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

From Irish Essays: Literary and Historical by John Healy

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This brings me to an interesting point in the history of Cong Abbey. Mr. Martin Blake, to whom our Galway archaeology already owes so much, has sent me a rental of Cong Abbey, written in 1501, by the monk Tadhg O'Duffy, under the direction of his Abbot, Flavus O'Duffy, which shows that the O'Duffys were there still. The Abbot was departing for Rome and wished to have a certified copy of the rental duly executed before his departure.

This document—which I hope soon to publish in extenso—sets out the gifts of the land made to the Abbey by its founder, by Turlough O'Conor, and by the Burkes, among others by this Edmond Albanagh of whom I have spoken. But, strangest of all, it sets out how Cormac M'Carthy, chief of his nation, gave certain lands in Bere and Bantry to the Abbey of Cong, and, among other privileges a bell-rope for the Abbey from every ship sailing out of his harbours of Cork and Dunboy. It would appear that in 1133 Cormac and his friends from Munster burned Cong and Dunmore, and plundered a great part of the country; so when Turlough got the upper hand he compelled Cormac to give certain lands and privileges to his own beloved Abbey of Cong by way of restitution.

From immemorial ages the Kings of Connaught had held those lands and duns and castles, and so the chiefs of the Mayo Burkes, succeeding to their authority in the West, claimed their ancient and beautiful inheritance as their own. They, too, in their turn passed away, and other men of another race and religion hold their lands and castles—destined, too, in their time to pass away. Old King Eochy has seen it all from his cairn over the lake, and his hoary monument will, so far as we can judge, outlive them all.

Let me say a word about the architecture of the two Abbeys. It belongs to what is known as the Irish Romanesque, which took its rise in its ornamental forms about the beginning of the eleventh century—say the time of the battle of Clontarf—and reached its perfection during the first half of the twelfth century, that is, up to the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion, when its further development was arrested, and it gradually gave way to the Gothic or early-pointed style of architecture.

From 1150 to 1220 was a period of transition, during which the two styles are often found together in buildings of that period—for instance, in some of the Cistercian monasteries erected towards the close of the twelfth or the beginning of the thirteenth century. We have in Cong itself evidences of this transition, for the windows and one doorway are purely semi-circular or Romanesque, while we have the other two beautiful doorways slightly pointed, as if the artist wished to make a compromise between the two styles of architecture. It is impossible at present to say for certain whether the three doors are contemporaneous or, as I think more probable, the two pointed doors are later additions or insertions.

Now this Irish Romanesque in its most characteristic features is a purely national development of the foreign Romanesque of Italy and Southern France—Romanesque meaning simply an outgrowth of the Roman architecture. In this development, as an eminent professional authority (Brash) has said: "The Irish exhibited wonderful fertility of invention, taste, and fancy in design, the utmost accuracy in drawing, and of harmony in colouring;" but he admits that in their attempts to represent the human figure either in painting or sculpture they were "decided failures."

In book painting and decoration, and even in stone carving, they excelled; but in painting and reproducing the human figure they failed. You can perceive this yourselves if you notice carefully the figures of the two ecclesiastics on the base of the Tuam market cross, which I take to represent Archbishop O'Muireadhach and Abbot O'Hessian—there is neither grace nor dignity about the figures. But in beauty of design and fertility of invention in ornament the Irish Romanesque school was unsurpassed and unsurpassable.

I know a beautiful thing, I hope—animate or inanimate —whenever or wherever I see it, and I must say I admire it also, but as I am no artist, I do not feel myself qualified to enter into minute details on this subject. I can only say I pity the man who has no eye to admire the cloister of Cong, with all its pure and graceful lines, and the infinite variety and delicacy of its ornamentation. And no less admirable, to my mind, are the window and doorway of Inismaine, and also the foliated sculptures of the capitals of its noble chancel arch, now, alas! in great part overthrown.

But I would say, visit these places for yourselves; examine them, not hurriedly, but leisurely and carefully. Let the eye and the mind drink in their beauty by thoughtful, patient observation. Take in the whole scene and its surroundings in the present and, if you can, in the past, when kings and prelates and monks and scholars trod these silent cloisters; when royal maidens touched their harps in tones responsive to their own sweet Gaelic songs; when the vesper bell woke the echoes around those pleasant waters; when the voice of prayer and praise rose seven times a day from the lips and hearts of holy men behind those chancel arches; when the hospice was ever open to the poor and the stranger; when many a sinful soul came to find pardon and peace among that blessed Brotherhood of God. And I believe that the thoughtful contemplation of these beautiful ruins in this patient and loving spirit will exercise an elevating and refining influence on your minds, and tend also, I think, to soften and purify your hearts. More than all, you can ever point to the architecture and the sculpture of these beautiful ruins as a very striking proof of what Irish genius can effect, and has effected, when inspired by the elevating influences of an independent national existence.

In spite of many unfavourable circumstances resulting from the almost continuous wars of the time, architecture and its kindred arts made marvellous progress on purely native lines during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Turlough O'Conor and his son Rory were the last of our native independent kings, and they were a fighting race; yet in their reigns marvellous progress was made. When the foreigner came all this progress was arrested. And, bear in mind, this wonderful development was the outcome of native genius—all these great and beautiful works were accomplished through the munificence of our native princes, under the inspiration of Irish talent, and by the hands of Irish workmen.

Of this there cannot be a shadow of doubt, for we have the names of many of them still—of the craftsmen who wrought the choicest of them all. This you should never forget; it affords solid grounds to glory in our country's past, and to hope for our country's future. For myself, the sight of these ivied ruins, so eloquent of glories gone, has been to me at all times an inspiration and a joy more pleasing than dainty fare, more exhilirating than generous wine. I have felt proud whenever I was able to point them out to sceptical strangers as the undoubted work of Irishmen before the Norman ever set foot on Irish soil. I readily admit that the great Anglo-Norman Cathedrals of England surpass our own in lofty grandeur and majestic dignity, but neither in England nor anywhere else can ancient churches be found to surpass ours in graceful symmetry of outline and proportion, or in the varied beauties of their marvellous ornamentation. And it was in the hope of awakening in your minds some of those ennobling thoughts that have long been familiar to my own that I have consented to prepare this paper.

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