Tuesday, 13 October 2020

The Dominican Priory
in Kilmallock and
its river-side ruins

The Dominican Priory, also known as Saint Saviour’s Priory, stands outside the mediaeval town walls of Kilmallock (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Two of the mediaeval church ruins that once made Kilmallaock known as the ‘Baalbec of Ireland’ are still standing in the town: the ruins of the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and the ruins of the Dominican Priory of Saint Saviour.

The Dominican Priory, also known as Saint Saviour’s Priory, stands on the north bank of the River Loobagh, just outside the mediaeval town walls of Kilmallock.

In the Middle Ages, Kilmallock was a thriving, Anglo-Norman walled borough. The priory was founded with royal consent in 1291. Although there is no clear record of who the original founder was, the friary stands on land bought by the friars from John Bluet, a burgess of the town.

Saint Saviour’s Priory was founded in 1291 on land bought from John Bluet (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The FitzGeralds, a powerful Anglo-Norman family, were important benefactors of the friary, and a key figure in the foundation of Saint Saviour’s was probably Gilbert FitzJohn FitzGerald, ancestor of the ‘White Knights.’ His descendants in the Fitzgerald and Fitzgibbon families remained the key benefactors of the priory in the centuries that followed, with Maurice Fitzgerald was the main patron.

Gilbert FitzGerald then invited the Dominicans to the monastery. The Dominican Order of friars or Order of Preachers was formed in 1216, and was present in Ireland since 1224, when the first foundation was established in Dublin.

The Bishop of Limerick, Gerald le Marshall (d. 1302), disapproved of the friars buying land within his borough without permission and had the friars expelled immediately. An inquiry was held in Cashel on 31 December 1291 by William de Vesci, the king’s chief administrator in Ireland. The inquiry ruled that the bishop should not have evicted the Dominicans as they owed no rent or service to the bishop for their site. This allowed the Dominicans to return to the priory in Kilmallock soon after.

The five-light window in the choir seen through the tower (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The friary was enlarged in 1320. Its community both grew and dwindled over the centuries, mainly due to changing fortunes in politics and war.

Maurice FitzThomas FitzGerald, 1st Earl of Desmond, who died in 1356, was a patron of the friars and was probably involved in enlarging the church ca 1320. The tomb-niche in the north wall of the choir, a traditional place for the burial of an important benefactor, is stylistically of a similar date.

The General Chapter of the Dominican Order in Ireland met in Kilmallock in 1340.

The tomb-niche in the north wall of the choir may belong to the FitzGerald family of Desmond (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The nave and chancel both retain details from the late 13th century. The early 14th century saw the addition of the south transept, a bell tower half-way along the length of the church, and an aisle on both the south side of the nave and the west side of the transept. The quality of architectural detail is very fine, and the five-light east window of the church is one of the finest in Ireland.

The five-light window in the south transept is one of the most exquisite in Ireland. The church contains some fine decorative stone carvings that date from the 13th and 14th centuries.

The extensive remains also include the domestic ranges and the cloister, and the restored vaulted ambulatory and arcade. Above the cloisters, the upper storey of the north range survives, a rare occurrence in remains of mediaeval friaries. Although access to the upper storey is closed, we climbed the mural stairway that leads to it.

The choir, chancel and east window in the priory church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

At the dissolution of monastic houses in 1541, the friars possessed the two-acre site on which the friary and its buildings stood, as well as 12 acres, a watermill and six cottages.

By 1548, James FitzJohn FitzGerald, Earl of Desmond, owed more than £21 in arrears on his lease of the friary. The friary passed to the sovereign and commonalty of the town of Kilmallock in 1569-1570.

The town was sacked and burnt in 1571during the Desmond rebellion, and the friars were probably driven out of the friary. The friary was granted to Nicholas Miagh, the sovereign or mayor of Kilmallock, in 1594.

A list of the founders of Dominican friaries compiled in 1643 recorded that the Dominican priory in Kilmallock was ‘founded and endowed by the citizens.’

Three friars were said to have been living in Kilmallock in 1756, and one of them later became parish priest in 1767. The friars finally abandoned the friary in Kilmallock in 1790, although the last Dominican to die in Kilmallock was Father Edward MacCarthy in 1860.

The restored cloisters in Saint Saviour’s Priory, Kilmallock (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Roman Catholic parish church is dedicated to Saint Peter and Paul, the dedication of the Collegiate Church in Kilmallock. But in his design of the church, the architect JJ McCarthy, reflected the design of the priory church. The parish church is one of the fine examples of Gothic Revival architecture in Ireland. It has been described an ‘a mini-cathedral’ and opened in 1888.

A year later, a fundraising campaign was launched in 1889 to preserve the Dominican Friary in Kilmallock. It raised over £40 within a year, with a large portion of this money coming from members of the Fitzgibbon family, descended from Maurice FitzThomas Fitzgerald, 1st Earl of Desmond.

The church contains some fine decorative stone carvings that date from the 13th and 14th centuries (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

A weekend visit to
the Collegiate Church in
the heart of Kilmallock

The south side of the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Kilmallock, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Two of the mediaeval church ruins that once made Kilmallaock known as the ‘Baalbec of Ireland’ are still standing in the town: the ruins of the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and the ruins of the Dominican Priory of Saint Saviour.

