Molana Abbey, Co Waterford

Molana abbey has been on my list  of  places to  visit for a such a long time and I finally got my chance this week and boy was it worth the wait!!

The abbey is  located  on an island in the Blackwater estuary on the  Ballynatray estate just outside of Youghal. On private property the site is open to the public during the summer months on  Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursdays.

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View of Molana Abbey, hidden among the trees

History of the Molana

Molana was  founded in the 6th century by a little known Irish saint  called  Maol Anfide, a contemporary of St Mochuada of Lismore. The saint  built a monastic settlement here on a small island  called Dairninis  or the ‘island of  the oak’ . No architectural evidence remains of this early settlement and today the ruins on the island date to the late 12th and  13th century.

In 1806 Dairninis  Island was joined to the mainland by a causeway and bridge  by Grice Smyth the then owner of the Ballynatray estate.  I was delighted to see oak trees still growing on  the island and along the causeway continuing the tradition of the place-name origins for the site.

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Causeway leading to Molana Abbey

Turtle Bunbury’s excellent blog post Molana Abbey from the Stone Age to Dissolution tells of the sites early history

By the early 8th century, Molana was a major stronghold of the Céili Dé (Servants of God), a monastic order determined to reform the church. Its abbots subsequently played a key role in the subsequent introduction of Continental ideas to Ireland. Indeed, as Dr Dagmar Ó Riain-Raedel noted in her thesis on the island, the Abbey’s greatest hour came in about AD 720 when its Abbot, Ruben Mac Connadh of Dairinis, working with Cu-Chuimne from the island monastery of Iona, produced the Collectio Canonum Hibernensis. This was a profoundly valuable and important book for the church, written in Latin, effectively dictating the first rules of Canon Law. Its very title reflects its origin as a compilation of over two hundred years worth of canon law and synodal decrees. The text itself drew heavily upon previous ecclesiastical regulations and histories, all dating from the centuries prior to 725. It also included papal epistles, acts of synods, eccleiastical histories, a definition by Virgilius Maro Grammaticus, a compusticial tract by Pseudo-Theophilus, spurious ‘Acts’ of the council of Caesarea, the so-called dicta of Saint Patrick and several quotes from all but one of the works of Isidore of Seville.

Indeed, there is reason to believe that Molana Abbey may have been home to the first library in the south of Ireland. Unfortunately, none of these original manuscripts have survived but copies can be found in archives all over the Continent. Collectio Canonum Hibernensis was circulated throughout Western Europe for the next four hundred years

Despite this fascinating early history no physical remains of what was once an important and influential monastery are to be found.

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The ruins of Molana Abbey on Dairinis Island

By the 12th century Molana abbey was re-established as an Augustinian Priory  by Raymond le Gros FitzGerald, who tradition holds was buried here. References to the later history of Molana are sketchy. Interestingly in 1450 Molana was at the centre of a scandal.  Pope Nicholas V compiled a mandate for the investigation of claims that the Prior of Molana John McInery, was guilty of simony, prejury and immorality.

The abbey was granted an indulgence in 1462, by the then Pope Pius II , to all those who came here to pray and to give money to the maintenance of the abbey. Such an indulgence would have made the abbey a focus of pilgrimage for at least the duration of the offering of the indulgence.

The names of some of the later priors of Molana are also mentioned in historical sources.The abbey was suppressed in 1541 and fell into the hands of Sir Water Raleigh. By the 19th century the abbey was in possession of the Smyth family and was a focal point on their estate, with their stunning Georgian mansion looking across at the ruins.

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View of Ballynatray House from Molana Abbey

The Architectural Remains

Today the sites consists of a number of ruined buildings  that date to the late 12th /13th century. The buildings included a  church, monastic buildings and a cloister all  built of a red sandstone, which gives the site a lovely warm feeling . There are a number of cracks in the walls so some of these building do not appear to very stable.

The church is  large (17m x 7.6m)  with an undivided nave and chancel . The nave is the oldest part of the building and appears to incorporated part of an  earlier church. The chancel  was a later addition and dates to the 13th century. It has eleven large lanclet windows (tall, narrow windows with a pointed arch at its top) which must have looked quiet magnificent when the church was in use.

