Before Midleton – the foundation of Mainistir na Corann in 1180: a medieval whodunnit.

Clairvaux undercroft

Sadly, this splendid undercroft is not the remains of the abbey that gave Midleton its Irish name – this is Clairvaux Abbey in Burgundy, France. Here St Malachy of Armagh met St Bernard of Clairvaux, the abbot, and negotiated the introduction of the Cistercian order into Ireland. This abbey is where Malachy died in St Bernard’s arms in 1148. Today, much of Clairvaux is a high security prison, although it is now possible to visit the surviving monastic remains.

Before Midleton appeared on the map in 1670 there was a history attached to the site of the present town.  This history is usually said to begin in the year 1180 – the date by which a Cistercian abbey was founded on the site of the present town. Sir James Ware, a critically important 17th century historian in Ireland, recorded the event thus……Fundatum anno Dom. 1180, et Monachis repletum Cisterciensibus ex coenobio de Nenay, alias Magio, apud Limericenses.  (Founded in the year of Our Lord 1180, and supplied with monks from the abbey of Nenay, or Maigue, near Limerick.) 

Sadly, in Paul MacCotter’s words, this foundation has been the subject of ‘much rubbish and some good history.’  The rubbish is too often repeated as ‘history’ today by people today because they are generally unaware of the failings of the common source of their ‘information’. Much of what people pass off as ‘information’ on medieval history of a location is derived from Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary – in an earlier post, I warned about relying too much on that particular source!

Curiously, at very least since 1945, there really has been no justification for anyone to repeat the Lewis nonsense.  In that year the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society published a whole issue on the barony of Imokilly.  Included in the issue was a fine article by Denis O’Sullivan on the medieval religious houses of Imokilly. One of O’Sullivan’s aims appears to have been to resolve some of the issues surrounding the history of the abbey at Chore (Midleton), and he paid particular attention to the foundation of the abbey. I suspect he was as underwhelmed as your present author is about the reference by Lewis to a ‘Barry Fitzgerald’ as the founder of Chore Abbey (Midleton). In this post I will attempt to identify the principal founding patron of the abbey of Chore (Midleton). To do this I will take on board the results of Denis O’Sullivan’s careful analysis of the surviving evidence pertaining to the origins of the abbey.

First we must establish some basic information about the abbey. Various sources, but especially the seventeenth century scholar, James Ware, tell us that the abbey was founded at Chore in 1180. Sadly, the second fact is an omission: the name of the founder is not given by Ware. This is unusual, for Ware was a good historian and, because scholars like him preserved so much information, we generally know who founded what in medieval Ireland.  The third detail to note is that the monks came from Monasternenagh Abbey in County Limerick (the Nenay or Maigue of the Latin text quoted above) – a critical detail the importance of which has been too often underestimated when discussing Chore (Midleton). The fourth detail is the distinction drawn by Paul MacCotter between the initial Anglo-Norman invasion of the kingdom of Cork in 1177/1178 and the later Anglo-Norman settlement of the conquered territories.  This brings us back to the first fact above – the foundation year of 1180. You may recall from previous discussions about Ballinacorra that the Anglo-Norman settlement of south-east Cork was not secured until about 1220. The abbey at Chore was well established by then. Interestingly, MacCotter isn’t the first scholar to make this distinction between conquest and settlement – Denis O’Sullivan made exactly the same point in 1945.

When monks were sent out from one monastery to establish another the new monastery was described as a ‘daughter’ of the monastery that supplied the original monks.  The original monastery was considered to be the ‘mother’ house. Thus as the ‘daughters’ of Mellifont provided monks for further monasteries, they helped to create the Mellifont filiation – from the Latin filia or daughter. This was an alliance or affiliation of monasteries that acknowledged Mellifont’s seniority and even permitted it to act as a guardian of their interests.

This monastic filiation or alliance is the critical detail here – it entirely undermines all attempts to attribute the foundation at Chore (Midleton) to the Anglo-Normans. And, oddly, it is a fact the importance of which has been ignored by so many people.

