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Autumnal Rambles about New Quay, County Clare

Inexorably calm, with silent pace
Here time has pass’d-what ruin marks his way!
This pile, now crumbling o’er its hallowed base,
Turned not his step, nor could his course delay!

Western view of Corcomroe Abbey
Western view of Corcomroe Abbey
Click on image for larger view

The reader of the eight preceding rambles has, probably felt surprise at my not having sooner conducted him to so celebrated a specimen of architectural antiquity as the Abbey of Corcomroe presents; and his astonishment will no doubt be increased, when I inform him that this remarkable ruin is within about three miles of New Quay, the centre of these, our irregular autumnal excursions. The truth is, that having some years ago, under my assumed signature B, given an account of that Abbey to the public, through the medium of an entertaining and patriotic periodical publication, (now, like most of the produce of the Irish press, discontinued,) I had but little relish to again travel over the same ground. It would, however, be justly reckoned unpardonable in a series of papers descriptive of the very interesting scenery surrounding New Quay to omit altogether the topography of a place rendered famous by the beauty its architecture yet displays, even whilst mouldering in ruin the princely donations and titles of its former benefactors - the sanctity of its inmates in days long past, and the existing monuments of royal dissolution which still enshrine the silent occupiers of its walls. I shall therefore endeavour in the following article so to vary my former publication as to prevent this appearing a mere transcript of the other, although the history and delineation of scenery common to both papers must necessarily be similar.

The Abbey of Corcomroe is situated south of New Quay, in a lonely winding vale surrounded by lofty mountains in the Barony of Burren and county Clare. It was formerly denominated the Abbey De Viridi Saxo, or of the green rock, in consequence of the amazing fertility of the mountainous and stony tract around it. The interior of the Abbey presents at this day a mere assemblage of rugged stones, and it seems as if, owing to the want of clay to cover the numerous corpses interred there, the neighbouring fragments of limestone were gathered within the walls for the purpose. The consequence is, that the whole interior appears to be a mixed collection of earthless rocks and blanched human bones.

The ruin of Corcomroe Abbey is one of great splendour. When the visitor stands inside the building, and near to one of the angles formed by the western termination of the nave, immediately under the square steeple or belfry, he has before him the choir, exhibiting a vaulted roof, the frette work and groinings of which are inferior to none, perhaps those of Holycross, in the country of Tipperary excepted. The north and south transepts open to the right and left by large plain circular arches, through one of which is visible a small chapel on the south side of the choir. There was a similar and equally beautiful little chapel on the north side of the choir at the time I first visited the Abbey, but it has been since stopped up by some person regardless of architectural symmetry, and anxious only to enclose a mausoleum for a family resident in the neighbourhood. This alteration has barbarously disfigured the interior of the building.

The Abbey-church stood in the centre of a square plot of land, containing about six acres, and which was once enclosed with a wall ten feet high. The entrance to the enclosed ground was through an arched gateway at some distance S.S.W. of the church. A gate-house stood on either side. The arched gateway was standing a few years ago, and through it, dilapidated though it then was, the venerable principal ruin appeared sublime indeed, resembling, when seen in the distance, some fairy scenic representation of ancient buildings occasionally exhibited beneath the impending nearer proscenium of a theatre (this arch over the gateway leading into the Abbey enclosure was shaken by the violent storm of the 6th of January 1839 and it fell in a few days after. It is however perpetuated in the amored faithful pencil sketch).

The portion of the Abbey standing westward of the steeple, appears to be more ancient than the part to the eastward of it. The former, excepting the western doorway, and two narrow windows over it, is of far more rude workmanship than the reminder. It has lateral arches, which seem to have once opened into side aisles that have long since vanished. These arches are of the most rough description. This end of the fabric appears as if the steeple had been erected against, not upon it. The heads of the lofty and narrow western windows are the Saxon semicircle, while those of the choir are in the pointed style.

