The Diocese and Abbey of Mayo

By W. H. Grattan Flood

[From The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, 4th Series, Vol. XXI, No. 474, June 1907]

ONE happy result of the Synod of Whitby, in 664, was the foundation of the Abbey of Mayo, in Ireland, by St. Colman. Most readers are familiar with St. Bede's account of the famous convention at Whitby, in the North of England, under the presidency of King Oswy, when the Roman method of keeping Easter was adopted. St. Wilfrid's arguments were peculiar. Indeed the late Rev. Dr. MacCarthy, the distinguished editor of the Annals of Ulster, says that 'Wilfrid's farrago of fictitious tradition and fabricated testimony can hardly fail to excite a smile.' Yet, for the sake of peace-though the matter was purely disciplinary-St. Colman bowed to the decision of King Oswy and resigned his see of Lindisfarne, retiring to Iona with such of his Irish and English disciples as chose to follow the Irish usages. Between the years 665 and 667 St. Colman founded several churches in Scotland, but, at length, set sail for Ireland, accompanied by thirty faithful followers, settling in the island of Inisbofin, off the coast of Mayo. This was in the year 668, according to the accurate chronology of the Annals of Tighernach.

The island of Inisbofin, i.e., the island of the White Cow (from a pagan legend of a white cow), is a little over five miles west of Renvyle Point, in Connemara, and contains 2,300 acres. Here, in 668, St. Colman and his community of Irish and English monks built a monastery, the chief ornament of which was the reliquary of St. Aiden of Lindisfarne. However, as St. Bede tells us, after a couple of years there was dissension between the Irish and the English monks, and so St. Colman travelled about, and at length fixed upon, Mayo (Magh-eo =the Yew Plain) where he placed the English brethren. Thus arose 'Mayo of the Saxons.'

St. Colman spent the remainder of his days in Inisbofin with his Irish monks, but he continued to rule both monasteries till his death in 675, or, as some say, 676. All are agreed that his festival is observed on the 8th of August. To this day the ruins of his little oratory are to be seen in the townland of Knock, in Inisbofin.

We are safe in dating the foundation of 'Mayo of the Saxons' as of the year 670, and St. Colman appointed St. Gerald - an English monk - as first abbot. Though a comparatively young man he proved a wise ruler, and governed his monastery till 697, when he resigned in favour of St. Adamnan (Eunan of Raphoe), who had come over from Iona. St. Adamnan celebrated the Roman Easter at Mayo in 703, and then went to Skreen, in Hy Fiachrach. After his departure the monks prevailed on St. Gerald to resume the care of the abbey, and the worthy Saxon saint continued to guide the destinies of Mayo for over a quarter of a century. The Annals of Ulster chronicle his death in 731, and his feast is commemorated on March 13.

Mayo under St. Gerald became an episcopal see and the monastery was naturally selected as the Sedes episcopalis, St. Bede, writing in 730, says:-

That monastery is to this day colonized by English monks and, growing up from a small beginning to be very large, is generally called Mayo (Magh Eo). As matters have long since been reformed, it contains an exemplary body of monks, who are gathered there from England, and live by the labour of their hands, after the example of the venerable Fathers, under a rule and canonical Abbot, leading chaste and single lives. Usher, quoting from the Book of Ballymote, says that, at the opening of the eighth century, there were one hundred Saxon monks at Mayo. The Litany of Aengus the Culdee invokes the fifty saints of Leyny who found their place of resurrection at Mayo, whilst Cuana of Mayo is named in the Martyrology on the 27th of March.

Under date of 773 the Annals of Ulster chronicle the death of Aedhan, Bishop of Mayo. Ten years later, viz., on Saturday, August 2, 783, Mayo was burned by lightning. Towards the middle of the ninth century Turgesius burned the church of Mayo, and, apparently, the monastery suffered much during the Danish invasion. Again, in 905, Temple Gerald (the church of St. Gerald) was burned. From these entries Dr. Petrie concluded that the monastic buildings were of wood, and so proved an easy prey to fire.

In 1110 we meet with the following entry, which goes to prove that a stone church (damhliag) was then built:-

The Saxons of Mayo granted the tithes of their city to God and St. Michael, and they made a damhliag in it for the pilgrims of God for ever. And the family of Maelfinneoin proceeded to destroy it, and that damhliag fell on the people and killed men and cattle. After this came the senior, that is, Cathasach, and he renewed that temple in the reign of Ruaidhri and his son Toirdelbhach, and it was confirmed from that out for pilgrims for ever.