So, how does Denis O’Sullivan reveal the evidence for the Gaelic Irish origins of the Abbey of Chore? He looks at the writings of James Ware’s De Hibernia et Antiquitatibus Eius (London, 1654), Mervyn Archdall’s Monasticon Hibernicum (Dublin, 1786) and Louis-Auguste Allemande’s Histoire monastique d’Irlande (Paris, 1690).  O’Sullivan makes it clear that Ware (the earliest of these scholars) never revealed the name of a founder of the abbey of Chore – even in his unpublished manuscripts. Indeed in one of his manuscripts Ware notes that the Barrys were patrons of the abbey – but in the same sentence they are NOT named as the founders. This seems to have been where the confusion arose – because the Barrys of Barrymore were patrons of the abbey at the dissolution, Allemande and Archdall assumed the Barrys (or the Fitzgeralds) were the founders. This idea was picked up by Smith and others, including Lewis, giving us the bizarre Barry Fitzgerald attribution.

But back to the history of the foundation of the abbey of Chore (Midleton).  How did it come about and who was the founder?

Firstly,we must briefly note the twelfth century (1101-1200) reforms in the church in Ireland.  This was part of a general European church reform in matters of discipline and organisation. The Irish church, beginning in 1101, but especially with the synod of Rath Breasail in 1111, was remodelled into a diocesan structure following the Continental model. Part of the reform included establishing clearly defined territorial dioceses – a nightmare in a country with shifting political boundaries. Within these dioceses parishes were created to minister to the local communities. These usually consisted of several townlands – see our previous posts on this topic.  These medieval parishes were still being created up to and after the year 1200, but historians believe that most parishes were created by that date. These parishes survived the centuries as the famous Civil Parishes on the first edition Ordnance Survey map (mid-1800s) – they were ‘civil’ because they represented the parishes of the state church that was created following the Reformation.  They are still an important reference point for genealogists in Ireland. The parishes were grouped into rural deaneries.  One such deanery was Imokilly. This was simply an ecclesiastical administrative structure within the diocese – it need not detain us any further.

Mellifont Lavabo

The ruins of the lavabo or hand-washing place in the cloister of Mellifont. The remains of the mother house of most of the medieval Cistercian monasteries in Ireland were ravaged by quarrying after the abbey was dissolved in the reformation. Mellifont was founded at the southern extremity of the diocese of Armagh in 1142 by St Malachy of Armagh. The first monks came directly from Clairvaux.

Another important result of the twelfth century reforms was the introduction of Continental religous orders into Ireland. The Augustinians seem to have been the first to be introduced. But in 1142, St Malachy of Armagh introduced the Cistercians directly from Clairvaux, with the blessing of St Bernard of Clairvaux, the greatest of the Cistercians, and one of the most influential religious leaders in twelfth century Europe The importance of this can hardly be overstated, because the Cistercians influenced church architecture in medieval Ireland to an extraordinary degree. The Abbey of Mellifont in County Louth, founded by St Malachy in 1142, very quickly produced offspring by providing monks to found new Cistercian houses elsewhere in Ireland. One of these new foundations was the abbey of Monasternenagh, founded in 1148, near Croom in County Limerick.  In the same year, our old friend Diarmaid McMurrough, King of Leinster, founded a Cistercian monastery at Baltinglass in County Wicklow with monks from Mellifont. Baltinglass would send out monks to found Abbeymahon monastery in County Cork in 1172. This was the same Diarmaid McMurrough who may have sailed from Imokilly to bring the Anglo-Normans to Ireland in the 1160s!

Monasternenagh

Monasternenagh, near Croom in County Limerick, was founded in 1148 by Turlough O’Brien on lands taken from the O’Donovans. The first monks came from Mellifont. This was the mother house of Chore (Midleton). Monasternenagh may have been founded to celebrate Turlough’s crushing defeat of the O’Donovans. This victory allow the O’Briens to secure their authority over what is now County Limerick. Turlough’s vicitory a serious setback for the MacCarthys, the rivals of the O’Briens for the dominance of the province of Munster.

