The Mad Monks of Midleton – really!

Mad Monk bar

The Mad Monk Bar and Bistro on Church Lane in Midleton. It stands right beside the churchyard of St John the Baptist. This church is actually built on the site of the Abbey of Chore or Mainistir na Corann, founded for the Cistercians in 1180.

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!

Mad Monk Logo

Logo of the Mad Monk Bar in Midleton – not quite the version that comes to mind when discussing the actual mad monks of Chore/Mainistir na Corann in 1228/1229. Clearly this image depicts the Brother Cellarer – note the keys for locking up the beverages!

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.

Tintern_de_Voto

Tintern Minor (so called because the first monks came from Tintern in Wales) in County Wexford. It was also called Tintern de Voto from a vow made by its founder William Marshal, who was caught in a storm at sea as he crossed to visit his Irish estates. The abbey was founded around 1200 and, after the dissolution, was granted, eventually, to the Colclough family who turned the church into a house – note the very domestic window on the upper wall of the transept.

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.

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. .