It may prove interesting to the classic reader to have here imparted to him on the subject of Saxon and Norman styles of architecture the ideas of a man remarkable while living, for refinement of taste and high cultivation of mind, namely, the late humane and lamented Baron Smith. The writer of this transient paper was honoured with his friendship, and possibly has benefited by the rich fund of information the learned baronet was occasionally pleased spontaneously to impart. The present seems to be a fitting opportunity to draw, for the benefit of others, upon resources of instruction thus liberally bestowed ; for on what occasion can the spirit of the illustrious departed be more opportunely invoked than when it is required to shed a hallowed light on the antiquities of an awful and venerable ecclesiastical ruin, selected almost unanimously, in times present and past, by the population of many a district, as the last earthly resting place of human infirmity? The following extract is from a letter written to the humble author of these rambles, by that once worthy and highly gifted judge. The date is Omagh Assizes, July, 29, 1835. Sir Wm. Smith proceeds, “Thank you much for your Roscrea and Omagh antiquarienne. The latter has come quite in time. I do not leave this for Lifford until to-morrow. Without being an antiquary I have antiquarian tastes and propensities, or had. The semicircular arch was not confined to Saxon architecture. It was common to it, and that early Norman, which lasted from the conquest to at least the end of Harry the first’s reign. So the zigzag and chevron frette was common to both styles of architecture. Also several other frettes or mouldings, as the billeted, embattled, mail head, &c. So that (so far as these ornaments go) I take it that Norman architecture is distinguished from Saxon, rather by the presence of other additional ornaments or mouldings than by the absence o the Chevron moulding. All in the Norman architecture was on a greater scale, and there were small, almost miniature, pilasters on sides of doorways, with peculiar capitals, which I have been used to consider as characteristic of Saxon, as contrasted with the early Norman architecture. This early Norman was introduced into England even before the conquest, by the Confessor; and as to the pointed style, it did not come into general use until all at once in the reign of Henry the third. It then quite superseded the semicircular arch, changed the massive columns for cluster columns, &c. Some ill proportioned pointed arches are to be found in John’s reign, and perhaps, in that of Richard the first, and even the latter end of Henry the second; but mixed with the round headed arches, and with clumsy, and sometimes squat pillars. I had once thought of compiling an elementary work for my own entertainment, and that of others.”

The allusion to Roscrea in the lamented baron’s remarks was made in reference to a letter written by me to him in answer to one from him on circuit, at Longford Assizes, the 16th July, 1835, in which he expresses himself thus:—

“I am very despondent with regard to our unfortunate country. Party spirit or spirits, and the intestine conflicts which they produce, and which almost forbid our being a nation I fear will never end. To turn back from present times to perhaps, as bad. Can you give me any information respecting an old gateway close to Roscrea, which used to interest me-what it was, and when erected? I remember it struck me as being characteristic of Saxon architecture. But I suppose it was early Norman; for one must be a better informed antiquary than I am to understand what should bring Saxon architecture into this country. Yet, I recollect to have seen at Killarney, at Aghado, and at a town in Kerry, the name of which I have forgotten, near Lord Glandore’s. I recollect, I say, to have seen at those places specimens of architecture, which I should call Saxon, as distinguished from Norman, however early. My business here has been light, and is now over. A serious murder case has been postponed which has relieved me from all that would have been weighty.”

How highly stored must have been the mind of that once highly gifted personage, who could, merely from memory, while burthened with the onerous duty of a Judge of Assize, and amidst the confusion and interruption ever attendant upon circuit, commit to paper with the ready hand, which imagination now conjures up as writing before me such a compendium of architectural learning such a complete, yet succinct and beautiful essay on the ancient buildings of Ireland!

Let me now conduct the reader back Corcumroe.— The steeple—which separates the more ancient portion of the Church from that of comparatively modern date—is in form a narrow parallelogram, and built on corbels projecting from the eastern and western sides of the gable-end wall. The entrance to the steeple is at an elevation of about sixteen feet above the level of the floor, and opens into a narrow and straight staircase leading to the embattled summit of the tower, where it is terminated by the parapet. At a few feet beneath the top are four windows —viz., one in each wall. These look to the four cardinal points of the compass. There is a very excellent echo about a hundred yards in the rear or north side of the Abbey: it distinctly repeats words of two syllables. The cloisters, refectory and dormitory, all stood on the south side of the Church. There were two small apartments built linny-wise against the northern wall on the outside --probably one of them was the Abbot’s private chamber, and the other an anti-room leading to it.

