A Monastery at Durrow

Extract from “Tullamore Catholic Parish — A Historical Survey” by Michael Byrne

In attempting to recapture the history of a parish one is conscious not of a clearly defined territorial unit but of a relationship between a local community, its parish priest and parish church. To the extent that the parish as a territorial unit impinges, it does so in the context of administration, jurisdiction, payment of dues and the organization of education and secular activities.

The parish of Tullamore now incorporates the district of Durrow in consequence of a shift in population from the 1700s onwards. Originally the Tullamore area comprised the outlying portion of a parish which had at its centre a church at Durrow and a chapel-of-ease at Kilbride (close to the canal near Ballycowan castle). Up to the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s Durrow was the parish centre of a Christian mission which had commenced about 1,000 years earlier with the founding of a monastery there by Colum Cille.

The Durrow foundation of Colum Cille is said to date from A.D. 553 or 556 with the suggestion that its founding might be as late as 583. In any case it was founded in a century which has come to be regarded as the golden age of Irish monasticism. The diocesan system supposedly set up by Patrick on the introduction of Christianity to Ireland over 100 years earlier had failed and had been replaced by monastic organization. Now the administrative unit was no longer territorial, no longer the diocese and in its place was the monasticfamilia or paruchia being the scat-tered monasteries that followed the rule of the founder. The change in ecclesiastical structure involved a transfer of leadership from the bishop to the abbot. While the change may have been influenced by developments in British Christianity it certainly fitted in with the structures in Irish civil society. The powerful Irish families were prepared to endow monasteries with grants of land, but it was on the basis that the family would continue to maintain an interest in the monastic foundation.

Who Was Colum Cille?

Colum Cille was born in 521. He was of royal blood and belonged to the Cenel Conaill, a branch of the northern Ui-Neill. The Cenel Conaill occupied a large part of Donegal. His original name was said to be Cremthann or Chrimthann ‘a fox’. The name Columba was a Latin one, adopted for monastic use. In Irish this meant Columb or Colum and to distinguish him from others of the same name the saint was known in retrospect as Colum (m)- Cille, ‘church-pigeon’. According to legend Colum Cille founded a monastery at Derry in 546 and the monastery at Durrow some ten years later. Bede, in his history of the early church, states that before Colum Cille went to Britain (probably 563) ‘he had made the noble monastery in Ireland that from an abundance of oak trees is named in the language of the Irish Dearmach, that is “Plain of Oaks” ‘ Adomnan, the ninth abbot of Iona, in his Life of Columba, written about 100 years after the saint’s death (9 June 597), gave an account of the construction of a large building at Durrow under the direction of the monk Laisran on a cold winter’s day. The theme of building activity at Durrow is again adverted to by Adomnan in the Life when he tells how Columba dispatched an angel from lona to save a monk ‘falling from the highest point of the great house that is at the present time being built in the plain of the Oakwood’. This building activity was undertaken after Columba departed for Iona in 563, but could well be reconciled with his having a smaller number of monks in Durrow before his departure.

Why A Monastery at Durrow?

Smith in Celtic Leinster argues that the network of midland monasteries at Durrow, Tihilly, Lynally, Drumcullen, Kinnitty, Seir Kieran, Birr and Roscrea all lay on a major route or Slighe Mór from northern Ireland into Munster. This route was in fact determined by the natural landscape and consisted of a stretch of open fertile countryside approximately twenty miles long and two to four miles wide. The obstacles on either side of the corridor were the bogs and dense forests. Evidence of the regular use of the route will be found in the Lives of Colman of Lynally and Mo-Chuda of Rahan. Further evidence of the survival of the route today will be found in looking at the boundaries of the diocese of Meath. The south-west corner of the diocese stretches from Kilbeggan to Birr and itself reflects the twelfth-century boundaries of the kingdom of Meath. However, the view that Durrow did not always form part of the kingdom of Meath, or eventually came under the control of the Meath men, is borne out by the tradition that it was Aed Mac Brénainn king the of Tethbae (obit 585) who granted the land at Durrow to Colum Cille. The ancient kingdom of Tethbae in Longford is said to have stretched deep into Offaly. Notwithstanding this changing political geography the Durrow monastery found protectors in the ruling families, the O’Molloys and Mageoghegans, and indeed the O’Melaghlins, at one time kings of Meath.