Monasternenagh (Mainistir an Aonaigh – the Monastery of the Fair – it was built on an ancient fairground, in Latin it was called de Magio – of the Maigue, from the river bordering the site) was founded by Turlough O’Brian, king of Munster from 1142 to 1167. However, Monasternenagh was not founded on O’Brien lands. Turlough O’Brian had recently defeated the O’Donovans and took some of their most valuable lands to provide a site, and an endowment, for his new Cistercian monastery.  It should be noted that founding a monastery of this type in Ireland at the time advertised the founder as a modernising reformer of the church in Ireland. The O’Donovans were long standing allies of the MacCarthys, kings of Desmond or Cork, and rivals of the O’Briens.  By founding Monasternenagh Abbey on O’Donovan lands, Turlough O’Brien meant to ensure that that the O’Donovans could never recover their ancestral lands!  Turlough’s son, Donal Mor O’Brien would later drive out the O’Donovans and their allies for good, sending the O’Donovans to south west Cork. It is worth noting that Monasternenagh may actually have been founded to mark an important victory – just as William the Conqueror built Battle Abbey on Senlac hill, the site of his victory over King Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

Battle Abbey

Battle Abbey was founded by William the Conqueror to celebrate his victory over King Harold at Hastings in 1066. The O’Brien kings appear to have followed this idea of founding religious houses on or near the site of their victories.

Within a few decades, the community at Monasternenagh provided monks for new foundations – Inishlounaght and Holy Cross in County Tipperary, and Chore (Midleton) in County Cork.  Inishlounaght soon provided monks to found the abbey of Fermoy in the diocese of Cloyne in 1170. Ten years later, Monasternenagh provided monks for both Holy Cross and Chore (Midleton). Intriguingly, it seems that Holy Cross seems to have been founded in exact imitation of William the Conqueror’s Battle Abbey, for Holy Cross abbey stands on or very near the site of the battle of Thurles (1174) where Donal Mor O’Brien, king of Thomond, inflicted the first defeat on the Anglo-Norman invaders.  It was certainly founded in imitation of Monasternengah, which was itself founded by Donal’s father, Turlough, to celebrate a victory over the O’Donovans. Clearly there was a pattern to the O’Brien policy of founding such religious houses, but it is the later history of Holy Cross that provides interesting parallels with Chore (Midleton).

Baltinglass Abbey

Baltinglass Abbey in County Wicklow was founded in 1148 by Diarmait MacMurrough – the man who brought the Anglo-Normans to Ireland. This abbey was founded in the same year as Monasternenagh, which was also the year in which St Malachy of Armagh died at Clairvaux.

Now it is important to remember that there were only four Cistercian monasteries in County Cork – two were founded in the diocese of Cloyne (Fermoy and Chore) the others were Abbeymahon (1185, diocese of Ross) and Tracton (1224, diocese of Cork). Abbymahon was founded from Baltinglass by Diarmaid MacCarthy in 1185, so it was a part of the Mellifont filiation.  However, Tracton, the last of the medieval Cistercian monasteries created in Ireland, was founded by the Anglo-Norman Odo de Barry in 1224. Tracton’s founding monks came from Whitland in England.  This is the critical detail to keep in mind – the Cistercian abbeys founded in Ireland by the Anglo-Normans drew their founding monks directly from either England or Wales and they remained culturally English until the dissolution. In the 1200s Inislounaght would be poacned from the Mellifont filiation and placed permanently under the abbey of Furness in England.

Thus two groups of Cistercian monasteries developed in Ireland – native Irish foundations, almost all of which were linked to Mellifont, and the English foundations which admitted no Irish monks. Of the thirty-six Cistercian abbeys in medieval Ireland, twenty-seven were affiliated to Mellifont.  All the others were founded by the Anglo-Normans from English and Welsh monasteries and were affiliated to English and Welsh monasteries.

