On Church Lane in Midleton there is a bar/bistro called Mad Monk. This establishment was called O’Riordan’s Pub when I was growing up and then became Joe’s of Church Lane. The name Mad Monk was given to the pub more recently. Curious about the change of name (which occurred when I lived in Limerick) I went in recently to inquire why the place was called Mad Monk. The personnel behind the bar hadn’t a clue – they were very clear about that. It seems that nobody had explained the origins of the name to them. One clue may be in the pub’s logo – a monk indulging in beer!
But there were mad monks in Midleton or Mainistir na Corann in the early 1200s. And they were hopping mad! Not gaga mind you, just furious that they were being called to account.
How bad were they? Well, a letter written to them in 1228 tells us. They are addressed as the Community of Chore.
To the Community of Chore, greetings.
The charge of much disorder as well as rebellion and conspiracy…..perpetrated in your house in the past year against the visitor sent to you on behalf of the General Chapter, namely the Abbot of Tintern Minor, has been brought to our attention by reliable and trustworthy men. He removed your former abbot, Brother R., from office for refusing to submit to the authority given to him, and at the same time he placed your church and you yourselves under interdict and suspended you from the divine services for as long as you supported the beforementioned R. as abbot or recognized him as your abbot.
This opening to the letters sent by Stephen of Lexington, Abbot of Stanley, was probably not what the monks of Chore or Mainistir na Corann wanted to read. And it was very a serious recital of the charge against the abbey as well as the penalties imposed on the abbey.
But what exactly was it all about?
Right from the start, the Cistercians in Ireland faced trouble – from the Irish monks themselves. Some years after the establishment of Mellifont Abbey in 1142, the French monks quit the place and returned to Burgundy with complaints that the Irish had some very strange interpretations of the Cistercian Rule. You may recall that the Cistercians were a reformed version of the Benedictine order, but were more rigorous in their interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict. They were also more tightly organized throughout Europe, whereas the Benedictines were organised more loosely.
For example, every year the Cistercians had a Europe-wide meeting called a General Chapter. This meeting was held in Burgundy, either at Citeaux or at Clairvaux. Representatives were sent from every national affiliation of Cistercian monasteries – this meant that the monasteries founded from Mellifont represented the Irish affiliation, sending three abbots to the General Chapter. Furthermore, the Cistercians interpreted the Benedictine rule to rigidly structure every moment of the day for the monks – both choir monks (educated men who were usually ordained) and the lay brothers (‘peasant’ monks who tilled the fields and did all the manual labour). Cistercian monks had to sleep in open dormitories – one for the choir monks and one for the lay brothers. There were various other rules – like the lack of ornament in their churches (unnecessary according to St Bernard of Clairvaux).
However, this was fine in a country with a tradition of Benedictine monasticism. Ireland was not one of these countries – and so a rigourous interpretation of the rules was more the exception than the norm in Ireland. From a very early date, Irish Cistercians slept in cells rather than in open dormitories. They accepted decoration in their churches, they often failed to attend the General Chapter – a VERY serious offence in the eyes of the Cistercian Order. In 1195 the abbot of Chore/Mainistir na Corann was one of the three representatives of the Irish Cistercians at the General Chapter. Intriguingly the abbot was ordered to go to Dublin impose a penance on the abbot of the very rich abbey of St Mary’s. The reason? the abbot of St Mary’s was one of the three representatives from Ireland for the previous year’s General Chapter – but he failed to attend, claiming to be sick. The General Chapter had word that this abbot was not sick at the time he should have been in Burgundy and decided to rap him across the knuckles. The abbot of Chore (Mainistir na Corann/Midleton) was given the task of calling the abbot of St Mary’s, Dublin, to account. Irish absenteeism from the General Chapter was such that the order decided, after 1195, to allow some leeway to the Irish due to the remoteness of their country – they would only be obliged to attend the General Chapter every four years. Along with the abbot of Chore’s presence at the General Chapter that year,this commission suggests that the abbey of Chore was sufficiently important just fifteen years after its foundation to be given an important role in the Cistercian order in Ireland.
However, the real trouble in the Cistercian order in Ireland erupted when the General Chapter sent a mission to Ireland to investigate the rumours of widespread abuses, that is, lack of proper Cistercian discipline. Arriving in 1217, the mission was rebuffed at teh gates of Mellifont and refused admission to the abbey. Jerpoint abbey also refused the mission access, as did several other abbeys. When the Irish abbot of Baltinglass was deposed and an Englishman appointed in his place, the Irish monks in that abbey dragged the interloper from his horse and threw him out. When the abbot sought the assistance of the government and returned with armed men, the monks fortified the abbey against him! It should be noted that of the over thirty Cistercian monasteries in Ireland, nearly two thirds were part of the Mellifont affiliation – all founded by native Irish patrons and filled mostly with native Irish monks. The remaining monasteries founded by the English in Ireland were not affected by this ‘Conspiracy of Mellifont’, as this revolt of the Mellifont affiliation of abbeys was called.
Finally, complaining to the pope that the Cistercian rule in Ireland did not extend beyond the wearing of the white habit, the General Chapter decided to crack down severely on the Irish.In 1227, Stephen of Lexington, the abbot of Stanley in Wiltshire, was commissioned with additional papal authority to bring the Irish to heel. Despite threats (verbal and physical) Stephen and his assistants toured Ireland and tried to bring the Irish monasteries into obedience to the General Chapter.
The abbeys of Mellifont, Inislounaght and Monasternenagh all fortified themselves against Stephen’s mission. Other abbeys were visited by Stephen’s appointed lieutenants and with great difficulty the deeply damaging and embarrassing revolt was brought to an end. Fifteen of the Irish monasteries were placed under the supervision of foreign monasteries and the Mellifont affiliation was broken up until finally restored in 1274.
At Mainistir na Corann the trouble was very serious – the abbot of Tintern Minor in County Wexford was charged with removing the abbot of Chore and forcing the abbey to conform properly to the Cistercian rule following a penance. But the abbot and monks of Chore rejected this injunction and continued in their merry way. The abbot of Tintern was obliged to impose an interdict – basically the monks of Chore/Mainistir na Corann were forbidden to celebrate Mass and any other sacraments. They couldn’t even bury their dead with the proper rites! To most people this would have been a terrifying penalty – but not to the monks of Chore – they simply ignored the interdiction!
However, the lay people in the parish must have been distressed. Whatever about the private quarrel of the monks with their order, the interdiction also banned ANY sacraments for the laity because the abbey church at Chore/Mainistir na Corann was also the parish church, and the interdiction against the monks also prohibited the celebration of any sacraments in their church. If the laity couldn’t be sure that their dead were condemned to hell or to purgatory (nobody went straight to heaven!) then it was likely that they sought reassurance from the priests at the neighbouring parishes of Ballinacorra, Ballyspillane, Inchinabecky,Caherultan and Mogeesha. This meant that the abbey would have lost out on dues for the sacraments.
Eventually with the help of the abbot of Tracton (some miles south of Cork) Stephen of Lexington brought Chore/Mainistir na Corann back into line. As punishment, Chore, like Monasternenagh and Fermoy abbeys, was put under the supervision of Margam Abbey in Wales. The two decades of madness affecting the monks of Chore was at an end, as was the Conspiracy of Mellifont..
The priceless irony of all this was that Stephen of Lexington was elected abbot of Clairvaux in 1242 and was soon removed from office for unsatisfactory performance! Happily his letter to the community at Chore has survived as the oldest letter ever sent to Mainistir na Corann. Bizarrely, like Chore, Fermoy and Tracton, nothing remains of Stanley abbey today.