Interred within the precincts of this Abbey are many members of a family known in the Irish language, by the name Markahawn, Anglice, Rider, or Ryder, whose skulls have the reputation of being of an amazing thickness. The writer of these rambles has seen one of the skulls here, which was about half an inch thick. The neighbouring peasantry say it is not uncommon to meet some of the Markahawn skulls nearly an inch from inside to outside. The living members of this remarkable family are decent farmers, resident near Turlagh, not far from the Abbey. Some persons informed me that they were rather quarrelsome people— but the skull, which came under my observation, did not exhibit the organs, said to indicate that propensity.

In the third number of these rambles, some account is given of the village of Turlagh, just mentioned. In addition to what is there said, it may be here further remarked, that Turlagh was formerly known by the name Turbagh, and it was accordingly granted by these names the 23rd of May, in the 19th year of King Charles the II, to Sir Wm. King, Kt. It appears from the patent roll of that year, that Sir William previously had an annuity of one hundred and fifty pounds granted to him out of the quit-rent on this and other lands, from the 6th of March, 1673, when his regiment was reduced. The annuity was granted as a reward for his conduct in the war against the Hollanders. The place is spelled Turloghie in some old maps.

The most ancient tomb in the burial-place of Corcomroe, is that of Connor O’Brien, King of Thomond, who was killed in battle in the year 1267. An engraving of it from a drawing by me was published in the Dublin Penny Journal.

This monument is placed in a nitch in the north wall of the choir. The deceased King is represented on the slab dressed in his robes, and with the crown upon his head. Close by the ancient monument of King O’Brien stands a table tomb of recent erection, having on it an inverted anchor, followed by this simple, yet imposing English inscription:— “O’Loughlin, King of Burren’s family tomb.”

The side of this tomb, which is next that of O’Brien is formed of a piece of stone slab, having carved upon it a female dress, and was evidently part of some more ancient monument. It is much to be regretted that this relic of former days has been thus destroyed. The anchor is represented inverted, probably, as emblematic of death. It was the lot of the writer of those rambles to visit the Abbey in 1835, accompanied by the lamented, and ill-fated Lieutenant Robert’s who afterwards perished in the memorable President steam-ship. “I suppose,” said the gay Navy Lieutenant, whilst gazing on this tomb, as if attracted by the nautical instrument engraved upon it, “that the old King means to tell us he has come to anchor at last.” Providence alone can say what kind of anchorage poor Roberts himself found at the awful termination of his voyage through this uncertain life. Religion and charity bid us hope and expect that he is moored in safety. The reader may recollect from what has been written in a former ramble, than an anchor is one of the armorial devices of the O’Loughlin family, in consequence of their ancient territory, Burren, bordering on the sea. The O’Loughlin arms have been blazoned (the following description of the Standard of O'Loghlin is taken from the M.S. Collection of Messrs. Hodges & Smith, College Green Dublin —

Suaichiontar Ui Lochluinn bóirne
A g-campa Ui Lochluinn dob' fhollusa m-bláth
bhrat rsóill,
A gceann gach troda, le cosnamh do láthair, gleó,
Sean dair Thorthach ar g-cornamh le mal go coir
Is anncoir gorm fa choraibh do chábla óir.

" ' Bearings of O'Loughlin Burren)

as follows in Irish:—

“Sean dair thorthach ar g-cosd le mal go coir
Is anncoir gorm fa coraibh do cabla oir.
“An anicent fruit-bearing oak,
defended by a chieftain justly,
And an anchor blue with folds of a golden cable.”

The family motto is “Spes mea et fides tenere anchorane roboris.” This ancient family, of which the late worthy Master of the Rolls was member, is descended from the race of Irby Feargus Riogh, and Maude Queen of Connaught. His honour, in consequence, used the full-faced helmet on his armorial bearings. The bards of former times have occasionally poured forth their verses in praise of this family. Thus the death of Donough O`Loughlin of Burren, which took place in 1714, was the subject of two poems. One was written by Thomas O`Conduibh, a native of the county Clare. It consisted of sixteen verses, beginning “Orcra dear, Doncad caoim O`Loclain a cere sinte.” “Sorrow, tears, gentle Donough O`Loughlin in the clay is stretched.” The second poem was an elegy written by the celebrated Hugh M`Curtin, the poet, historian, grammarian and lexiographer, who was also a native of the county Clare. It contained seventy two verses, beginning with the philosophic reflection, “Eagh dhonchada is dol daoine.” “The death of Donough is the way of men.” The last mentioned also wrote a poem on the ship of O`Loughlin of Burren in 20 verses, beginning, “Beanaig an bare blathun`te bealchumtha.” “Bless the nice formed well fastened bark.” Had the bardic spirit inspired our countrymen of later years, what a noble and exhaustless theme for song the virtues of the late Sir Michael O`Loughlin would supply to the poet of our own days.