Kilmallock, Co Limerick, is one of the few towns in Ireland that owe their name to a monastic settlement. The name Kilmallock originates from Saint Mocheallóg, who established a monastery in the area in the seventh century.

The site of the monastery was moved in the 11th century, and what remains of the early monastery that its name to the town can be found at the ruins of the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the centre of the town.

The 13th century doorway in the south wall of the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

During a weekend visit to Kilmallock, two of us strolled around the ruins of the Collegiate Church, which was substantially complete by 1241. It incorporates the base of a round tower that is the only visible remains of the monastery that relocated to the site in the 11th century.

The church and its ruins stand in a small, well-kept graveyard in the centre of the town, about 150 metres south of the Dominican Priory. The two churches are separated by the River Loobagh.

The Collegiate Church was dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul in 1410 and housed a college of priests, including a dean and canons, who did not follow a monastic rule.

Other collegiate churches in Ireland included Saint Mary’s in Youghal, Co Cork, Saint Nicholas’s Collegiate Church in Galway, and Saint Patrick’s in Dublin was both a cathedral and a collegiate church. A well-known example of a collegiate church in England is Saint Editha’s Church in Tamworth.

Facing east in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Kilmallock, and the chancel with a five-light lancet window (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Kilmallock was expanded and added to from the 13th to the 15th century, and the nave and transept were substantially altered by Maurice Fitzgerald in 1420.

The church consists of a nave, two aisles, a chancel and a south transept. There is a fine 13th century doorway in the south wall and three two-light windows in the south wall. The chancel has a five-light lancet window. The arcades are still standing.

The nave and transept were substantially altered in the 15th century when a south porch was added. The 17 metre round tower in the north-west corner of the nave incorporates the stump of a round tower from the early monastery.

Facing west in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Kilmallock, and the tower in the north-west corner of the nave (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The list of chaplains and vicars dates from 1291, and from the Reformation until the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland the rectory of Kilmallock was held by the Dean and Chapter of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, with vicars of the College of Kilmallock being appointed from the early 17th century.

James FitzThomas, FitzGerald, the ‘Sugán’ Earl of Desmond surrendered to the Crown in this church in 1600. Gerald FitzGerald, 16th Earl of Desmond, attended the Anglican liturgy in the church, offending his followers who rebelled against him. He died in London in early November 1601, but his death was not announced until January 1602.

The ‘Súgan’ Earl’s younger brother, John FitzThomas FitzGerald, escaped to Spain with his wife, a daughter of Richard Comerford of Danganmore Castle, Co Kilkenny. In Spain, he was known as the Conde de Desmond, and he died a few years later in Barcelona. His son Gerald FitzGerald, also known as the Conde de Desmond, entered the service of the Emperor Ferdinand and was killed in 1632.

The large south transept in Kilmallock is the only part of the church with a roof and it contains several mediaeval tombs. It was closed to the public during our visit at the weekend, and it is impossible to have a closer look at the altar tombs inside.

The FitzGerald tomb in the south transept, depicted on a display board in the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

There is an effigy of Maurice FitzGerald, who died in 1635, and a number of monuments with important examples of coats of arms carved in stone.

The FitzGerald tomb features a carved cadaver and the Fitzgerald coat of arms.

The Verdon Tomb was erected by Walter Coppinger to commemorate his wife, Lady Alison Haly and her first husband Sir John Verdon, and bears the Verdon coat of arms, two effigies representing Sir John and Lady Alison, and two angels. A long Latin inscription is carved around the edges of the slab and around the effigies.

The richly decorated tomb of George Verdon displays his coat of arms and a lengthy Latin inscription and the motto Non fugiam! Prius Experiar. Non mors mihi terror (I shall not flee! I shall attempt first. Death does not terrify me).

The church was partly destroyed by Cromwell and was roofless from 1657, although the choir and chancel continued to serve as the Church of Ireland parish church.

In 1776, this was a collegiate church under the dean and chapter of Limerick, but administered by a perpetual curate or vicar.

The Evans coat-of-arms on a family mausoleum in the south aisle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Among the 19th century mausoleums inside the ruins is one to the Evans family of Ash Hill, near Kilmallock, with the Evans coat-of-arms and the inscription: <>Sic transit Gloria mundi, ‘We know neither the day nor the hour wherein the son of man cometh.’

The chancel and choir of the church continued to be used as the Church of Ireland parish church until a fire destroyed it in a sectarian arson attack in 1935.

The attack was part of a short-lived but vicious sectarian campaign in July 1935. The worst disturbances took place in Limerick city on the night of 20 July, when an attempt was made to burn down the Presbyterian church.

During the early hours of Monday 22 July, the Church of Ireland parish church within the former collegiate church in Kilmallock was burnt down, while the windows of the local rector’s home were smashed along with those of a shop owned by Protestant family.

The west end of the Collegiate Church in Kilmallock (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

In the years that followed, community trust was regained. A new parish church was built on the outskirts of the Kilmallock and was consecrated on Saint Peter’s Day, 29 June 1938.

And so, from the collegiate church, we moved on to visit the ruins of Saint Saviour’s Dominican Priory and the new Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

The north side of the Collegiate Church in Kilmallock (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)