At some date in the future, research will probably be undertaken into the consequences of the near-wholesale disappearance of Roman Catholic religious orders from Ireland during the late 20th/early 21st centuries. For more than 100 years, they had been a dominant presence across the country, every town of any consequence having at least one, more often several, large building complexes occupied by various orders who would have been responsible for the area’s education and, as we have discovered of late, other less savoury activities. By and large, the persons responsible for running those institutions have disappeared, primarily due to the fact that since the 1970s fewer and fewer individuals have been prepared to become nuns or monks and so forth. But the buildings remain, still dominating many a neighbourhood, even though their intended residents have departed. Sometimes the properties have found a new purpose, more often they now stand empty, their decaying presence serving as testament to an authority that once erroneously believed itself invincible. Like Shelley’s Ozymandias, they proclaim ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair.’ So, aside from the physical manifestations, what have been the consequences of this ebbing of a once-powerful tide? What effect has it, will it have, on the national psyche? That remains to be investigated, but when such work begins, perhaps those responsible might like to consider how we have been here before, that we went through a similar experience back in the second half of the 16th century.
Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Ballindoon Priory, County Sligo was a late-comer to the company of Ireland’s religious houses. A Dominican foundation, it was established on the banks of Lough Arrow in 1507 by one Thomas O’Farrell under the patronage of the McDonaghs, who were then the most powerful family in the area. The interior of the church is dominated by a remarkable two-storey, triple-vaulted archway. The arches on the ground floor are all the same height but only the centre one provides access from nave to chancel, those on either side probably once holding altars (that to the south has since been blocked). The central arch above is much higher than its neighbours and may once have contained a cross or crucifix although it also has a hole in the ceiling to allow the suspension of a bell rope from further up the tower. This floor, effectively a gallery, is lit by exceptionally tall, narrow windows set into the north and south walls. Reached by an unusual external staircase, the top of the tower is thought once to have contained accommodation for whoever lived on the site, since no domestic ranges were ever constructed around the church (the land to the immediate south of the church drops steeply down to the lakeshore). Both the east and west ends of the church have splendid traceried windows
Ballindoon Priory was almost the last such religious house to be established in Ireland, although Eóghan O’Rourke and his wife Margaret O’Brien founded a Franciscan friary at Creevelea, County Leitrim a year later, in 1508. At the time both these buildings were erected, it must have seemed as though little would change, that the Roman Catholic church would continue to have a dominant presence throughout the country, and its properties enjoy a secure future. Just a few decades later, Henry VIII proclaimed himself head of the church in his dominions, which included Ireland, and ordered the dissolution of all religious houses. One by one, they were closed down, their occupants sent away, their possessions confiscated and frequently granted or sold to supporters of the English crown. An entire way of life disappeared, leaving the Irish countryside littered with the decaying remains of what had once seemed an immutable authority. This must have been a unsettling experience for the entire population, who over the space of some 50 years witnessed the loss of the familiar and with it the sense of comforting security. Sound familiar? History has an uneasy way of repeating itself.
The difference is that the recent decline has been a loss of faith and the damage to the RC hurch’s reputation from various scandals which have undermined it’s moral authority. By contrast the events of the 16th Century were imposed from above by a foreign ruler and introducing new landlords with no links to the country.
‘less savoury activities’… really?