Recovering our lost heritage

Vanished grandeur: part of the cloisters at Cong Abbey

Vanished grandeur: part of the cloisters at Cong Abbey

Week II

Celtic monasticism is coloured by the extraordinary character and legends that surround hundreds of our early saints. It was totally different from the development of Western European monasticism. There the Rule of Saint Benedict emphasised stability; while our Celtic saints were travellers who journeyed far and wide on land and water. They jumped into their tiny coracles or animal hide sailing boats, and set out to sea, along rivers, or across lakes. They often went without oars or sail, and often still without any specific destination in mind. They were simply content to let God take them where He would. The journey was a prayer in itself. Columbanus reminded his companions: “ Let this principle abide with us, that on the road we live as travellers, as pilgrims, as guests of the world...” When they felt that they had arrived at a suitable destination, they set about building basic thatched and cut-stone churches, schools and accommodation, and baptised all those who were happy to become Christian.

The miracle is that despite the ravages of time, the raids from Vikings and feuding Celtic tribes, the scourge of ivy, the weight of cattle, and the attraction of easy stone for farm buildings and roads, that so many of the 31 monastic sites and sanctuaries, that were founded around the shores of Lough Corrib, survive to this day. Some of them date from the sixth century, at the very beginning of the Christianization of Ireland. These were initially simple, single chamber structures, with no division between nave and chancel; but they climaxed into magnificent monastic buildings dating from the 12th century with their towers, cloisters, great carved windows and delicate chiselled stone. They still dominate the landscape at Headford, Cong and Claregalway. I will touch on these in a moment.

Anthony Previté, in his recent book*, has performed an admirable service for painstakingly searching out the remains of these earlier, and architecturally humble, monastic sites around Lough Corrib, and in an earlier book, throughout Connemara. He has also proposed to Eamon O’Cuiv TD, Minister for Social Protection, that if these sites were saved from the ravishes of time, here was an opportunity to give employment to dozens of architects, engineers, and a range of skilled craftsmen. It would involve the co-operation of the churches, local authorities and central government to save these buildings from further despoliation. They cry out to be made accessible and appreciated. Furthermore, our unique Christian heritage could be developed into an interesting tourist trail.

It makes total sense to me. I understand the Minister is actively investigating the suggestion.

A man of wonder

Very significantly the author points out the total neglected and ruinous church at Moycullen, close to the equally ruined Moycullen castle. This was the home of one of Ireland’s greatest historians and scholars Ruaidhrí Ó Flaithbheartaigh (Roderic O’Flaherty ), 1629-1718. This man was truly a wonder. He lived at a dangerous time, yet he let nothing distract him from completing two outstanding scholarly works. His most ambitious work was Ogygia **- no less than the history of Ireland back through the ages of mythology and legend, long before the time of Christ. He wrote it in Latin. He based his research on his vast collection of ancient manuscripts, and experts have argued about his facts through the centuries. He further wrote, in English, A Chorographical Description of West or Iar-Connaught in 1684, later edited by James Hardiman, and not published until 1846.

As well as pursuing the life of an academic, O Flaithbheartaigh was chief of the O’Flaherty clan. He was born at Park, near Bearna, and educated at the famous Alexander Lynch school in Galway renowned, at the time, for attracting scholars from all over Ireland. On his father’s death he inherited the castle at Moycullen. Following the arrival of Cromwellian forces his Moycullen properties were confiscated. He fled to Sligo, and there among the foremost Gaelic scholars of the day, including the genealogist Dubhaltach MacFhirbhisigh, he developed his passion for collecting manuscripts, and the study of the Irish language and literature. After the Restoration, he returned to Moycullen only to find that the lands of his family had somehow slipped into the procession of ‘Nimble Dick’ Martin of Ballynahinch. Martin owned vast tracks of Connemara, and was a man much admired for his humanity to animals. But whereas Martin loved animals, he was less accommodating to his human companions when an opportunity arose to seize their land. O Flaithbheartaigh never recovered his Moycullen lands, and, despite his reputation as a major historian, died in total poverty at his parental home at Park.

Only his Moycullen home, albeit a total ruin, survives. It should be saved from further erosion, properly signposted, and an explanation given of its importance.

Vanished grandeur

But the three jewels in the crown of churches in the Corrib region are the magnificent ruins of Claregalway Friary, a medieval Franciscan abbey (commissioned by the Norman knight John de Cogan about 1252 ), Ross Errilly Friary at Headford, again a Franciscan foundation (commissioned by the Norman Clanricarde Burkes in 1351 ); and the spectacular Cong Abbey, founded by Turlough Mór O’Connor, the High King of Ireland, about 1135, just before the Norman invasion. The abbey later adopted the Augustinian rule. These are majestic shells of splendour and grace. But there is a sadness there too that these once thriving schools, workshops, farms, places of worship, with their busy religious communities who opened and closed each day with prayer, were dissolved, and their inhabitants scattered by the Reformation in the 16th century. There is still, however, much to appreciate in their vanished grandeur. All these are national monuments, in the care of the Commission for Public Works. Where possible the stone window frames have been replaced (some magnificently flame shaped ), and gravel paths keep the brambles at bay. If you can ignore the tasteless tradition of allowing modern graves all over these holy ruins, we can still glimpse signs of the dedication of the early monks, by their attempts to make even the stone reflect the glory of God. It is quite common to find flowers, and vine on their cloister, and door pillars.

More dramatically, perhaps, are the artefacts associated with large monasteries. Among them is the extraordinary Book of Kells; but Cong abbey is famous for its An Bacall Buidhe (The Cross of Cong ), with its exquisite gold filigree, and other precious metals crafted in the 12th century, to hold, what was believed to be, a relic of the True Cross. It is regarded as one of the finest examples of metalwork and decorative art in Western Europe. Somehow it survived the turmoil of the centuries, and was displayed on the Cong altar at Christmas and Easter, and other holy festivals, always attracting huge crowds.

Fr Patrick Prendergast, known as the last Abbot of Cong, kept an untidy household. When not on display, the Cross was dumped in a cupboard, not always readily found. Sir William Wilde, was not only the father of Oscar, and a distinguished eye and ear surgeon, but a passionate archaeologist, and the author of Lough Corrib - Its Shores and Islands. He tried to persuade the Abbot to give the Cross to the National Museum for safe keeping. The Abbot refused.

When the Abbot died in 1829 he was succeeded by Dean Waldron who had little time for antiquity. He sold the Cross to the National Museum for £100 to pay for a new church roof. The people of Cong were furious, and deeply felt the loss of its An Bacall Buidhe. Dean Waldron’s successor, Fr Lavelle was a bit of a firebrand. One day, he went into the National Museum, smashed the glass case, and ran out into the street brandishing the Cross. He was soon apprehended. After he made a long speech to an bemused crowd, he was persuaded to return the Cross. He went home empty handed, but to a hero’s welcome.

But today it is back. Not in Cong, but nearby. It’s on display at the National Country Life Museum, Castlebar.

NOTES: *A Guide to Lough Corrib’s Early Monastic Sites, by Anthony Previté, published by Oldchapel Press, superbly illustrated, on sale €15.

** Its complete name is the mouthful: Ogygia: seu Rerum Hibernicarum Chronologia & etc published 1685.

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