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Cistercian Abbeys: CORCOMROE

Name: CORCOMROE Location: Corcomroe parish County: Clare
Foundation: 1194/5 Mother house: Inishlounaght
Relocation: None Founder: Donal Mor O’Brien/Donough Cairbreach
Dissolution: + 1600 Prominent members:
Access: Accessible to the public

A colony of monks arrived at Corcomroe some time between 1194 and 1195. The founder cannot be verified but is thought to be either Donal Mor O’Brien, king of Limerick, or his son Donough Cairbreach. The abbey was situated amidst the mountains of the Burren, and its Latin name was inspired by the local environment: ‘Sancta Maria de Petra Fertili’, St. Mary of the fertile rock. Despite the name, cultivation of the land can never have been easy; Corcomroe was one of the few Cistercian houses to be founded on the poorer soils of the west of Ireland. The abbey was surrounded by the bleak limestone hills of northern Clare, the land devoid of vegetation. Even so, the monastic community must have expanded in its early years; in 1198 a group of monks was sent out from Corcomroe to colonise a new abbey at Kilshane, County Limerick. However, it seems that two or three decades passed before the construction of the permanent buildings was commenced. As a result of the ‘conspiracy of Mellifont’ (1216-1228) Stephen of Lexington transferred Corcomroe’s affiliation to Furness, but in 1231 the monks refused to receive visitors sent from this abbey.
In 1267 Conor na Siudaine, the son of Donough Cairbreach, was killed in battle by his enemy Carrach O’Loughlin. His body was buried in Corcomroe abbey and a tomb was raised over his grave by the monks. In 1277, 1280 and 1282 there were complaints that the abbot of Corcomroe had not attended the General Chapter for a long time. This is not, perhaps, surprising, given that it might take up to three or four months to make the return journey from Corcomroe to Citeaux. In 1417 the abbey was so poor the monks could not be properly maintained, and one of the monks was granted leave to serve a local vicarage.

Following the Dissolution, the abbey passed into the hands of the local lords and the Crown was scarcely involved in this process. In 1554, the abbey was granted to Murrough O’Brien, earl of Limerick; the site thus reverted to the same family who gave the original endowment. A revival of the Cistercian Order occurred early in the seventeenth century, led by Luke Archer, abbot of Holycross. His followers were appointed as abbots to a number of dissolved Irish houses: in 1628 John O’Dei, a monk of the college at Salamanca, was appointed abbot of Corcomroe, even though the house had long ceased to exist as a functioning monastery. O’Dei was the last abbot of Corcomroe.

The church survives relatively unscathed, although the adjoining conventual buildings have all but vanished. The church ruins date from 1210 to 1225. There is an aisled nave and the east end of the building is distinguished by ornamented stone carvings, including images of human masks and dragons’ heads. In the later Middle Ages the church was shortened by an inserted wall, surmounted by a bell turret. The roof bears some finely carved ribbed vaulting while the capitals are decorated with leaves and other plants. Inside the church, an ornately decorated sedilia survives, where a bench was enclosed under a single arch. Fragments of the east range and the gatehouse still survive and the tomb of Conor na Siudainecan can be seen in the east end of the church. Corcomroe is the only Irish abbey where some preparatory drawings survive: they are to be found incised on a surface of plaster on two walls within the church. The ruins can be found in the very north of Burren, just off the main Galway to Ballyvaughan Road at the village of Bell Harbour. The local graveyard is still used by local families, and the Mass said there on Easter morning at dawn attracts hundred of people.