid rural grandeur in a miniature scale.’ (For more on the house, see Sturdy as an Oak, January 6th).
Down in a remote part of County Cork, another house lay unoccupied for more than half a century after the death of a previous owner until discovered by its present one. Like Ballinderry, this property had suffered the consequences of neglect, but that did not act as a deterrent: on the contrary as far as was possible, the character of the house was left unchanged; in the kitchen, for example, the original tiled floor and ochre wall colouring was preserved, with all additions determinedly sympathetic. The result is proof both that no building can be deemed beyond redemption and that even the plainest property can be transformed under the right hands, such as those discussed in A Dash of Panache, May 19th.
And so, more recently, to County Kilkenny and Ballysallagh, another country house which might have been lost forever had it not been for the couple who rescued the building in 1987 and since then have devoted huge amounts of effort towards ensuring the spirit of the place is preserved. Ballysallagh dates from the 1720s and has undergone little structural or decorative change since then, aside from the introduction of folding doors with a wide fanlight in 1810 and on the adjacent wall a matching glazed wall cabinet with columns and a richly carved frieze. The property deservedly featured in Maurice Craig’s 1976 book Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size and featured again here in Of the Middle Size, November 24th.
We end therefore on an optimistic note, buoyed by an awareness some people here in Ireland do care for our architectural heritage and are playing their part to make sure it has a long and loved future. Below is a photograph of another house, Gloster, County Offaly, which is also the beneficiary of an extensive and ongoing programme of restoration. As they have during the past year, such buildings will continue to feature in The Irish Aesthete in 2015.
‘To delight in the aspects of sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime, and the pleasure, I confess, shows the note of perversity.’ From Italian Hours (1873) by Henry James.
‘I salute you, lonely ruins. While your aspect repulses with a secret fear the gaze of the vulgar, my heart finds in contemplating you the charm of a thousand sentiments and thoughts. How many useful lessons and touching reflections do you not offer to the spirit which knows how to consult you!’
From Les Ruines, ou méditations sur les révolutions des empires (1791) by Constantin François Chasseboeuf, comte de Volney.
‘I do love these ancient ruins
We never tread upon them but we set
Our foot upon some reverend history;
And, questionless, here in this open court,
Which now lies naked to the injuries
Of stormy weather, some men lie interr’d
Lov’d the church so well, and gave so largely to ’t,
They thought it should have canopied their bones
Till dooms-day. But all things have their end;
Churches and cities, which have diseases like to men,
Must have like death that we have.’
From The Duchess of Malfi (1612) by John Webster.
‘The ideas aroused within me by ruins are lofty. Everything vanishes, everything perishes, everything passes away, only the world remains, time alone endures. How old is this world! I walk between these two eternities…What is my ephemeral existence compared to that of this crumbling stone?’
From Denis Diderot’s Salon (1767).
‘At fifteen I went with the army,
At fourscore I came home.
On the way I met a man from the village,
I asked him who there was at home.
That over there is your house,
All covered over with trees and bushes.
Rabbits had run in at the dog-hole,
Pheasants flew down from the beams of the roof.
In the courtyard was growing some wild grain;
And by the well, some wild mallows.
I’ll boil the grain and make porridge,
I’ll pluck the mallows and make soup.
Soup and porridge are both cooked,
But there is no one to eat them with.
I went out and looked towards the east,
While tears fell and wetted my clothes.’
Chinese poem by an unknown author, translated by Arthur Waley (1919).
‘What are our woes and sufferance? Come and see
The cypress, hear the owl, and plod your way
O’er steps of broken thrones and temples, ye
Whose agonies are evils of a day! A world is at our feet as fragile as our clay. . . .
Then let the winds howl on! Their harmony
Shall henceforth be my music, and the night
The sound shall temper with the owlets’ cry,
As I now hear them in the fading light…’
From Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818) by Lord Byron.
‘Where rev’rend shrines in gothic grandeur stood,
The nettle, or the noxious night-shade spreads;
And ashlings, wafted from the neighboring wood,
Through the worn turrets wave their trembling heads.
I left the mantling shade in moral mood . . .
Sigh’d, as the mould’ring monuments I viewed.
Inexorably calm, with silent pace,
Here Time has pass’d What ruin marks his way!
This pile, now crumbling o’er its hallow’d base,
Turn’d not his step, nor could his course delay.’
From Poems chiefly Pastoral (1766) by John Cunningham.
‘Fall’n, fall’n, a silent heap; her heroes all
Sunk in their urns; behold the pride of pomp.
The throne of nations fall’n; obscur’d by dust;
Ev’n yet majestical; the solemn scene
Elates the soul, while now the rising Sun
Flames on the ruins in the purer air
Towering aloft upon the glittering plain,
Like broken rocks, a vast circumference;
Rent palaces, crush’d columns, rifled moles…’
From The Ruins of Rome (1740) by John Dyer.
‘…Since first these ruins fell, how chang’d the scene!
What busy, bustling mortals, now unknown,
Have come and gone, as tho’ there nought had been,
Since first Oblivion call’d the spot her own.
Ye busy, bustling mortals, known before,
Of what you’ve done, where went, or what you see,
Of what your hopes attain’d to, (now no more,)
For everlasting lies a mystery.
Like yours, awaits for me that common lot;
‘Tis mine to be of every hope bereft:
A few more years and I shall be forgot,
And not a vestige of my memory left.’
From Elegy on the Ruins of Pickworth (1818) by John Clare
‘Amidst the gloom arose the ruins of the abbey, tinged with a bright ray, which discovered a profusion of rich Gothic workmanship; and exhibited in pleasing contrast the grey stone of which the ruins are composed, with the feathering foliage that floated round them. . . . The imagination formed it, after the vision vanished.’
From Observations on the River Wye, and several parts of South Wales, etc. relative chiefly to picturesque beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770 (1782) by William Gilpin.
‘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…
Lying in the shadow of the Knockmealdown Mountains, Castle Grace, County Tipperary is believed to have been built by the de Bermingham family around the mid-13th century. Its substantial square keep originally had a tower at each corner but only two circular ones remain. The castle’s ruins now serve as a walled garden for an adjacent Georgian house, the upper sections of stone and brick interior at present smothered in cascades of wisteria.