When History Repeats Itself


At some date in the future, research will probably be undertaken into the consequences of the near-wholesale disappearance of Roman Catholic religious orders from Ireland during the late 20th/early 21st centuries. For more than 100 years, they had been a dominant presence across the country, every town of any consequence having at least one, more often several, large building complexes occupied by various orders who would have been responsible for the area’s education and, as we have discovered of late, other less savoury activities. By and large, the persons responsible for running those institutions have disappeared, primarily due to the fact that since the 1970s fewer and fewer individuals have been prepared to become nuns or monks and so forth. But the buildings remain, still dominating many a neighbourhood, even though their intended residents have departed. Sometimes the properties have found a new purpose, more often they now stand empty, their decaying presence serving as testament to an authority that once erroneously believed itself invincible. Like Shelley’s Ozymandias, they proclaim ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair.’ So, aside from the physical manifestations, what have been the consequences of this ebbing of a once-powerful tide? What effect has it, will it have, on the national psyche? That remains to be investigated, but when such work begins, perhaps those responsible might like to consider how we have been here before, that we went through a similar experience back in the second half of the 16th century. 





Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Ballindoon Priory, County Sligo was a late-comer to the company of Ireland’s religious houses. A Dominican foundation, it was established on the banks of Lough Arrow in 1507 by one Thomas O’Farrell under the patronage of the McDonaghs, who were then the most powerful family in the area. The interior of the church is dominated by a remarkable two-storey, triple-vaulted archway. The arches on the ground floor are all the same height but only the centre one provides access from nave to chancel, those on either side probably once holding altars (that to the south has since been blocked). The central arch above is much higher than its neighbours and may once have contained a cross or crucifix although it also has a hole in the ceiling to allow the suspension of a bell rope from further up the tower. This floor, effectively a gallery, is lit by exceptionally tall, narrow windows set into the north and south walls. Reached by an unusual external staircase, the top of the tower is thought once to have contained accommodation for whoever lived on the site, since no domestic ranges were ever constructed around the church (the land to the immediate south of the church drops steeply down to the lakeshore). Both the east and west ends of the church have splendid traceried windows





Ballindoon Priory was almost the last such religious house to be established in Ireland, although Eóghan O’Rourke and his wife Margaret O’Brien founded a Franciscan friary at Creevelea, County Leitrim a year later, in 1508. At the time both these buildings were erected, it must have seemed as though little would change, that the Roman Catholic church would continue to have a dominant presence throughout the country, and its properties enjoy a secure future. Just a few decades later, Henry VIII proclaimed himself head of the church in his dominions, which included Ireland, and ordered the dissolution of all religious houses. One by one, they were closed down, their occupants sent away, their possessions confiscated and frequently granted or sold to supporters of the English crown. An entire way of life disappeared, leaving the Irish countryside littered with the decaying remains of what had once seemed an immutable authority. This must have been a unsettling experience for the entire population, who over the space of some 50 years witnessed the loss of the familiar and with it the sense of comforting security. Sound familiar? History has an uneasy way of repeating itself. 

Devoted to the Offices of Religion and Piety


‘The abbey is still almost perfect, except the roof and some buildings on the North side, which were taken down about 1750 by the then proprietor, Knox, to furnish materials for a dwelling house which was erected nearby…The church is 125’ long by 20’ broad towards the East; from the West door to the tower the breadth varies from 40’ to 50’; on the broadest space is a gable with a pointed window of stone and of fine workmanship. To the Eastern wall of this portion of the building were two altars, having a piscine to each; between the altars there is an arched recess, which would seem to have been a place of safety for the sacred utensils of the altars…On the right side of the aisle is a range of arches corresponding with the height of that tower, done in hewn stone; the arches, which are hexagonal and turned on consoles, support the tower, which is nearly in the centre of the church, and about 100’ in height. The ascent to the summit of the tower is by a helix of 101 steps.’
(From Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, Thomas Walsh, 1885)





‘The Abbey itself is almost perfect, except the roof and some buildings on the north side, which were taken down about forty or fifty years ago, by the proprietor, to furnish materials for a dwelling house which was erected nearly on the site of the old walls and joined the church…The sacrilegious had that had done this, I was told by the country people, never came to any good after, nor any of those who had been concerned with it. Certain it is the house was but a short time inhabited and is now completely in ruins. One might suppose that time, while, with an unrelenting hand, he committed so many ravages on the house that was thus so sacrilegiously reared, had in pity spared the remains of the adjoining edifice that had once, with its peaceful and inoffensive inhabitants, been devoted to the offices of religion and piety.’
(From Anthologia Hibernica: or Monthly Collections of Science, Belles Lettres and History, by ‘J.C.’, January 1794)