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Undivided church at Molana

The east wall of the church is in a poor state of repair but traces of a decorated  moulded window embrasure still remain.

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Decorated moulding of window in the east wall of church

Attached to the north wall of the chancel are the remains of  a two-story building which was probably used as the abbot’s or prior’s accommodation. It has a fine  pointed doorway of dressed sandstone and a spiral stairs.

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Building on the north side of chancel of church

At the centre of the ruins is a small cloister (19.65m N-S; c. 14.75m E-W). There is no evidence of an arcade but corbels in the outer walls of the surrounding  buildings suggest a roofed walkway.  Today the cloister is dominated by a  19th century statue which depicts the founding saint.

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Cloister of the Abbey

The statue was placed here in 1820 by Mrs Mary Broderick Smyth, the wife of Grice Smyth. A  plaque  on the statue plinth has the following inscription

This statue is erected to the memory of Saint Molanfidhe who founded this abbey for Canon Regular A.D. 501. He was the first Abbot and is here represented as habited according to the Order of Saint Augustine. This Cenotaph and Statue are erected by Mrs. Mary Broderick Smyth A.D. 1820

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Statue of St Mael Anfeid

The saint is dressed in a cloak and robe  with a very pretty floral pattern on the hem.

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Floral pattern on the hem of the statue

The building on the SW side of the cloister has traces of plaster and some  orange paint which may indicate traces of a wall painting. According to the Archaeological Inventory for Co Waterford  in 1908 traces of a wall painting were noted in the refectorum.

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Traces of possible wall painting in the building at the SE side of the cloister

In the same room, a plaque is set into a window embrasure on the south wall. This plaque was also placed here by Mrs Smyth,  and has the  following inscription

Here lies the remains of Raymond le Gros, who died Anno Domini 1186

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Plaque dedicated to Raymond Le Gros set into a window embrasure

The fascinating  history, architectural remains combined with  the stunning setting all  make Molana a truly amazing, spiritual and peaceful place.

References

Bunbury, T.  Molana Abbey from Stone Age to Dissolution

Moore, M. 1999. Archaeological Inventory of County Waterford. Dublin: Stationery Office.

Power, Rev. P. 1898. ‘Ancient ruined churches of Co. Waterford’, WAJ 4, 83-95, 195-219.

Power, Rev. P. 1932. ‘The abbey of Molana, Co. Waterford’. JRSAI 62, 142-52.

St Mary’s Priory Cahir

The town of Cahir one of the stops on the  The Butler Trail,  a new historical trail that links three of Tipperary’s medieval towns Clonmel, Cahir and Carrick-on-Suir  and a series of historic sites associated with the Anglo-Norman Butler family.

The town of Cahir is probably best know for its magnificent castle which attracts thousand of tourist each year. The castle has also been used in the filming of movies and TV series such as the Tudors.

The town also has some beautiful medieval churches which are often overlooked. This post will focus on the impressive  remains of St Mary’s Priory, known locally as Cahir Abbey.

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St Mary’s Priory Cahir

The priory is located a  short distance from the castle past the Supervalu and Aldi supermarkets,  on the Limerick road out-of-town. The Augustinian Priory of  St Mary’s  is situated on the banks of the river Suir opposite Cahir Saw mills and can be approached  from the main road by a small lane.

The priory  was  founded c.1220 by a Norman knight named Geoffrey de Camvill and given to the order the of the Augustinian Canons Regular (Gwynn & Hadcock, 1970, 162).  In 1540 the prior Edmund Lonergan surrendered the monastery to Henry VIII (ibid). It appears that at the time  the main monastic church   was being used as a parish church so it was not taken by the crown  but the surrounding  monastic buildings  were granted to Sir Thomas Butler the Baron of Cahir ( Hodkinson 1995, 148; Farrelly 2011).

If you want to find out more about the priory’s history  see Hodkinson’s article  The medieval priory of St Mary’s, Cahir  in the journal of the Tipperary Historical Society (reference below).

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Cloister and  domestic buildings on the south side of the Church

Today the remains of the  priory consist of a church with a large tower , a cloister  and  domestic buildings on the south side of the church. Like many  medieval buildings  St Mary’s priory is a multi phased, with evidence of the original 13th century buildings  and further alterations and additions  in the 15th and 16th/17th centuries.