Holy Cross Abbey front

Holy Cross Abbey near Thurles in County Tipperary was founded in 1180, the same year that Chore Abbey (Midleton) was founded. This abbey was established by Donal Mor O’Brien, King of Thomond, the son of the Turlough O’Brien who founded Monasternenagh in 1148. Like his father, Donal wished to commemorate a victory in battle, in this case the Battle of Thurles in 1174, when he inflicted the first real defeat on the Anglo-Normans during their invasion of Ireland. Ironically, Donal Mor O’Brien was a relative by marriage of Diarmait MacMurrough, who brought the Anglo-Normans to Ireland!

And this is Denis O’Sullivan’s most important point in his 1945 article. The Cistercian monasteries founded in Ireland by the Anglo-Norman were NOT linked to Mellifont.  Chore (Midleton) was linked to Mellifont, because it was founded from Monasternenagh which was itself founded from Mellifont in 1148. In effect, Chore (Midleton) was a  grand-daughter of Mellifont – and the majority of its abbots whose names are recorded were native Irish..One other thing we must do is consider Paul MacCotter’s useful division of the early Anglo-Norman period in Ireland into a conquest phase and a settlement phase.  This division is matters because there could be several years between the initial conquest and parcelling out of conquered lands, and a determined Anglo-Norman settlement in those lands.

So now we know that Chore (Midleton) was a native Irish Cistercian abbey, but who exactly founded it? Crime writers tell us that to solve a whodunnit you need to establish motive and means to identify the culprit.  This sounds like a good approach to so we’ll apply it here.

First the means. The monks from Monasternenagh simply couldn’t walk into Imokilly and take the land.  This land was already occupied by someone. And evictions were not pleasant experience in twelfth century Ireland, just as they are not pleasant experiences in post-crash Ireland today.  You can be sure the local bishop would have objected if he hadn’t been consulted first, for the Cistercians did not allow their abbeys to be placed under diocesan control. Sadly, the surviving records (Ware and others) do not give the names of the founders.  But Denis O’Sullivan was able to show that the founders were likely to be two particular local men. The clue that O’Sullivan noted was the location of the abbey estates. These estates were concentrated in two specific areas. The bulk of the monastic estate was in a single block situated on the east bank of the Owenacurra river, in the northern half of the large parish of Ballinacorra.  This area comprised the modern townlands of Townparks, Park North, Park South, the northern half of Castleredmond, Broomfield West and Broomfield East, and the later townland of School-lands. These lands were part of the patrimony of the See of Cloyne. But, although we have no evidence for it, one must wonder if these lands were shared with, or possibly farmed by, the Mac Tire family who would have paid a rent to the bishop. Add to this some lands due north of Mogeely were added to the abbey’s estate by the Mac Tire chief. These were Killeenamanagh (literally ‘the little cell of the monks’) and the next townland to the north, Ballygibbon. These last two effectively formed a detached grange of the main monastic estate.  In all some two thousand acres were included in the founding grant of the monastery. To top up the funds from this estate, the tithes of Mogeely, and the tithes of the newly founded monastic parish of Chore were granted to the monastery. It should be noted that in the fourteenth century record called the Pipe Roll of Cloyne, the lands originally held by the Mac Tire in Mogeely were actually property of the See of Cloyne, valued at five knight’s fees. By the time the Pipe Roll records were composed, the MacTire had lost their property. So it is not impossible that the Mac Tire also held lands in the parish of Ballinacorra up to the year 1180.