‘The Abbey of Moyne, situated on the estuary of the River Moy, is certainly one of the noblest of the Franciscan Abbeys in Ireland. It is two miles from Killala, six miles from Ballina on the old road by the river.  It is barely one-eighth of a mile from the public road, yet on entering its precincts its loneliness, its solitary air and surrounding, is the first impression produced. The Still ‘Pool,’ as the arm of the Moy beneath is called, the solemn tower, casting its long shadow over the countless graves and tombs, the stillness of the luxurious fields around, where the silent cattle graze, but where man is not seen, the rising or ebbing flow of the Moy scarcely making a ripple on the sweet strand, all without a sound, give the first impression as utter loneliness. One is at once forced to feel that here was a fit place for a Community to live away from noise, from care, from the tramp and traffic of the world’s ways, to have thoughts fixed on the quiet and “rest that remaineth for the people of God”.’
(From The Windings of the Moy, Rev, James Greer, 1924)


Moyne Abbey, a 15th century former Franciscan friary in County Mayo. 

 

The Age of Improvement


Another abandoned Church of Ireland church, this one in Affane, County Waterford. Set in the midst of a substantial graveyard, the building dates from 1819 when erected at a cost of £500 with the usual support from the Board of First Fruits. This was a period when considerable numbers of such churches were being either built or restored across the country as part of an effort by the Church of Ireland to provide better facilities for worshippers and, it was hoped, increase the number of persons attending services: Affane church could accommodate 200 people although it is unlikely it did so very often. Already by 1874 the parish had been united with that of Cappoquin and by the condition of the building – today a relic from the Anglican Church’s age of improvement – it looks to have been long out of use.

Insula Viventum


‘Let us now attend to the antiquities of one of their [the Culdees] ancient seats: this in old records is named Inchenemeo, corrupted from Innisnabeo or the “Island of the living” but, from its situation, most commonly called Monaincha, or the “Boggy Isle”…Giraldus Cambrensis, who came here with King John in 1185, thus speaks of it: “In north Munster is a lake containing two Isles; in the greater is a church of the ancient religion, and in the lesser a chapel, wherein a few monks, called Culdees, devoutly serve God. In the greater, no woman or any animal of the feminine gender ever enters but it immediately dies. This has been proved by many experiments. In the lesser isle, no one can die, hence it is called ‘Insula Viventum’ or the island of the living. Often people are afflicted with diseases in it, and are almost always in the agonies of death; when all hopes of life are at an end, and that the rich would rather quit the world than lead longer a life of misery, they are put into a little boat, and wafted over to the larger isle where, as soon as they land, they expire”.’





‘Monaincha is situated almost in the centre of a widely-extended bog, called the Bog of Monela, and seems a continuation of the bog of Allen, which runs from east to west, through the kingdom. Since the age of Cambrensis, and through the operation of natural causes, the lesser Isle is now the greater, and Monaincha, which contains about two acres of dry arable ground, is of greater extent than the women’s island. In the latter is a small chapel, and in the former the Culdean abbey, and an oratory to the east of it. Monaincha is elevated a little above the surrounding bog; the soil gravel and small stones. We may easily understand what Cambrensis means by the church here being of the “old religion.” The Culdees, its possessors, had not even at this period when the Council of Cashel had decreed uniformity of faith and practice, conformed to the reigning superstition; they served God in this wild and dreary retreat, sacrificing all the flattering prospects of the world for their ancient doctrine and discipline. Their bitterest enemies bear testimony to their extraordinary purity and piety.’ 





