Monday, 3 June 2013

Ancient Ireland: The Cistercian Monks of Clare Island

The pre-historic standing stone outside St. Brigid's Abbey, Clare Island

In a new weekly series for the summer months, Skríobh explores some of the historic aspects of the West of Ireland.

Some of the oldest and complex aspects of Irish history can be found along the west coast of Ireland. St. Brigid's Abbey on Clare Island acts as a focal point for understanding the development of Irish society throughout the past nine hundred years. Positioned beside the pre-Christian standing stone and nearby well, it's believed that the abbey's location was chosen with the existing pagan culture in mind.  The first written mention of the island appears in the Annals of Ireland (1235 AD) and refers to the burial of two brothers (Domhnall and Muircheartach Ui Maille) who were buried on the island after dying in a feud. While the Abbey was used by the Carmelite Order in the 1100's, the functioning of the church became associated with Cistercian monks who'd spread from Mellifont in Louth having originally come from France.

The O'Malley clan who controlled the island at the time would have sought the prestige of hosting a religious order within their territory. Contributing to this would've been the monks' desire to embrace the isolation offered by the island. The powerful O'Malley family allowed for the stable development of the Cistercian Order whose art and culture prospered on the island. The oldest, and most important artwork from the 1300's in Ireland and England can be found on the roof of the abbey. The paintings show the art, music and lifestyles of the monks and are of the highest quality to be found from this era.

The level of sophistication of decoration found within the church is an oddity. The Cistercian monks were an order which were banned from decorating their monasteries. This rule was deviated from at St. Brigid's Abbey, with sophisticated architectural work present, forming a bowed roof and well-worked niches for the tombs in the chapel.

Their preservation has allowed an insight into life on the island, from a religious and secular perspective. The rarity and quality of the drawings makes them of international significance, and show the levels of sophistication that existed on Clare Island at the time. More information on the iconography of the abbey can be found here.

The image on the left shows a boar being struck by arrows from three sides. Underneath is a sailing vessel and the words 'O'Maille' and 'Terra Maria Potens' or 'Powerful by Land and Sea', indicating the importance of the O'Malley clan in the region. The image on the right is of what's believed to be the tomb of Grainne Ní Mhaol

Grainne Ní Mhaol (Granuaile) 1530-1603AD, occupies a primary role in the island's fame and history. Her ability to impose taxes along the western coast of Ireland on foreign vessels brought her power and respect. In 1593, ten years before her death, Grace's sons had been arrested by Lord Bingham. She sailed to London to meet Queen Elizabeth and to petition for their release. These two women occupied positions of power in a world controlled by men, with Grace refusing to bow to the queen as she refused to acknowledge the Queen's claim to Ireland. After her death at the start of the 17th century at the age of seventy three, her body was buried on Clare Island in the family plot. Her legacy has occupied an important role in the historical context of the development of religion and politics of the past 900 years.

To visit Clare Island, take the ferry from Roonagh pier. The O'Malley and O'Grady families offer daily services. The journey takes about 20 minutes and costs €12 at the time of writing. A quality map of the island can be found here.

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