20 July 2021

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
52, Canon Island Abbey, Co Clare

Inside the abbey church on Canon Island … an Augustinian foundation dating from 1189 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

I had planned to be in High Leigh these days for the annual conference of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel). But the pandemic means the conference has become a virtual event that began yesterday and that continues until tomorrow.

Before this day becomes a busy day, with much of it devoted to the USPG conference, I am taking some 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 before the day gets busy 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 of island churches continues this morning (20 July 2021) with photographs from Canon Island, which I visited three months ago (25 April 2021).

Canon Island Abbey on Canon Island … the island was granted to the monks of Clare Abbey by the O’Briens of Thomond (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Canon Island is a 270-acre island in the Shannon Estuary, about 2.5 km east of Kildysart, Co Clare, and about 1.5 km from the shore on the mainland. It is the largest of 29 small islands that span the crossing of the Shannon and Fergus estuaries, and the abbey ruins stand on the north-east corner of the island.

Canon Island is home to Canon Island Abbey, a ruined Augustinian monastery built in the late 12th century at the north-east corner of the island. Canon Island, or Innisgad, sometimes referred to as Canons’ Island, was once known as Elanagranoch.

The island was granted to the Augustinian Canons of Clare Abbey in 1189 by Domnall Mór Ua Briain (Donald O’Brien), King of Thomond. The abbey was founded in the late 12th century, but it was a separate community and was not dependent on the larger Clare Abbey.

The Canons Regular of Saint Augustine originated in a reform movement instigated by Pope Leo IX (1049-1054) and aimed at restoring religious discipline among parish clergy in Italy by grouping them into regular communities. Although they lived collegially, the canons were not monks but secular clergy whose primary function was parish ministry and pastoral care.

The Augustinian canons were introduced to Ireland in the first half of the 12th century after Saint Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh, visited the Augustinian canons in Guisborough, Yorkshire, ca 1126-1127, and visited the abbey of Arrouaise, in north-west France, in 1137-1138.

Many new Augustinian houses in Ireland were sponsored after 1176 both by the Irish and by the Anglo-Normans. By the end of the 12th century, the canons regular had become the predominant order in Ireland.

Clare Abbey was founded in 1189, when the short-lived diocesan status of Saint Senan’s island monastery of Iniscathaigh (Scattery) and its attached churches was under review. Scattery was too small to survive as a viable diocese. When Bishop Aodh Ó Beacháin died in 1188, this was an opportunity to revise the diocesan boundaries, Scattery became a rural deanery, and its ‘termons’ or outlying churches were subsumed into the Dioceses of Killaloe and the Diocese of Limerick on either side of the Shannon Estuary.

The foundation for Canons Regular at Clare Abbey in 1189 may have been part of redrawing and reforming diocesan boundaries, and many parishes attached to Clare Abbey were previously linked with Scattery.

Canon Island is one of the endowments included in the charter granted by Domhnall Mór to Clare Abbey, but a date for building the abbey on Canon Island is uncertain. Thomas Westropp, the Limerick historian and antiquarian, described the abbey ruins in the late 19th century. He places some portions of the buildings in the late 12th century. There is no written reference to the church, however, until the end of the 14th century. By then, it had already fallen into disrepair.

A papal document in 1393 describes the abbey as ‘so destroyed alike in respect of its buildings as of its books, chalices, and likewise of its temporal goods as to be threatened with ruin.’ The papal letter offered indulgences to any who helped repair the abbey.

In the papal letters, it is invariably called Monasterium Beatae Virginis. Later papal mandates to the abbots indicate Canon Island was one of the major religious houses in the Diocese of Killaloe.

The Mac Giolla Pádraig (Fitzpatrick) family and the Mac Mahon family frequently contested the control of the abbey in the 15th century.

Dermot Mac Giolla Pádraig was abbot from 1426-1478. Serious charges were brought against him in 1452 by Thomas Mac Mahon, ‘a deacon of Killaloe,’ who accused the abbot of wilful murder or of having aided or abetted murder, as well as breaches of the vow of celibacy and of simony.

A papal mandate was issued to the Precentor of Emly to look into the case and, if he found the complaints true, to remove Mac Giolla Pádraig, and install Thomas as abbot instead. The complainant, Thomas Mac Mahon, had received a dispensation from a ‘defect of birth’ or canonical illegitimacy as ‘a child of unmarried noble parents.’

Eleven years later, in 1463, another Dermot Mac Giolla Pádraig, perhaps the abbot’s son, also received a dispensation from ‘defect of birth’ as the son ‘of an Augustinian abbot and an unmarried woman.’ Indeed, the position of abbot remained in the Fitzpatrick family for virtually the whole of the 15th century.

For the greater part of the 15th century, the canons served as the working clergy of the surrounding parishes, including Kilmaleery on the opposite side of the Fergus estuary, and they were involved in the parochial life as far north as Kilmurry and Kilfarboy in Ibrickane.

Bishop Mahon O Griobtha of Killaloe, who died on the island in 1482, is buried in the abbey, but his tomb has not been identified.

The remaining abbey buildings include a church with Romanesque windows, two adjoining chapels, a belfry, a cloister and a large square tower. Roofs are missing from all the standing buildings. Buildings to the east would have had a sacristy, chapter house and dormitory for the monks. The south range had a kitchen and refectory.

The side chapels, tower and cloisters were added ca 1450. An early cashel wall partly surrounds the abbey. The abbey’s cemetery has several graves.

The monastery was dissolved during the reign of Henry VIII in 1540. The abbey then consisted of four acres of arable land, 14 acres of mountain and pasture, together with some islands nearby and the tithes of Kildysart and the vicarage or vicar’s share of the tithes of Kilchreest (Ballynacally).

The island, monastery and its assets and income were granted to Donogh O’Brien, 4th Earl of Thomond. But the Augustinians continued to live on the island until it was attacked by Cromewellian forces in 1651. Local folklore says the Cromwellians decided there was nothing of importance on Canon Island. They were on their way back down the river, it is said, when the monks rang the bell. The Cromwellians returned and killed 27 monks.

Tradition says three monks surviving. As they fled, they buried chalices, holy books and manuscripts, but they have never been found. The monastery ceased the function after that time.

Canon Island remained part of the Thomond estate until the late 17th century, when Henry O’Brien (1620-1691), 7th Earl of Thomond, granted the property to Richard Henn of Paradise, Ballynacally, and the island eventually passed to local families. The last families left the island in the early 1970s.

Canon Island is part of the parish of Kildysart. It has continued to serve as a place of burial and it remains a traditional pilgrim site for people on both sides of the estuary. An annual pilgrimage of island descendants and nearby villagers was revived by the late Father Michael Hillery, Parish Priest of Kildysart. Pilgrims gather in Kildysart, Bunratty, Foynes and Askeaton and travel by currach and boat to the island.

The East End of the abbey church … Canon Island may have been a key part of diocesan reorganisation in the late 12th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Matthew 12: 46-50 (NRSVA):

46 While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ 48 But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ 49 And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’

The West End of the abbey church … there is no written reference to the abbey until the late 14th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (20 July 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for the peaceful co-existence of different religions and cultures. May we particularly pray for the work of the Programme for Christian-Muslim Relations in Africa.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

An ogee-shaped tomb niche in the abbey church … the monastery is called ‘Monasterium Beatae Virginis’ in Papal letters (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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

The modern bell at Canon Island Abbey … the Cromwellians are said to have returned to the island when the monks rang the bell (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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