Now you may recall that Monasternenagh was founded in 1148 by Turlough O’Brien on sword-land, that is land won by the sword from the O’Donovans. This custom of founding monasteries on sword-land was a means of preventing one’s enemy from taking those lands.  The MacTire family contributed to the foundation of Chore because it seems they realised that their own estates were under threat from the Anglo-Normans who had arrived in 1177/1178.  By granting part of the estates to a religious foundation, they prevented the land from falling into the hands of their enemies.  This proved to be a wise move given that just two years later in 1182, five Anglo-Norman knights, including Milo de Cogan, were murdered in the MacTire seat at Mogeely, sparking off a major revolt against the invaders.  De Cogan, you might recall was one of the two leaders of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Cork, along with Robert FitzStephen, whose illegitimate son was also killed at Mogeely. After this rebellion was put down by Raymond le Gros from 1173, the Mac Tire sept seem to have lost their lands.

However, the MacTire connection only accounts definitively for two specific townlands, directly controlled by that family. What about the rest of the property, which constituted the main monastic estate in a single block?  This was the actual site of the present town of Midleton, in the northern half of the parish of Ballinacorra.  This land was likely to have been church land before 1180, let out to tenants, in this case probably the MacTire family. Thus the means for establishing the abbey really belonged to the bishop of Cloyne, Matthew O’Mongaigh.  As for motive?  Well that too was pretty much something the bishop had.

It is likely that the bishop of Cloyne, Matthew O’Mongaigh, was the prime mover in founding Chore Abbey (Midleton). And it is likely that he had a similar motive to the Mac Tire family. His first aim was religious – the Cistercians represented the best of the reforming ideals sweeping the church in Ireland.  But Bishop Matthew may also have had more material motives. In granting diocesan lands to a religious foundation the bishop probably hoped to keep it out of the hands of the invaders.   The behaviour of the Anglo-Normans during their invasion of Ireland was often brutal – they had sacked the ecclesiastical town of Lismore, seat of the Papal Legate in Ireland, during their initial invasion, and they were not likely to respect Cross lands – that is land held directly by the diocese.

Lismore cathedral nave

Lismore Cathedral was the seat of the Papal Legate to Ireland – but that didn’t stop the Anglo-Normans from sacking the place during their invasion. Was this atrocity an incentive to the bishop of nearby Cloyne to found Chore Abbey (Midleton)?

As it was, the des Autres, or de Altaribus family, built their castle right next to the existing church in Ballinacorra and soon granted tithes of Ballinacorra and Ballymartyr (now Ballyoughtera) to the Augustinian abbey of St Thomas the Martyr in Dublin. It is not known if the des Autres consulted the bishop before erecting their castle. They might have been obliged to come to terms with the bishop somewhat later, for the Pipe Roll of Cloyne indicates that the site was held on a rent to the bishop in the following century. This threat to diocesan property may have been an incentive for the bishop to establish a Cistercian monastery on his vulnerable See lands. It is worth noting that the much maligned Prince John of England, in his capacity as Lord of Ireland, was actually quite good at laying down the law on the Anglo-Norman magnates in Ireland – he insisted that church land in Ireland be left untouched and that these lands should remain in the hands of the church authorities. It is known that very early during the Anglo-Norman settlement, John issued a writ of protection to the bishop of Limerick making it clear that anyone encroaching on church lands would incur severe punishment. (And yes, this is the same King John of Robin Hood infamy!)

Even more interesting, if we look at the names of the known abbots of Chore (Midleton), we find that most of them were Gaelic Irish, with hardly any Anglo-Norman or English names in the list until the very end. Clearly, Chore Abbey (Midleton) was a Gaelic Irish foundation and remained Gaelic in culture long after its foundation. It seems certain that Bishop Matthew O’Mongaigh of Cloyne was the principal founder of Chore Abbey, with support, or donations of land, from the Mac Tire chieftain at the time.  So now you know whodunnit.

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Caveat lector – reader, beware of Samuel Lewis!

Thatched houses in Adare

Thatched cottages on Main Street in Adare, County Limerick. This village was redeveloped by the Earls of Dunraven in the 19th century to become one of the most orderly and picturesque villages in Ireland.