The Durrow Achievement

The greatest survival from the Durrow monastery is, of course, the Book of Durrow. The book is dated to the latter half of the seventh century and contains the Latin text of the four Gospels. It is the earliest of the Irish illuminated manuscripts, which unlike the later Book of Kells, uses a limited number of colours – brown, red, yellow and green. Much scholarly discussion has taken place as to whether the Book of Durrow was actually written at Durrow and some have favoured a Derry or Northumbrian provenance. Smith argues that Durrow must have provided the major training ground for Irish Columban monks after its foundation and that most likely Adomnan, Columba’s seventh-century biographer, could have begun his studies at Durrow as early as the 640s. Smith ties in the career of Adomnan, who later became abbot of the Columban foundation at Iona, with that of his friend King Alfridth of Northumbria who ruled the northern English from 685 to 705. Alfridth apparently spent six years in Ireland before he became king, and while Smith does not seek to prove that Alfridth studied at Durrow, he does set out to show that Durrow and not Derry was the most important Columban monastery on the Irish mainland in the centre of a midland confederacy of monasteries and enjoying close ties with Iona. Even if Alfridth never reached Durrow, Northumbrian influence must have been strong there since communication with Iona would have opened up contacts with the Northumbrian monastery at Lindesfarne. Smith concludes that if the Book of Durrow had begun life in Northumbria, the fact that such a magnificent work had been allowed to gravitate towards Durrow at an early stage in its life would in itself be suggestive of the pre-eminent position of the Irish midlands in the cultural life of the British Isles in the dark ages.

The Book of Durrow was apparently kept at Durrow from the seventh to the seventeenth century. Towards the end of the eleventh century there was entered at the back of the book the record of the handing over of a parcel of land to the Durrow monastery. In 1627 Conall Mac Eochagáin, the translator of the Annals of Clonmacnois, which was completed at Lemanaghan castle near Clara in the same year, recorded that the book was in the custody of a farmer who when sickness came to his cattle dipped the book in water which was then given to the cattle to drink for its curative powers. Henry Jones, who became the Protestant bishop of Meath in 1661 presented the Book of Durrow to Trinity College, where it can be seen today. When the book was presented to Trinity it was housed in a silver shrine which was apparently stolen during the Williamite wars of the 1690s. The inscription on the silver shrine was recorded in 1677 and read: ‘The prayer and blessing of Colum Cille for Flann son of Maolsechnaill, King of Ireland, who had this shrine made’. It was the same King Flann who was responsible for the Cross of the Scriptures and the Cathedral at Clonmacnois.

At Durrow today can be seen an important high cross which has a strong family resemblance to the two crosses at Monasterboice and the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois. The Durrow cross is made from a single block of sandstone, with the addition of a capstone, and is 12 to 13 feet in height.

Other surviving relics which testify to Durrow’s importance include the Crozier of Durrow purchased by the Royal Irish Academy in 1851 and now in the National Museum. The Crozier was for many years in the family of Sir Richard Nagle of Jamestown House, Co. Westmeath, who had acquired it through marriage to a member of the Mageoghegan family, its hereditary guardians, who had long associations with Durrow. At Durrow today can be seen an important high cross which has a strong family resemblance to the two crosses at Monasterboice and the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois. The Durrow cross is made from a single block of sandstone, with the addition of a capstone, and is about 12 to 13 feet in height. There were two inscriptions on the base of the cross one of which is thought to read, OR DO DUBHTACH – a prayer for Dubhtach, an abbot who governed the Columban monasteries and which would date the high cross to c.950. The smaller cross, formerly on the church gable, is thought to date from sometime in the tenth to twelfth centuries. Close by to the high cross are several early Christian sandstone slabs dating from the ninth to the eleventh centuries.

Click the photograph (below right) for a larger photographs of the cross

Durrow High Cross

The panels in the Durrow high cross depict scenes from the gospels and some writers have suggested that the high crosses were a valuable teaching aid in imparting the message of the gospels to the people. Other writers have suggested that a high cross served to mark the Termon or boundary of the monastery. In the case of Durrow there is good reason for believing that the high cross was re-erected in the nineteenth century in its present location. Outside the boundary wall of the abbey can be seen a socket stone for another high cross.

