A Pre-Eminent House


‘Pre-eminent among the Augustinian houses stands the Abbey of Clare. It was one of a group of monasteries founded by the able but unscrupulous Donald More O’Brien, the last King of Munster. To it in vivid dread of a future retribution for his bloodshedding, cruelties, and perjuries he granted many a fair quarter of land. The fortunate preservation of his foundation charter enables us to some extent to create an estates map of the abbey lands “from the ford of the two weirs” at Clare Castle, “even out to the Leap of Cuchullin” in the edge of the Atlantic…We only possess this charter in a copy made in 1461 for Thady, Bishop of Killaloe. The only other documents of Donald More are not foundation charters, but mere grants of land to Holycross Abbey and Limerick Cathedral, so they are not capable of comparison. Donald More appears in them as “Donaldus Rex Limericensis,” and “D. dí grá Limicensis,” and we find the “appurtenances,” “fields, woods, pastures, meadows, waters, &c.,” and “for the welfare of my soul and the souls of my parents” in the undoubted charters. It is true that the king’s epithet “magnus” is suspicious, but the coincidence of the presence of the bishops of Kilfenora and Limerick, whose rights were touched at Caheraderry, Iniscatha and Kilkerrily, and of the chiefs MacMahon and O’Conor, in whose territories certain lands were granted, favours the genuineness of the document. We may also note the inclusion of Killone and Inchicronan, the sites of the other Augustinian houses among the possessions of the abbey of “Forgy.” We next hear of the abbey in 1226. Pope Honorius III wrote from the Lateran to his son “T,” abbot of the monastery of SS. Peter and Paul, “de Forgio,” directing the judges to proceed against Robert Travers, who had “unjustly and by simony been made Bishop of Killaloe” by the influence of his uncle Geoffrey de Marisco, the justiciary, and the connivance of Donchad Cairbreach O’Brien, chief of Thomond, in 1217. The abbot took much trouble in the matter, and even went to Rome to inform the Pope as to the facts of the case, for which labour his expenses are directed to be paid by the bishopric…’






‘In the Papal taxation of 1302-1306, the abbey “De Forgio” was assessed at two marks, and the temporalities of its abbot at three marks. No other record occurs for a century and a half. About the end of that century, to judge from the ruins, the long church of Donald More was divided into nave and chancel by the erection of a plain and somewhat ungraceful belfry tower resting on two pointed arches of much better design than the rest of the structure. On June 18th, 1461, Thady, Bishop of Killaloe, seems to have been called upon to examine and exemplify the ancient charter. At the present time it is impossible to discover the reason for the event, and the evidently contemporaneous repairs of the southern wing of the domicile. It occurred while Teige Acomhad O’Brien was prince of Thomond, but the annals of his not very eventful reign do not help us. We might at most conjecture that the prince may have undertaken some works on the abbey to ward off disease or unpopularity, for MacFirbis, in recording his death, says “ the multitudes envious eyes and hearts shortened his days.” “Know all”—writes the prelate—“by these letters and the ancient charter of Donellusmore Ibrien, King of Limerick, founder and patron of the religious and venerable house of canons regular ‘de Forgio’ ”—what are the possessions of the abbey and its rights and alms. The full copy of the older charter is given, compared, attested, and sealed by Eugene O’Heogenayn, the notary, in the monastery of Clare, July 18th, 1461, the third year of the bishop’s consecration. It is witnessed by Donat Macrath, vicar of Killoffin; John Connagan, cleric, and Donald MacGorman…’






