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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Truncated

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The stump of an 11th century round tower at Dysert O’Dea, County Clare. A little shy of six metres in diameter, this is one of the largest such structures recorded, believed to have risen to a height of 30 metres. However, the tower has been in a state of ruin probably since the 1650s and now serves as an attractive feature in the graveyard surrounding the 12th century church dedicated to its founder, St Tola.