The east window of the old church in Dromiskin, County Louth. This was the site of a monastery founded in the late 5th/early 6th century by Lughaidh, son of the first Christian King of Munster and a disciple of St Patrick. In the mid-7th century it came under the authority of St Ronan who died of the plague in 664: in 801 his relics were placed in a richly decorated shrine. But inevitably the monastery’s wealth made it vulnerable to attack, and during the 10th and 11th centuries Dromiskin was plundered by both Irish and Viking forces. Eventually the monastery was abandoned and fell into ruin, although the church continued to be used for services (this window is 15th century) until replaced by another in the early 19th century (now also no longer in use). Looking west through the window, one can see the stump of a 9th century Round Tower (the cap on it was added in 1879).
In the seventh century an Irish monk called Muirchú moccu Machtheni composed his Life of St Patrick from which derives much of our knowledge about the latter. Muirchú’s work was very much a hagiography and ought not necessarily be taken as historically accurate. For example, he tells a story of Patrick coming to the Hill of Slane in County Meath and lighting a Paschal fire there in the year 433. This act was in defiance of orders issued by the High King Laoire who forbade any other fires being lit while that on the Hill of Tara (some ten miles from Slane) burned to mark the pagan Spring festival of Beltaine. According to Muirchú King Laoire, although angry, was sufficiently impressed by Patrick’s bold non-compliance that he allowed him to continue proselytizing. The same source also proposes that one of the king’s druids called Erc was even more affected by what had occurred and converted to Christianity, after which he was made Bishop of Slane by Patrick. Later moving to Kerry, Erc is said to have been the teacher of St Brendan, the sixth century ‘Voyager.’
Although a religious house was established on the Hill of Slane, the present remains date from a later foundation created for the Franciscan order by the Flemings, a prominent Norman family, members of which were Barons Slane from 1370 until the death of the last of the direct line some four centuries later. Like many others, the Flemings remained loyal to the Roman Catholic faith and suffered the consequences: Christopher, twenty-second Lord Slane was attainted in 1691 owing to his support of James II and subsequently moved to mainland Europe. He was eventually reconciled to the British government and in 1713 Queen Anne created him first Viscount Longford, but since no letters patent were issued before her death a year later the title had no validity (in any case, he in turn died without male heirs in 1726). Meanwhile the Franciscans saw their friary closed in the 16th century but then temporarily restored to them by the Flemings. Members of the Capuchin order also took up residence here at one stage but the site seems to have been abandoned for good in 1723, after which it fell into ruin.
What can be seen today on the Hill of Slane is primarily a rebuilding of the friary undertaken for the Franciscans in 1512 by Christopher Fleming, fourteenth Lord Slane. It is divided into two sections: the church and the college. The former is surrounded by a walled graveyard and its most striking feature is the tower at the west end of the building. This rises some sixty-two feet and incorporates a fine 15th century Gothic window above the doorcase. Relatively little remains of the main body of the church. The adjacent college buildings were intended to house four priests, four lay brothers and four choristers, with three ranges grouped around a central courtyard and the fourth side to the west closed by a curtain wall. A spiral staircase in one corner provides access to the upper levels, the views from which explain why this location was always likely to be of significance; from here it is possible to scan the surrounding countryside for several miles to south and east. Nearby are the remains of a motte and bailey believed to have been constructed by the Flemings before they moved their residence to a lower site which is the present Slane Castle.
‘Some sixteen miles from Limerick, in the direction of Cork, the Irish Balbec claims the attention of the passer by. It is a place to arouse sympathies with departed greatness; to remind the sojourner that earthly fabrics bow to Time. Here is a combination of ancient glory and present debasement – faded grandeur and upstart pretension, not to be rivalled, perhaps, in any other land…
The place was anciently called Killochia, Kilmocheallog, and Kilmaloge, whence Kilmallock, or the church of Moloch, from an abbey for Canons Regular, founded here by St Mocheallog, or Moloch, at the beginning of the seventh century. The absence of early records in this country prevents our tracing its history for several centuries; but the magnificence of the ruins, which obtained for it the proud, but mournful, appellation of the Balbec of Ireland, evince its progress to distinction. Who were the great men that directed its measures – who presided over its religious houses, taught in its schools, or governed its forces, we know not; all its earlier history is lost in the obscurity of its remote origin, and the interest given to every spot trodden by the good or the brave, of days when the land was the Land of Saints, is unfelt.’
