Two Royal Abbeys on the Western Lakes (Cong and Inismaine)

From Irish Essays: Literary and Historical by John Healy

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Cormac was a great saint, and he had six brothers, also "very holy men, who founded churches in various parts of Ireland. Now Eoghan Beul received the saint very rudely, and refused his request, most probably because he did not care to give any lands to a man whom his tribesmen might be disposed to consider an interloper from the South of Ireland. But it is not safe to quarrel with the saints, and Cormac told the king that the day would surely come when his royal dun would be laid low, and the servants of Christ would dwell nigh to its ruins.

And all that came to pass, for Dun Eoghain, like Tara, became waste and silent, and the monastic establishment on Inismaine close by grew up from low beginnings to great power and splendour. I do not wish to think hardly of the gallant old warrior who built his dun on the summit of that lone island, so daringly fronting the western waves and mountains, and stood up in his grave, armed with shield and spear, to fight the foes of his beloved western land. Hence I am inclined to think—though it is not stated expressly in the Life of St. Cormac, it is implied—that either Eoghan or his sons who dwelt in Carra gave the saint a site for his monastery on Inismaine.

Of this we have a striking proof, for in the northern wall of the mediaeval abbey there is incorporated a portion of the wall of the primitive abbey, with its own peculiar doorway formed of large stones, with flat lintel and inclining jambs, which every antiquarian knows is a characteristic feature of our earliest churches of the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries. It is there still—you can see it when you go to Inismaine—and it proves beyond doubt that the beautiful Romanesque church of the twelfth century was built on the very site of the primitive Church of St. Cormac. You will see, too, why it was the early kings of the Hy-Fiachrach race loved so well the glorious shrines and islands of Lough Mask, flanked in the blue distance by its own noble ramparts of frowning mountain walls.

About a hundred years later, that is about the year 627, the first Monastery of Cong was founded. It came about in this way: There was a very famous saint called Fechin, a native of Leyney, in the County Sligo, who flourished during the first sixty years of the seventh century. He founded several monasteries in his native district, of which the most celebrated was the monastery of Ballisodare, four miles south of Sligo. While Fechin was sojourning there with his monks, an angel came in his sleep to tell him that it was God's will that he should journey to a certain island of the ocean situated in the extreme west of Connaught, called Imaidh, now Omey, to preach to the half pagan natives.

The saint set out with a few of his disciples and made his way to Omey—from Westport, I think—where he at once proceeded to build his little church and a few cells for himself and his disciples. The church is still there, nearly covered at times with the blown sand. But it was hard work at first to build it, for the natives received the saint and his monks badly, and during the night they used to steal their few tools and throw them into the sea-lake close at hand. But God did not forget His own, for angels brought back the tools in the morning. Then the islanders would give them no food, so that Fechin and his monks were nearly all starved—two of them, it is said, perished of want, but were restored to life at the prayers of the saint. Then Guaire, King of Connaught, hearing of their sore plight, sent them food for their needs, and a silver cup—with other good things—to the saint himself, which (says the writer of the Life of St. Fechin) is preserved to the present day, and is called Cuach Fechin, Fechin's Goblet. But true zeal always conquers, and in the end the islanders were all converted and baptised; their little church became the parish church of the large parish of Omey, which has ever since fondly cherished the memory of its patron saint.

From Omey he went out to High Island, where he and his companions founded another little church, and built their cloghans, some of which remain, though much dilapidated. It would appear that Fechin then returned eastward, preaching the Gospel everywhere through the great parish of Ross, until he came to Cong.

Memorials of the saint's sojourn in this wild country are still to be found in many places. We find his Holy Well, Toberfechin, near Maum, and there is another Toberfechin and Leac Fechin near Doon, which mark the saint's journey eastward until he came to Cong. He at once perceived the incomparable beauty of the spot, and its suitability, at the head of the lake and at the gate of the West, for a great Monastery, and, as expressly stated in the old rental of Cong, he got a grant of place with considerable lands, not from King Guaire of Connaught, but from Domnall, son of Aedh McAinmire, King of Ireland, in the year 628. This information I owe to Mr. Martin Blake, who has extracted it from a MS. in the British Museum. We must, however, always bear in mind that the primitive monasteries founded by St. Cormac and St. Fechin were very different from the stately and graceful buildings whose ruins we now admire at Cong and Inismaine.

The centre of the primitive monastery was a small church or oratory—in the West it was generally built of stone, because stone there abounded. Around it were grouped the little cells of wood, or wattles, or stone, in which the abbot dwelt with his monks—not, of course, together, but in twos and threes. Their food was roots, fish, or a little corn—sown, reaped, and ground by their own hands.

It might be said that they dwelt mostly in the open air; but that very fact coupled with their sober, self-denying lives made them superior to the hardships of the climate. So they lived in Omey, Ardilaun, Inismaine, and Cong, in the days of the saints. As Fechin had preached the Gospel all the way from Omey to Cong, his monastery at Cong naturally became the religious centre of all that western land, and its abbots appear to have exercised episcopal jurisdiction over all the western country which he had evangelized.

During the succeeding centuries down to the twelfth we know little or nothing of its history. No doubt it suffered greatly from the Danes, who certainly had their fleets on Lough Corrib for some time. But still it continued to be a place of considerable importance, for, at the opening of the twelfth century, we find that at the synod of Rath-Breasail it was counted as one of the five dioceses which that assembly was prepared to recognise in the province of Connaught.

This arrangement, however, was not carried out. When the final settlement of the dioceses was made at the Synod of Kells, in 1152, Cong was not recognised as one of the Connaught Bishoprics. Still the restored Abbey of Cong certainly continued to be one of the most important religious centres in the West of Ireland; and hence it would be interesting to know when exactly the restoration took place. There is, however, some doubt about the date—certain authorities placing it, in my opinion, too early, and others too late in that century.

Now there was a burning of Cong—which means the Abbey and Church—in 1114; but, in my opinion, that was too early for the restoration. The great Turlough O'Conor was only just then fighting his way to the front, and he had neither the leisure nor the means to restore the old Abbeys, although I do not say the will was wanting. But in 1133, and again in 1137, the Abbey was burned by the men of Munster in a hostile raid on King Turlough O'Conor; and, in my opinion, it was after that second or third burning the Abbey was rebuilt as we now see it in its ruins.

Turlough was then at the height of his power and resources, the acknowledged High King of all Ireland. He had for some years been engaged in great works of peace. He had in 1124 erected three strong castles to protect his dominions at Galway, Dunloe, and Colooney. He threw bridges over the Shannon at Athlone, and Lanesborough, and over the Suck at Ballinasloe, beside his castle there, and he was resolved not to be outdone by any of his contemporaries in building new monasteries and churches. It was an era of reform in discipline, and of great progress in architecture and its kindred ecclesiastical arts. A striking example had been set before his eyes both in the North and the South. The new Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul was dedicated by St. Celsus, Archbishop of Armagh, in 1127, and the Canons Regular of St. Augustine, as they were called, took possession of that church under the guidance of the holy Imar O'Hagan.

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