It is truly surprising how few ancient monumental inscriptions are to be met with in this famous place of sepulture; and it is remarkable, that in this part of the country some of the people, of the present day, think very little of despoiling of their marble reminiscences those who are gone before them. This they do by getting modern epitaphs engraved on tombstones formerly inscribed to the memory of other persons. Such a practice renders it no uncommon thing to see here parts of two inscriptions on the same grave-stones—one modern —the other an ill- defaced legend of days gone by.—The only perfect monumental inscription to be met with at Corcumroe at all approaching the character of ancient is the following, which is cut on a small stone about a foot and a half square—


On a similar sized stone is the following more modern epitaph—



The last mentioned inscription afforded great amusement to the before mentioned party of nautical gentlemen, when visiting this place a few years ago. One of them, after long protracted endeavours to ascertain the meaning of this inscription, seemed as much elated as the Syracusian mathematician, when he exclaimed ‘Eureka’ after having discovered the proof of the squares of two sides of a right angled triangle being equal to the square of the hypotenuse. The amphibious gentleman in question, half sailor, half squire, after gazing some time on the stone, suddenly vociferated, “Thomas was slain by a dyer in 1183.” This version of the inscription extorted a burst of laughter much in discordance with the solemnity of both the subject and the place. The true reading seems to be, ‘Thomas Lane died in the year 1793.’

Let us again revert to the history of this Abbey. Corcumroe was, in 1088 plundered thrice by Roderick O’Connor and Dermot O’Brien. According to the Red Book of Kilkenny, Donald O’Brien, King of Limerick, founded a sumptuous monastery here in 1194 for Cistercian monks, and dedicated it to the Virgin Mary; while other authorities assert that his son Donough Carbrac was the founder in the year 1200. This Abbey was a daughter of that of Suire. It was afterwards made subject to the celebrated Abbey of Furnes in Lancashire.—The cell of Kilsonna, alias Kilshanny, in the county of Clare, was sometime after annexed to this house. The venerated holy bell of Kilshanny, having some time since been taken by the Roman Catholic Clergy from the person who possessed it, in order to put a stop to the sacrilegious use the retofore made of it by swearing upon it is at present in the small collection of antiquities belonging to Mr. Cook, of Parsonstown.

In 1267 Connor O'Brien (the tomb in the chancel of this abbey O'Donovan writes was that of Conor na Siúdaine O'Brien who was killed by O'Loughlin of Burren in 1267 at Bel-a-chlogaidh at the head of Pouldoody. See n.a. to 4 Mast. Ad an: 1514), King of Thomond, endeavouring to check the disobedience of the people of Burren was killed in the battle of Siudaine, in this Barony, and was solemnly interred at Corcumroe, where the grand monument, before mentioned, was erected to his memory. Lodge says it was Connor O'Brien, to whom he gives the cognomen ‘Na Suidini,’ from the place of his death, that was killed in 1269 along with his son John—but Archdall (Monast Hib.) says it was Donough O'Brien. Playfair in his large work on Family Antiquity, calls him Connor. The valley between Corcumroe Abbey and the old church at Oughtmana, is called Glennareigh, (the valley of the King) and local tradition informs us, that some prince, or great person, was formerly slain there; but nothing more is known of him.

It appears from the earliest patent-roll, in the Rolls Office, Dublin, that Thomas, the son of Maurince, granted to King Edward the First along with the cantred of Ocassin, and the half cantred of Oblyt thirteen villages in Corcomrath to hold for ever—to which Robert, Lord Bishop of Bath, and Wells, then Chancellor of England, and Lords William de Valence, John De Vesey, Othone de Grandison, Gerald Fitzmaurice, John de Barry, John de Cogan and others were witnesses.