James FitzGerald ‘was created Earl of Desmond by patent A.D.1600 and took up his residence at Kilmallock under the protection of the Lord President of Munster [George Carew]. The joy of the followers of the race of Fitz-Gerald knew no bounds, at the prospect of again beholding one of the hereditary chieftains, under whom they and their fathers so long lived. Crowds thronged all the streets, doors and windows, “yea, the very gutters and tops of the houses were filled, as if they came to see him whom God had sent to be the comfort and delight their soules and heartes most desired; and they welcomed him with all the expressions and signs of joy; every one throwing upon him wheat and salt, as a prediction of future peace and plenty.”…
Yet this was to be all shortly changed. The next day was Sunday, and the Earl attended service in the parish church. When the followers of Desmond learned that their lord had forsaken the faith of his fathers, their hearts were utterly alienated from him. At first they tried expostulation, imploring him, on their knees, to return to the ancient creed; he refused to abandon the religion he was reared in [the Anglican church] and urged the spirit of toleration to be inculcated by the gospel. This by no means satisfied their views; they reviled him as an apostate, looking on him as a spy from England – an instrument employed to sap the foundations of their Church; and the voices which the day before uttered blessings, now inverted their prayers, and heaped curses on his head. They denied his right to the title of Desmond; every ignominy was cast on him as he passed through Kilmallock; and not being able to stir without insult and reproach, he left the town and returned to England. His death seems to have made little sensation, as the following account of it in the Pacata Hibernia shows. “The 11th (January 1601), the Lord President had intelligence from England, that James (the late restored Earl of Desmond) was dead, and that eighteen hundred quarters of oates were sent into Munster for the reliefe of oure horses”.
‘An abbey near the town is partly in ruins and partly preserved – the latter portion [where the Earl of Desmond attempted to worship in 1600] used as the parish church. It was dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, and was used in the days of monastic institution as a collegiate church, consisting of nave, aisles and transepts, and beautiful and noble it must have been in its former splendour, and still with its lines of pillars, massy and grey – lofty pointed arches springing from the square shafts – the lancet-shaped windows of five lights yet preserved, and the sculptured memorials of the Knights and their dames, who when living frequented it, all to pray for victory, or to pray for the repose of those who had fallen in the fight, preserves many a point of picturesque beauty.’
Dusk at Dunbrody Abbey, County Wexford. This Cistercian monastery was founded in 1182 by Hervé de Montmorency, uncle of Richard de Clare, otherwise known as Strongbow. The site was initially offered to the monks of Buldwas, Shropshire but after they declined it came under the care of St Mary’s Abbey in Dublin. Most of the extant buildings, including the substantial church, date from the first half of the 13th century. Dunbrody was officially dissolved in 1536 and nine years later the buildings and surrounding land were acquired by Sir Osborne Etchingham.
I send you inclosed a sketch of Hore Abbey, in the county of Tipperary (fig.4). As I am often in the country, and fond of sketching, I shall now and then send you a sketch of some old castle or abbey in this kingdom, which you may think worth a place in your Magazine…
…Formerly there was an abbey of Benedictines or black monks, near St Patrick’s cathedral, at Cashell; but in the year 1272, David MacCarwill, who was then archbishop, having dreamed that the said monks intended cutting off his head, with the advice of his mother, turned them out of their abbey and despoiled them of all its revenues.
Having taken on himself the habit of the Cistercian order the same year, he founded Hore abbey, which was supplied with monks of the same order from Mellifont, in the county of Louth, and endowed it with the possession of the Benedictines, for which, for such an absurd reason, he had so cruelly and unjustly deprived them.
At the general suppression of the monasteries, Patrick Stackboll, who was then abbot, surrendered it the 6th of April, 1541.
