03 August 2021

Clare Abbey was once
the largest Augustinian
monastery in Co Clare

Clare Abbey, outside Ennis, was founded in 1189 and was once the largest Augustinian monastery in Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

The ruins of Clare Abbey are just south of Ennis in Co Clare, on the west bank of the River Fergus. But, although Clare Abbey is clearly visible from the N85, the sign on the roundabout at the junction of the N85 and the R458 near Clarecastle is difficult to notice and to follow.

At one stage during one of last month’s ‘road trips,’ as we diverted to find Clare Abbey, two of us thought we had come to the end of the one-track side road, at another stage we wondered what to do if we faced any on-coming traffic, and we then thought we were being brought back onto the N85, before eventually finding the abbey ruins.

Clare Abbey was once the largest and most important Augustinian house in Co Clare. Originally known as the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul at Kilmony, it was founded in 1189 with a charter from Donal Mór O’Brien, King of Thomond. As with many mediaeval sources, however, there are doubts over the authenticity of the charter as it only survives in a copy from 1461, when the charter was probably been forged.

Donal Mór O’Brien also established the Cistercian monasteries of Holy Cross (1180) and Kilcooly (1184), both in Co Tipperary.

He was a descendant of Brian Boru and submitted to Henry II in 1171. He successfully fought off Norman incursions after his submission, driving them out of Limerick in 1178, and defeating them again in 1185 and 1188. At the same time, he was embroiled in a fight within his own family and against other Irish families to consolidate his power.

Despite Donal Mór’s efforts to secure his lands against Norman expansion, parts of his lands were granted to Anglo-Norman lords. But a Norman settlement a mile south of the abbey was short-lived, and by 1270 the O’Briens had taken over Clare Castle and destroyed the settlement.

Facing east in the abbey church at Clare Abbey … the nave and chancel are separated by the belfry tower added in the 15th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Clare Abbey was granted to the Augustinian Canons Regular and it became the largest and most important Augustinian house in Co Clare. The other Augustinian houses in Co Clare were Canon Island Abbey, Inchicronan Priory, Killone Nunnery and the Abbey at Kilshanny.

The Canons Regular came to Ireland from Italy and followed the Rule of Saint Augustine. Their primary focus was parish work and the care of souls. They lived simply, adapted easily to Irish medieval life, and their numbers continued to grow so that by the 13th century they were the largest order in Ireland.

The name Kimony (‘the Church on the Bog’) in mediaeval documents suggests Clare Abbey was built on the site of an earlier church. The only remains of an older structure are possibly the bullaun in a block of granite and a stone carving over one of the abbey windows.

Facing west in the abbey church … the west window had collapsed by 1680 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The moastery was built on a strip of land extending out into the flood plain of the River Fergus. However, its position in O’Brien territory on the River Fergus and its extensive possessions made it one of the most important monasteries in the Diocese of Killaloe.

The antiquarian and archaeologist, Thomas Johnson Westropp, writing in 1900, describes the exposed site of the abbey in a grassland area, surrounded by marshy land prone to flooding by the River Fergus. He suggests the site was chosen because it was a sacred site or the site of an earlier church.

Pope Honorius III issued a papal letter in 1226 against Robert Travers, who was accused of being appointed Bishop of Killaloe through simony.

Clare Abbey was the site of a battle in 1278 between Toirdhealbhach Mór Ó Briain and Thomas de Clare. Donal Beg O’Brien ambushed and massacred Mahon O’Brien and his followers, who had billeted themselves at Clare Abbey, as they were making a hasty retreat.

The east window is a pointed three-light dating from the 15th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The two leading clans in Co Clare, the O’Briens and the MacNamaras, changed their family burial places to Ennis Friary and Quin Abbey in the 13th century. Within a few years, most of the local chieftains had abandoned the Augustinian monasteries and the monastic buildings fell into disrepair.

Donatus Mac Craith became Bishop of Killaloe in 1399, and Clare Abbey came under the control of the Mac Craith family in the century that followed. At least five members of the family were elected abbots, some of them becoming Bishops of Killaloe or Clonfert.

In 1458, Matthew Mac Craith succeeded his father, Roderick Mac Craith, as abbot. He later became Bishop of Clonfert, but remained Abbot of Clare until 1470.

In 1461, Thaddeus Mac Craith, Bishop of Killaloe (1460-1463), commissioned a copy of Donall O’Brien’s foundation charter of Clare Abbey, possibly forging the document altogether. Another Matthew Mac Craith is named abbot in 1470.

However, control over the abbey seems to have shifted to the O’Briens again towards the end of the 15th century: Toirdelbach O’Brien was chosen as abbot in 1473. Despite a formal complaint to the pope from Matthew Mac Craith, former abbot and Bishop of Clonfert, a papal investigation later decides in favour of the O’Briens.

An elaborate design in the south gable of the east range (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

At the dissolution of the monastic houses during the Tudor Reformation, Clare Abbey was dissolved in 1543, and the site and possessions were granted to Donough O’Brien, 2nd Earl of Thomond, also known as Donough Ramhar or ‘Fat Donough.’

The monks may have continued to live at Clare Abbey, and a papal bull was issued in 1555 to Matthew Ο’Griffa, canon of Killaloe, in order to assist the Bishop of Killaloe, Turlough O’Brien, in implementing papal ordinances on the administration of Clare Abbey. It admonished various clerics and laymen for their inadequate management, including financial mismanagement.

