‘The quest for earthly solitude was the chief motive behind the foundation of Citeaux in 1098 and the statutes of the order later insisted that “monasteries should not be built in cities, castles or towns but in places far removed from the conversation of men.” Hidden in the quiet of the countryside, the monks could pursue without distraction their search for spiritual union with God. The advantages of rural retreat were beautifully summarised by the English abbot, Aelred as he described the attractions of Cistercian life: “everywhere peace, everywhere serenity and a marvelous freedom from the tumult of the world”.’ From Roger Stalley’s The Cistercian Monasteries of Ireland (1987)
The Cistercian abbey at Corcomroe, County Clare is believed to have been founded towards the end of the 12th century at the behest either of Domnall Mór Ua Briain, King of Thomond or of his son Donnchadh Cairprech. The location is curious since as a rule the Cistercians always chose a spot beside running water. Here however there is no evidence or either a river or stream but perhaps it existed then and has since disappeared. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the monastery’s Latin name was ‘Petra Fertilis’ or Fertile Rock, suggesting the land was sufficiently well watered at the time. Work began on the site around 1205 and it is clear from the eastern end of the church nave that the monks held high ambitions for this monastery: as Stalley writes, ‘those in charge intended to produce the finest looking Cistercian church in Ireland.’ The chancel arch is of finely dressed limestone with the capitals well carved: inside is some handsome ribbed vaulting. There are well carved sedile on the north and south walls of the chancel, the former also features a wall plaque depicting an abbot and directly below him the tomb of the founder’s grandson Conor na Siudane Ua Briain, who died in 1267. It shows the deceased lying recumbent and wearing a crown decorated with fleur de lys, his left hand holding a sceptre, his right a reliquary suspended from the chain around his neck. On either side of the chancel are single transept chapels each approached via its own arch with beautifully carved colonettes featuring floral and animal motifs.
Changing circumstances put paid to the monks’ architectural ambitions. The Annals of Connacht would later record of 1227: ‘Famine throughout Ireland this year, and much sickness and death among men from various causes: cold, famine and every kind of disease.’ Political unrest before and after the catastrophe further added to the monastery’s problems and as a result the high standard of workmanship seen at the eastern end of the church was abandoned. Undressed stone was used for the rest of the building and the arches of the nave are arranged in haphazard fashion, suggesting the main intent was to finish work rather than worry about decoration or polish. Numbers of monks would later drop and eventually the church itself was foreshortened by the insertion of a wall surmounted by a bell turret halfway down the nave: the windows below this point look then to have been blocked up. In the aftermath of the Reformation, the monastery was granted in 1554 to Murrough O’Brien, Earl of Thomond, a descendant of the original founder. Although John O’Dea was named titular abbot as late as 1628 long before that date the place had ceased to be occupied by the Cistercians.