‘The length of our Culdean abbey in Monaincha is thirty-three feet, the breadth eighteen. The nave is lighted by two windows to the south, and the chancel by one at its east end. The former are contracted arches, the latter fallen down. The height of the portal, or western entrance, is seven feet three inches to the fillet, by four feet six inches wide. The arch of this, and that of the choir, are semi-circular. Sculpture here seems to have exhausted her treasures. A nebule moulding adorns the outward semicircle of the portal, a double nebule with beads the second, a chevron the third, interspersed with triangular frette roses, and other ornaments. It is also decorated with chalices, artfully made at every section of the stone, so as to conceal the joint. The stones are of a whitish grit, brought from the neighbouring hills of Ballaghmore; being porous, they have suffered much from the weather; but the columns of the choir are of a harder texture (though grits); close grained and receiving a good polish. Being of a reddish colour, they must have been handsome objects…It will readily occur, how great must have been the labour and expense of transporting the materials of this and other structures in cots of excavated wood to Monaincha, and before this was done, the carrying them a great distance over a deep, miry and shaking bog, before they reached the margin of the water. It appears by the tradition of the old inhabitants, that about a century ago the island was not accessible but in boats; every drain for the springs, and every passage for the river Nore being choked up with mud and fallen trees; the surface, in consequence, to a vast extent, was covered with water. Present appearances fully confirm this account.’


Text taken from The Irish Culdees, and their Abbey of Monaincha, published in the ‘Dublin University Magazine: A Literary and Philosophical Review’, Vol.LXXVI, December 1870. The Culdees, their name derived from the Irish Céilí Dé (meaning Companion of God) were early Christian hermits who lived on the same site but in separate cells, only gathering for certain communal activities such as worship in church, and sharing obedience to the same leader. 

 

On a Clear Day




As far back as the late 13th century Herbertstown, sometimes called Harbourstown, County Meath was associated with the Caddells, a family of Anglo-Norman origin who, despite the Penal Laws, remained true to the Roman Catholic faith and at the same time managed to hold onto their lands in this part of the country. Their residence here, of two storeys and six bays with the facade distinguished by an Ionic portico, was originally constructed in the mid-18th century but presumably later enlarged or altered, as it was described by Samuel Lewis in 1837 as ‘a handsome modern mansion, with a demesne comprising more than 400 acres tastefully laid out and well-planted, and commanding an extensive view from the summit of a tower within the grounds, which forms a conspicuous landmark to mariners.’ Herbertstown House was demolished at some date in the 1930s/40s but the ‘tower’ survives. Dating from c.1760, it is actually a polygonal limestown gazebo, with large round-headed openings on each side, one of which drops to the ground to provide access to the interior. Although now roofless and open to the elements, a balustraded platform around the top of the building (once section missing) indicates this once held a viewing platform, which makes sense as the gazebo stands at the summit of an artificial mound and offers superlative prospects of the surrounding countryside. Local legend has it that the Caddell responsible for constructing the building used it to watch racing at Bellewstown, some four miles away, after he had fallen out with the event’s organisers.



Scattered Stones


The surname O’Gara is an anglicized version of the Irish Ó Gadhra, meaning Descendent of Gadhra, a personal name that in turn derives from the word ‘gadhar’ meaning hound or mastiff. The family originally occupied an area known as Luighne, on the borders of what today are counties Mayo and Sligo. However, by the late 13th century they had been driven out of this part of the country by the MacSurtains (otherwise Jordans) and MacCostelloes, and so moved to what became known as the barony of Coolavin, County Sligo, where they remained in power until the late 16th century. Here, close to the north-west shores of Lough Gara (Loch Uí Ghadhra), they would build a large castle known as Moygara. 





In its present form, Moygara Castle consists of a large square bawn, each side measuring 51 metres, with a slightly angled residential tower in every corner and the remains of a gatehouse on the western side. The tower in the south-west corner is three storeys high, whereas those in the other corners rose just two storeys. Investigation of the site by the Moygara Castle Research & Conservation Project suggests originally a tower house stood here prior to the construction of the castle at some period between the early 16th to early 17th centuries. In 1538 Manus O’Donnell, after capturing Sligo Castle marched on and took the castle at Moygara, his son being killed by a shot fired from within the building. More than four decades later, in 1581, Moygara Castle was again attacked, this time by a number of Scots mercenaries in the hire of Sir Nicholas Malby, Lord President of Connaught. They burnt the castle and killed the son of Cian O’Gara.