Some years ago, as part of my MA in the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Limerick, I was given an assignment to write a research essay on a small or medium sized building.  Dr John Logan allowed his class to pick a building created between 1660 and 2000 for the assignment – but I really wanted to look at a medieval building.  I thought that St Mary’s Cathedral in Limerick would suit, but then I realised that nobody had really researched the former Trinitarian Priory in Adare, County Limerick, which was restored from ruin for use as a Catholic church in the 19th century.  Dr Logan thought this was a great idea – the building was enormous (Adare was a small but beautiful village, after all) and I would concentrate on just the period from about 1811 (the traditional date of the restoration) to about 1884, when the church was extended.  I read everything I could get about the medieval churches of Adare, only to discover that one ‘standard’ source used by many local ‘historians’ in Ireland was wrong.

That source, The Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, published by Samuel Lewis in 1837, is the bane of many an Irish historian’s life, especially when confronted by ‘local history’ given out by ‘local historians’.    Let me give Adare as one example. Yes, I know Adare isn’t near Midleton, but I’ll move back to south-east Cork shortly.   A word of warning, my opinion here might seem pedantic, but it IS important to avoid people assuming that Lewis was always right.

According to Lewis, Adare had three religious houses in the medieval period – this was indeed correct. Lewis tells us that the first of these was a ‘monastery…..dedicated to the to the Holy Trinity’ He then says that it was called ‘the Black Abbey.’ Firstly, it wasn’t dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Rather it was dedicated to St James the Great, or Santiago, as the Spanish call him. It was actually the Priory of St James of the Order of the Holy Trinity for the Redemption of Christian Captives – the order of the Holy Trinity raised money to ransom Christians captured by the muslims.  Adare was the only house or priory of that order in Ireland.  Today the restored church is dedicated to the Holy Trinity – poor St James has been pushed aside.  Lewis then tells us that this was known as the ‘Black Abbey.’  This, too, is wrong – there WAS a ‘black abbey’ in Adare – but the Trinitarians were known as the white monks (as were other orders) from their white habits.  So their priory was actually the White Abbey.

Trinitarian_monastery_-_Adare_Co_Limerick_-_Ireland

Built in the 1200s for the Order of the Most Holy Trinity for the Redemption of Christian Captives, the Priory of St James in Adare was the only house of this order in Ireland. It was the first of the three houses of religious orders founded in Adare. The ruined medieval church consisted of the part nearer the viewer from the west window to the tower and included the chancel beyond. This was restored in 1809 for use by the Catholics of Adare as their chapel. The large nave on the left of the viewer was added in the years 1882-1884 on the site of the vanished cloister.  The church is now called Holy Trinity Abbey church and still serves as the Catholic parish church.

Lewis goes on to say that the second ‘monastery’ was built in the demesne of Adare Castle, but fails to mention the order to which it was assigned.  Actually, he does mention the order, but only relation to the third ‘monastery’. This third monastery he assigned to the Franciscans and he says that it was restored by the Earl of Dunraven for use by the Church of Ireland, with the conventual buildings being restored to house a parochial school.  In fact, the second religious house that Lewis mentioned was actually the THIRD one in the sequence to be built – for the Franciscans!  So not only has Lewis got the sequence of the buildings wrong – he gave them to the wrong religious order!  The third of Lewis’s buildings was actually the second one to be built – this was the REAL Black Abbey because the Augustinians who occupied this priory wore black habits. The Franciscans came later – they wore grey habits, hence their friary was the Grey Abbey, or Poor Friars.

Augustinian Church Adare

The second religious community in Adare were the Augustinians or Black Friars. Their priory church was the frist to be restored for use by the Church of Ireland in the first decade of the 19th century. The cloister survives and the conventual buildings on the right were restored for use as a school. Geraldine, Countess of Dunraven, described this as ‘the most ethereally beautiful church interior in Ireland.’ I can vouch for it!

To cap it all, Lewis even got the date of the restoration of the Trinitarian church wrong – he said that it was restored for the Catholics in 1811, but I actually discovered that it was restored in 1809.  Given that Lewis pubished his book in 1837, he surely could have got that fact right!

