In the west of Ireland, the last religious house of significance to be founded prior to the 16th century Reformation and Dissolution of such establishments was overlooking Clew Bay at Burrishoole, County Mayo. Here around 1469 Richard de Burgo of Turlough (otherwise known as Risteard an Cuarscidh, or Richard of the Curved Shield), Lord Mac William Oughter, invited Dominican friars to build themselves a new friary. Soon afterwards he resigned all secular authority and entered the house as a friar, dying there in 1473. Although then Archbishop of Tuam Donal O Muiri had given permission for the founding of the friary, this initiative was not sanctioned by Rome – an early example in Ireland of a building being erected without proper planning permission – and only in 1486 did Pope Innocent VII officially issue his approval to O Muiri’s successor, William Joyce. Consent was then given for the erection of a church with steeple and bell, and a friary incorporating refectory, dormitory, cloisters and cemetery.
A silver-gilt chalice, since 1924 in the collection of the National Museum of Ireland, was presented to Burrishoole Priory by the grandson of the house’s founder. A contemporary inscription on the item reads ‘Thomas de Burgo and Grace O’Malley had me made in 1494.’ This Grace O’Malley was the great-aunt of Gráinne Ó Máille, mentioned last week in relation to Bunowen Castle, County Galway. The latter woman married as her second husband this couple’s grandson, Risteárd an Iarainn Bourke and the son of that union, Tiobaid na Loinge is buried in the grounds of the priory. By then, of course, the house had been officially closed and the friars were supposed to have dispersed. In a letter written in August 1579, Sir Nicholas Malby, then Lord President of Connacht, described the place as follows: ‘The 17th, I removed to Burrishoole, an abbey standing very pleasant upon a riverside, within three miles of the sea where a ship of 300 tons may lie at anchor at low water.’ During the early 1650s when Cromwell’s forces were subduing the country, Sister Honoria Bourke a daughter of Risteárd and Gráinne, who is said to have dedicated herself to the religious life at the age of fourteen – and had already escaped from Malby’s troops by hiding in the church crypt for a week – was subjected to further brutal treatment. She and another nun, Sister Honoria Magaen, both said to be over 100 years old, fled to nearby Saint’s Island on Lough Furnace. However, they were subsequently captured, stripped naked, their ribs broken and left exposed to the elements. Sister Honoria Magaen found refuge in the hollow of a tree, but was discovered there dead the following day while Sister Honoria Bourke made her way back to the friary but likewise died there.
Although Burrishoole Priory was dissolved in the 16th century, as was the case with many other religious establishments throughout the country, the order responsible for its establishment continued to maintain an active presence on the site long after they were supposed to have departed. From 1642 until 1697 the Dominicans ran a school here on or near the premises but they were eventually driven away. Five years later they were back again and a government report of 1731 included note of ‘Another [friary] , in the parish of Burrishowle, whose number is said to be twenty, of whom five keep abroad in foreign parts and fifteen commonly disperse themselves about the country.’ By 1756, there were five friars still at Burrishoole but within little more than a decade that number had dropped to just one. The last Dominican directly associated with the friary was another Burke, who died in the mid-1780s. Not long afterwards, in 1793, the roof of the church collapsed, marking the end of Burrishoole as a place of worship. All that remains today are the nave, chancel and south transept, together with the tower above, and the eastern wall of the former cloisters. But as with so many other places across Ireland Burrishoole Priory continued to be a place of burial, the earliest surviving grave being an altar tomb constructed to the memory of David O’Kelly and dating from 1623. Many others have since followed, not least that of Peregrine O Cleirigh, one of the Four Masters, who stated in his will (dated February 1664) ‘I bequeath my soul to God and I charge my body to be buried in the monastery of Burgheis Umhaill.’