The Balbec of Ireland


‘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.’


Extracts from Kilmallock – The Balbec of Ireland, in The Irish National Magazine, And Weekly Journal of Literature, Science and Art, Saturday, July 11, 1846.

At Close of Day


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.

‘About five hundred yards from the rock of Cashell’

‘Nov. 21.
Mr Urban,
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.’
P.Q.R.S.T.’


From The Gentleman’s Magazine, November 1796

One of the Most Important and Magnificent Monastic Edifices


‘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.

An Exquisite Specimen of the Architect’s Skill

‘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.


Rosserk Friary, County Mayo, founded by the Joyce family c.1440, burnt by Sir Richard Bingham 1590.

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.’

Unclear Past, Unclear Future

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The remains of the Augustinian Priory in Ballinrobe, County Mayo. This was the first religious house established by the order in Connaught but there remains some uncertainty over who was responsible for its foundation: it has been suggested that the priory owed its origins to Elizabeth de Clare (a granddaughter of Edward I) who in 1308 married John de Burgh and four years later had a son William, in celebration of which Ballinrobe Priory was established. On the other hand, another proposal is that the priory was set up in 1337 by Roger Taaffe, perhaps on behalf of the de Burghs. Whatever the facts, the house thrived, despite a bad fire early in the 15th century and even survived suppression in the 1540s, with members of the order still in residence 100 years later. Thereafter it fell into ruin. Restoration work was carried out on the site some twenty-five years ago but, despite being surrounded by a graveyard (and by an increasing number of new houses) the priory looks to be falling into serious neglect again: a future as unclear as its past?

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