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

Twelfth Century Reforms; The Clare Abbey Charter


Twelfth Century Reforms
The twelfth century was a period of remarkable change in the structure of the Church in Ireland. The Synods of Rathbreasail (1111) and Kells (1152) mark two important stages in a religious revival designed to bring a fragmented and largely monastic Church into line with the universal system.
The need for reform had long been obvious. Many of the native monastic houses, including some that had cut a large figure in the Golden Age, had slipped into the worst abuses of lay ownership. By the twelfth century it was commonplace for the comharba (successors) of the founders to be selected from the local ruling families, and in many cases they were married men and unordained.[1] The reformers at Rathbreasail and Kells sought to tackle these abuses by restructuring the Irish Church on territorial diocesan lines. As the new episcopal system gradually took root, European religious orders were encouraged to set up houses in Ireland to help in restoring religious discipline. The Canons Regular of St. Augustine were particularly attractive to the Irish bishops, and in some cases at least they appear to have been deliberately intruded into the new cathedral chapters.[2]

The popularity of the Canons Regular can perhaps be explained by the fact – not always understood by writers on the medieval monasteries in Ireland – that although living in community, they were not monks but secular clergy whose primary duty was parish work and the care of souls. The origins of the canons were rooted in a reform movement in eleventh-century Italy aimed at restoring fervour among the parochial clergy in difficult times by grouping them into regular communities. As the name implies, they belonged to the ordo canonicus, the order of priests, canons or seculars, as distinct from the ordo regularis, the order of regulars, monks or religious. Put simply, the Canons were priests who lived the ‘common life’ following a rule attributed to St. Augustine; but from first to last they were involved in the parochial life of the country to a degree not matched by any other order. They were eminently suited to Irish conditions in the medieval period as their way of life was remarkably similar to that practiced in the old native monastic houses where the regular life was combined with pastoral work. In any event the Canons Regular continued to spread in Ireland and by the end of the twelfth century they had become the preponderant order in the country.[3] In keeping with the spirit of the reform many of the native monastic houses, too, trimmed their sails to the winds of change and adopted the new observance, and it is possible that some form of Augustinian rule was observed at Iniscathaigh (Scattery) before the first new Augustinian foundation was established at Clare Abbey in 1189. This, together with the fact that St. Senan’s island monastery always had strong pastoral traditions, might explain the elevation of Iniscathaigh and its scattered termon lands to diocesan status at the Synod of Kells. As an independent diocese however, Iniscathaigh was of short duration. On the death of bishop Aodh Ó Beacháin in 1188 the see was dissolved and the portion of its territory lying within Co. Clare was reduced to a rural deanery i.e. the deanery of Corcavaskin. The setting up of a new foundation for Canons Regular at Clare Abbey in the following year, therefore, may not have been entirely fortuitous but can perhaps be seen as a scheme to replace archaic monastic practices with a modern pastoral arrangement in keeping with the new reforms. In any event it will be seen that the rectories granted to Clare Abbey were for the most part those which had hitherto been under the spiritual dominion of Iniscathaigh.

The Clare Abbey Charter
As well as being the first of the new foundations, the abbey of SS. Peter and Paul established at Clare Abbey under the patronage of Donal Mór O’ Brien as king of Munster, was also the largest and most important Augustinian house in the county, indeed in the whole diocese. As the papal records make clear, it retained great power and influence right up to the Dissolution, the abbot invariably playing an important role in the ecclesiastical affairs of the whole diocese. On account of its situation on the banks of the Fergus the house is frequently referred to as de Forgio in the papal documents.

Nave and Choir, Clare Abbey. Photo: Lawrence Collection
Nave and Choir, Clare Abbey. Photo: Lawrence Collection

We are fortunate that a copy of the Clare Abbey charter survives as it enables us to construct a distribution map of the rectories assigned to the canons. It also enables the abbey itself to be precisely dated. The charter shows that the Canons were generously endowed with lands throughout West Clare and as far north as Kilshanny. The charter was witnessed by the bishops of Limerick, Killaloe and Kilfenora, as well as the lay chiefs, Mac Mahon of Corcabaiscinn and O’Connor of Corcomroe, in whose territories lay the rectories assigned in the charter. The relevant portion of the document is given here as printed by Thomas Westropp from a reading made for him by James Mills of the Public Record Office.[4]