Queen Elizabeth granted it to Sir Henry Radcliffe, with all its appurtenances on the 27th of January 1561; since which it has often changed its masters…
…It is situated on a flat, about five hundred yards from the rock of Cashell. The steeple, which is almost perfect, and about 20 feet square, is supported by a number of ogives, springing from each angle, some meeting in an octagon in the centre, and others at the keystone of the arches on which the structure is supported. The choir is about 29 feet in length and 24 in breadth; the east window small and plain. The nave is about 63 feet long and 23 broad.
It is said by the common people there is a subterraneous passge from the cathedral on the rock of Cashell to this abbey, but I could not find the remains of such place.’
From The Gentleman’s Magazine, November 1796
‘The Abbey of Mellifont, in the County of Louth, situate about five miles from Drogheda, in the Barony of Ferrard, was originally one of the most important and magnificent monastic edifices ever erected in Ireland. It was founded, or endowed, by Donough M’Corvoill, or O’Carroll, prince of Oirgiallach, the present Oriel, A.D. 1142, at the solicitation of St. Malachy, the pious and learned archbishop of Armagh, and was the first Cistercian Abbey erected in Ireland.
The monks by whom it was first inhabited were sent over from the parent Monastery of Clairvaux in Normandy, by St. Bernard, and four of them were Irishmen, who had been educated there for the purpose. On the occasion of the consecration of the Church of Mellifont in 1157, a remarkable Synod was held here, which was attended by the primate Gelasius, Christian bishop of Lismore and apostolic legate, seventeen other bishops, and innumerable clergymen of inferior ranks. There were present also Murchertach, or Murtogh O’Loghlin, King of Ireland, O’Eochadha, prince of Ulidia, Tiernan O’Ruaire, prince of Breiffny, and O’Kerbhaill, or O’Carroll, prince of Ergall, or Oriel. On this occasion the King (Murtogh O’Loghlin) gave as an offering for his soul to God, and the Monks of Mellifont, 140 oxen or cows, 60 ounces of gold, and a townland, called Finnavair-na-ningen, near Drogheda. O’Kerbhaill gave also 60 ounces of gold, and as many more were presented by the wife of Tiernan O’Ruaric, who was a daughter of the prince of Meath, that is a former prince Murchad. She likewise gave a golden chalice for the high altar, and sacred vestments. &c., for each of the nine other altars that were in the church. This was the unfortunate Dearbhfhorguill, or Dervorgal, whose abduction by the profligate Dermod Mac Murrogh, King of Leinster, was the first link in the chain of events which led to the introduction into Ireland of the British arms, under the celebrated Strongbow. Her pious donations to the abbey of Mellifont appear to have been in some measure intended as an expiation of her crime; and hither she retired towards the end of her life, which she closed in religious exercises about the year 1193…’
‘On the establishment of the English power in the district called the Pale, in which Mellifont is situated, it was taken under the especial protection of the settlers. In 1177 a confirmation of their house and possessions was granted by King Henry II. as appears by the Charter of his son John, who renewed and confirmed the same; and in 1203 a new charter was granted to the abbey by King John, confirming to it several additional possessions which it had acquired after the arrival of the English. Many other grants and confirmations were made by succeeding Princes.
For a considerable period the abbey of Mellifont, as well as the other Cistercian monasteries in Ireland, continued to be connected with the parent establishment at Clairvaux, to which monastery, considerable sums of money were continually remitted. To correct this abuse, an act was passed in the reign of Edward III. enjoining all ecclesiastics not to depart the kingdom on any account whatsoever, nor to raise or transmit any sums of money privately or openly from hence, contrary to the form of the statute. In consequence of this enactment, Reginald, the abbot of Mellifont, was by a jury in 1351, found guilty of raising from the abbots of Boyle, Knockmoy, Bective and Cashel, the sum of 664 florins, one half of which he had remitted to the abbot and convent of Clairvaux; and again, in the year 1370, the abbot, John Terrour, was similarly indicted for remitting to the same abbey the sum of forty marcs. This abbot was, in the year 1378, indicted for killing one of his monks, named John White, in the year 1367; but the jury acquitted him. In 1380, it was enacted by parliament that no mere Irishman should be permitted to make his profession in this abbey…’
‘In 1540, Richard Conter, the last abbot, surrendered his abbacy, and had an annual pension of £40. granted to him for life. He had 16 fishing corraghs or skin-boats at Oldbridge, on the Boyne, which produced him annually £13. 13s. 4d., which, with various other possessions, amounting in the whole to £315. 19s. were granted to Sir Edward Moore, (ancestor to the present noble family of that name,) who made it his principal seat, converting the abbey into a magnificent residence, and, at the same time, a place of defence. In the memorable rebellion of 1641, a considerable body of the Irish sat down before it, and the garrison, which consisted of only 15 horse, and 22 foot, made a vigorous defence; but, on the failure of their ammunition, the foot surrendered, and the horse, charging vigorously through the enemy, arrived safe at Drogheda.
