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.
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.
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.
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.