One of the Finest and Most Entire Monasteries


From Richard Pococke’s Tour in Ireland in 1752:
‘At Quin is one of the finest and most entire Monasteries I have seen in Ireland, it belonged to Franciscan Minorites, and is called in Ware Quinchy; it is situated on a fine stream, there is an ascent of several steps to the church, and at the entrance one is surprised with the view of the high altar entire, and of an altar on each side of the arch to the Chancel ; To the south is a chapel with three or four altars in it, and a very Gothick figure in relief of some Saint probably of St. Patrick on the north side of the Chancel is a fine monument of the Macnamarahs’ of Eanace. On a stone by the high altar I saw the name of Kennedye in large letters ; In the middle between the body and the chancel, is a fine tower built on two Gable ends. The Cloyster is in the usual form with Couplets of pillars, but particularly in that it has buttresses round by way of ornament; there are apartments on three sides of it ; what I supposed to be the Refectory, the Dormitory and another grand room to the north of the Chancel ; with vaulted rooms under them all ; to the north of this large room is a closet over an arch, which leads to an opening, that seemed to be anciently a private way to go down in time of danger, in order to retire to a very strong round tower, the walls of which are near ten feet thick, tho’ not above seven or eight feet from the ground ; it has been made use of without doubt since the dissolution, as a pidgeon house, and the holes remain in it : In the front of the Convent is a building which seems to have been a Forastieria or apartments for strangers, and to the south west are two other buildings.’






From The Irish Journals of Robert Graham of Redgorton, 1835-1838:
‘Quin Abbey is of very early history and the first building was consumed by fire in 1278. A monastery for Franciscan friars was founded here in 1402 (or earlier according to the opinion of some) by the Macnamaras. The tomb of the founder is still remaining. No part of the roofs remain of these buildings, but in other respects they are the most entire remains in Ireland. The cloisters are very handsome – much in the style of Muckrus, but more uniform as they are all sharp gothic arches, instead of being partly saxon as at Muckrus. The particularity of buttresses to the cloisters mentionec by Dutton is common with Muckrus but here they are longer and taller and of rather inferior masonry and show some symptoms of being an afterthought to strengthen or support the wall. Except in one stone connected with the capitals of the couplets of pillars (and which projects beyond the face of the cloister wall and is let into the buttress) I did not observe any of the other stones which was connected with the cloister wall, but only built on against it.’






From Lady Chatterton’s Rambles in the south of Ireland during the year 1838:
‘On Monday we came here, making a detour to visit the ruins of Quin Abbey. It stands in a green plain near the clear river. The cloisters resemble those of Askeaton, and are in as good preservation; indeed the whole building, except the roof, is entire. Most of the chimney-pieces remain; and a peasant woman, who came up to speak to me as I was examining an old monument, said that her grandmother remembered when it was all perfect. I looked on these cloisters with great interest, as the place where the monk who composed those beautiful lines to Lady O’Brien, was wont to meditate and pray.
While we were in the abbey, the funeral procession of a young girl entered the ruined building, and, as is always the case in Ireland, several groups dispersed themselves in various directions, each to weep over the grave of their own friends. I remarked one girl particularly, who knelt at a tomb which, from its grass-grown appearance, seemed to have been there a long time; she must have been quite young when she lost the friend or relative who reposed in it; but the expression of solemn concern on her countenance showed how deeply she still revered the memory of that departed one.
I was struck by the extreme civility and kindly feeling towards us strangers, of the people who attended this funeral. They seemed highly flattered at our appearing to admire the ruins; and one woman regretted, with tears in her eyes, that the pavement of the cloisters was so rugged for my “little feet;” she looked as if she longed to carry me over the rough places and looked with the greatest anxiety to see that I did not step on loose stones.’

A Fortress of God

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The massive form of Quin Friary, County Clare is due to the fact that when the Franciscan order came here in 1433 it settled inside the ruins of an Anglo-Norman castle. This had been built around 1280 by Thomas de Clare, Lord of Thomond with a square courtyard and cylindrical towers at each corner. However, just six years later the building was attacked by the indigenous Irish who, in the words of a contemporary, left it a ‘hideous blackened cave.’ So it remained until the arrival of the Franciscans who adapted the ruins for their own purpose and remained there for just over a century until the suppression of all such religious houses by Henry VIII.

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The Legacy of Máire Rúa

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The last photograph featured below shows the familiar exterior view of Leamaneh Castle, County Clare which originally consisted of a plain five-storey tower house (the portion to the right). This was built around 1480 by Turlogh O’Brien, King of Thomond and is said to derive its name from the Irish ‘Leim an eich’ (The horse’s Leap). In 1543, Turlogh O’Brien’s son, Murrough, surrendered the castle and pledged loyalty to the English crown; as a result he was subsequently created first Earl of Thomond and Baron Inchiquin. In 1648, his descendant Conor O’Brien extended the tower with the addition of a four-storey manor house following his marriage to Máire ní Mahon who on account of her flaming red hair, was commonly known as Máire Rúa (Red Mary).

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Many legends are told of Máire Rúa, most of them apocryphal (such as that which proposes she had twenty-five husbands, after which she was sealed into a hollow tree and left to die). However it is true that when Conor O’Brien was killed by an English soldier, she married a Cromwellian officer, thereby ensuring the family estates were preserved for her son, Sir Donough O’Brien. He was the last of the family to live at Leamaneh, moving instead to live at the larger and more commodious Dromoland Castle. Early in the last century Sir Donough’s descendant, Lucius William O’Brien, 15th Baron Inchiquin organised for the stone gateway (hitherto marking the entrance to Leamaneh) to be removed and re-erected in the grounds of Dromoland where it still remains. Around the same time a stone chimneypiece from the castle was also taken out and installed in the Old Ground Hotel, Ennis where it likewise continues to stand.

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An Unexpected Detail

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The now-roofless church in Kilnaboy, County Clare is similar to many others in the region, dating from the 11th century with subsequent additions such as the late-mediaeval east window (seen above). One unexpected feature of the building can be found over a door on the south side: a Sheela na gig. For those unfamiliar with these figures, of which around 100-odd exist in Ireland, they are believed to be fertility symbols which first appeared in this country during the 12th century, perhaps introduced by Anglo-Norman settlers.

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The Fertile Rock

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‘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)

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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.

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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.

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In New Hands

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The 15th century de Burgo tower house which forms the core of Tulira Castle, County Galway. This was one of a number of country houses acquired by new owners during the course of 2015, significant others including Bellamont Forest, County Cavan and Capard, County Laois. But many others remain on the market, such as Milltown Park, County Offaly, Newhall, County Clare, Kilcooley, County Tipperary and Furness, County Kildare, all of which have been discussed here on earlier occasions. Let us hope the coming year is kind to them and all of Ireland’s architectural heritage.

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