Such are the chief incidents in the history of this important monastic foundation, of which but trifling remains are now to be found, but these are sufficient evidence of its ancient beauty and splendour. They consist of the ruins of a beautiful little chapel, dedicated to St. Bernard, which in its perfect state was an exquisite specimen of the Gothic, or pointed architecture of the thirteenth century.
This chapel had a noble eastern window, and three smaller ones on each side, nearly all of which are now destroyed, together with the entrance doorway…This doorway was ornamented with a profusion of gilding, and painting in variegated colours, and was justly considered as one of the most beautiful specimens of the kind to be found in Ireland. It is said to have been sold to make a chimney piece!
Not inferior in architectural elegance to this chapel, are the ruins of an octagonal building, supposed a baptistery, on the top of which was a large cistern, from which water was conveyed by means of pipes, to the different offices of the abbey. The style of this building, which is Roman, indicates an earlier age, and it is probably coeval with the foundation of the monastery.
To these is to be added, the lofty abbey gateway; it is now appropriated to the humble purpose of a mill-dam.’
Extracts from The Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 1, Number 22, November 24, 1832. The little chapel described here as being dedicated to Saint Bernard was actually the abbey’s Chapter House and likewise the ‘Baptistry’ was the monks’ Lavabo.
‘Two miles from Killala, a Joice built this friary for the Franciscans of the third order. The family of Joices was very considerable in England and Ireland in the 14th century. The church is built of a bluish stone and not remarkable except that the tower is built on the middle of the gable end, and that in it is a confession box of hewn stone, in which the penitentiary sat and heard confessions on each side without being seen.’
From The Antiquities of Ireland, Francis Grose & Edward Ledwich, 1791.
‘Rosserick, in the Barony of Tirawley, Co. of Mayo, and Province of Connaught. It is situate on the river Moy, two miles South East from Killala. A Friary for the Third Order of Franciscans was founded here by — Joice; and a lease of the said Friary was afterwards granted to James Garvey. Here also is a tower built on the same plan as that of Moyne, but exactly on the middle of the gable end. It is remarkable that in each of these Monasteries there is a closet of hewn-stone, for two Confessors to sit in, with a hole on each side for the persons who confess to speak through.’
From A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland by Nicholas Carlisle, 1810.
‘A few miles south-east of Killala, Rosserick, another of our monasteries, sees itself reflected in the waters of the Moy. It was founded early in the fifteenth century by the Joyces, a potent family, of Welsh extraction, singularly remarkable for their gigantic stature, who settled in West Connaught, in the thirteenth century, under the protection of the O’Flaherties. Rosserick occupies the site of a primitive Irish oratory, and the place derives its name from Searka, a holy woman, who is said to have blessed the Ross, or promontory, that runs out into the river. The site, indeed, was happily chosen, and the entire edifice is an exquisite specimen of the architect’s skill. The church and monastery are built of a compact bluish stone, and the former is surmounted by the graceful square bell-tower so peculiar to our Irish Franciscan houses. The view from the summit of that campanile is truly enchanting and as for the internal requirements of such an establishment – its cloisters, library, dormitory, refectory and schools – the munificence of the Joyces left nothing to be desired.’
From The Rise and Fall of the Irish Franciscan Monasteries, and Memoirs of the Irish Hierarchy in the Seventeenth Century by the Rev. C.P. Meehan, 1870.