Like many other religious sites, the former Franciscan friary at Ross Errilly, County Galway continued to serve as a burial site long after it had officially been put out of commission during the 16th century Reformation. Later visitors often commented on the poorly interred bodies here: in 1851 the Rev. John Hervey Ashworth claimed he had counted no less than sixty skulls scattered about the semi-ruinous buildings (see To Walk the Studious Cloisters Pale, July 14th 2014). Today there are no corpses to be seen, but many handsome tombstones inserted into the mediaeval walls, such as the two examples seen here dating from the early 18th century.
‘The further I advanced, the more gloomy did the scene become. Not a human being crossed my path – no herds of cattle – no flocks of sheep were to be found in the rank pastures, and no sound broke in on the almost unnatural stillness save the hoarse croakings of an ill-boding raven. The air was oppressive. Heavy clouds, surcharged with rain, hovered over my head and among the distant mountains was again heard the voice of the mighty thunder. I hurried forward. The path was scarcely perceptible, for the grass was long and rank, and wet with the preceding rains. At length, within the deep recesses of a grove of huge trees, I could trace the roofless gables of an ancient building. I paused, for it was a singular scene of utter desolation: it was manifest that no part of this ancient establishment had escaped destruction, save portions of the church. Looking upon the place in all its solitary wildness, it was difficult to conceive that it had ever been the abode of living men; and that the busy scenes of life, for such even a monastery presents, had ever been enacted here. The aspect of this spot was as if it were not only totally deserted, but unknown. With a feeling of awe I approached nearer the ruins. The dark clouds and the thick foliage cast an unwonted gloom over the place. Around the roofless building were many graves unfenced from the inroads of cattle or other animals. Many a cross of wood or stone was there – many a sculptured head-stone, overgrown with moss, rose from amid the green mounds, beneath which slept the mouldering remnants of many generations.
Cautiously picking my way, I at length gained the other side of the ruin, and stood in front of the ancient porch. It had been once handsome, and bore many marks of skilful workmanship; but the hand of destruction as well as of time had been busy here. The entrance was half choked with rubbish and masses of disjointed stonework. The noisome nettle and the henbane luxuriated, and out of the deep fissures in the walls grew masses of ivy and the spreading branches of an elder tree. Turning from the building, the view was still wild and solitary, but beautiful and unexpected. The waters of Lough Mask washed a pebbly strand not far from the spot where I stood. Two wooded islands cast their deep shadows on the lake ; and far to the left, bounding the broad expanse, rose the mountains of Kilbride and the towering cliffs of Glenbeg. As I gazed, heavy drops of rain began to fall, the clouds seemed heavy with mischief, and rolled onwards in long dark masses. In vain I looked around for some cottage or shed, into which I might hasten for shelter; the rain began to fall heavily, and a flash of lightning, succeeded rapidly by a clap of thunder, which reverberated awfully among the rocks and woods, drove me at once through the half choked porch into the interior of the ruins, perchance some friendly corner might there present itself. I found myself in the nave of the ancient conventual church. No portion of the roof was left: a large ash tree grew in the centre, luxuriating in the rich accumulations around and over the side walls thick masses of ivy clustered, affording me a precarious shelter…
My blood ran cold as my eye pierced the gloom and rested upon objects the most abhorrent and disgusting. Large stones thrown from the walls were scattered around and among them were the sad relics of bodies once instinct with life. I counted no less than sixty skulls! To remain was impossible. Though vivid flashes of lightning threw a momentary glare around, and loud and continued bursts of thunder proclaimed the tempest at its height, I hastily left the spot, and as I gained the open glades of the park, felt much relieved that this my first and probably last visit to the old abbey of Ross was achieved.’
From The Saxon in Ireland, or the Rambles of an Englishman in Search of a Settlement in the West of Ireland, by the Rev. John Hervey Ashworth, 1851.
‘The ruins of the Franciscan convent at Ross, near Headford, in the county Galway, are popularly styled the Abbey of Ross. In the early records this convent receives the name Ross-Errily or Ross-Traily, which is a corruption of the Irish name Ross-ne-threallagh. It was delightfully situated on the south bank of the Black river, in the parish of Kilursa; and its ruins still attest its former magnificence. The Four Masters and Luke Wadding register its foundation in the year 1351; and the latter adds that it was a most retired and lonely spot, surrounded on all sides with water, and approachable only by a narrow path which was formed of large blocks of stone.
Before the close of the fifteenth century it attained special eminence among the many Franciscan institutions of the kingdom; and its property comprised the townlands of Ross, Cordara, and Ross-duff, amounting to about thirteen hundred statute acres. It was from the hallowed precincts of this monastery that a colony went forth to found the convent of Donegal, so famous in our annals. A provincial chapter of the Franciscan order had assembled in Ross-Errily to deliberate on matters of private interest, when Nuala O’Connor, daughter of O’Connor Faily, and wife of Hugh Roe O’Donnell, hereditary chieftain of Tirconnell, came, accompanied by a goodly array of gallow-glasses, to present an humble memorial. This petition of the Lady Nuala set forth the anxious desire of the faithful of Tirconnell to have amongst them some religious of the order of St. Francis to be their guides in their heavenward journey by precept and example. The favour was soon granted, and before the close of 1474 the foundations were laid of the far-famed monastery whose ruins are still met with at the head of the lovely bay of Donegal.
