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.
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.
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.