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.
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, 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 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 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 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 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.