In 1538 the convent of Ross-Errily shared in the storm of persecution with which the reckless monarch Henry the Eighth assailed the church of our fathers. Indeed the Franciscans were in a special manner exposed to the rage of the English monarch. They had energetically opposed his wished-for divorce, and now they should pay the penalty of their zeal. Two hundred Franciscans were thrown into prison; thirty-two of them were bound with chains, and exposed to every insult; others were banished, and some, too, were put to death.
New trials awaited the convent of Ross-Errily in the reign of Elizabeth. In an inquiry which was made in the commencement of her reign, it was found that “the site of the monastery of Ross-Errilly or Ross-Railly was one acre of land; that it contained a church, a cloister, a hall, dormitories, chambers, and cellars; a cemetery, three small gardens, and a mill, which for want of water, could work only in winter”. By royal patent the tithes attached to the church were granted to the portreve and burgesses of Athenry; whilst the monastery, with its property, was allotted to Richard Burgh, Earl of Clanrickarde. This nobleman, however, whose family had long been the patrons of the Franciscan convent, privately restored it to its owners. The crown, finding the friars in 1584 again in possession of the monastery, made a grant of it to an English courtier, who plundered it of its library, monuments, and books, and expelled the religious. He was soon, however, anxious to part with his ill-acquired property, and two years later we find it once more purchased by Clanrickarde and restored to the children of St. Francis. The close of the century saw Ross-Errily transformed into an English garrison which was destined to curb the Western chieftains, and prevent them from joining the ranks of O’Neill and O’Donnell in the north.’
From The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. V, No. I, October 1868
‘In 1617, two Irish Franciscans, Fathers Purcell and Mooney, were resident at Louvain, where they and their Order had, after their expulsion from Ireland, been protected by Albert and Isabella, then joint sovereigns of the Netherlands. Fr. Mooney, at that time Provincial, and far advanced in years, had been in early life a soldier, and served in the Desmond wars. Purcell was a man of great learning; and, from materials supplied him by his superior, wrote, partly as a dialogue, a Latin history of his Order, so far as it related to their Irish establishments. This interesting MS., the original of which is in the Burgundian Library at Brussels, the Rev. C. P. Meehan, of Dublin, has translated and published. Fr. Mooney’s recollections of this monastery are thus afforded by his ancient scribe and modern commentator:
“Never was a more solitary spot chosen for the habitation of a religious community than that one on which Rosserilly stands; for it is surrounded by marshes and bogs, and the stillness that reigns there is seldom broken, save by the tolling of the church bell, or the whirr of the countless flocks of plover and other wild birds that frequent the fens which abound in that desolate region. Another remarkable feature of the locality is, that the monastery can only be approached by a causeway, paved with large stones, over an extent of fully two hundred paces, and terminating at the enclosure, which was built in 1572 by Father Ferrall Mac Egan, a native of Connacht, and then Provincial of the Irish Franciscans.He was, in sooth, a distinguished man in his day, far-famed for eloquence and learning, and singularly fond of Rosserilly, which he used to compare to the Thebaid, whither the early Christians fled for prayer and contemplation. He died in our house of Kilconnell, where he made his religious profession, and there he awaits the resurrection – peace to his memory! As to the church of Rosserilly, it is, indeed, a beautiful edifice; and the same may be said of the monastery, which, although often garrisoned by the English troops during the late war, is still in excellent preservation. Cloister, refectory, dormitory, chapter house, library, and lofty bell tower, have all survived the disasters of that calamitous period; but, in the twenty-sixth year of the reign of Elizabeth, the friars were forcibly expelled from their beloved retreat.”
The friars, however, soon returned, and remained in quiet possession for long after, till Sir Arthur Chichester, then Lord Deputy, directed O Donnell, or Daniel, Archbishop of Tuam, to turn them out; but that good and learned Protestant sent them word privately of his intention, and they saved themselves and their effects by flight. One good turn deserved another; and this kindness was repaid in 1641, when, after the massacre at Shrule, Father Brian Kilkelly, then Guardian of Rosserilly, hearing of the atrocities which were enacting within a few miles of him, hastened to the spot, succoured the wounded, and brought the Bishop of Killala’s wife and children to his monastery, and treated them with the greatest kindness.’
From Lough Corrib: Its Shores and Islands by Sir William Wilde, 1867.
