Posts Tagged With: Abbey

Will you meet me on Clare Island?

The Saw Doctors exploded into my life in 1991, when I first heard the album If This is Rock and Roll I Want my Old Job Back.  I eagerly awaited each new album through the 90s.  As someone mad about Ireland their songs helped to define my view of the country and in particular its western seaboard.  Their ability to paint simple word pictures and tell stories of daily life in Mayo and Galway resonated with me.  I saw them once in concert in Adelaide and they were as good as I had hoped.  Anyway, ever since I heard their song about Clare Island, I’ve wanted to go there.

Will you meet me on Clare island,
Summer stars are in the sky.
Get the ferry out from Roonagh,
And wave all our cares goodbye.

Let’s put aside for the moment that in my ignorance, at that time, I thought Clare Island was in Co Clare and had no idea for that matter where their home of Tuam was or what N17 meant.   Don’t know why I mentioned that.  Anyway, finally at the end of July 2019, I got my chance to visit the island which I had, by this time, worked out was off the coast of Mayo.  Turns out that I didn’t have to go to Roonagh, as the song said, as once a week there is a ferry service from Achill Island.

I discovered this when I was on Achill for the wonderful Scoil Achill which I try to get to every year.  “Booking essential” the brochure said. But when I rang the number y’r man said “just turn up”.  So turn up I did in the misty rain with a crowd of other day trippers that soon filled the boat.  I was lucky to get on.  Many were first timers like me but there were also Achill islanders such as Orla, travelling accross for a break with friends and family.  I like that; islanders taking a break on a nearby island.

The boat leaves from the Cloughmore Small Pier (I guess there’s a Cloughmore Big Pier) near to the Kildavnet graveyard and church and Grace O Malleys Castle.  I found the graveyard at Kildavnet a moving place with its many reminders of famine times and I will post on it separately as I had spent time there the previous day.  The Castle was one of a number of Grace O Malley’s haunts. Grace also known as Grainne Ni Mhaille, was a giant figure in these parts, a pirate queen, who ruled the seas of Clew Bay.  We would see another one of her castles on Clare Island.    This day the castle looked inimidating on its point jutting into the sea and as we sailed off, we watched it  become rapidly engulfed in the mist and the driving rain.

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Kildownet Castle, Achill Island.  Built by Grainne Ni Mhail (Grace O’Malley)

Things did not improve on the island.  This was looking to be a rather disastrous day for sight seeing.  I stood with others huddled under a shelter wondering whether to wait or brave it.  But I snuck in a quick visit to the other Grace’s castle, which dominates the view of the Quay.  It has battlement parapets over the entrance so that objects could be dropped on attackers and two well preserved  bartizans,  These protruding structures allowed the defenders to fire down and around the corners at intruders.  These are roofed now as was the whole structure when it was converted to police barracks in 1826.

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Another Grace O’Malley castle greets you at the Pier at Clare Island.
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Everyone is welcome to Clare Island.
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Undaunted by the weather, these two ladies enjoyed a swim at this secluded cove.
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The main beach at Clare Island

I should talk a bit more about Grainne NI Mhaille.  She came to prominence about 1540 and in the latter half of the sixteenth century made Clare Island her stronghold.  Sea traffic to Ulster and Scotland or to Munster and  Spain had to pay a toll or have their cargo seized.  She terrorised the British but in 1593 went to London to petition Queen Elizabeth I  among other things, for a pardon.  Successful, she returned to Clare Island but apparently realised the futility of being nice to the British and continued her wicked ways until her death around 1603.

I took a punt and I set out walking to the west, trying to sneak in a few pictures between the raindrops.  Why do I always talk about the weather on these posts?  You have to love the scenery.  White cottages, as in Achill, dot the hills at a distance indistiguishable from the sheep.  Fields with furrows from potato farming are everywhere.     Letting a tour group of older people from Switzerland stride past me,  I chatted to a couple from Wexford who had been on the island for three days so they were a font of knowledge.

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Fields once used for potato growing
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Lord of the manor
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Visitors from Switzerland off to climb a mountain in the rain
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A Clare Island vista

They were headed to the Abbey so I walked with them.  They had visited the previous day and were told to collect the key from the local ‘store’ (which happened to be owned by an O’Malley).  It was closed.  No backstop there, so no visit.

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Heading to O’Malley’s store to pick up the key to the Abbey.  Better luck this time

They had better luck this day.  Key in hand we walked to the Abbey. It’s not really an abbey.  A tiny Cistercian monastery it was established around 1220AD.