‘The convent was formally dissolved by Henry VIII., and granted with other lands and religious houses, to Donogh, Baron of Ibracken, in 1543. The grantee was pledged to forsake the name “Obrene,” to use the English manners, dress, and language, to keep no kerne or gallow-glasses, obey the king’s laws and answer his writs, to attend the Deputy and succour no traitors. In 1573 and again on October 2nd, 1578, it was re-granted to Conor, Earl of Thomond. It was held by Sir Donnell O’Brien and his son Teige in 1584, and confirmed to other Earls of Thomond—to Donough on January 19th, 1620, and to Henry on September 1st, 1661. It was occupied by a certain Robert Taylor about 1635. Its monastic history had not, however, closed. Nicholas O’Nelan, Abbot of Clare, is given in the list of monks living in the diocese of Killaloe in 1613, seventy years after the dissolution. Teige O’Griffa, a priest, officiated at Dromcliff, Killone, and Clare Abbey in 1622. The Rev. Dr. De Burgho, Vicar-General of Killaloe, was its Abbot, 1647-1650, and two years later Roger Ormsby and Hugh Carighy, priests of Clare, were hanged without a trial by the Puritans. They were, however, possibly parish priests, and not monks. In 1681 Thomas Dyneley’s sketch of the abbey shows it as unroofed except the south-west room with its high chimney. A small chapel, its gables boldly capped with large crosses, adjoined the east end of the abbey church, and was evidently in use. Dyneley tells us that the building “was also thought to have been founded by the sayd Duke (Lionel of Clarence, 1361), for the love he bore and in memory of a priory of that name in Suffolk, where his first wife was buried.” Dyneley probably heard this unfounded legend from some English settler, who tried to account for the name, oblivious of the plank causeway across the muddy creek which, perhaps, for centuries before Duke Lionel’s time, had given the neighbouring village its name, Claremore, or Clar atha da Choradh…’


Extracts from The Augustinian Houses of the County Clare: Clare, Killone, and Inchicronan by Thomas Johnson Westropp (Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland vol. 30, 1900).

Still Standing


The western gable of old St Cronan’s church in Roscrea, County Tipperary. Cronan was a seventh century monk who founded a religious house, originally a short distance from Roscrea but in too remote a spot for pilgrims to find. So the monastery was re-established here and flourished for many years: the eighth century Book of Dimma, an illuminated set of the gospels now in the collection of Trinity College Dublin, was written here. Post-reformation the monastic site was used by the Church of Ireland until the early 19th century when the old church was demolished and replaced by the present building incorporating much stone from its predecessor. But the 12th century Romanesque gable was retained and for the past 200 years has served as an entrance to the churchyard.

Recalling a Young Man ‘of Good Character’


Down a narrow lane in North County Tipperary can be found Dorrha Church of Ireland church, which dates from the early 1830s and was built with help from the Board of First Fruits. Next to it are the remains of a much older building, now fallen into ruin. On the north wall is set  a large carved tablet commemorating Lord Bernard (died February 1705) together with his wife Eleanor and ‘my beloved son James Kennedy, a young man of good character, died 9 Jan. 1704…’

There are a number of fine tombstones in the surrounding graveyard, such as that above dating from 1778, and also on the east wall of the old church the remains of a blocked-up arched window (it looks as though a tablet immediately below has been removed), above which is a badly weathered carved head.

In Transition


Killaloe, County Clare derives its name from St Molua, a sixth century monk about whom – like many other religious of the period – relatively little is known. Believed to have been a contemporary of Saints Columba and Gall, and like them trained in the monastery at Bangor, County Down, his original name was Lughaidh, pronounced Lua, and it is from this that Killaloe – Cill-da-Lua , the Church of Lua – comes. Molua’s original church was on Friar’s Island nearby but at the end of the 1920s during the Shannon Electrification Scheme, water levels here were raised meaning the island was submerged. A little 10th/11th century oratory there which was associated with Molua was dismantled and moved to the mainland where reconstructed in the grounds of the local Roman Catholic church. Molua is said to have settled in what is now Killaloe on the western side of Lough Derg and a monastic community grew up around him. Among his foremost students was Flannán mac Toirrdelbaig, son of local chieftain Turlough of Thomond. Flannán became abbot of the house at Killaloe, and the cathedral there still bears his name.





The core of the present St Flannan’s Cathedral originates from the early 12th century when constructed on the instructions of Donal Mór O’Brien, descendant of Brian Boru and last claimant to the title of King of Munster. It will be remembered that O’Brien was also responsible for founding St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick which this year is celebrating its 850th birthday (see A Significant Anniversary, July 2nd 2018). However, this was soon replaced by another building, most of which can still be seen today and which represents the transition from Romanesque to Gothic architecture. The central arch of the great east window, for example, is round while those on either side are pointed. Unlike many other churches and cathedrals in Ireland, St Flannan’s seems to have survived relatively unscathed from the various upheavals that took place in Ireland over successive centuries: any changes that were made to the structure occurred during times of peace. The great tower was raised twice, in 1775 and 1892 and it was on one of these occasions that castellations were added to the roofline. The glazed oak screen dividing nave and chancel was constructed in the 1880s, primarily to conserve heat for the small local congregation.