‘Although there is nothing in the town [of Headford, County Galway] of interest, yet the tourist should by all means pay a visit to Ross Abbey, about 1½m. distant, one of the most extensive and beautiful buildings in Ireland, built at the close of the 15th cent. by Lord Granard for Observantine Franciscans and granted to the Earl of Clanrickarde at the suppression of religious houses. Including the religious and domestic buildings, it covers a very large space of ground on the banks of the Black river, and overlooking a considerable tract of bog. It is the cemetery of many good Connaught families and probably contains more grinning and ghastly skulls than any catacomb, some of the tracery of the windows being filled up with thigh-bones and heads – a not uncommon way of disposing of these emblems of mortality in Irish abbeys.
The ch. has a nave, choir and S. transept, with a slender and graceful tower arising from the intersection. Attached to the nave are N. and S. aisles, and a chapel running parallel with the S. transept. The latter, together with the S. aisle, are separated from the nave by round-headed arches with octangular piers. Two round arches also divide the transept from the aisles, and two blocked ones from the chapel on the E. In the W. chapel of the S. aisle is a small monument of the O’Donnells, 1646. The nave is shut off from the choir by a broad-headed segmental arch. The latter part of the ch. is lighted on S. by 4 double-light trefoil windows; and on the S. side of the altar is a double-arched niche used as an ambry. The E. window is dec. with very delicate tracery, and is worth notice as is also the moulding of the W. door, close to which is the stoup for holy water. To the N. of the nave are the cloisters, which are in good preservation. The area is small and surrounded by 10 beautiful pointed arches about 3 ft. high, the entrance of the passage within being under round-headed arches…
From the N. of the choir runs a long chapel lighted by E. Eng. windows, those of the N. side having ogee heads. A projecting building also on the N. of the choir was probably the Abbot’s residence, and beyond the N. transept is the kitchen with ample fireplace and spout for carrying the water away, also a stone reservoir and pipe connecting it with the river, probably used as a fish vivarium. On the E. side of the kitchen is the guesten-hall, in which there is an aperture communicating with the kitchen for the entrance of the viands. Probably there is no ruin in the kingdom showing the domestic arrangements to greater advantage than Ross, which on this account deserves to be attentively studied.’
From A Handbook for Travellers in Ireland, John Murray, 1866.
‘Besides the common quantity of these remains tossing all about, there was an immense heap lying outside the church, and as these bones seemed to have accumulated for ages, and as the place from the vicinity of the river was very damp, this immense “ossarium” if I may so name it, was covered with all sorts of verdure, mosses, lichens, sedums, saxifrages, and wild strawberries just showing their fruit between jaw-bones. It was curious to see skulls like wrens’ nests, and thigh bones as green as cabbage-stalks; the dry bones had, as it were, assumed a new mode of existence, and again served as the basis of a new life. It really was a scene on which a person might ponder and phrenologise; and I confess no collection of human bones I ever saw interested me more – no not even that far-famed congeries which at Cologne assumes to be the remains of St. Ursula’s eleven thousand virgins.
The cloisters of Ross are quite perfect – as perfect as those of Muckruss or Quin; but they have not the picturesque accompaniment, like those at Killarney, of a magnificent yew-tree in the centre. The dormitories, the chapter-house, the cellars and kitchens, are all (as far as walls go) perfect. There the friars, living in a damp and low situation, had need of fires, and they took care to have them. I never saw such huge fire-places. The kitchen hearth would not disgrace the largest at Oxford or Cambridge. In one of the corners of a huge apartment, which seemed to be a scullery, there is a circular excavation, cased with cut stone, too large for a well, in all likelihood a place for holding live fish, which taken out of the adjoining river, no doubt were kept here for ready use.
Altogether this abbey seems to have formed a little town in itself, having no entrance but the one, and its walls high and thick; it was a sort of stronghold and, no doubt, in the lawless times before the reformation, afforded an asylum for the weak and persecuted, as well as a sanctuary for the criminal. If any one wishes to see an Irish monastery in perfection, with all its “menage“, they will before passing on to Cong, and before visiting the western highlands of Ireland, take a view of Ross Reilly which was founded by Lord Granard in the fifteenth century, and was placed under the rule of the Franciscans. It, like many others, was repaired by the Roman Catholic clergy in 1604.
On leaving this abbey, I could not resist the desire I had to bring away one of these moss-bewigged skulls in order to show it to some phrenological friends in Dublin, and as we had no means of secreting it, and justly apprehended that if we returned the way we came through the field where the people were working we might be ill treated (as perhaps we deserved) as robbers of the dead, we had to keep along the margin of the river, and not only disentangle ourselves from its windings, but leap over, as best we could, the numerous and wide drains that lay in our way, with no small fear of being caught and well beaten. We, however, effected our retreat to our jaunting car, and secreted our skull, which may be seen in all its verdant beauty in the library of the Royal Irish Academy.’
From A Tour in Connaught, by the Rev. Caesar Otway, 1839.
Ross Errilly Friary is today under the care of the Office of Public Works; the skulls once littering its precincts (and sometimes taken away as souvenirs) are no longer to be seen…