Before Midleton – a church, a village and an abbey.

Main Street Ballinacurra

An early twentieth century photograph of Main Street, Ballinacorra (looking south). This village is located a mile due south of Midleton and was a prosperous little port and malting centre in the early twentieth century. The house visible at the end of the street is thatched in this image, but burned down in 1924 and was rebuilt with a slate roof by JJ Coffey & Sons. (The Horgan Collection)

The town of Midleton is about a mile north of the village of Ballinacorra.  This village was a small, if busy, port until the middle of the twentieth century, but its origins go back much further.  Indeed, it certainly existed in the middle of the twelfth century (1101-1201), although the whole area of Midleton/Ballinacorra had been inhabited since the Bronze Age, at least. 

We know that Ballinacorra existed at an early date because the ruined church there is dedicated to St Colman of Cloyne. The diocesan and parochial structures were put in place in Ireland between 1101 (first Synod of Cashel), 1111 (Synod of Rath Breasail – this set up clear a diocesan structure), and 1152 (Synod of Kells/Mellifont – this confirmed, after slight amendments, the modern diocesan structure).  The diocese of Cloyne was almost certainly created before his death in 1138 by King Cormac MacCarthy (the man who commissioned Cormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel), and was confirmed in 1152 at Kells. These three synods were native Irish reform initiatives – the basic structure of the Irish church was established before 1160, with the parish network being developed up to about 1200.

Ballinacorra Church interior

The interior of the ruined medieval church of St Colman in Ballinacorra. This view of the west end shows the damage resulting from neglect since the church was abandoned in the seventeenth century. The trees in the background mark the location of the mound, or motte, that is all that remains of the earth and timber castle founded by the des Autres or de Altaribus family in the early 1180s. (From historicgraves.ie)

The churches founded to serve as parish churches, or given new status as parish churches, were all native Irish foundations with, mostly, dedications to native Irish saints.  Hence the sprawling parish of Ballinacorra had a church noted between 1177 and 1189 as the ‘great church’ of ‘St Colman of Cor.’ The church at Ballinacorra was dedicated to St Colman of Cloyne – and the location of the church on the banks of the Ballinacorra creek suggests that the associated settlement was probably a port for the episcopal see of Cloyne, just a few miles away. The ‘of Cor’ in the name is a reference to something topographical or a very important local feature – probably a great weir or a series of weirs (I plan to discuss this in another post). Paul MacCotter (A History of the Medieval Diocese of Cloyne, 2013) says that the church of St Colman at Cor was almost certainly founded as the mother church in the western part of Uflanetad – the tuath stretching from the Owenacurra River in the west to the Kiltha River  at Castlemartyr in the east.  A tuath was a basic Irish political unit ruled by a chieftain or very minor king.  Uflanetad (or Ui Fhlannchadha in Irish) was the heartland of the Ui Meic Tire, a family of parvenu nobles who had allied themelves to the MacCarthys and usurped the other local lineages in the area.. In essence the church at Ballinacorra was the equivalent of a minster – a central church that sent out clergy into the surrounding countryside to minister to the people.  Strangle as it seems but the modern Roman Catholic parish of Midleton covers almost the same area as Ui Fhlannchadha!

All of this was upset in 1177 when the Anglo-Norman knights Robert FitzStephen and Raymond ‘le Gros’ de Carew were given license by King Henry II to take the McCarthy kingdom of Cork. Robert and Raymond had arrived in Ireland by 1169 from England and Wales accompanied by their cousins and colleagues and they set about ‘helping’ Diarmait McMorrough take back his kingdom of Leinster. Henry II’s grant of 1177 was probably the King’s way of keeping two potential trouble-makers thoroughly occupied in a near impossible project. One of the earliest ‘castles’ in County Cork was an earth and timber structure situated at Castra na Corth or Castra Cor or Dun Chureda. This was situated right beside the parish church of St Colman of Cor. This castle was probably founded by the newly settled Anglo-Norman family of des Autres (or de Altaribus). There was certainly a castle there by 1183 when it was burned by Diarmait McCarthy, King of Desmond (Cork). The tall, steep, tree-covered mound in the grounds of Ballinacorra House is almost certainly the remains of this castle (see image above).

Monasternenagh

Monasternenagh Abbey (1148) gives an idea of what the Abbey of Chore might have looked like. The O’Briens, as kings of Thomond, were the wealthy patrons of this particular monastery.

With the Anglo-Norman incursion into Cork, the local political arrangements and landholdings were severely upset.  In 1179 or 1180 a group of Cistercian monks from Monasternenagh near Croom in modern County Limerick arrived on the banks of the Owenacurra to found a monastery.  This became known as Mainistir na Corann, or in Latin, Monasterium de Choro Sancti Benedicti Beatae Mariae Virginae: the monastery ‘de Choro’ of St Benedict of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  As part of the establishment, and to avoid conflict with the secular (diocesan) clergy, the sprawling parish of St Colman of Cor was split – the northern part being erected into a new parish attached to and tended by the monastic community.  The abbey church also served as a parish church – this was certainly the case at the dissolution of the monastery during the Reformation.  St Colman’s church continued to serve the more reduced parish to the south of the new monastic parish.

Mellifont Lavabo

Mellifont in County Louth was founded directly from Clairvaux in Burgundy in 1142. This abbey was the ‘grandmother’ of the abbey at Chore.

It is important to note something here. The date of this monastic foundation is three years after Henry II gave Robert FitzStephen and Raymond le Gros leave to take Cork.  Despite the much repeated nonsense published by Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary in 1837, the abbey of Chore was NOT founded by the Fitzgeralds or ANY Anglo-Normans.   The monks actually came from an Irish Cistercian monastery, Monasternenagh, founded by an irish king. Turlough O’Brian of Thomond, in 1148.  The monks who founded Monasternenagh came from Mellifont Abbey, founded by St Malachy of Armagh near Drogheda in County Louth in 1142.  THAT monastery was founded directly from Clairvaux in Burgundy with the support and encouragement of St Bernard of Clairvaux.  The Barry Fitzgerald mentioned by Lewis is a figment of someone’s imagination. Chore Abbey was a grand-daughter of Mellifont and a great grand-daughter of Clairvaux.  It is worth noting that Chore Abbey was founded in the same year that Domhnall Mor O’Brian, King of Thomond, founded Holy Cross Abbey in County Tipperary, probably to celebrate his victory over the Anglo-Normans at Thurles.

Holycross Abbey_1

Holy Cross Abbey in County Tipperary was founded in 1180 – the same year that Chore Abbey was founded on the site of Midleton. Domhnall Mor O’Brian, King of Thomond, brought monks from Monasternenagh to found Holy Cross, probably to celebrate a victory over the Anglo-Normans. (William the Conqueror founded Battle Abbey to celebrate his victory at Hastings.) Monasternenagh also supplied the monks who set up Chore! One must wonder if there was anybody left in Monasternenagh when the two new monasteries were founded in 1180!  Note the weir in the foreground of this photograph – yet another link to Chore Abbey (Midleton).

If you visit Midleton today you won’t find a trace of the abbey – it has literally been swept from the face of the earth.  But Ballinacorra still possesses the crumbling ruins of its medieval parish church, situated in its little graveyard, beside the mound that was the castle and beside the creek that leads to the Owenacurra estuary. .

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