St Flannan’s contains a number of fine features, not least a well-preserved Romanesque doorway dating from the 12th century: this may be a survivor from Donal Mór O’Brien’s original cathedral. This was not the doorway’s original location: it was reconstructed here in the early 18th century to mark the reputed burial spot of Muircheartach O’Brien, King of Munster, who died while on pilgrimage to Killaloe in 1119. The carving is especially fine, with chevron patterns on three of the arch rings, while others are decorated with fantastical animal and floral ornamentation. The nave also contains a 12th century High Cross; again this is not original to the building but was brought to this part of the county from Kilfenora in 1821 by Richard Mant who the year before had been consecrated bishop; a keen historian and archaeologist, he would go on to write a two-volume History of the Church in Ireland. Initially the cross stood in the grounds of the nearby Episcopal residence; it was moved to the cathedral only in 1934. The rectangular stone font is original to the building and dates from the 13th century. St Flannan’s is another of Ireland’s ‘pocket’ cathedrals, no larger than the average parish church in other countries but an important survivor from a time when there were many more bishoprics than is the case today: seemingly the Synod of Ráth Breasail (1111) was attended by more than fifty bishops, and it then determined that there should be 24. Today there are half that number in the Church of Ireland (the Roman Catholic church meanwhile has 26).


Ireland’s Ossuary


One of the country’s best-known families, the Butlers originated with Theobald Walter who in 1185 was granted by Prince John (future King John) the title of Chief Butler of Ireland (his father had already held the same title in England). Theobald’s successors established themselves in what is now County Kilkenny, their stronghold being in Gowran where they built a castle that would remain their principle residence until they established a presence in Kilkenny City at the end of the 14th century. As a result, the church in Gowran was greatly enriched by the presence of the Butlers. The Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is believed to have been built on the site of an earlier religious settlement, possibly a monastery founded by Saint Lochan who was connected with the region: Saint Patrick is also said to have passed through here on at least one of his seemingly innumerable perambulations around Ireland. 





In its present form, St Mary’s was a collegiate church, built in the late 13th century and served by a ‘college’ of clerics who lived communally in an adjacent dwelling but did not follow any monastic rules, as was the case for the likes of the Benedictines or Cistercians. The presence of the Butlers greatly enhanced its status. In 1312, for example, Edmund Butler, Earl of Carrick and Lord Deputy of Ireland made a binding agreement before the Kings Justice in Dublin with the Dean and Chapter of St Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny to provide finance allowing four priests attached to St. Mary’s to say masses in perpetuity for himself, his wife Joan, his son James (future first Earl of Ormonde), his daughters, and other family members both living and dead. The church had a long aisled nave with substantial chancel to the east, the two parts linked by a great square tower, now taller than was originally the case. Inevitably it suffered onslaught over the centuries. In 1316 Edward Bruce and his army of Scottish and Ulster troops attacked and took the town of Gowran, with damage inflicted on the church. It suffered similarly during the Cromwellian wars of the early 1650s but by then, like many other religious buildings in the post-Reformation period, St Mary’s was falling into disrepair. Only at the start of the 19th century was refurbishment undertaken, with the chancel converted into a parish church for the local Church of Ireland community, access being directly beneath the great tower. The nave was left a ruin, as it remains to the present day. St Mary’s continued to be used for services until the 1970s, since when a series of further restoration programmes have been undertaken under the auspices of the Office of Public Works. 





The interior of St Mary’s today is notable for the number, and quality, of tombs displayed inside the former chancel. In some instances moved indoors from elsewhere on the site, these funerary monuments stretch across many centuries, the oldest being a partial slab carved with Ogham script. There are many slabs from the 13th and 14th centuries decorated with crosses and inscriptions in Latin. The central space of the chancel is dominated by two substantial table tombs, both early 16th century and perhaps carved by the O Tunneys, an important family of stone carvers at the time. One shows a single Knight, the other two Knights, all were members of the greater Butler clan. The entrance to the church is dominated by a vast classical memorial to James Agar, who died in 1733. Originally from Yorkshire, the Agars succeeded the Butlers as the dominant local family in the mid-17th century and remained so until the end of the 19th. It was James Agar’s widow who, one can read, ‘out of sincere respect to the WORTHY DECEASED has caused THIS to be ERECTED AS A MONUMENT TO HIS MERIT AND HER AFFECTION.’ Tributes to the deceased until relatively recently, one of the more recent being a stained glass window on the north wall designed by Michael Healy of An Túr Gloine (The Glass Tower) an Arts and Crafts studio established in Dublin in 1903: the window commemorates Aubrey Cecil White who died aged twenty at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The range of monuments inside St Mary’s, and their exceptional calibre, make this church worthy of being described as Ireland’s ossuary.