Now I have presented and confirmed with my seal the following lands with all their appurtenances and liberties to the aforesaid church, and to Donatus the abbot and to the canons of the same church living in canonical fashion i.e. the lands on which the abbey is situated, namely Kimony with all its appurtenances, Ballyiannagain with etc., Ballyvekeary with etc., Durynierekin, Inisketty with its fisheries and fishing rights, Kelloniam etc., Cnoc, Inis Cormaic, Killbreakin, Insula St. Cronani, (blank)Argonicam, Dromora, the church of the Holy Trinity which is called Kilkerrily and the House of St. Peter near Limerick, Kiltheana in the diocese of Kilfenora together with the two rectories of Kandidarum…in lay fee from the boundary of Athadacara to Loop Head…which aforesaid lands and benefices of the aforesaid church with all its appurtenances in plains and woods, in meadows and pastures, in fisheries and fishing rights, in rights of game in forests and their other accustomed liberties, I have presented and have confirmed with the impression of my seal. Given at Limerick on the feast of the apostles Peter and Paul, Anno Domini 1189.

It will be seen from the above extract that the charter survives only in the form of a garbled copy and in consequence some of the phonetically-written place names are not easily disentangled. Indeed Westropp’s own attempt at the document is sometimes plainly wide of the mark and must be taken with some reserve. A more successful rendering is given by Dr. Gleeson with the aid of a document which was apparently unknown to Westropp. This was a fifteenth century inventory of the possessions of Clare Abbey found in a manuscript in the British Museum, although in this case also the text is sometimes equally difficult.[5] Before examining this document however it might be useful to attempt a modern rendering of the charter itself, but with the proviso that a wide margin of speculation must be allowed.

The first place mentioned i.e. Kimony was clearly the site of the abbey itself but this name is not now found in the maps. It may have derived from a cell or church of Inawee (Iníon Baoith), a saint greatly venerated in the neighbourhood and throughout central Clare.[6] There was in any case a place called Clochanenaboy [Clochán Iníon Bhaoith?] in the immediate area as it is listed amongst the lands of Clare Abbey in 1656.[7] ‘Ballyannagain’ and ‘Ballyvekeary’ were also probably in the neighbourhood, the former perhaps represented by the modern Ballyvannavaun. ‘Durynierkin’ and ‘Kelloniam’ are represented today by Doora and Killoo. ‘Inisketty’ is probably a garbled version of Inisgad (Canons’ Island) on the Fergus; not Iniscathaigh as Westropp has suggested. ‘Cnoc’ is the name found in the Taxation List of 1302 for the parish of Kilmurry-McMahon. ‘Inis Cormick’ is a corrupt rendering of Ui Cormaic, the name invariable applied to the united parishes of Drumcliffe and Kilmaley. ‘Kilbreakin’ survives in the townland of that name not too far from the abbey. It is listed in the Taxation and was probably an old pre-diocesan rectory. ‘Insula St. Cronani’ includes Inchicronan and its lands which later became the site of an Augustinian priory affiliated to Clare Abbey. ‘(blank) Argonicam is problematical although Gleeson suggests Templeharraghan (alias Killargreayn), an old church in Drumcliffe parish which has now disappeared without trace.[8] ‘Dromora’ too is uncertain and to discuss all its possibilities would lead only to confusion. The ‘house of St. Peter near Limerick’ was apparently a house for Augustinian nuns near Thomondgate.[9] It is listed as ‘St. Peter’s Cell’ under the ‘Limerick Howses’ in a rental of the earl of Inchiquin in 1699.[10] ‘Kiltheana in the diocese of Kilfenora’ is the site of the Augustinian abbey of Kilshanny; not Killeaney as Westropp thought. ‘Kandidarum’ is almost certainly a corrupt version of Inisdadrum (Coney Island) as Gleeson has suggested; it was anciently a separate parish which became impropriate to the Augustinian house on Canons’ Island.[11] Finally, there seems to have been a grant of the rectories ‘in lay fee’ along the Fergus and Shannon estuaries from Clarecastle (Áth-dá-Coradh) to Loop Head.

The Convent of St John the Baptist at Killone. Photo: T.J. Westropp
The Convent of St John the Baptist at Killone. Photo: T.J. Westropp


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