The Abbey of Ross-Errily 1

[From The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. V, No. I, October 1868]

The ruins of the Franciscan convent at Ross, near Headford, in the county Galway, are popularly styled the Abbey of Ross. In the early records this convent receives the name Ross-Errily or Ross-Traily, which is a corruption of the Irish name Ross-ne-threallagh. It was delightfully situated on the south bank of the Black river, in the parish of Kilursa;2 and its ruins still attest its former magnificence. The Four Masters and Luke Wadding register its foundation in the year 1351; and the latter adds that it was a most retired and lonely spot, surrounded on all sides with water, and approachable only by a narrow path which was formed of large blocks of stone.

Before the close of the fifteenth century it attained special eminence among the many Franciscan institutions of the kingdom; and its property comprised the townlands of Ross, Cordara, and Ross-duff, amounting to about thirteen hundred statute acres. It was from the hallowed precincts of this monastery that a colony went forth to found the convent of Donegal, so famous in our annals. A provincial chapter of the Franciscan order had assembled in Ross-Errily to deliberate on matters of private interest, when Nuala O'Connor, daughter of O'Connor Faily, and wife of Hugh Roe O'Donnell, hereditary chieftain of Tirconnell, came, accompanied by a goodly array of gallow-glasses, to present an humble memorial. This petition of the Lady Nuala set forth the anxious desire of the faithful of Tirconnell to have amongst them some religious of the order of St. Francis to be their guides in their heavenward journey by precept and example. The favour was soon granted, and before the close of 1474 the foundations were laid of the far-famed monastery whose ruins are still met with at the head of the lovely bay of Donegal.

In 1538 the convent of Ross-Errily shared in the storm of persecution with which the reckless monarch Henry the Eighth assailed the church of our fathers. Indeed the Franciscans were in a special manner exposed to the rage of the English monarch. They had energetically opposed his wished-for divorce, and now they should pay the penalty of their zeal. Two hundred Franciscans were thrown into prison; thirty-two of them were bound with chains, and exposed to every insult; others were banished, and some, too, were put to death.

New trials awaited the convent of Ross-Errily in the reign of Elizabeth. In an inquiry which was made in the commencement of her reign, it was found that "the site of the monastery of Ross-Errilly or Ross-Railly was one acre of land; that it contained a church, a cloister, a hall, dormitories, chambers, and cellars; a cemetery, three small gardens, and a mill, which for want of water, could work only in winter". By royal patent the tithes attached to the church were granted to the portreve and burgesses of Athenry; whilst the monastery, with its property, was allotted to Richard Burgh, Earl of Clanrickarde. This nobleman, however, whose family had long been the patrons of the Franciscan convent, privately restored it to its owners. The crown, finding the friars in 1584 again in possession of the monastery, made a grant of it to an English courtier, who plundered it of its library, monuments, and books, and expelled the religious. He was soon, however, anxious to part with his ill-acquired property, and two years later we find it once more purchased by Clanrickarde and restored to the children of St. Francis. The close of the century saw Ross-Errily transformed into an English garrison which was destined to curb the Western chieftains, and prevent them from joining the ranks of O'Neill and O'Donnell in the north. When the ravages of war had ceased, we again meet with the religious of Ross-Errily busily engaged in restoring their monastery to its former magnificence. It was at this time visited by Father Mooney, provincial of the order, who thus speaks of it in his MS. history of the Franciscan convents in Ireland:—

"Another house where I spent some days during my visit to Connaught, pleased me much. I now speak of the beautiful and spacious church and monastery of Ross-Errilly, or as it is called by the Irish, Ross Trial, which is situated in the diocese of Tuam, and within eight or nine miles of that ancient city. . . . Never was there a more solitary spot chosen for a religious community, than that on which Ross Errilly stands, for it is surrounded by marches and bogs, and the stillness that reigns there is seldom broken save by the tolling of the church bell, or the whirr of the countless flocks of plover and other wild birds that abound in that desolate region. Another remarkable feature of the locality is that the monastery can only be approached by a causeway, paved with large stones, and terminating at the enclosure which was built in 1572 by Father Ferrall Mac Egan, a native of Connaught, and then Provincial of the Irish Franciscans. He was in sooth a distinguished man in his day, far famed for eloquence and learning, and singularly fond of Ross-Errilly, which he used to compare to the Thebaid, whither the early Christians fled for prayer and contemplation.

