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

From Irish Essays: Literary and Historical by John Healy

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As we have already seen, there is reason to think that the O'Duffys founded technical schools of ecclesiastical art at Cong, at Clonmacnoise, and at Roscommon, and it was from these schools the noblest works of Irish Christian art emanated. But I cannot stay now to prove this at length. The glory of the school at Cong—technical and literary—began with the O'Conors and waned with their power as independent kings.

It would appear that Rory himself was first deposed for incapacity by his son and subjects, and then retired to his beloved Cong to spend the remnant of his days in peace and penance. But some years later the old king, growing tired of his seclusion, sought to recover his kingdom once more after the death of his gallant son, Conor Moenmoy, who was slain by his own friends in A.D. 1189. But the O'Conor princes and the clansmen would not have him, yielding submission to his brother, the illegitimate (it is said) Red Hand, in preference, so once more the old king was forced to return to his retreat at Cong without hope of restoration. There he spent the last nine years of his life in peace. He had time to meditate on his own misdeeds and on the vanity of human things.

It was his lot to sit on the throne of his great father, but he was not able to keep it. The crisis of Erin's fortunes, when Strongbow was besieged in Dublin, and Miles de Cogan made a desperate sally, found him in a bath instead of in the saddle. He and his men fled from Dublin like crows, and all Ireland knew that Rory was not the man to save his country. He had too many concubines. His life was the life of a sensualist rather than of a warrior. Cong was the proper place for him—to bewail his sins in its holy cloisters.

Looking out on the rushing river flowing for ever into the great lake, he had time to think on, and objects to remind him of the fleeting vanities of human ambition and the great ocean of eternity beyond the grave. He had his own consolations, however; he had a beautiful, quiet home; he had dear and trusty friends; he had the solemn offices of the Church, with the converse and example of holy men around him. It was better—far better—for him to spend his last years in Cong than "in his wonderful castle" of Tuam, surrounded by false friends, with the din of battle in his ears, and his own sons and brothers waiting with ill-concealed impatience to see him die. His, from the spiritual point of view, was a fortunate lot, yet it was a sad if not inglorious end. And for my own part I can fancy the old king in the midst of his prayers and penance thinking mournfully of the past. There was another High King of Erin whose glorious end must have often occurred to his mind. Why did he not do what Brian Boru did on the famous field of Clontarf, when the clansmen of Erin, to the number of 30,000 gathered round him—why did he not risk his country's fate and his own life in the glorious onset of one desperate day? If he won he would have kept his kingdom and his sceptre. If he fell, how could he have fallen more nobly than fighting to the last, with his face to the foe, for his country's freedom, and his father's throne?

It is quite certain that Rory was buried at Clonmacnoise, as the Four Masters distinctly assert, but several other members of his royal family sleep in the cloisters of Cong. We are told, A.D. 1224, that Maurice the Canon, son of Rory O'Conor, the most illustrious of the Irish for learning, psalm-singing, and poetic compositions, died, and was buried at Cong, after the victory of "Unction and Penance." This shows, incidentally, that poetry and music were both cultivated by the Canons Regular of Cong; and another entry in the Annals of Lough Ce, two years later, confirms it, for it tells us that "Aedh, son of Dunlevy O Sochlachain Airchinnech of Cong, a professor of singing and of harp-making, who made, besides, an instrument for himself, the like of which had never been made before, and who was distinguished in every art, both in poetry and engraving and writing, and in every science that a man could exercise, died in this year." This shows that there was a real technical school of the fine arts at Cong—which their work proves abundantly.

The very same year, and in the same place—the Church of the Canons of Cong—was buried the Lady Nuala, daughter of King Rory O'Conor, Queen of Uladh. She died at Cong, and was buried at Cong. Indeed, it is not improbable that King Rory had a castle near the Abbey, where he himself and many of his family subsequently dwelt. In 1247 Finola, his youngest daughter, died at Cong, and was doubtless buried by her sister's side. And as it was at Cong, so it was at Inismaine Abbey. There is some reason to think that King Turlough himself had a castle either on Inismaine or close at hand, near the present Lough Mask Castle, for we are told that his son, Cathal Crobhderg, was born at the port of Lough Mask, which was just under the castle. Moreover, the site of an ancient castle is shown near the Abbey, and we are told that an attack was made upon Inismaine in 1227 by Richard Burke and Aedh O'Conor, "who burned Inismaine," which seems to point to the castle rather than to the Abbey. It would appear that as the great Turlough had the Abbey of Canons Regular near him at Cong, he also restored the old Abbey of Inismaine, and placed his own son—some say "his eldest legitimate son"—as Abbot over it, for we are told that Maelisa, son of Turlough O'Conor, died Abbot of Inismaine in 1223, just the year before his brother Cathal, the Red-Handed, died in the habit of a Cistercian monk in the Abbey of Knockmoy, which he himself had founded. They were a strange race, the O'Conors, capable of great deeds, yet guilty of many crimes against God and their country, but they seldom failed to do penance when they got the chance to die in their beds.

