Encircled by yew trees, here is the Temple of Mercury in the grounds of Dromoland Castle, County Clare. The building dates from the early 18th century, and appears on an estate map of c.1740 which shows it to have been of a elaborate formal layout that included avenues and terraces, as well as vistas of which this would have formed part, since it stands at the crossing of two straight paths. The temple features eight Doric columns supporting a timber dome covered in lead atop which perches a bronze statue of Mercury.
It is difficult to visualize today, but the mediaeval friary in the centre of Ennis, County Clare originally stood on an island at a point where the river Fergus divided. The exact date of its establishment is uncertain, but the Franciscan order is believed to have been invited to open a new house here towards the middle of the 13th century: Donnchadh Ó Briain, King of Thomond is often credited with being responsible for this shortly before his death in 1242. Thereafter the friary and its grounds became the preferred burial place for generations of O’Briens and MacNamaras, the two ruling families in this part of the country. Frequently in reparation for their misdeeds over the next three centuries they gave the friars, who had little source of income, many gifts such as vestments, chalices, stained glass and books.
The advantages of having rich and generous patrons can be seen throughout what remains of Ennis Friary. As the community expanded, so the building work continued. In 1314, for example, Maccon Caech MacNamara added a sacristy and refectory to the site. And a the start of the 15th century, the handsome cloister – only sections of which survive – was constructed along with the south transept: the belfry tower dates from around 1475.
Ennis Friary contains many fine limestone carvings, mostly dating from the 15th and early 16th centuries. One of these depicts St Francis, founder of the Franciscan order, with his stigmata on display. Another shows the Virgin and Child, and a third is an affecting image of Ecce Homo, the words uttered by Pontius Pilate in St John’s Gospel when Christ, having been scourged and crowned with thorns, was presented to a hostile crowd. One of the most interesting features in the building is a series of carved panels with scenes from Christ’s Passion dating from a late-15th century tomb erected by the MacMahon family and recycled in the 1840s for a monument to the Creagh family. Unfortunately this has been placed behind glass and spotlit – making it almost impossible to photograph. A copy of the tomb stands on the site of the original in the former chancel.
Ennis Friary, like other such establishments, was suppressed in the 16th century but seemingly members of the Franciscan order continued in residence until at least 1570, thereafter being obliged to remain secretly in Ennis. In the early 17th century, Donough O’Brien, fourth Earl of Thomond handed over the site to the Church of Ireland, and services began to be held in the old church. Other parts of the site were used for legal proceedings, the former sacristy becoming a courtroom. The Church of Ireland remained here until 1871 when a new church elsewhere in the town opened and within a couple of decades the friar’s church had lost its roof. It was returned to the Franciscan order in 1969 but is now managed by the Office of Public Works which ten years ago embarked on a somewhat controversial programme of restoration when the decision was taken to re-roof the main body of the church and, as mentioned, to place the MacMahon/Creagh Tomb behind glass.
‘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…’
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).
The limestone doorcase of Abbeyfield House, Ennis, County Clare. Believed to date from c.1750, in the early 19th century the building was home to Matilda Crowe with whom Thomas ‘Honest Tom’ Steele, the friend and supporter of Daniel O’Connell, was passionately in love. He would sit on a rock on the other side of the river Fergus and gaze at Abbeyfield House in the hope of catching a glimpse of Miss Steele but to no avail: she ignored his overtures. Today the house is a police station and desperately in need of some of the love once lavished on its former chatelaine.
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.’
The massive form of Quin Friary, County Clare is due to the fact that when the Franciscan order came here in 1433 it settled inside the ruins of an Anglo-Norman castle. This had been built around 1280 by Thomas de Clare, Lord of Thomond with a square courtyard and cylindrical towers at each corner. However, just six years later the building was attacked by the indigenous Irish who, in the words of a contemporary, left it a ‘hideous blackened cave.’ So it remained until the arrival of the Franciscans who adapted the ruins for their own purpose and remained there for just over a century until the suppression of all such religious houses by Henry VIII.
The last photograph featured below shows the familiar exterior view of Leamaneh Castle, County Clare which originally consisted of a plain five-storey tower house (the portion to the right). This was built around 1480 by Turlogh O’Brien, King of Thomond and is said to derive its name from the Irish ‘Leim an eich’ (The horse’s Leap). In 1543, Turlogh O’Brien’s son, Murrough, surrendered the castle and pledged loyalty to the English crown; as a result he was subsequently created first Earl of Thomond and Baron Inchiquin. In 1648, his descendant Conor O’Brien extended the tower with the addition of a four-storey manor house following his marriage to Máire ní Mahon who on account of her flaming red hair, was commonly known as Máire Rúa (Red Mary).
Many legends are told of Máire Rúa, most of them apocryphal (such as that which proposes she had twenty-five husbands, after which she was sealed into a hollow tree and left to die). However it is true that when Conor O’Brien was killed by an English soldier, she married a Cromwellian officer, thereby ensuring the family estates were preserved for her son, Sir Donough O’Brien. He was the last of the family to live at Leamaneh, moving instead to live at the larger and more commodious Dromoland Castle. Early in the last century Sir Donough’s descendant, Lucius William O’Brien, 15th Baron Inchiquin organised for the stone gateway (hitherto marking the entrance to Leamaneh) to be removed and re-erected in the grounds of Dromoland where it still remains. Around the same time a stone chimneypiece from the castle was also taken out and installed in the Old Ground Hotel, Ennis where it likewise continues to stand.
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.