The Abbey and Castle of Kilcrea, County Cork

J. Stirling Coyne & N. P. Willis
c. 1841
Volume I, Chapter III-6 | Start of chapter

From Macroom I proceeded by the Cork road along the right bank of the Lee—here a sweet and sylvan stream. About nine miles from Cork, a little to the left of the high-road, stand the ruins of the Abbey and Castle of Kilcrea. The abbey occupies a retired and picturesque situation on the margin of the Bride, a small river which takes its rise in the neighbourhood of Kilmurry, and for several miles winds through a long valley, in the midst of which was formerly the dreary morass, known as the Bog of Kilcrea; rendered almost impervious to the traveller by the matted underwood, and other rank vegetable productions, with which it was overgrown. The numerous remains of large oaks still found in the neighbourhood show that the greater part of this vale, and the lofty uplands by which it is surrounded, were in more ancient times covered by a vast wood.

The friary, as well as the church which adjoins it, are worthy the attention of the antiquarian and the artist: an avenue of venerable ash and elm trees conducts the visitor to the church, and prepares the mind for the solemn impressions that the gloomy appearance of the ruins are calculated to inspire. It is said that a nunnery existed on this spot at a very early date, of which St. Cyra or Cera, was abbess; and the anniversary of that saint is celebrated on the 16th of October; but all traces of such an institution have long since disappeared. The Ulster Annals state that the friary was founded in 1478. Its church was dedicated to St. Bridget or Bride.

It would appear from the ruins, that the buildings were never of any great extent, nor very remarkable for architectural embellishment; their principal interest arises from the melancholy contemplation of the gloomy and neglected aisles, where the dust of prince and peasant lie mingled in undistinguishable contusion beneath the ruinous tombstones, which are scattered over every portion of the church and convent. Most of these stones bear the names of the old families and septs of the district: McCarthy, M'Swiney, and Barrett, are the most numerous.

There are doubtless many interesting monuments to be found here; but the accumulation of mould, bones, and other relics of mortality within the precincts of the ruins, renders it impossible to discover them without considerable labour. The passage from the church to the convent is on the north side of the nave, through an enclosure, called the "Earl's Chamber." From thence the visitor proceeds to the different chambers of the convent, the names and uses of each being furnished by the guide, who points out, with confident volubility, the kitchen, refectory, dormitory, penitentiary, &c. The corbels which supported the joists of the second-floor may still be seen in the walls. All the chambers were pleasantly lighted by numerous oblong side lights. The cloister which adjoins the north wall of the choir is a large square court, around which ran a covered-in ambulatory, where the brotherhood were wont to walk in wet weather. The other portions of the convent communicated with the cloisters by five doors, which opened into it.

At a short distance from the convent stands the Castle of Kilcrea, said to have been built in the fifteenth century by the same Cormac McCarthy, Lord of Muskerry, who founded the church and friary. The ruins evince it to have been a place of considerable extent and rude magnificence. A staircase, composed of dark marble—of which there are extensive quarries in the neighbourhood—leads, by a flight of seventy-seven steps, from the ground-floor to the summit of the building, becoming spiral as it approaches the higher chambers. The upper apartment, which was spacious and well lit, formed the state-room; its floor, which is now unsheltered by a roof, is overgrown with grass, from which circumstance it is called the parkeen-glas, or "little green field." Traces of outworks are still visible around the castle; and on the east side is the bawn, a small fortified area, defended by curtain walls and two square towers. This enclosure, in former times, served by day as a place of recreation to the inhabitants of the castle, and by night as a secure retreat for the cattle of the estate, which were in no less danger from their natural enemies, the wolves, than from the plundering bands of kernes or gallowglasses of the various hostile septs, who, as opportunity or hope of prey allured them, swept the country with whoop and shout, rifling and burning the dwellings of the unprotected peasants, and carrying away their cattle to their impregnable mountain fastnesses. There they enjoyed their triumph until the chief whose lands had been robbed, watching his time, rushed out with his enraged followers, and in the darkness of night retaliated upon the aggressors, by committing infinitely more mischief than he had sustained, and driving off, if possible, double the number of cattle which his clan had lost.