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Clare Island Abbey with its Early Christian carved cross

The remarkable thing about this place, and something I wasn’t prepared for, is the vaulted ceiling of the chancery with its coloured mural paintings dating from before 1500AD.  They were in serious decay and being destroyed by damp in the 1990s when the building was roofed and the art was cleaned and conserved.  Interestingly while it is no Sistine Chapel, these paintings are as atmospheric and astonishing as those of Michelangelo, being painted interestingly about the same time.  While Michelangelo was depicting elaborate religious scenes here we have a mix of simple secular and sacred themes with everyday images of horses and riders, wrestlers, harpist, archers and hunters, along with fantastical animals such as dragons and serpents.  The whole is housed in a simple whitewashed building which ceased as a monastery in the 1600s.  I took the photos included here before I read the sign that said No Photography.  Apologies to whoever for that but I hope they stimulate my readers to go and have a look for yourselves.  Outside the church is a much older inscribed cross which seems to indicate this was an Early Christian site before it became a monastery

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The chancery at Clare Abbey.  The ceiling is covered in 15th century frescos.  On the left is the O’Malley tomb
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Clare Island Abbey.  Chancery  ceiling
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Grainne Ni Mhaille is said to be buried in Clare Abbey.  This plaque is next to her tomb.

It was brighter now and I decided to return by a different route.  Heading north with the island’s highest hill on my left Knockmore at 460m the views are marvellous out over Clew Bay.  On the other side of this hill are inaccessible cliffs that provide some of the best nesting sites for sea birds in the country.  I’ll climb it another time.

I continued walking and on my right I saw a walking trail which I surmised would take me back to the more settled part of the island.  The scenery was magical – agreen treeless bog covered island, following a green highway as if a green carpet had been laid out for me especially.  Not another soul to be seen and this the middle of summer.  Unfortunately I had to amble with purpose as my return ferry would leave at 4 pm but I could have stayed out there all day.

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Looking west over Knockmore
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Following the green carpet back to the boat
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View of the north coast of the Island showing salmon farms, which I was told produces among the best in Ireland.

By now there were sunny breaks and the island was now showing off as I arrived at the Community Centre (or should I say the C M Unity Centre – took me a while to work that one out), one of the two places on the island you can eat and settled into a late lunch of traditional home baked Irish lasagne.  For the 140 or so residents of the island this would be the CBD and the main meeting place.  I am reminded that this is still Ireland and that you make your own life in these remote outposts as I watch the lads (and that includes girls) ferociously go at each other on the football ground.  No doubt vying for a spot in the All Island Championship (not a spelling error! seriously there is a GAA sponsored competition that is held every year and includes nine islands:  Inisheer, Inishmore, Inishman, Bere, Whiddy,  Inishbofin, Aranmore, Inishturk and of course Clare Island. )

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The C M Unity Centre.  Stop for a Lasagne.
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A game of gaelic football in progress.  

Another quick walk along the coast back to the wharf completed my introduction to Clare Island, on the way discovering a secluded beach and some sea arches and getting a real sense of the beauty of the place now drenched in sun.

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The eastern coastline.  Walking back to the ferry
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A friendlier view of the Castle than when I first arrived.
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A hidden cove with sea arches. 

Back at the wharf I had another look at Grace’s casttle.  Now bathed in sunshine and really looking the part from its vantage point on the hill

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Grace’s castle and the beach and wharf at Clare Island
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Grace’s Castle in the sunshine

Somehow the one boat we had arrived on morphed into two and with limited space at the wharf the boats pulled in side by side three abreast and people and animals were shepherded across two boats to get aboard the third.

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All aboard!

It was a very different trip home.  Dry and under a dramatic cloudscape.  But still we managed to get wet.  The boat we were on was known as the ‘fast boat’ and those of us  in the back were drenched by waves created by the wake of the speeding craft.  This was no problem for Orla and her sister who had the time of their lives with what was surely the highlight of their island adventure.

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The trip home
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Orla and her sister enjoying the trip back to Achill. 
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Why do my visits to Ireland’s islands never fail to deliver an unforgettable experience?

Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Burren Stories #1. Corcomroe Abbey

I can’t believe that in the five years I’ve lived here I hadn’t come across this place before. It wasn’t until I was chatting to my friend Oliver O’Connell, a man who knows the Burren as well as anyone, that it came up in conversation. When he saw the blank look on my face, he said “let’s forget about our plans. I’ll show it to you”.

It is hard not to be impressed when you first see it. A stunning location in a green valley surrounded by the treeless rocky hills it has towered over the landscape for centuries. A huge symbol of Church and Chieftain power. Surrounded by natural beauty and itself the stuff of legends.

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Corcomroe Abbey in its fertile valley

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Another view of Corcomroe Abbey bathed in sunshine.

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Corcomroe Abbey viewed from the east. Note the repaired roof over the nave

It was founded for the Cistercian monks around 1195 and the church we see today was constructed in the early 13th century. The name is said to have derived from Corcamruadh, cor meaning district; cam, quarrel and ruadh, red. The church was also dedicated, more poetically, to St Mary of the Fertile Rock. It is believed that the building was commissioned by King Conor na Siudane Ua Briain (Conor O’Brien) King of the ancient territory of Thomond and a huge benefactor to the Church.