A great battle was fought near this Abbey in 1317, in which many of the principal O'Briens fell. Amongst the slain were the two sons of Brien Ruadh (the red) King of Thomond, viz—Teige and Murtagh Garbh, or the boisterous, from the latter of whom it is not improbable but the neighbouring village of Murtoghclogh takes its name. The ground on which this battle took place lies along the bottom of a hill between the Abbey and the village just mentioned. Human bones and skeletons have been frequently dug up here. The place is now called the hill of the gallows. Playfair, Irish Peerage, p. 87, says, Murtogh Garbh was grandson of Brien Ruadh, and that he was slain with his cousin Donough O'Brien, who with his son Brien Beara, and almost all the descendants of Brien Ruadh perished in this battle. It appears from the same authority, that Brien O'Brien the brother of said Donogh, was also in the engagement, but escaped, and afterwards settled himself by conquest in the country of Arra. Possibly it is from this sanguinary conflict, that Corcumroe derives its name. Cor, signifies a district, or neighbourhood, Cam, a quarrel, and Ruaidh, red, i.e., ‘the district of the bloody quarrel.’

John, Abbot of Corcomroe, was, in 1418, made Bishop of Kilmacduach; and Archdall states that the Abbey, with eleven quarters of land in Corcomroe and Gleanmanagh, were ultimately granted to Richard Harding.—By an inquisition preserved in the Chief Remembrancer's office, and taken the 6th of December, in the 25th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, it was found that Donough M’Murghe O’Brien, of Dromolan, in the county of Clare, died seized of this Abbey, and all its possessions, of the annual value, besides reprisals, of forty shillings, Irish money. Lodge says he had these lands assigned by his father, Morough O'Brien, first Baron of Inchiquin. The patent Roll of the 19th year of King Charles II., preserved in the Rolls Office, Dublin, informs us that on the 7th of March in that year, Murrogh Earl of Inchiquin, obtained a grant of the chiefries, courts, leet, and baron, and the several other ancient privileges enjoyed in the manor of Corcomroe Abbey, in the Barony of Burrin.— The same grant also conveyed to him the parsonage and end vicarage of the parish of Abbey, in which Corcomroe is situated.

Notwithstanding the grant to Richard Harding, it appears that the religious establishment at Corcomroe was not forsaken by the Cistercian monks, as late, at least, as 1628, and that it was subject to the Cistercian Lord Abbot of Holy Cross, whose predecessors were mitred abbots and peers of parliament. We accordingly find that subsequent to that year, Father John O'Dea was appointed abbot here. O'Dea was a Cistercian monk, and formerly of the Irish College at Salamanca. Approved in life, morals, and learning, he embraced the monastic rule under Father Luke Archer, Lord Abbot of Holy Cross, in compliance with a vow he made on the 4th of January, 1618. When forty years of age he was appointed vicar to the parishes belonging to Holy Cross Abbey, and is said to have written some tracts of no great importance. He could not have been Abbot of Corcomroe previous to 1623, for there is still extant a MS note of his having been parochus in Holy Cross that year. Probably, however, he was abbot in 1628, as we are informed he ceased to be parochus in the last-named abbey that year, and was succeeded in that office by Malachy Forstal, who continued to officiate for some time. This account of O'Dea is collected from a vellum manuscript, written in 1640, by Father Malachy John Harty, and mentioned in Harris's edition of Ware's Irish Writers. The manuscript belongs to the Roman Catholic Archiepiscopal library at Thurles, and was some time in my possession.

Corcomroe is at present a rectory in the diocese of Kilfenora. Near the Abbey is a spring-well, called Tubber-Coeman, at which blind persons sometimes sleep, in the superstitious hope of recovering their eye-sight.

Note: The road leading from Corcomroe, up the hill, towards Curromrue was called formerly caccair na cléireach, i.e, The narrow road of the Clergy. O’Donnell’s forces passed by that road with the plunder of Clare in the year 1600. See the four Masters by Dr. John O’Donovan Vol.6. pp. 2196,7 & 2198,9.

<< Autumnal Rambles about New Quay, County Clare