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The Charter of Clare Abbey and the Augustinian ‘Province’ in Co. Clare
By Michael Mac Mahon

Augustinian Tradition; Westropp’s Survey; Holy Water Fonts; Expansion and Regression


Augustinian Tradition
Looking through the papal registers it becomes clear that the Augustinians had a predilection for dedicating their churches to the Virgin Mary or other saints of the Universal Church, as distinct from local saints as was the usual practice in Ireland. And this practice was maintained even where their foundations were superimposed on older monastic sites associated with prominent native saints. Kilshanny and Canons’ Island, as we have seen, were dedicated to the Virgin, and similar ascriptions will be found elsewhere in the diocese – e.g. at Lorrha (Beatae Marie Fontis Vivi) and Toomevara (‘The House of the Blessed Virgin at Thom’).[36] This tradition is maintained at Clare Abbey (dedicated to SS Peter and Paul), Inchicronan (St. Augustine), Killone (St. John the Baptist) and St. Peter’s Church at Limerick. Bearing all this in mind it seems of interest that four out of a total of only five medieval parish churches in the county which are similarly dedicated – Kilchreest (Cill Chríost), Kilmihil (Cill Mhicil), Kilmurry (Cill Muire)-Mc Mahon, Kilmurry-Ibrickane and Kilmurry-na nGall (i.e. of the foreigners)- will be seen to be located on Augustinian rectories. Although not a known Augustinian impropriation, Kilmurry na nGall is not however a significant exception since, as the name implies, it was situated in the Anglo-Norman lordship of Bunratty.[37]

Westropp’s Survey
A careful examination of the survey of the churches and other ecclesiastical remains in Co.Clare published by Thomas Westropp in 1900 will reveal some further interesting coincidences.[38] For instance, all the holy wells dedicated to the Virgin Mary are, without a single exception, located in parishes which had been impropriate to the Augustinians. In fact we can now add to the list three others omitted by Westropp – two of them called Tobermurry (i.e. Tobar Muire) near the churches of Kilmurry-Ibrickane and Kilfarboy in the old rectory of Uí Breacain of the Clare Abbey charter,[39] and another near the old church at Kilmaley. [40] Wells dedicated to St. John will be found at Killone, and again at Kilmurry-Ibrickane, near the old church, where there is also a burial ground associated with St. John. St. Martin is commemorated by holy wells at Kilchreest (Ballynacally), Kildysert and Moyarta, and St. Michael at wells at Kilmihil and Doora.[41] St. Augustine himself, patron of the Augustinians, is venerated at wells at Kilshanny, Kildysert and Kilmaley.

East Window, Kilchreest.  Photo: S. Schorman
East Window, Kilchreest. Photo: S. Schorman

When we examine Westropp’s survey of the actual church buildings themselves in the Augustinian rectories the coincidences become even more interesting. The churches at Kilshanny and Kilchreest, although separated by almost the width of the county, are so remarkably similar, even in size, that both must be assigned to the building tradition of the Augustinians. Indeed, it is noteworthy that Westropp himself, although unaware of their common Augustinian association, cited the east windows in these two churches as the only examples of ‘switch line’ tracery among some forty contemporary buildings. At the other end of the county the large church at Kilballyowen displays some of the features observable at the two places already mentioned. Kilballyowen is said to take its name from a dedication to St. John the Baptist and a decorated medieval font carrying a depiction of the saint was found some years ago in the ruins of the church.[42] Angular mouldings, sometimes known as ‘weather ledges’, occur over the doors at Kildysert, Kilchreest and Kilmaley, but are not recorded elsewhere in Westropp’s notes ranging over a series of 186 churches. Canon Dwyer noticed a narrow opening in the south wall at Kildysert, a feature which he had earlier observed at the Augustinian convent at Killone.[43] Architecturally the churches of Killofin and Kilfiddane are identical twins, even to the extent that they are virtually the same in size; and we have already seen that both these churches were impropriate to Killone. The church at Kilmurry-Ibrickane had two doors on one side, a feature which, although rare throughout the series, is observable at Kilchreest and Kildysert. Like Kildysert, Kilmurry may have had a domiciliary building attached as the ordnance surveyors were told in 1840 that the church was formerly ‘a residence for priests’.[44] This old church standing on the mensal lands of the O’Briens of Aran and Tromra, is the largest of all the churches in west Clare, including that on Canons’ Island. It measures eighty-six feet in length and twenty-seven feet in width. The townland where the church is located is called Shandrum which at one time had a sub-denomination called Knocknamo (i.e. hill of the cows).[45] This is now anglicised to Oxmount, but the name in its Latin form – Collis Bovum - in the papal letters, sometimes proved a stumbling block for historians. The rectory here, as we have seen, was called the ‘village of Our Lady in ybrican’ in the fifteenth century inventory of Clare Abbey, and, indeed, a remarkable stone carving of Our Lady and the Child was preserved in the church. It is, in fact, one of the very few medieval statues of any kind to have survived in the diocese.[46] What may well have been another item of statuary associated with the church was the ‘beautiful stone called Clochanslanathoir, or saviour’s Stone’ seen by the ordnance surveyors in 1840, but this has now disappeared.[47] The association of the Augustinians with the rectory here is further emphasised by the fact that members of the Mac Giollaphádraig family were connected with the church in the fifteenth century.[48] This family provided many abbots to Canons’ Island and, indeed, seem to have enjoyed uninterrupted control of that house for almost a hundred years.[49]