Now let us move to south east Cork. Lewis gives a quick ‘history’ of Midleton as follows:

‘This place, called anciently Chore Abbey and Castrum Chor derived both its origin and ancient name from the foundation of a Cistercian monastery, in 1182, by Barry Fitzgerald, who placed in it monks from the abbey of Nenay, or Magio, in the county of Limerick.  The abbey, from its situation near a ford, was called ‘the abbey of St Mary de Chore’, and the village which afterwards arose near it was for the same reason called Bally-na-Chore (now Ballinacurra), or ‘the town on the ford’…..

Oh dear!  You will already have read, in my previous posts, about the pre-Norman village of Ballinacorra and its origins. Feel free to ignore Lewis on the medieval history of Ballinacorra.  As for his version of the medieval origins of Midleton…..I’ll try to be polite, but it’s difficult!  Lewis says that a Cistercian abbey was founded on the site of Midleton – this, astonishingly, is correct! But the date seems to be wrong – other, more reliable, sources suggest that this abbey was founded in 1180. Other sources also agree that the monks came from the Abbey of Nenay or de Magio better called Monasternenagh in County Limerick.

Franciscan ruins Adare

Lewis never identified the order that inhabited this ruined friary in Adare. It is the Franciscan friary, founded in the 1400s, the last of the religious houses built in Adare in the medieval period. The Franciscans were known as the Grey Friars or the Poor Friars. The ruins are now situated in the middle of a golf course!

But to attribute the foundation of the abbey to a certain ‘Barry Fitzgerald’ really takes the biscuit!  There is ABSOLUTELY NO RECORD of this name in Anglo-Norman Ireland!  It seems that the surnames Barry and Fitzgerald were combined to create a non non-existent name. One thing is absolutely clear – Barry Fitzgerald never existed. So if you are reading the Wikipedia entry on Midleton – please ignore the reference.

Monasternenagh was a Gaelic Irish foundation – and it supplied monks to other monasteries in Munster.  These monasteries were Inislounaght (Co. Tipperary), Odorney (Kerry), Holy Cross (Tipperary), Chore/Midleton (Cork), Feale (Limerick).  All of these monasteries were founded by Gaelic kings or lords either before the arrival of the Anglo-Normans or in Gaelic areas of the country.

Samuel Lewis (c1782-1865) took his information from local informants or correspondents and on the available published sources. He didn’t visit Ireland to research his Topographical Dictionary. Sadly, his sources were often wrong. Bizarrely, in his introduction, Lewis acknowledges this by stating that there was a serious paucity of works on Ireland that were available to be consulted and this required ‘greater assiduity in the personal survey.’  Regrettably, Lewis wasn’t assiduous enough on the historical data.  One thing I must acknowledge is that he gives excellent data on pre-famine Ireland in his 1837 first edition and in his 1842 revised edition. Lewis is fine for details of his own time or anything after 1600.  But before that date, his data must be treated with caution.  Caveat lector indeed!

PS: Sadly, the person who wrote the Wikipedia entry on Midleton failed to examine more recent publications and has repeated a version of Samuel Lewis’s history of the town.  Hopefully this will be amended in future.

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. .

Before Midleton there was……Mainistir na Corann.

New Signs Midleton

Sign erected at the Waterford/Youghal entrance to Midleton in autumn 2014. The Cistercian monk weilding a sickle makes sense for the foundation of the abbey in 1180 , but the Anglo-Norman knight suggests a lack of research.  Is he the mythical ‘Redmond Barry’ who supposedly founded the abbey?  A figure in Cromwellian or Restoration costume might make more sense for the Charter of 1670. The sheaf of wheat or barley on the main sign represents the distilling tradition of the town.  The coat of arms was only granted in the late 20th century to the town council, which was abolished in a local government ‘reform’ in 2014.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Midleton became the name of a a settlement in eastern County Cork only in 1670 when King Charles II granted a charter of incorporation to St John Brodrick, the local landlord, and thereby set up the town of Midleton as a parliamentary borough.  Today as you approach Midleton from either Cork or Waterford, the visitor will notice large signs giving two names – Mainistir na Corann 1180 and Midleton 1670.  It seems odd that a town should have two foundation dates, but actually the town only has one foundation date – 1670. The other date refers to the foundation of a Cistercian monastery on the site in 1180.

