An Abode of Wolves

The County Limerick town of Kilmallock derives its name from a Saint Mocheallóg who in the late sixth/early seventh centuries established a religious house in the vicinity: the name thus derives from the Irish Cill Mocheallóg meaning ‘the church of Mocheallóg.’ Following the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, Kilmallock grew in importance to become second only to the city of Limerick in this part of the country. It subsequently became a stronghold of the FitzGerald Earls of Desmond and owing to a location between Cork and Limerick became a centre for both trade and government.

Evidence of Kilmallock’s former significance can be found in various old buildings, not least the Dominican priory of St Saviour. Located outside the town walls close to the river Loobagh, this house was established in 1291 when with the consent of King Edward I the friars bought land from one of Kilmallock’s burgesses John Bluet. However, Gerald le Marshall, then-bishop of Limerick who held authority over the area disapproved of this transaction taking place without his approval and had the Dominicans expelled from the site. An inquiry held in Cashel by William de Vesci, one of the country’s Lords Justices, ruled that le Marshall should not acted as he did since the friars owed no rent or service to the bishop for their priory. Soon afterwards they returned and remained in residence for several centuries.

St Saviour’s Priory retains a number of fine features, many of them added thanks to patronage by the local FitzGerald family: a niche-tomb believed to commemorate one of them can be seen on the northern wall of the chancel. The core of the extant buildings date from the late 13th/early 14th centuries when the main body of the church was constructed. The tall crossing tower was added in the 15th century, as was the southern transept with its elaborate window. To the north lies the cloister, one side of which has been reconstructed to give an impression of how it would once have appeared. Throughout the site are various carvings in different states of preservation featuring human heads and foliage.

Kilmallock’s strategic importance made it vulnerable to attack from which religious houses were not protected. In 1570 during the first Desmond Rebellion James FitzMaurice FitzGerald, cousin of the fifteenth Earl of Desmond (then in custody in London) burnt the town, leaving it, as the Annals of the Four Masters reported, ‘the receptacle and abode of wolves.’ Already by that date the priory had officially been closed but it appears the friars were still in the area, if not in occupation of the buildings. In 1648 during the Confederate War, Murrough O’Brien, first Earl of Inchiquin sacked the priory and executed two of the remaining friars. Yet even in the 18th century the Dominicans continued to be a presence, three of them recorded in Kilmallock in 1756. The site was finally abandoned thereafter and fell into ruin but has been the scene of extensive restoration work in more recent times.


Marshall’s Monument

Three lancet windows close the chancel of St Mary’s, New Ross, County Wexford. Founded at the start of the 13th century by William Marshall and/or his wife Isabel de Clare, this was one of the first Perpendicular Gothic churches built in Ireland and most likely the largest at the time. Even in the present condition, it remains a monument to the couple’s ambitions. Having fallen into disrepair, a new Anglican place of worship was built on the site of the nave in 1813 with funds provided by the Board of First Fruits and remains in use for services to the present day (its chancel wall can be seen behind the empty windows). The interior of the ruins contain a substantial collection of mediaeval, and later, funerary monuments most of them within the two transepts (that to the south shown below).


The Most Benevolent Disposition

Against one of the walls surrounding St Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny is this memorial to wealthy local banker Connell Loughnan (1733-1812) who is described as being ’eminent for the display of the most benevolent disposition and the practice of every Christian Virtue,’ while his wife Anastasia who died a decade earlier was notable for ’emulating the virtues of her husband, an affectionate wife, a kind parent and a good friend.’


An Unexpected Detail

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.


Meanwhile, Elsewhere in Ballinrobe…

On the road leading from Castlebar into Ballinrobe, County Mayo can be seen the ruins of the old Roman Catholic chapel. With financial support from the local landlord James Cuffe, first (and last) Lord Tyrawley work began on the cruciform building in 1815, in other words some years before the Emancipation Act of 1829. It is notable for being more ample than were many such Catholic churches of the period, for having a splendid four-storey bell tower at the east end, and for fine limestone wall monuments to its earliest parish priests on either side of the crossing. However within decades the building appears to have been deemed insufficient to local needs since a successor was begun closer to the centre of the town in 1849. Before the end of the 19th century the old chapel was unroofed and today its shell languishes on a patch of ground surrounded by housing estates.


Built Without Permission

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.’