The thirteenth century was a very trying time for the two royal Abbeys. During the whole of that period, especially after the death of Cathal Crobhderg in 1224, there was a fierce struggle for the ownership of the beautiful lakeland between the Celt and the Norman. The Celts might have easily held their own, except for their unhappy divisions. Not only were the O'Flahertys fighting against the O'Conors, but the O'Conors were divided amongst themselves—especially the sons of Rory were in constant feud with the sons of Cathal, and each side joined the Norman against the other. The consequence was that after the battle of Athenry in 1316 the Burkes drove them all out of the beautiful lakeland. The O'Flahertys were driven beyond Lough Corrib, and the O'Conors were driven eastward of the Suck, and so the royal Abbeys became the inheritance of the stranger, and the baronies of Clare, Kilmaine and Carra knew their ancient lords no more.

Still both victors and vanquished were Catholics, and when the stubborn fight was done the conquering Norman was eager to repair the injuries inflicted on the royal Abbeys during the protracted warfare of the thirteenth century. The Burkes gave new grants of land to both the Abbeys, especially to Cong, and we are told that Edmond Albanagh gave considerable grants of land to the Abbey, and that Walter Burke, son of Thomas Fitz-Edmond Albanagh, gave the lands of Arry, containing one-quarter, to the Abbey of Cong, "on condition that any female descending from him, and taking the vow of chastity, should be received by the Abbot and supported and maintained in this house"—which goes to show that there was a Nunnery as well as an Abbey at Cong.

This Walter Burke was grandson of that Edmond Albanagh who was responsible for one of the darkest crimes in Irish history. You have all doubtless heard of the dreadful deed. It took place in 1338, on the night of Low Sunday, and, like other crimes, had its origin in agrarian feuds. I follow O'Flaherty's account as the most reliable. When the Dun Earl, William de Burgo, was slain at the ford of Belfast in 1333, his only daughter, Elizabeth, then aged seven, became heir-general to all the vast estates of the Red Earl. Shortly afterwards her grand-uncle, Edmond de Burgo, a son of the Red Earl, was appointed the guardian of all these vast estates in the interest of the heiress. The western Burkes, headed by another Edmond, called Edmond Albanagh, determined to get rid of the guardian and seize the lands for themselves. Sir Edmond was seized by a party of the retainers of his cousin, Edmond Albanagh, in the Augustinian Monastery of Ballinrobe. That night they carried their prisoner to Lough Mask Castle over the lake, where it is probable that Edmond Albanagh then dwelt. Next night he was taken to Ballydeonagh Castle, near Petersburg, at the southern extremity of the lake. On the third night he was transferred to what is now called the Earl's Island, in the south-western extremity of Lough Mask. The Archbishop of Tuam, Malachy M'Hugh, who was associated with the unhappy prisoner in the government of Connaught, came to the island in the hope of arranging terms between the cousins. It would appear, however, that, while the conference was in progress, certain of the Stauntons—McPaidins as they are called—fearing for their own safety if the prisoner was released, secretly tied him up in a bag, with a stone in its bottom, and then cast the bag into the lake, which is very deep around the island.

This tragedy changed the whole face of Connaught. The Burkes having no longer one head split into parties. Edmond Albanagh himself for many years became a fugitive, but his family still were able to retain the manor of Lough Mask, and we find his descendant in Perrott's Composition of 1585 claiming and obtaining as his patrimonial inheritance the castles and manors of Kinlough, near Cong, of Ballyloughmaske and of Ballinrobe—the very lands held by the royal tribes of the West from the dawn of our history.

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