"As for the church of Ross-Errilly, it is indeed a beautiful edifice, and the same may be said of the monastery, which, although often garrisoned by English troops during the late war, is still in perfect preservation. Cloister, refectory, dormitory, chapter-house, library, and lofty bell-tower have all survived the disasters of that calamitous period; but in the twenty-sixth year of the reign of Elizabeth, a.d. 1584, the friars were forcibly expelled from their beloved retreat, and monastery and church were by a royal ordinance granted to an Englishman, who laid sacrilegious hands on our vestments, altar plate, books, and muniments, leaving us nothing but bare walls and the rifled tombs of our benefactors.

"It was not long, however, till the friars returned to Ross-Errilly; . . . and thenceforth the community of Ross-Errilly consisted of six priests and two lay brothers, who laboured indefatigably for the repairs of the sacred edifice. ... In 1604, the munificence of Richard, fourth Earl of Clanricarde, enabled the community to repair the monastery and church, which had been considerably dilapidated during the late war, and in that same year was buried within its precincts one of the noblest and bravest of heroes of whom his country could boast, namely Bryan Oge O'Rourke, son of Bryan-na-Murtha. ...

"When some ships of the ill-fated Armada went to pieces on the coast of Sligo, Bryan-na-Murtha O'Rourke, pitying the Spaniards who appealed to him for protection, not only sent them immediate aid, but invited them and their chief officer, Antonio de Leva, to his castle of Dromahair, where they were entertained with unbounded hospitality. O'Rourke's conduct, however, provoked the vengeance of the Queen, who ordered her Deputy Fitz William and Sir Richard Bingham to waste with fire and sword the principality of Breffny. As for the chieftain himself, he was obliged, after some ineffectual resistance, to fly into Scotland, where he was arrested by order of James VI., now King of England, who perfidiously sent him in chains to London. Arraigned on a charge of high treason, the noble-minded chieftain refused to bend his knee before the insignia of royalty. * * * Sentence of death being recorded, he was soon after led to the place of execution, and died a true son of Holy Church. When the news of his father's death reached Ireland, Bryan Oge O'Rourke was duly inaugurated in his stead. This worthy son of a martyred sire distinguished himself in many a glorious action during the Elizabethan wars, and particularly in the far-famed fight near Boyle, where he and O'Donel routed the English under Clifford in 1599 on the memorable feast of the Assumption. . . . His last wish was that his remains should repose in the cloister of Ross-Errilly, and our friars took care to see that wish was fulfilled; for in the month of January, when the snow lay thick on the roads, the funeral cortege, accompanied by a few faithful friends, entered the enclosure of the monastery, and as soon as the requiem mass had been sung, our brotherhood hollowed out a grave in the cloister, and there interred all that remained of one of the bravest and best of those Irishmen whose names deserve to be canonized in the pages of history".

In the year 1612 another storm swept over the monastery of Ross-Errily. William Daniel, well known for his labours in translating the Bible into the Irish language, was at this time Protestant Archbishop of Tuam. He received an order from Sir Arthur Chichester, then lord deputy, to expel the religious from this convent, and to demolish its altars; he was afraid, indeed, not to comply with these commands; yet he privately sent word to the friars, that they might consult for their own safety, and bear away with them whatever was most precious in their monastery. It was not till 1626 that the Franciscans were able to return to their long cherished retreat in Muinter-Moro-ghow;3 then, however, they were allowed for twenty-five years to enjoy a comparative repose, and to diffuse around them the blessings of charity and religion. In February, 1648, its guardian, Father Bryan Kilkenny displayed the charity of the true religious, sheltering within its walls those who had vowed the destruction of our Catholic people. We will narrate the event as presented from the original authorities by Mr. Burke:—

