29 July 2018

Corcomroe Abbey: the
Cistercians’ fertile abbey
in the barren Burren

Corcomroe Abbey stands on the edge of the Burren, about 7 km east of Ballyvaughan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to the Burrren last weekend, my postings from Kilfenora Cathedral, Ballyvaughan and other places in Co Clare attracted strong recommendations that I should also visit Corcomroe Abbey.

I put the abbey on my to-do list, forgetting that I had visited Corcomroe four years ago. But during the past week I came across my notes from that visit, and the photographs I had taken.

Corcomroe Abbey stands on the edge of the Burren, at the end of a road about 800 meters east of the village of Bellharbour, in a valley about 7 km east of Ballyvaughan.

Corcomroe was founded for Cistercian monks between 1195 and 1210 as a daughter house of Inisloughnaght Abbey, Co Tipperary. It was once known as Sancta Maria de Petra Fertilis (Saint Mary of the Fertile Rock), a reference to the Burren rocks and soil. Although there was no stream at the site, several wells probably provided water to the monastery.

Evidence of earlier religious settlements is found nearby in the deserted churches at Oughtmana, suggesting a long history of church life in the valley.

Corcomroe Abbey was founded by the O’Briens of Thomond and was once known as ‘Sancta Maria de Petra Fertilis,’ ‘Saint Mary of the Fertile Rock’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Some accounts say the abbey was founded by Donal Mór Ua Briain (Donald O’Brien), the patron of a number of other religious foundations in Thomond, who died in 1194. He was also involved in the foundation of other important churches in Thomond, including Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and Holy Cross Abbey, Co Tipperary.

Other accounts say Corcomore Abbey was founded by his successor Donough Cairbreach. Architectural evidence indicates the abbey was founded around 1205-1210.

Another local legend says the building was commissioned later by King Conor na Siudane Ua Briain, and that he executed the five masons who completed the abbey to prevent them from building a rival masterpiece elsewhere.

However, the documentary evidence for Corcomroe Abbey is scanty. Because the Cistercians did not engage in extensive pastoral work, few traditions relating to the abbey were maintained in local folklore.

The double sedilia in the chancel at Corcomroe Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The church was built of local limestone in the early 13th century and consists of a nave with an aisle on the south side. There may have been plans to build a similar aisle on the north side of the nave, but this was never completed, perhaps because funds were insufficient. Nothing remains of the cloister arcade, but this abbey was once a magnificent example of the best architecture of its time.

Cistercians were traditionally divided into two parts, the chancel and the nave, separated by a screen. This church is cruciform in plan although the north and south transepts are quite short. There was a chapel in each transept, and a thick nearly-central wall topped by a small tower, built probably in the 14th to 16th century.

At the east end of the church, the chancel has a decorated ribbed vault in the Romanesque style and is lit by three tall lancet windows, with a single lancet window above

The tomb niche with the effigy of Conor O’Brien, King of Thomond, who died in 1268 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The chancel has a highly decorated double sedilia and a tomb niche with the effigy of Conor O’Brien, King of Thomond, who died in 1268, a descendant of the founders and benefactors of the abbey.

Conor O’Brien, or Conor na Siudane Ua Briain, King of Thomond, fought a battle at Siudáine, close to Corcomroe, in 1268. On the battlefield, he was surprised by Conor Carrach O’Loughlain and slain with many of his retainers. His body was retrieved and was buried at Corcomroe by the monks. His tomb is one of the few remaining examples of the tomb an Irish Chieftain. The effigy is believed to be a copy of the figure at Roscommon Friary of Felim O’Conor, who died in 1265.

Where the chancel and transepts meet, several crossing arches feature capitals with carvings of human masks and dragons’ heads and flowers, including poppies, lily-of-the valleys and lotus leaves.

The capitals at the crossing are with carved of human faces (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The west gable has two tall lancet windows over a pointed-arch door.

In 1226, a papal mandate addressed to the Bishop of Kilfenora and the Abbot of Corcomroe shows that the abbey was integrated into the Cistercian network at that time and that the abbot was an important functionary in the local church.

The relationship with the mother-house at Inislounaght came to an end in 1228, and Corcomroe became subject to Furness Abbey in Lancashire. This was part of a move among Cistercians to bring the order’s more remote houses in Ireland under closer control.