As a schoolboy in Midleton one of the earliest things I learned was the name of the town in Irish – Mainistir na Corann.  We were told that this meant ‘the monastery of the weir.’  It was explained that there was a monastery where the town was now built and, to my great disappointment, it had disappeared long ago.

Thomas Crofton Cloyne Round Tower

Cloyne Round Tower is the last remnant of the early Christian monastery that dominated the religious life of much of East Cork before 1200. This illustration by Mariane Nicholson was published in Thomas Crofton’s book ‘Researches in the South of Ireland’ (1824).

Much later I learned that the monastery was not as old as St Colman’s monastery at nearby Cloyne, St Declan’s monastery in Ardmore, County Waterford, or St Carthage’s important monastery at Lismore, also in County Waterford.  Midleton only really paid attention to the pre-1670 heritage in 1980 when the parish celebrated the foundation of the monastery eight centuries earlier, in 1180.  There was an exhibition of books and manuscripts from the library of the nearest Cistercian monastery – Mount Mellary in County Waterford.  A small monument was put up in the town and a booklet published to commemorate the foundation.  And that, basically, was it.

One thing we didn’t do was highlight the remains of the monastery because there is nothing left of it.  It seems that the last remnants were swept away to pay for building St John the Baptist Church (Anglican) in the 1820s. Quite literally the Cistercian abbey has, it seems, been wiped from the face of the earth and is only commemorated in the Irish name of the town.  But to confuse matters, when the Christian Brothers came to Midleton to run a school in the 1860s, they were settled at part of the former Hackett’s Distillery on the Mill Road.  It was remarked then, and since, that this was the site of the medieval monastery.  Certainly there’s a weir nearby, and the Cistercians had owned the site at Broomfield up to the Reformation.  But I’m suspicious – did someone get their facts about the precise location of the abbey mixed up, or did the facts arrive after the arrival of the Christian Brothers?  When your town or locality doesn’t have a local history society to promote considered and careful research (and knowledge) then stories will come about that make no sense.

St John's Midleton

The present Church of St John the Baptist in Midleton is the third or fourth one on the site. It is believed to stand on the site of the Cistercian abbey that gave us the name Mainistir na Corann – the Irish name for Midleton. The present Anglican church was built in 1825 to designs by James and Richard Pain.

The foundation of the Cistercian abbey is also repeatedly ascribed to the Anglo-Normans (my paternal ancestors), who arrived in Ireland in 1169 and only took Cork in the later 1170s.  So the foundation by ‘Redmond Barry’ was thought to be correct – it’s given by Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837).  This is specious nonsense – but it is repeated ad nauseam, even on the Wikipedia entry for Midleton. This early period is little studied due to lack of surviving documents – but in the 1940s this myth of a Norman foundation was firmly debunked by Denis O’Sullivan in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society.

Midleton Bridge

The five arched bridge over the Owenacurra River in Midleton in the evening sunlight. This bridge carries the road to Cork. The river is not especially deep here – I stood in the middle of it just below the bridge last summer, without getting my feet wet (and there was water flowing around me). The Owenacurra can be particularly shallow after a dry spell, but it can transform into a raging torrent after heavy rains.

 What I am going to do is explore Midleton before Midleton, just to set the record straight, and throw in a few ideas of my own. If I upset anyone still clinging to outmoded ideas, tough!  History is about revision – not for the mere sake of revision, but to gain a more accurate picture of the past.  I do hope you’ll join me on this exploration.