"It was early in the month of February, 1642, that Dr. Maxwell, the Protestant Bishop of Killala, afterwards Archbishop of Tuam, with several Protestant settlers, fearing the just vengeance of the people whom they had plundered, applied to Lord Mayo for a military escort to convoy them to Galway. His lordship acceded to the bishop's request, and the whole party got under weigh, accompanied by Lord Mayo. It was arranged that Captain Ulick Burke, of Castle-Hacket (who was married to Lord Mayo's sister), the then high sheriff of the county of Galway, should take the convoy in charge at the bridge of Shruel, the mearing of the counties. The journey as far as Shruel was all but accomplished. Lord Mayo, satisfying himself that all was right, on getting within half a mile of the town, wished them safe, having given them in charge to a relative of his own, a gentleman named Edmund Bourke, who lived in the castle of Shruel; and then, turning his horse, his lordship rode away to Cong. This Edmund Bourke, . . . having taken the command, hurried on to the bridge, before Captain Ulick Burke, the Galway high sheriff, might come up. The party had just arrived at the bridge, when Edmund Bourke incited the surrounding people to attack those whom he was bound to protect: a shot was fired, and the massacre commenced. In less than an hour thirty bodies were laid dead on the ground; many of them were tumbled into a hole on the road side, and others flung into the waters of the Black river, that flowed red with blood into the lake on that fatal day. Meanwhile Father Bryan Kilkenny, Guardian of the Monastery of Ross, accompanied by Captain Ulick Burke, came up, rushed to the scene of carnage, and carried away over forty persons, some of them badly wounded. The guardian brought them to his abbey, and amongst them were the Bishop of Killala, his wife, children, and servants; and there were they entertained and cared for to the best of the friar's ability for several nights, until Captain Ulick Burke sent his carriages, and brought them to his castle at Castle-Hacket".

In the month of August, 1647, a provincial chapter of the Franciscan order was summoned to meet in Ross-Errily. The nunzio, Rinuccini, intimated his intention of being present there; and the Archbishop of Dublin, who was a member of the order, and other dignitaries of the kingdom, received invitations to take part in the proceedings. The menacing attitude, however, of the Puritan army, compelled the inmates to dispense with the intended solemnities. One night when the religious had retired to repose, the alarm was given that a Scottish troop was in the neighbourhood. All rushed from their beds, and indeed with scanty clothing, to save themselves by flight. The provincial, Rev. Anthony de Burgo, a holy man, remarkable for his piety and zeal, resolved first of all to prepare himself for death, that thus his flight might be less distressing to him. He accordingly took hold of one of the fathers, and insisted on making confession to him. It was in vain that the good father pleaded that there was no time to lose, and that the enemy was at the doors: it was equally vain for him to struggle to be freed from the provincial's iron grasp; so resigning himself to his fate, he said aloud to the passers-by: "The father provincial is worse than the Scots, for even they in their wickedness allow us time for flight, but he, by his piety, is resolved to render escape impossible". The alarm, however, proved to be groundless, and the religious were able to resume their deliberations in the month of September. The Rev. Thomas Mac Kiernan was chosen provincial, and at the close of the chapter, the religious adjourned to Galway to celebrate there the public ceremonies, and to hold their theses in presence of the nunzio, all of which, as had been at first arranged, should have added solemnity to their sessions in Ross-Errily. In the Rinuccini papers I find it recorded that the nunzio assisted with pleasure at the public theses, and that the proceedings in Galway were conducted with all possible solemnity and decorum: "magno applausu et cleri populique concursu".