In 1227, 1280 and 1287 there were complaints that the abbot of Corcomroe had failed to appear at the Cistercian General Chapter at Citeaux for a long time.

The chancel has decorated ribbed vaulting in the Romanesque style (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In another battle nearby in 1317, involving feuding between the O’Briens and their allies, the abbey was used as a barracks by Dermot O’Brien.

By the end of the 14th century, tis part of the Burren was held by a branch of the O’Cahans (O’Kane or Keane) from Derry, and they became stewards of the abbey lands.

Papal letters in the early 15th century refer to issues around appointments at Kilfenora and Killilagh, and John, the Abbot of Corcomore, became Bishop of Kilmacduagh in 1419.

A figure of a mediaeval bishop with mitre and crozier in the church ruins (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Papal correspondence became more frequent after this time, dealing mainly with local abuses of order, rules notably the ban against marriage. Church dynasties had become quite common in Ireland at that time, and were also present at Corcomroe. Through the 15th century, the abbey and several parishes were controlled by the Tierney family.

The custom of hereditary abbots and the use of abbey resources and lands by powerful families brought about a decline in the fortunes of monasteries. The number of monks fell, monastic churches were reduced in size, and the church in Corcomroe was shortened by 13 meters in the 15th century. There is also evidence that suggests that at the time the monks' dormitory had fallen into disuse.

With the dissolution of the monastic houses at the Reformation, Corcomore Abbey and its lands were granted in 1554 to Murrough O’Brien, Earl of Thomond. For some time, the monks tried to continue to tend the fields and to maintain their presence in the area.

Titular abbots continued to be appointed for almost a century after the Reformation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Daniel O’Griffy of Dysert O’Dea was appointed the ‘commendatory abbot’ or titular abbot of Corcomroe in 1625. John O’Dea, a monk of Salamanca, was appointed the last titular abbot in 1628.

The property is last mentioned in the O’Brien family papers in 1702, when they were mortgaged by William O’Brien (1662-1719) to Donat O’Brien of Dromoland.

A late addition is the neo-classical tomb of ‘O’Loughlin King of the Burren Family Tomb,’ dating from the late 18th or early 19th century. It is in the floor in front of the niche with Conor O’Brien’s tomb.

The church is largely intact, but few traces remain of the domestic buildings. Parts of the high wall surrounding the five acre monastery precinct can still be seen.

Tthe Office of Public Works acquired the ruins in 1879, and today Corcomore Abbey is a popular place to visit on day tours through the Burren.

Corcomroe Abbey was brought back to life several years ago with a Dawn Mass on Easter morning initiated by the late John O’Donoghue, author of Anam Cara.

The lancet windows at the East End of the chancel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

More are invited to the
banquet and the party
than we may ever imagine

‘Let us break bread together, we are one’ (Hymn 428) … bread in the window of Hindley’s Bakery and Café, Tamworth Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 29 July 2018,

The Ninth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity IX).

11 a.m.:
United Group Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Mary’s Rectory, Askeaton, Co Limerick (followed by Parish Barbecue).

Readings: II Samuel 11: 1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3: 14-21; John 6: 1-21;

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

We all love parties and anniversaries.

Recently, we have been blessed in this group of parishes with a number of baptisms and weddings.

In recent weeks too, I have also enjoyed taking part in the events marking the 850th anniversary of the foundation of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.

And, this Sunday is the Fifth Sunday in a summer month, we are here together in this group parishes for our joint celebration of the Eucharist in the Rectory Garden, followed by the parish summer barbecue.

This all seems to add an extra context and relevance to this morning’s Gospel story of the feeding of the multitude.

Birthdays, baptisms, weddings, anniversaries, graduations, retirements – we all enjoy a good party.

Parties affirm who we are, where we fit within the family, and mark the rhythm of life and the continuity of community.

It is not only the eating or the drinking. It is very difficult to sit beside someone at the same table after a funeral, or to stand beside someone at the bar at a wedding, and not to end up getting to know them and – as we say in Ireland – getting to know ‘their seed, breed and generation.’