Clare Abbey was regranted to Conor O’Brien, 3rd Earl of Thomond, in 1573, and the abbey buildings were leased to various families during the 17th century.

Nicholas O’Nelan, Abbot of Clare Abbey, is given in the list of monks living in the Diocese of Killaloe in 1613, and Teige O’Griffa, a priest, officiated at Dromcliff, Killone, and Clare Abbey in 1622. However, the abbots named in the 17th century were probably titular abbots.

Clare Abbey was confirmed to successive Earls of Thomond, including in 1620 to Donough O’Brien, 4th Earl of Thomond, in 1620, and in 1661 to Henry O’Brien (1620-1691), 7th Earl of Thomond, in 1661.

A sketch by Thomas Dyneley in 1681 shows that the abbey’s kitchen, in the south range, had been converted to a house. Other evidence points out to possible military use of the abbey during the wars of the late 17th century.

There was a Jacobite horse camp there, primarily Irish cavalry and dragoons, in 1690-1691, while a Jacobite Irish garrison occupied Clare Castle about 1 km to the south, and French officers and cavalry were in the location too.

Clare Abbey was confirmed to successive Earls of Thomond in the 17th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The remains of Clare Abbey are extensive and while the architecture is simple, its setting and some notable features make it worth visiting – and worth persisting in searching for, despite the poor road signage and the misleading appearance of the narrow access route.

The remains include a church with a belfry, and two ranges of domestic buildings to the east and the south, around a cloister garth. Clare Abbey was unusual among an Augustinian monastery in having no west range.

The single-aisle church dates from the late 12th century and consists of a long nave and chancel, separated by the belfry tower added in the 15th century. The church was originally 39 metres (128 ft) long and about 9.4 metres (31 ft) wide. Important architectural features include three 15th-century traceried windows. Two are in the chancel, and include the east window, which is a pointed three-light with a small carving of a human face above the hood. The west window had collapsed by 1680.

The other buildings date from the 15th century. In the south gable of the east range, above the original window, an elaborate design of cusped tracery consisting of six trefoils and a quatrefoil was inserted, framed in a richly moulded projecting hood.

When Westropp visited Clare Abbey at the end of the 19th century, he noted that the belfry had no staircase and a large tomb with no inscription in the north recess under the tower. He described the low and badly proportioned battlements of the tower, and how many loose stones were visible and were reset and repaired. The east window was well-preserved, and the ruins included the tower and domestic buildings and one incised post-Norman cross. The oldest tombs then legible dated from the 17th century.

The original dedication of Clare Abbey is retained in Ennis Cathedral, which was dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul by Peter Kennedy, Bishop of Killaloe (1836-1850), on 26 February 1843.

Clare Abbey was dissolved in 1543 at the dissolution of the monastic houses (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
66, Church of Saint Eleftherios and Saint Anna, Corfu

Inside the Church of Saint Eleftherios and Saint Anna … a quiet and prayerful church on a busy shopping street in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Before the day gets busy, I am taking a little time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. During this time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

This week’s theme is seven churches on the Greek island of Corfu, and my photographs this morning (3 August 2021) are of the Church of Saint Eleftherios and Saint Anna in Corfu.

The Church of Saint Eleftherios and Saint Anna with the neighbouring clock tower of the Church of Saint Spyridon in the background, on a busy shopping street in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Like every Greek town, Corfu seems to have a church on every street and every corner, making it an interesting town for church crawlers and all who are interested in church architecture, history and art.

But it is easy for visitors and tourists to pass by these churches casually without realising the treasures to be discovered inside.

The Church of Saint Eleftherios and Saint Anna is an unusual single-nave church on Saint Spyridon Street in the heart of Corfu town. It was built in 1700 and restored in 1765. It is smaller and less known that its immediate neighbour, the Church of Saint Spyridon, but this makes its more peaceful and prayerful, and Olga who showed two of us around was eager to point out the treasures of the church, including its relics and icons.

The church was consecrated in 1700, after a private house was transformed into a religious building. A plaque in Greek above the main entrance recalls that the church was built by Theodora Vervitzioti, daughter of Nikolaos Vervitziotis, in memory of her parents and opened in June 1700. She later donated the church to the town’s guild of grocers and cheese sellers in 1714.

The church was renovated several times in 1765, as recalled in a second plaque, and in 1850 and in 1915.

The church was damaged extensively during the German bombings of Corfu on 14 September 1943 and was rebuilt in 1960.

Three plaques in Greek on the church façade commemorate its consecration in 1700 and, on each side on the façade, its renovation in 1765 and its rebuilding in 1960. The oldest plaque, above the main door, includes the coat of arms of the Vervitzioti family above the Greek text.

Inside, the treasures of the church include an iconostasis or icon screen topped with 12 icons of the apostles, a collection of relics gathered in one glass case that include relics of Saint James the Apostle and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, and a much-revered icon of Saint Anne holding her daughter, the Virgin Mary, who in turn is holding her son, the Christ Child.

A plaque above the main door recalls that the church was built by Theodora Vervitzioti in 1700 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 14: 22-36 (NRSVA):

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29 He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

34 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. 35 After the people of that place recognized him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to him, 36 and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

The collected relics in the church are held in one display case (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (3 August 2021) invites us to pray:

‘Let the little children come to me,’ Jesus said. We pray that the Church may always be open to welcoming young people and helping them to understand the importance of peace.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The icon of Saint Anne, with her daughter the Virgin Mary holding her son the Christ Child (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Votive candles lighting in the Church of Saint Eleftherios and Saint Anna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)