Today  priory church is entered through two doors in the north wall. The western most door is a simple pointed limestone door. On either side of the interior of the door are  two elaborate masons marks. Masons mark are marks made by  medieval stonemasons who cut the blocks, built walls, carved windows in medieval building. Each mason had his own distinctive mark and some like those at Cahir priory were very elaborate .

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Western most masons mark inside the door in the north wall

There are a number of masons marks scattered throughout the building so keep your eyes peeled. Today the church consist of a large chancel and a  5 story tower, which appear to have been remodeled in the 15th -16th century. The tower is  built over the crossing where the nave and chancel would have joined. The nave  is no longer extant  and Farrelly (2011) suggests the nave may have been  destroyed when the tower was remodeled.

The windows are a mix of carved limestone and  sandstone. There are two very elaborate 15th century windows, one in the east gable of the church and the other in the north-east end of the north wall. The  windows are carved of limestone and decorated with  hooded molding  and the carved heads of clerics.

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The exterior of the east window in the east gable

The east window is  very ornate and the exterior has hooded molding with three carved heads and a  large  masons mark of a Celtic knot .

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Detail of the carved heads in the interior of the north-east window of the church.

The church tower  is  very well-built and is  accessible to the public.

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Facing west view of crossing tower from within the church

The tower  is entered through a  carved limestone pointed doorway.029-DSCF4638To get to the upper stories of the  tower you climb a finely carved  spiral staircase. The steps are a late addition and  are surprisingly wide and easy to climb compared to  narrow steps of earlier stairs at other monastic sites and castles.

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At the top of the stairs  is a rounded  ceiling.   There is evidence of  the wicker work frame used to support the ceiling as it was being constructed in the plaster.

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Ceiling at top of stairs

The upper floors are accessed through a pointed doorway at the top of the stairs.

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Doorway leading into the upper floors of the  tower

As you enter this floor look down at the base of the door and there you will see  a fine example of  a masons mark.

Masons mark in door jamb

Masons mark in door jamb

The upper floors of the building were likely used for domestic purposes and two fine examples of fire places are seen in the  east wall.

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East wall of the upper stories of the tower showing two  finely carved fire places

The windows of the tower offer fantastic views  of the church and the other monastic buildings. The  monks would have  had access to the cloister and its surrounding buildings through a doorway, now blocked up, in the  south wall of the chancel.  At present the buildings  surrounding the cloister are not accessible to the public.

The following photos were taken a  few years ago .  Along the east side of the cloister area are a series of vaulted rooms and south of these buildings is  another  a barrel-vaulted room which may have functioned as the chapter room (Farrelly 2011).

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Vaulted room on the east side of the cloister

At the south-east corner of the cloister  is a tall narrow 4 story high tower which was used as a domestic building .

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East wall of narrow tower showing elaborate fire-place.

Another building possibly a refectory was built on to the west side of this tower . Part of the south wall remains. This wall has three sandstone windows.

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Tower and wall of refectory

Like the church the domestic building were also altered in the 15th century.

The priory is surrounded  by a 19th century graveyard on the north and east side and it was here that I found a bullaun stone. The stone originally  had three hollows, one intact and two damaged.  As I have mentioned in previous posts,   bullaun stones are believed to be early medieval in date and may in some case have been associated with pilgrims.

176-DSCF4785There is also a holy well know as Lady’s well a short distance away but time did not allow for a visit and I plan to return soon   to find the well and will post more information then. This post has only really just touched on the story of the priory, its history and its complex architectural remains but I hope it has given you a taste  of what  a wonderful place it is and you might be encouraged to visit and read more.

References

Hodkinson, B. J. 1995. The medieval priory of St. Mary’s Cahir Tipperary Historical Journal, 148-50.

Farrelly, J. 2011. ‘TS075-048002- Cahir Priory’  http://webgis.archaeology.ie/NationalMonuments/FlexViewer/ accessed 25th April 2013.

Gwynn, A. & Hadcock, R. N. 1970. Medieval Religious Houses in Ireland. Dublin:   Irish Academic Press.

Salter, M. 2009. Abbeys and Friaries of Ireland. Worcester: Folly Publications.

http://www.discoverireland.ie/thebutlertrail