Even though in our Epistle reading (Ephesians 3: 14-21) Saint Paul alludes to the fact that there are different families, he reminds us that there is a unique way in which we, as Christians, are members of the same family, a particular family, the Church, the family of God.

Families share names, share stories, share memories, share identities, share anniversaries. And that is not all in the past. These celebrations allow us to express and share our hopes for the future too ... is that not what baptisms and weddings are about in every family – hope for the future, hope for life itself?

Feeding the 5,000 … a modern Greek Orthodox icon

The stories of the feeding of the 5,000 and of Christ walking on the water are familiar to us from the other three gospels. But Saint John presents these stories in a slightly different way this morning (John 6: 1-21).

The feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle – apart from the Resurrection – recorded in all four Gospels (see also Matthew 14: 13-21; Mark 6: 32-44; Luke 9: 10-17), with only minor variations on the place and the circumstances.

The story of the multiplication of the loaves as Saint John alone tells it has a number of key details, such as a Passover context, that are there to remind us of our feeding at the Eucharist and of Messianic hope for the future.

In this story, the disciples have failed to buy or produce enough bread for a meal. Christ responds not by sympathising but by demanding great generosity, so great that it would take six months’ wages to be so generous.

Barley loaves were the food of the poor, and so the boy’s offering symbolises the poverty of the people, while the disciples fail to offer from the riches of the kingdom.

Christ is going to tell the people he feeds, and the disciples too, that he is the bread of life, and that whoever comes to him will never be hungry, whoever believes in him will never be thirsty (see John 6: 35).

The feeding with the fish looks forward too to a later meal by the shores of Tiberias … that breakfast with the disciples when the Risen Christ feeds them with bread and fish. The fish is an early symbol of faith in the Risen Christ: Ichthus (ἰχθύς, ΙΧΘΥC) is the Greek word for fish, and can be read as an acrostic, a word formed from the first letters of words spelling out ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ (Iēsous Khristos Theou Huios, Sōtēr), ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’.

Christ asks the disciples to make the people sit down – well, not so much to sit down as to recline. They are asked to recline on the grass as they would at a banquet or at a feast – just as Christ does with the disciples at the Last Supper.

And then, in a Eucharistic sequence, he takes the bread, blesses or gives thanks, breaks it and gives it. John here uses the word εὐχαριστήσας (eucharistisas, verse 11), from the verb εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteo), ‘to give thanks,’ the very word from which we derive the word Eucharist in the liturgy.

Saint John alone tells us that Christ later tells the disciples to gather up the fragments lest they perish. Gathering is an act of reverential economy towards the gifts of God; but gathering also anticipates Christ gathering all to himself (John 6: 39; see also John 17: 12).

Look at the amount that is left over in the outpouring of God’s generosity. There are 12 baskets – one for each tribe of Israel and one for each of the 12 disciples. God’s party, the Eucharist, looks forward to the new Israel, not the sort of earthly kingdom that the people now want but the Kingdom of God.

Christ puts no questions of belief to the disciples or to the crowd when he feeds them on the mountainside. They do not believe in the Resurrection – it has yet to happen. But he feeds them, and he feeds them indiscriminately. The disciples want to send them away, but Christ wants to count them in. Christ invites more people to the banquet than we can fit into our churches.

When we invite people into the Church, we have so much to share – must more that the meagre amount people may think we have in our bags.

This morning, enjoy the feast, enjoy the banquet, enjoy the party. Let us be prepared to be open to more being brought in to enjoy the banquet and the party than our imagination allows us to imagine.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ (John 6: 5) … bread on sale in a bakery in Platanias near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 6: 1-21 (NRSV):

1 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ 10 Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’

15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17 got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.

‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish’ (John 6: 9) … fish on a stall in the market in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical colour: Green

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who sent your Holy Spirit
to be the life and light of your Church:
Open our hearts to the riches of his grace,
that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit
in love and joy and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Holy Father,
who gathered us here around the table of your Son
to share this meal with the whole household of God:
In that new world where you reveal the fulness of your peace,
gather people of every race and language
to share in the eternal banquet
of Jesus Christ our Lord.


294, Come down, O Love divine;

428, Let us break bread together;

587, Just as I am, without one plea.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

A variety of bread in a shopfront in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)