The continual relationship and support of the ruling families meant for a turbulent history for the monastery and led ultimately to its downfall. Many battles were fought in and around the Abbey and its ownership regularly changed hands. In 1268 Conor O’Brien was killed by Conor Carrach O’Loughlain, though the O’Brien’s maintained control. The monks retrieved his body and interred him in the Abbey. In 1317 yet another battle was fought this time between factions of the O’Briens and the Abbey was used as a barracks. By the end of the 14th century, the O’Cahans (O’Kane or Keane) from Derry took control of the Abbey’s lands. Sometime in the 15th century (though it is unknown how) the Tierney family took control.

With the dissolution of Catholic monasteries due to the English Reformation the Abbey and land was granted to the Baron of Inchiquin and Earl of Thomond, Murrough O’Brien, in 1554 and then in 1702 to Donat O’Brien of Dromoland, whose family retained the abbey until the 1870s when it passed into public hands.

Meanwhile the monks continued to tend the fields and maintain the abbey as circumstances allowed, but the political climate led to continued decline until the last abbott was appointed in 1628.

It is built to a standard Cistercian plan, though with some notable variations and the extreme decoration is unusual. The stonework is of such high quality it is said to have led to the ultimate demise of the five stonemasons involved, who were executed by O’Brien to prevent them repeating their masterpiece somewhere else. Hopefully they got their reward in the next life.

Over the nave there is a roof (repaired very sensitively) with exquisitely carved rib vaulting with herringbones and some floral decoration. It is lit by three lancet windows. Either side of the nave are columns with detailed carvings of human heads and flowers. Including what look like bluebells and fleur-de-lys. What is intriguing to me is the lack of symmetry of these decorated columns. This lack of symmetry is seen elsewhere, for instance in the arch over a niche on the north transept. Was this intended or was it a result of different masons working on different areas or maybe a thumbing of noses to architectural orthodoxy? At the base of the columns are further carvings of flowers (?). One intrigued me. It is unidentifiable, though to me it looks remarkably like a map of Australia which wouldn’t be ‘discovered’ for another 550 years! Such prescience.

There are many other notable features in the nave. A niche tomb on the north wall houses a life size effigy of Conor O’Brien. Beautifully carved it is one of the few examples of a depiction of an Irish chieftain surviving. He is in a serene repose, wearing a robe with pleats and a crown with fleur-de-lys decoration. He once held a sceptre apparently in his left hand (now gone) and his right holds a reliquary suspended round his neck. Love the little touch of his feet resting on a cushion. Love also that we are able to see it in situ, with no guard rails rather than have it relocated to a museum somewhere. Above this is a detailed carving of a bishop. There is an intricate sedilia (where the priests sit during the service) on this same wall.

Where the north and south transepts intersect the presbytery, there are several crossing arches in remarkable condition and set into the floor throughout are grave slabs. I am a lover of gravestones and here are some of the finest I have seen in Ireland, especially those close to the altar (where the rich were allocated space). And some of the oldest, with one I saw dating back to the late 1600s. This I think reflects the patronage by the elite who could afford intricate engraving that has survived.

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Corcomroe Abbey. Archway over niche in north transept. Note again assymetrical carvings with bluebells on left and fleur-de-lye on right.

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Corcomroe Abbey Carved head on right hand column in southern transept

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Corcomroe Abbey. Carved head and flowers on left hand columns in the south transept

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Corcomroe Abbey. Effigy of Conor O’Brien.

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Corcomroe Abbey. Grave slab. Elegant simplicity. Pray for the soul of Martin Burke and Posterity 1775

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Corcomroe Abbey. Oliver O’Connell examines a grave slab

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Corcomroe Abbey. Grave slab for John O’Dally and Marey Flanagane. Dated 1682. The oldest I saw.

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Corcomroe Abbey. Double arch over sedilia on north wall of nave. Different decorative carvings on each column

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Corcomroe Abbey. Beautiful detailed carving of a bishop

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Corcomroe Abbey. Tomb niche of Conor O’Brien underneath carving of a bishop.

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Corcomroe Abbey. Unidentified carving. Map of Australia?

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Corcomroe Abbey. Floral carving at base of columns.

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Corcomroe Abbey. View of the columns supporting the arch over the nave. Note the assymetrical arrangemetn of carvings at the tops of the columns.

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Corcomroe Abbey. Looking towards the nave showing the arches over the north and south transepts

A walk around Corcomroe is almost spiritual. You do feel some sort of presence. And it is not surprising that stories of this abbey are woven into Irish Culture in many ways other than the clinical history of battles and chieftains or its marvellous architecture.

Indeed it is said to be haunted by the ghosts of a poet named Cearbhall O’ Dalaigh and Eibhlin Kavanagh who eloped in the 15th century and wished to be secretly married at midnight on Christmas Eve. If you know the song Eileen Aroon, which is about this episode, then you know that it didn’t end well as Eibhlin’s father caught up with them that night.

You will also feel perhaps, when you walk around, the inspiration that Yeats must have had when he chose to use it as the backdrop for his play on Irish freedom, The Dreaming of Bones.

That feeling stayed with me long after. Thanks, Oliver, for introducing me to this special place. Highly recommend.

Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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