An Unexpected Detail

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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.

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Meanwhile, Elsewhere in Ballinrobe…

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On the road leading from Castlebar into Ballinrobe, County Mayo can be seen the ruins of the old Roman Catholic chapel. With financial support from the local landlord James Cuffe, first (and last) Lord Tyrawley work began on the cruciform building in 1815, in other words some years before the Emancipation Act of 1829. It is notable for being more ample than were many such Catholic churches of the period, for having a splendid four-storey bell tower at the east end, and for fine limestone wall monuments to its earliest parish priests on either side of the crossing. However within decades the building appears to have been deemed insufficient to local needs since a successor was begun closer to the centre of the town in 1849. Before the end of the 19th century the old chapel was unroofed and today its shell languishes on a patch of ground surrounded by housing estates.

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The Tiger Awakes

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On the gates of Cranmore House in Ballinrobe, County Mayo hangs a planning application notice which proposes the construction here of a three-storey retail and residential block, a second three-storey block to be used as an old persons’ home, seven houses, a terrace featuring that strange new form of accommodation, the ‘townhouse’ and, adjacent to the existing structure, a new 46-bedroom hotel with the inevitable function rooms, bars, gym and swimming pool. Cranmore House was built in 1838 by Alexander Clendenning Lambert, agent for the Knox family to whom the property subsequently reverted. They remained in occupation until the 1920s after which the house passed through a couple of hands before being unroofed in the 1950s, in which condition it remains to the present. The predominantly greenfield nature of site makes it attractive to developers, although the proposal seems both unfortunate and unnecessary when so much of Ballinrobe immediately outside the gates could do with refurbishment, including many existing ‘townhouses.’

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An Architectural Conundrum

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The first official police force in this country, the Royal Irish Constabulary, owed its origins to Sir Robert Peel, Chief Secretary in Ireland 1812-18. Two years into his term of office, he introduced the Peace Preservation Act which allowed fir the establishment of a force that would maintain law and order, especially in rural districts where civil disarray was less easy to control. Thanks to his association with this initiative, the force became popularly known as Peelers or, more commonly in England where similar legislation was later passed, as Bobbies. The Irish Constabulary Act of 1822 established a police force in each province with chief constables and inspectors general under the authority of central government in Dublin. Further legislation in 1836 led to what thereafter was called the Royal Irish Constabulary, an organisation which by 1841 numbered more than 8,600 men. At the beginning of the last century that figure had climbed to some 11,000 constables spread over 1,600 premises, these generally known as barracks.

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Although the majority of them were drawn from the locality in which they served, members of the RIC were often unpopular, since they were charged with implementing the authority of the British regime. Hence once the War of Independence began in the aftermath of the First World War, they – and their barracks – were an obvious target for the rebel forces. In the years 1919-21, 513 members of the RIC were killed, while a further 682 were wounded. Many others quit the force: over a three-month period in 1920, for example, 600 men resigned from the force. Unable to maintain control over such a large number of premises, the RIC began to abandon smaller rural barracks: again in the first quarter of 1920, 500 buildings – of different sizes but predominantly in more remote areas – were evacuated. Within months the IRA had destroyed more than 400 of these, seemingly at least 300 in April alone. One of those deliberately gutted by fire during that period is the building shown here.

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The barracks at Clomantagh, County Kilkenny was, as its name indicates, once occupied by a local division of the RIC. Accordingly the local authority dates the building to the middle of the 19th century. However, a stone on the central bell tower is dated 1805 – that is to say nine years before the first police force was established in Ireland – and furthermore the architectural character of the structure is more interesting than was typical of police barracks around the country (which were usually of a utilitarian design). Of two storeys, the building is semi-circular in shape with three elliptical-headed, cut limestone carriageways at its centre, that below the bell tower given a breakfront. The most obvious comparison is with the stable block at Kilkenny Castle some fourteen miles away. Built at the close of the 18th century, this is similarly crescent-shaped, of two storeys and with elliptical-headed carriageways on the ground floor. Clomantagh ‘barracks’ looks like a somewhat less sophisticated version of the castle stables, but it has elegant decorative details such as the round-headed niches found both inside and out. Directly across the road there used to be a seven-storey flour mill dating from c.1775: this was only demolished in 2005. Surely there must have been some connection between that building and what is now called the barracks, even if the latter subsequently became used by the RIC? It is an architectural conundrum, one the present owners, who have already undertaken a considerable amount of essential remedial work and intend to undertake more, would wish to resolve. Their public spiritedness in ensuring the building has a future needs to be matched by discovering more about its past. 

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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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The Ferocious O’Flahertys

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The O’Flaherty family are descended from one Flaithbheartach mac Eimhin who lived in the 10th century. Although originally settled on the eastern side of what is now County Galway, they were later driven further west and came to control much of Connemara. But like many other such tribes, they were almost constantly striving to expand the area under their authority and it is said the mediaeval walls of Galway city carried the inscription ‘From the ferocious O’Flahertys O Lord Deliver Us.’ By this time, one of their strongholds was Bunowen Castle, County Galway strategically located by the Hill of Doon and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

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In the sixteenth century, Bunowen and its surrounding lands were controlled by Dónal ‘an Chogaidh’ Ó Flaithbheartaigh (Donal of the Battle) who in 1546 married Gráinne daughter of Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, chief of the Ó Máille clan in neighbouring County Mayo: she is also known as Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen. The couple had three children before Dónal was killed in battle in 1560: a few years later Gráinne left Bunowen and settled instead on Clare Island in her own county. But the castle remained in the family’s ownership until the 1650s when it was captured by the Cromwellian army and the O’Flahertys dispossessed. Bunowen was then given to Arthur Geoghegan whose own lands in County Westmeath had been taken from him before he was transplanted to the west of Ireland. The Geoghegans subsequently married into a local family, the Blakes who were one of the Tribes of Galway, and so became integrated into the region.

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In 1808 John David Geoghegan of Bunowen petitioned the British crown for permission to change his surname. The family had long believed itself descended from the prehistoric Irish king Niall of the Nine Hostages and therefore wished to take the name of his descendants. Accordingly they were granted the right to call themselves O’Neill. It is perhaps for this reason that, having assumed control of the Bunowen estate following his father’s death in 1830, John David’s son Augustus John O’Neill embarked on an ambitious building programme to enlarge the house. During the previous four years he had served as an Member of Parliament for the English constituency of Kingston-upon-Hull but had not stood for re-election. There were rumours that one reason for his unwillingness to face the electorate a second time was due to a gambling scandal or unpaid bills, but these allegations were not substantiated. In any case, he did overstretch his resources on Bunowen and, like so many others, in the aftermath of the Great Famine he was obliged to sell his property. In 1853 it passed into the hands of Valentine O’Connor Blake of Towerhill, County Mayo who used Bunowen as a summer residence. The castle was intact a century ago but at some date thereafter abandoned. It now stands a gaunt ruin, still gazing out to the Atlantic as it did when occupied by the ferocious O’Flahertys.

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