Ruaidhri (Roderic O'Conor), King of Connacht, abdicated in 1092, and was succeeded by his son Toirdelbhach (Turlogh), who ruled from 1106 to 1156.1

The native Annals are silent as to Mayo during the first half of the twelfth century, but, under date of 1169, we read: 'Mayo with its church was burned.' At this time Gillaisu O'Mailin was Bishop of Mayo, whose obit is chronicled by the Ulster annalists in 1184. During his episcopacy the ancient fame of Mayo attracted pilgrims, and there is evidence that many distinguished persons desired to lay their bones in the cemetery of St. Gerald. Thus, under date of 1176, the Four Masters record the death of Domhnall (son of Turlogh) O'Conor, Prince of North Connacht, who was interred at 'Mayo of the Saxons.' In 1210, Cele O'Duffy, Bishop of Mayo, died, on whose death, Felix O'Ruadain, O.Cist., Archbishop of Tuam, endeavoured to annex the see of Mayo to that of Tuam. The dispute continued for over six years, and on December, 1217, the Pope issued a mandate to examine into the case. At length, in 1221, the Papal Legate, Master James, decided in favour of suppressing the see of Mayo, and its incorporation with that of Tuam.

Regarding the suppression of the see of Mayo in 1210, Archbishop Healy writes:

'Unfortunately we do not know the issue; but it is evident that the Archbishops of Tuam during the troubles of subsequent centuries were able to assert their own jurisdiction; and so the canons of Mayo lost their status as canons of a cathedral church.' As against this opinion, Papal documents go to prove that the dispute went on during the second half of the thirteenth century. Alan was Archdeacon of Mayo in 1230, and stoutly sought to prevent the union of the diocese. Five years later, Archbishop O'Ruadain resigned his see, and retired to St. Mary's Abbey, Dublin; and his successor, in 1236, was Maelmuire O'Lachtnain, who held a synod in 1237.

As an instance of the troubled state of Connacht at this period, it is only necessary to quoth the following entry from the Annals of Loch Cé, under date of 1236:

'MacWilliam proceeded to Mayo of the Saxons; and not a stack of seed or corn of all that was in the great reilig (cemetery) of Mayo, or in the reilig of the church of St. Michael the Archangel was left without being taken away together.' Even the Archbishop of Tuam had to leave his diocese, and Tuam was burned in 1244. He died five years later at Athlone, and had as successor Flann Mac Floinn.

In 1370, John O'Grady, Archbishop of Tuam, 'translated and transmitted' the then secular and collegiate church of St. Michael's, Mayo, into a monastery of Regular Canons of St. Augustine, with provision for an abbot and six canons. From the Calendar of Papal Registers (1404-1415) we learn that, on the 6th of the Ides of November, 1411, Pope John XXIII confirmed the change - the then abbot being Malachy O'Tarpey. As none of our Irish ecclesiastical historians were aware of this concession of St. Michael's, Mayo, into a monastery for Regular Canons of St. Augustine, it may be well to give a precise of the Papal order, dated December 9, 1411, as given in the Calendar of the Papal Registers, issued under direction of the Master of the Rolls:-

To the Augustinian Abbot and convent of St. Michael's, Mayo, in the diocese of Tuam. Taking under the protection of St. Peter and the Pope them and their monastery, the place where it is situated, and their possessions, present and future, with the parish churches of Robeen, Killinan, Luny ; the rectories of Tirnechtan and Tir Enna, Cere, Bella, Ballinrobe ; and the ecclesiastical lands of Annagh, Drum, Crossboyne, Ballyheaney and Cluain; the perpetual vicarages of Rosier and Kilcolman ; the rights and titles formerly assigned to the monastery by the late Charles, Lord of Connacht, etc.

To the average reader it may be necessary to state that 'Charles, Lord of Connacht' (who is recorded in the above document to have given the monks certain tithes), is the renowned Cathal Crobhderg, King of Connacht, who ruled from 1201 to 1224. Even the King of England, in 1215, freely acknowledge the title and rule of King Cathal, as did also King Henry III in 1220. This Irish king also endowed the Cistercian Abbey of Knockmoy, the Franciscan Friary of Athlone, and the Augustinian Abbey of Ballintober in Mayo.