The Church at Kilmurry-Ibrickane. Photo: Irish Tourish Association
The Church at Kilmurry-Ibrickane. Photo: Irish Tourish Association

Holy Water Fonts
Other coincidences seem to occur in the Augustinian rectories in relation to holy water fonts. Of only four ‘true’ examples of double-oped fonts recorded in the county, three will be found in the churches of Canons’ Island, Kilchreest and Kilfarboy.[50] Fonts of medieval times are rare in the county: one already referred to from the church of Kilballyowen can be seen in the De Valera library at Ennis. Westropp has described a fluted c. 15th century font at Killone and a neat octagonal one at Clare Abbey.[51] Other medieval fonts which apparently were unknown to Westropp have come from the old churches of Kilfiddane and Kilmaley and are now in the modern churches in those two parishes. The font at Kilfiddane has rich interlace and triquetras; that at Kilmaley has simple ‘horned’ carving very similar to the decoration on the pillar of the font at Killone.[52]

Double-oped Stoup at Kilchreest. Photo: S. Schorman
Double-oped Stoup at Kilchreest. Photo: S. Schorman

Expansion and Regression
Westropp has made the observation that the period 1390-1520 saw a great outburst of building that led to the repair or building of some thirty or forty churches in the county. This was also a period when the Augustinians were enjoying great power and influence as is evidenced by the fact that a daughter house of Clare Abbey was established at Inchicronan c. 1400, and the abbey of Canons’ Island was substantially re-edified around the same time.[53] Between 1389 and 1463 four members of the Mac Craith family, who virtually controlled Clare Abbey at that time, became bishops of Killaloe, while another member of the same family was appointed to Clonfert.[54] Three of them had been abbots of Clare Abbey prior to their elevation. Thomas De Burgo, a canon of Clare Abbey, was appointed to the bishopric of Emly in the same period.[55] Bishop Matthew Ó Griobhtha (O’Griffey) who succeeded the Mac Craiths in Killaloe in 1463 was also probably of Augustinian affiliation, for on his death in 1483 he was buried in the Augustinian monastery on Canons’ Island.[56]

It is clear from the names of the abbots at this period that hereditary succession, so often the bane of the medieval Irish Church, was again rearing its head and by the middle of the fifteenth century the practice of nepotism was commonplace as powerful families tried to secure control of the property of the religious houses. This state of affairs led eventually to other abuses; and, indeed, abbatial succession at this period was often from father to son. Dermot Mac GiollaPhádraig, appointed to the abbacy of Canons’ Island by papal mandate in 1478, had earlier received a dispensation [from canonical illegitimacy] as the son of an Augustinian abbot and an unmarried woman.[57] Such instances could be multiplied by entries in the papal registers, but, as Dr. Gleeson has pointed out, this was a period when the government of the Church as a whole was in confusion and even appointments to the College of Cardinals were often questionable.[58]

Despite these unwelcome trends, however, the Irish Church, was far from being in crisis as the record of church building makes clear. In any event the clouds of regression on the horizon could not altogether obscure the outstanding contribution which the Canons Regular of St. Augustine had made to the ecclesiastical history of the county, and in particular to the development of the early diocesan Church.

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