• Ali Isaac

corcomroe abbey | the wild atlantic way

Updated: Aug 6, 2020

We finished our hike through the Burren at Corcomroe Abbey. It was wonderful to get our boots off, then wander round this peaceful ancient monastic site located in such a lush green valley with the evening sun gleaming on the bald limestone tops of the hills we had descended from.

The Abbey takes its name from an ancient tribe whom once ruled the Burren, known as Corcamruadh, from the Irish Cor, a ‘district’, Cam, a ‘quarrel’, and Ruaidh, meaning ‘red’. They sound pleasant, don’t they? Not.

Corcomroe Abbey, The Wild Atlantic Way.
Corcomroe Abbey, The Wild Atlantic Way.

The Red Book of Kilkenny states that in 1194, Domhnall Mór O’Brien, King of Munster and great-great-great grandson of Brian Boru, founded the monastery for Cistercian monks, and dedicated it to the Virgin Mary.Although this is not certain, it is quite likely, as he was a known patron of the Order, having already established the Holy Cross Abbey in 1180 and Kilcooly Abbey in 1184, and was the most powerful king in the area at that time. However, it is also stated that his son, Donogh Carbrac, could also have been the founder six years later.

The Cistercians were fond of seeking out desolate places and eking out a harsh, ascetic lifestyle of self-sufficiency to support their devotion to God. However, archaeology of the Burren suggests a fairly populous region, and the Abbey building itself is anything but austere in its design. In those days, the abbey was known as St Mary’s of the Fertile Rock, as although the hills were so rocky and barren, the valleys were lush and fertile.

The site chosen for the building of the monastery was located right on the border between the O’Conor and O’Loughlin territories. This may well have been deliberate on the part of Domhnall, as he sought to gain control over the region. According to the Annals of Ulster, he died the last king of Munster, in 1194, and was buried in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.

At a place called Sindaine, near Newtown Castle, a battle was fought in 1267 between Dohmnall’s grandson, Conor na Sindaine O’Brien against the O’Connors and the O’Loughlins. Conor was killed and buried in a niche in the chancel of the abbey. A stone effigy was raised over his grave, which can still be seen today.

Stone effigy of man lying down in niche at Corcomroe Abbey.
The grave of Conor na Sindaine O’Brien, who died in battle 1267AD.

The monument depicts the king lying down with a cushion beneath his head; on his head is a crown decorated with fleur de lys; his right hand holds a sceptre, and his left hand grasps a pendant or talisman which hangs around his neck.

Another fateful battle took place near the Abbey on August 15th 1317 which became known as the Battle of Lough Raska.  The forces of Donnchadh Ó Briain and Richard de Clare attacked the army of Muireactach Ó Briain, who were sheltering in the grounds of the AbbeyThere is a local legend that a banshee had met Donnchadh Ó Briain on the morning of the battle to warn him of the slaughter ahead, and his own imminent death. You can read the story in my post, Legends of the Burren.

Not surprisingly, given its location, the Abbey is constructed from local limestone. It is cruciform in design, with two transepts. Some lovely carvings still remain; I think there are human faces, lots of leaf shapes, and supposedly dragon heads, although I didn’t see them. I pondered this; didn’t St Patrick drive all serpents from Ireland, back in the day? So why do the dragons appear here?

I was struck by the Abbey’s grandeur, even now in its state of decay. The sense of peace and the light were endless. The soaring walls, now open to the sky, were stark yet graceful, unencumbered with the weight of a roof. The activities of man, both spiritual and physical have buzzed like gnats around cold stone ankles as they endured the onslaught of ages. Forgotten, they shed their load, slowly crumbling back to the earth where they long to be. Despite the ghosts of battles, and the plethora of graves, inside and without, it felt serene, and surreal to drift between those walls.

Behind the Abbey is what remains of a holy well. Here it was said the blind may sleep in the hope of recovering their eye-sight. I didn’t get a picture of it, as the ground was thick with stinking mud, and I was too busy trying to prevent myself from being sucked under, never to be seen again.

Despite the sixteenth-century dissolution of Catholic monasteries in England and Ireland during the English Reformation, the Cistercians continued to live quietly at the Abbey.  The last abbot, the Reverend John O’Dea, was appointed in 1628.

It surprised me to learn that Corcomroe Abbey was subject to Furness Abbey, just outside of Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, in the UK, a place I am very familiar with, as I was born in Barrow, and grew up there.

Corcomroe Abbey, The Wild Atlantic Way.
Corcomroe Abbey, The Wild Atlantic Way.

I’ll leave you with this; there is a legend that old Domhnall was so pleased with the Abbey when it was finished, he had all five of the stone masons who had worked on it executed, so that they could never again produce a building fit to rival it.  Nice guy, huh?

But of course that could just be more twelfth-century propaganda… 😉

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