In November, 1413, Pope John XXIII provided Thomas O'Tarpey as Abbot of St. Michael's, Mayo, who was deprived at the close of 1429, and had as successor Aedh O'Higgins, who was given the rectory of Manulla in commendam. John XXIII having been deposed in the Council of Constance, May 29, 1415, Pope Martin V determined to revive the See of Mayo, and this with the full acquiescence of John Babyng, O.P., Archbishop of Tuam (1409-1427).

From the Calendar of Papal Registers (1417-1431), it appears that the Dean of Tuam was also Dean of Mayo, but, in 1419, Pope Martin V appointed Tadhg O'Murray as Dean of Mayo, and Nicholas O'Dowd as perpetual Vicar of Mayo. Still there was a difficulty over the appointment of a separate bishop. However, on the death of Archbishop Babyng, in 1427, Pope Martin V appointed William Prendergast, O.F.M., as Bishop of Mayo, who was deprived in 1430 for not having expedited his letters of provision. Nicholas, O.F.M., was 'provided' his successor, but declined the honour, and, then, on the 3rd of like Ides of April, 1432, Martin Campana was consecrated Bishop.

The abbey and bishopric remained distinct, and both continued until the time of Elizabeth. It is worthy of note that from 1428 to 1528 the Bishops of Mayo were mostly Franciscans. On April 23, 1462, the Pope appointed John O'Morchoe (Murphy) as Abbot of St. Michael's, Mayo, vice Malachy O'Muloihill, deposed for various faults. Thomas O'Fihel (Field) was abbot in 1540, and, in 1547, he was appointed Bishop of Achonry, where he was translated to Leighlin, being permitted to hold the abbey in commendam. Owen MacBrehon, Bishop of Mayo, resigned in 1559, after which Christopher Bodkin, Archbishop of Tuam, annexed the see to that of Tuam.

On the death of Archbishop Bodkin, in 1572, the Holy Father determined to separate the sees of Mayo and Tuam, and, accordingly, on February 12, 1574, Darby O'Dwyer, O.F.M., was appointed Bishop of Mayo, who was succeeded four years later by Patrick O'Hely, O.F.M.

Bishop O'Hely sheds an immortal lustre on the see of Mayo, of which he was the last prelate. He suffered a glorious martyrdom at Kilmallock in 1579. From the State Papers we gather that he landed at Dingle, on July 17, 1579, accompanied by his chaplain, Father Con O'Rourke, O.F.M., and was captured at Askeaton by the English soldiery, as an abettor of Sir James FitzMaurice of Desmond. Don Philip O'Sullivan Beare, whose Compendium of the History of Catholic Ireland was published at Lisbon in 1621, tells us that Bishop O'Hely was sent in chains to Limerick and imprisoned for fifteen days in a loathsome dungeon, in August. The Viceroy, Sir William Drury, did all he could to induce the saintly prelate to take the oath of allegiance to Elizabeth, but in vain. Father O'Rourke was equally firm. Both prisoners were then tortured and sent to Kilmallock, where they were formally sentenced to death. The two martyrs went joyfully to execution, and were hanged, and their bodies were subsequently taken down and interred by some pious Catholics of Kilmallock. An account of their martyrdom was published at Ingolstadt by Father Thomas Bouchier, in 1583, and their cause is at present before the Congregation of Rites, with that of 343 other Irish martyrs.

On August 8, 1596, Bishop O'Gallagher, as Vice-Primate, appointed Father John O'Donnell as guardian of the spiritualities of Mayo. Finally on May 20, 1631, Archbishop O'Queely wrote to Cardinal Ludovisi for the formal union of the see of Mayo to Tuam. The Abbey of Mayo of the Saxons was, as we have seen, well endowed. It is a mistake to suppose that the present ruins represent any part of the old monastery founded by St. Colman for St. Gerald, in 670. Alas! the old oratories, as well as Temple Gerald, disappeared after the Anglo-Norman Invasion; and the pieces of carved mullions and mouldings still to be seen in the venerable cemetery are the relics of the fine monastic church built in 1410, towards the completion of which Pope John XXIII, on December 17, 1411, granted an indulgence of five years and five quarantines. Even the very site on which the grand abbey was built forms part of the king's highway. Yet, strange to say, defying the ravages of over a thousand years, a small portion of the ancient cashel wall (which encircled the abbey) still stands, not far from the highroad, silently bearing testimony to the once famed 'Mayo of the Saxons.'



1 King Roderic O'Conor and his eldest son, Donal, died in the year 1118.