During the sad era of the Cromwellian rule, Ross-Errily for a while escaped the fire and sword of the parliamentary forces, and afforded a momentary shelter to the fugitives from the other suppressed monasteries of the kingdom. The 10th of August, 1656, at length marked their doom. The Puritan soldiers, outraged at finding its cells empty - for the Franciscans, one hundred and forty in number, had, a few hours before, sought safety in flight - overturned the altars, and broke to pieces the cross and the images of the saints. Suspecting that vast treasures might perhaps be concealed in the tombs, every grave was dug up, and the hallowed bones of the departed faithful were thrown together in one confused mass by these sacrilegious plunderers.4

The reign of James the Second brought for a few years peace and sunshine to Ross-Errily; but the penal laws of William the Third and Anne again reduced it to a wilderness. About the year 1712 the religious seem to have once more taken up their abode there, as appears from an address of the grand jury of the county of Galway at an assizes commenced on the 29th of March, 1715. This document is published by Hardiman in his History of Galway (pag. 255, note): the jurors call on the lords justices to put in force the laws against the Roman Catholics; and complain that numbers of Popish priests and friars had come into the kingdom within the last four years, and settled themselves, amongst other places, at Ross, near Headford.

In 1753 is recorded the last flight of the religious from the walls of Ross-Errily. The property had passed from the Clanricardes to Lord St. George, who continued to protect the inmates of the monastery, although the statutes of the land enacted imprisonment for life as the penalty for contributing to the support of a Catholic priest.5 In the year we have mentioned, Lord St. George successfully terminated a suit in which he was involved with a family of Iar Connaught. The defeated parties vowed vengeance against their antagonist, and swore informations to the effect that Lord St. George had under his protection some members of a religious community, the tower of whose monastery could be seen from the windows of his lordship's castle at Headford. The government of the day resolved at once to inquire into the accuracy of these informations, though prima facie it seemed absurd that a Protestant nobleman would show such courtesy to the proscribed friars of the Catholic Church. Fortunately Lord St. George received some friendly hint of the approaching storm. He and the religious were now alike imperilled. These however quitted the monastery without delay, and so arranged the place that no traces remained of its former inmates. Looms were got in; weavers were set to work; and the whole place assumed the appearance of some large factory; the walls, moreover, and the ceiling, hitherto adorned with frescoes, were now whitewashed; and when the government commissioners arrived, they were able to report that there was not a solitary friar on the premises, and that Ross-Errily was not a monastery, but a manufactory. The Franciscans, at their departure, took with them the church plate, ornaments, and vestments, and retired to a small island formed by the Black river, where they built a small convent, the foundations of which still remain, and whence they could see the lofty tower of the old monastery which had once been their home. That island to this day is called Hyauwn-na-braugher, i.e., "the Friar's Island".

Thenceforward Ross-Errily was nothing more than a crumbling ruin; but its tower, its ivied gables, its columned aisles, its ornamental windows; still proclaim the former grandeur of this home of piety and science.

Before quitting this hallowed spot we must mention a charitable custom which was observed there till the monastery and its lands became a prey to irreligious plunderers. Annually on St. Clare's day in August, a purse of money, called St. Clare's purse, amounting to about £40 sterling, was placed on the saint's altar, and with it an urn containing the names of the orphan girls of the adjoining district. After some solemn prayers the superior drew forth one name from the urn: the purse was then set aside for this orphan, and handed to her as her portion on her marriage day.
"Those times are passed (we shall conclude in the words of Mr. Burke): the relief at the convent gate has ceased; the purse of St. Clare is forgotten; the one-third of the tithes is no longer distributed amongst the poor- now thrown as a burden upon the land. Another system has grown up, and the relieving officer has taken the place of the almoner—

" ' Alas! for earth; for never shall we see
The brightness in her eye she bore when Rome was free'".


1 The Abbey of Ross: its History and Details. By Oliver J. Burke, A.B. Dublin, 1868.

2 Killursa, formerly called Kill-Fursa, was dedicated to St. Fursey, an Irish saint of the seventh century, whose feast is kept on the 16th of January. The ruins of St. Fursey's church still exist, and, not far distant, there, is a cromleach, popularly called Leabha-Diarmid agus Graunye, which is said to be the resting place of Dermod and Grace during their flight from Tara.

3 In an inquisitio made in 1636, the monastery of Ross-Ryally is said to be in Mointer-Moroghow, now barony of Clare. Annals of Four Masters, pag. 2349

4 It is said that the great bell of the convent was taken down by the religious before their flight, and cast into the river, where, tradition tells us, it still remains.

5 Blackstone's Commentary, vol. iv , pp. 115, 118.