By the 17th century, Moygara and its surrounding territories belonged to Fearghal Ó Gadhra who is believed to have attended Trinity College Dublin. Ó Gadhra is remembered for being the patron of The Annals of the Four Masters, a history of the country compiled by a number of Franciscan friars led by Mícheál Ó Cléirigh during the 1630s. There is some dispute over why Ó Gadhra should have assumed this position: it may be that while an undergraduate he had come into contact with antiquarian scholars James Ussher and James Ware and this inspired an interest in Irish history. Alternatively it may have come about because when young Ó Gadhra had been a ward of Sir Theobald Dillon, first Viscount Dillon who had close associations with the Franciscan order. In the aftermath of the Confederate Wars, the family’s lands were confiscated and it may be around that time that Moygara Castle began to fall into ruin. The later years of Ó Gadhra are unclear, although it is thought he was still alive at the time of the Restoration of 1660. One of his grandsons was Oliver O’Gara, an ardent Jacobite who, after the Treaty of Limerick, went into exile and joined the Irish Brigade in the French army. 

A Final Trace


Dominating the local landscape, this is Castleboy Tower, County Galway. Five storeys high and thought to date from the opening years of the 19th century, the building was once part of an estate owned by a branch of the Persse family, who also lived at the adjacent estate of Roxborough (childhood home of Lady Gregory) , and it would appear to have been constructed as a folly, or perhaps converted into one using an earlier building on the site. When the Land Commission divided up the estate, the tower was left stranded to one side of a small road constructed to provide access to various small farms and now provides the only surviving memory of the Persses’ presence here.


No Demesne So Entirely Lovely


‘Probably there is not in the kingdom a demesne so entirely lovely as that of Muckross, the property of W.H. Herbert Esq., one of the members for the county. And now let us visit the renowned “Abbey”; it is in the demesne and close to the old entrance from the main road. It was built for Franciscan monks, according to Archdall, in 1440; but the Annals of the Four Masters give its date a century earlier: both, however, ascribe its foundation to one of the MacCarthys, Princes of Desmond. It was several times repaired, and once subsequently to the Reformation…’






‘…The cloister, which consists of twenty-two arches, ten of them semi-circular, and twelve pointed, is the best preserved portion of the Abbey. In the centre grows a magnificent yew-tree, which covers, as a roof, the whole area; its circumference is thirteen feet and its height in proportion. It is more than probably that this tree is coeval with the Abbey; that it was planted by the hands of the monks who built the sacred edifice three centuries ago…’






‘…The building consists of two principal parts – the convent and the church The church is about one hundred feet in length, and twenty-four in breadth; the steeple, which stands between the nave and the chancel, rests on four high and slender pointed arches. The dormitories, the kitchen, the refectory, the cellars, the infirmary and other chambers are still in a state of comparative preservation; the upper rooms are unroofed.’


Extracts from A Companion to Killarney by Mr and Mrs S.C. Hall (London, 1878) 

 

Memento Mori



Attached to the south side of the now-ruinous medieval parish church in Stamullen, County Meath is a chantry chapel dedicated to St Christopher. Dating from c.1458, this chapel was erected by the Prestons, Viscounts Gormanston who until the middle of the last century lived nearby at Gormanston Castle. Inside are two remarkable tombs, the first featuring effigies of William Preston the second viscount (died 1532) and his second wife Eleanor Dowdall, he depicted in ‘white armour’ (fully covering the body in steel plate without the use of chain mail) with a sword at his side, she wearing a jewelled cap with veil, both their heads resting on pillows and their hands clasped in prayer.



Directly behind the Prestons, can be seen one of the oldest cadaver tombs in Ireland, this one believed to date from the mid-15th century. It shows the skeleton of an unidentified young woman, her shroud pulled back to expose vermin feasting on the remains: such funerary sculptures had become common throughout Europe in the aftermath of the Black Death.


A Little Strong Castle




‘The police station which lay on our road, and at which we stopped, was a new, neat, spacious building. At a short distance, it looked like a little strong castle; and the natives may probably look upon it as a fort Uri in miniature, to keep them in awe. It lay at the highest part of the mountain, just where the road again begins to descend. All round was a wilderness, and reminded me of the military stations so picturesquely situated in the wild regions of the Austrian frontier. The house contained eight men of the constabulary force, as it is called, and which is a military-armed police, now extended over the whole of Ireland, for the prevention of crime, the discovery and apprehension of criminals, the protection of property, and the preservation of the peace…The sergeant who had command of this station informed me that their district comprised the desolate mountains far and wide, but that there were only 220 inhabitants in it. Eight armed policement for 220 inhabitants – a large proportion in sooth!’
From Travels in Ireland by Johann Georg Kohl, published in 1844.
The former Royal Irish Constabulary Barracks at Derrycunnihy, County Kerry, a building seemingly burnt out over a century ago during the War of Independence and standing in ruin ever since.