Built Without Permission

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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.

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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.

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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.’

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Splendid Ecclesiastical Remains

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Among the splendid ecclesiastical remains of Cong [County Mayo], the twelfth century advocates may revel, and defy us to prove an earlier date for their erection than that of the introduction of the Augustinian Order into Ireland, even if their ornamentation and design did not afford ample data for judging their age. These ruins would scarcely have held together to the present day, had not Sir B. L. Guinness restored several of the dilapidations, cleared out much of the rubbish which had accumulated within and around them, and rendered the burial ground sufficiently decent for the interment of Christian people. We enter the abbey from the village by a very beautiful doorway, which, although it has been often figured, we would here present to our readers, but that we know it is of the “composite order,” having been made up some years ago of stones taken from another arch in this northern wall. Within it, we find ourselves in the great abbey church, one 140 feet long, entirely paved with tombstones; facing the east window, with its three long, narrow lights, and having in each side wall of the chancel a slender window looking north and south. The chancel walls are perfect, but the northern wall of the nave no longer exists. Underneath the chancel window the guides and village folk maintain that Roderick O’Conor was buried, when, after fifteen years’ retirement within this abbey, he died here in 1198. But this we know from history to be incorrect, for the Donegal Annals distinctly state that “Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair, King of Connacht and of all Ireland, both the Irish and English, died among the canons at Cong, after exemplary penance, victorious over the world and the devil. His body was conveyed to Clonmacnois, and interred to the north of the altar.” But, although Roderick himself was not buried here others of his name and lineage were. Thus we read that in 1224, “Maurice the Canon, son of Roderick O Conor – the most illustrious of the Irish for learning, psalm-singing and poetical compositions – died and was interred at Cong.” It is probably his tomb which is pointed out as that of the king. “A.D.1226, Nuala, daughter of Roderick O’Conor, and Queen of Ulidia, died at Cunga Feichín, and was honourably interred in the church of the canons.” And in 1274, Finnuala, daughter of King Roderick, died at, and was probably buried at Cong. But although the dust of the last monarch is not beneath our feet, that of chieftains, warriors, and prelates remains and especially that of the abbots, down to the days of James Lynch, whose decorated tomb is dated 1703; and even later, for the Rev. Patrick Prendergast who was always styled “The Lord Abbot,” was interred here in 1829.’

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‘The O’Duffys were distinguished ecclesiastics in this locality, and the Annals contain many entries concerning them. Thus we read that in “A.D. 1150 Muireadhach Ua Dubhthaigh, Archbishop of Connacht, chief senior of all Ireland in wisdom, in chastity, in the bestowal of jewels and food, died at Cunga on the 16th of the month of May, on the festival of St. Brénainn, in the 75th year of his age.” His name is inscribed on the great processional “Cross of Cong,” made in 1123. “A.D. 1168, Flannagán Ua Dubhthaigh, bishop and chief doctor of the Irish in literature, history, and poetry, and in every kind of science known to man in his time, died in the bed of Muireadhach Ua Dubhthaigh, at Cunga.” Cadhla or Catholicus O Duffy, and several of the name, attained to the see of Tuam; in 1136, we read of the death at Clonfert, of Donnell O Duffy, “Archbishop of Connacht and successor of Cíarán, head of the wisdom and piety of the province”; and Cellach O Duffy was Bishop of “Mayo of the Saxons” in 1209. But none of these died abbots of Cong, and the only Abbot of the name referred to in the Annals is the one described by the Four Masters in the following quotation, under the year 1223: Dubhthach ua dubhthaigh abb Conga decc. “Duffagh O Duffy, Abbot of Cong, died”.’