Explanation Sought


In St Mary’s graveyard, Dungarvan, County Waterford a gable wall some 30 foot high and 32 foot long is all that remains of the 13th century church. During the Confederate Wars, in 1642 this building was attacked by Catholic rebels and used as a stable and prison for local Protestants; it suffered further damage in the following decade when occupied by members of the English army. Nevertheless, the church was repaired and continued in use for services until the third decade of the 19th century when replaced by the present St Mary’s designed by James Pain. A curious feature of this wall are the oculi, two over three. These would seem to have been inserted for defensive purposes but, even allowing for the building’s turbulent history in the 17th century, are an unusual feature within a church context.

Particularly Precious


The gardens of Heywood, County Laois have been mentioned here more than once (see To Smooth the Lawn, To Decorate the Dale, May 12th 2014 and Happily Disposed in the Most Elegant Taste, August 27th 2018). Close by in the village of Ballinakill stands an early 19th century church associated with the families who lived at Heywood. All Saints was built in 1821 – most likely on the site of an earlier building – for the sum of £1,558, thanks to assistance from the Board of First Fruits. When Samuel Lewis visted Ballinakill in 1837 he wrote ‘The parish church, situated in the town, is a handsome edifice with a tower and spire; the east window, which is of stained glass and very handsome, was purchased on the Continent and presented by the late Francis Trench, Esq.’ More likely it was Michael Frederick Trench of Heywood who had acquired the glass, of which more below. He was succeeded by his son Major-General Sir Frederick William Trench who died in 1859. Having no direct male heir, the estate then passed to his nephew, Sir Charles Domville (eldest surviving son of the wonderfully named Sir Compton Pocklington Domville, who had married Trench’s sister Helena). In turn Sir Charles’ niece Mary Adelaide Domville would marry Lt.-Col. Sir William Hutchison-Poë, who at the start of the last century commissioned Lutyens to design the gardens at Heywood.






Much of the interior of All Saints, Ballinakill dates from the second half of the 19th century when the church was enlarged and redecorated by the Domvilles. According to the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette of March 1868, the building was then restored and beautified ‘chiefly through the bounty of W. Domville Esq., of Ballinakill’ with the installation of new pews, pulpit and reading desk, as well as the gift of an organ, carved stone font, ‘velvet uphostery, pew furniture, coronas & bracket lights.’ It appears that the chancel was added to the existing structure at this time. One of the notable features of the interior is that the walls retain their original stenciled decoration, beginning in the oval entrance lobby where the domed ceiling represents the celestial sky covered in gold stars. In the main body of the church the walls are likewise stenciled or painted with improving texts, each panel of the ceiling carrying the symbol of a different saint. Damp has caused some damage to the work but, thanks to a generous grant from the Heritage Council some years ago, the condition of the church has been stabilized and no further flaking of paint seems likely.






Samuel Lewis mentioned that the church’s east window contained glass ‘purchased on the continent’. When the Domvilles added a chancel, this glass was divided between new windows on the extension’s north and south sides. The windows are of interest since they feature examples of Netherlandish glass dating from between the late 15th and late 17th century. In an article published The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland , Vol. 121 (1991), William Cole examines these pieces (and those in another three Irish churches) and explains how they came to be in this country. As he notes, at least in part due to the French Revolution, ‘there was a general air of unrest in northern Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. Churches were in a bad state financially and the sale of church furnishings and glass helped to remedy this state of affairs.’ Many such items were bought by wealthy landowners in Britain and Ireland to decorate churches on or adjacent to their estates, and this would appear to have been the case at Ballinakill. Originally made in profusion for chapels, cloisters and corridors and customarily in a round or oval shape, the glass was easily transported and helped give an air of antiquity to Irish churches rebuilt or renovated thanks to the support of the Board of First Fruits. In this instance, additional glass was provided in the 1880s by the firm of Cox, Sons, Buckley and Co, which having been established in London, around this time opened a branch in Youghal, County Cork to cater for demand here. Since that time, almost nothing has changed inside the church, which – lacking electric lighting – still sees candles used during services. All Saints is a rare surviving example of a High Victorian religious interior and for that reason particularly precious.