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‘The original plan of this abbey is not easily made out at present. Through an arched doorway in the southern wall we pass into a low vaulted apartment, and thence into a large open space containing the principal stairs, which lead up to the second story of the great tower, the upper portion of which, however, no longer exists. The space to the east and south of this, which was formerly occupied by the monastery, is now a graveyard, and the site of the Roman Catholic chapel, and is divided by a high screen wall, the western facade of which forms the present great architectural feature of this splendid pile…It measures 80 feet in length, and contains a doorway and two windows, with circular arches; and two large and most elaborate ornamented lancet-headed doors, with undercut chevrons along the deep moulding of the arches, which spring from clustered pillars, the floral capitals of which – all of different patterns – present us with one of the finest specimens of twelfth-century stone-work in Ireland. Several stones have been inserted in these doorways, which now present us with some of the finest and most enduring specimens of carved limestone in this or any other country. Above the string course appear some narrow lights probably those of the dormitories. To the west of this wall stood the open cloisters, which were probably so low as not to obscure the decorated front represented on the foregoing page. From this point the ground slopes gradually to the river, where, according to tradition, the friars of old had a fish house – the walls of which are still standing – so constructed that, when the salmon or trout got into the crib below, it touched a wire, that rang a bell, to inform the providore or cook of its arrival.’

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From Sir William Wilde’s Lough Corrib, Its Shores and Islands, first published in 1867.

 

A Call to Action

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Last November the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht launched a document called An Action Plan for the Sustainable Future of the Irish Historic House in Private Ownership. In her Introduction Minister Heather Humphreys observed that these properties ‘are an important part of our social, cultural and architectural heritage,’ as well as being ‘an essential thread of our national story and a great source of local community pride.’ Furthermore historic houses are ‘a vital attraction for both local and foreign visitors and they play an important role in stimulating economic development, particularly at community level.’
Last Thursday members of the Browne family announced that Westport House, County Mayo where they and their forebears have lived for almost 350 years, is to be placed on the open market. The financial difficulties faced by the Brownes, arising from a bank loan (and its attendant guarantees) taken out in 2006 by the late Jeremy Sligo, have been well known for some time. (Incidentally, they demonstrate yet again how in this country while a borrower can be penalised for making an ill-advised decision, the relevant lender suffers no such retribution). Westport’s predicament demonstrates how fragile is Ireland’s remaining stock of historic properties, how vulnerable to the vagaries of shifting circumstance, precisely because so few safeguards or supports exist to ensure they can weather past and future storms.
Westport House perfectly conforms to Minister Humphreys’ designation of the Irish historic property being a source of local pride, an attraction for domestic and overseas visitors and a key player in stimulating regional economic development. A report commissioned last year by Mayo County Council found the house and grounds attracted 162,000 visitors annually and contributed €1.7 million to the fiscal purse and local economy, with 60 per cent of respondents citing the Browne family home as their main reason for visiting Mayo. It is vital to the well being of the area, and the Brownes deserve applause for making this so.
Over the past year there have been plenty of reports, meetings, analyses and consultations over Westport’s plight. The time for talk has now come to a close. Decisive action needs to take place, the estate and house ought to be preserved, and the values espoused in its recent document by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht made manifest. Otherwise, yet again, we will witness the diminution of Ireland’s heritage, and the loss of another ‘essential thread of our national story.’

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Towering Above

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The round tower at Meelick, County Mayo. Once part of a religious foundation attributed to St Broccaidh, the tower is believed to date from the 10th century. It stands 21.5 metres high and has lost its conical cap but retains a doorway some 3.5 metres above the present ground level. Attached to the base is a likely contemporaneous tombstone with interlaced cross and border, and the inscription OR DO GRIENI (‘A prayer for Griene’).

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Without Permission

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Demonstrating that a laissez-faire attitude towards building without first securing the relevant permission is no recent phenomenon in Ireland: Burrishoole Priory, County Mayo. This Dominican house was established in 1469 by Richard de Burgo, who then resigned his secular position as Lord of Turlough and entered the priory where he remained until his death four years later. Unfortunately neither he nor the friars had thought to seek Papal approval before settling at Burrishoole, an omission that could have resulted in excommunication. However in 1486 Innocent VII instructed the Archbishop of Tuam to pardon their presumption and the occupants were allowed to remain in situ. They continued to do so even after the Reformation , a certain number of Dominicans recorded as remaining at Burrishoole into the 18th century on the site. It was only in 1793 that the church roof collapsed, thereby ensuring it became the ruin seen today.

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