Durrow in Medieval Times

The richness of the surviving remains from early Christian and medieval Durrow serves to illustrate the point that economic surplus was possible and that some could involve themselves in creating works of art while others laboured in the fields. It also confirms that a measure of stability and security was possible in society and that all was not turbulence and sudden death – an impression given by the annals which, of course, only report the outstanding events and not the humdrum of everyday life or the customs and practices of the people. Monastic centres such as Durrow and Clonmacnois may have provided quasi-urban forms of settlement. O’Corrain has tentatively suggested that Durrow might have had a population of between 1,500 and 2,000 people by the ninth century, and presumably Clonmacnois would have exceeded Durrow in size. However, one wonders could the surrounding bogland have provided the basis for a settlement larger than that at Durrow, notwithstanding that Clonmacnois has impressive ecclesiastical remains. O’Corrain says that ‘By the eighth and ninth centuries, monastic towns with streets (occasionally paved) of wooden houses and the normal development of workshops and craft, and with extensive farmlands devoted largely to grain growing, had become a most important feature of the Irish economy’)

It was inevitable that, as monasteries grew in importance and became in effect urban centres, they would also become heavily secularised. Battles between monasteries are recorded from the eighth-century annals and that monks probably took part in these battles. In 760 the monasteries at Birr and Clonmacnois went to battle, while in 764 Clonmacnois was at war with Durrow and the annals report that upwards of 200 monks from Durrow were killed. The cause of the battle was possibly due to the burial at Durrow of Domhnall, the last high-king of the Clann-Colman or O’Melaghlin (the area in the vicinity of Moate), whose ancestors were most likely buried at Clonmacnois. The change in burial ground would apparently have involved a loss of revenue and patronage for the Clonmacnois monastery) The annalists record that in 832 both Clonmacnois and Durrow were destroyed to the church doors by the king of Cashel while the Meath men defeated the Leinstermen at Durrow in 1059)6 In an earlier episode in c.1020 the stone church at Durrow was broken open by one Muirchertach, grandson of Carrach, against Maelmhuaidh (Molloy) king of Fir Cell, who was taken out of it by force and after-wards slain.’ The O’Molloys were the ruling family in Fir Cell, an area that originally stretched from Killare near the hill of Uisneach in Westmeath to Birr. After the rise of the Mageoghegans in the thirteenth century the north eastern portion of Fir Cell came to be known as Cinel Fiacha or Mageoghegan country. The territory is coterminous with the barony of Moycashel while the district Fir Cell is now associated with the modern day baronies of Ballycowan, Ballyboy, and Eglish. What is interesting is the reference to a stone church at Durrow — a replacement for an earlier timber structure.

Although Durrow was situated in the territory of the O’Molloys it was in the protectorate of their probable overlords the O’Melaghlins, kings of the ancient kingdom of Meath. There are many references to Durrow in the annals for the eleventh and twelfth centuries, mostly referring to the sudden death and burial of an O’Melaghlin chief. These include the following:

1068 — Murrough O’Brien, grandson of Brian Boru, was killed by the men of Teathbae, and his head was taken to Clonmacnois and his body to Durrow for burial.
1095 — Durrow with its books burned.
1140 — Eochaidh Ua Ceallaigh, chief head of the men of Meath, the most distinguished bishop of all Ireland, died at an advanced age at Durrow (probably an early Bishop of Meath).
1142 — The son of Fergal O’Molloy, lord of Fir Cell, was killed by the son of Rory O’Molloy at Durrow.
1153 — Murchadh Ua Maeleachlainn, king of Meath, died at Durrow.
1155 — Mealseachlainn, son of Murchadh Ua Maeleachlainn, king of Meath, died in the thirtieth year of his age, of a poisonous drink at Durrow in the flood of his prosperity and reign, on the night of the festival of Brigid, after the victory of penance. In the same year Durrow was twice burned in the one month.
1173 — Domhnall Bregach O’Maeleachlainn, king of Meath, was killed by his half brother Art at Durrow.

Some years prior to this murder (1167) another member of the O’Maeleachlainn or Melaghlain family, Derbhforgaill, who had at one time eloped with Dermot Mac Murrough, completed the nuns’ church at Clonmacnois.

Reform and Change

In the tenth and eleventh centuries the monastery at Durrow, like religious houses elsewhere, became increasingly dependent on the local secular powers — the ruling families — for support and survival. The monasteries were no longer providing a satisfactory level of pastoral care for the laity. The sacraments were administered irregularly, simony was commonplace, there were abuses in regard to sex and marriage, and leadership in the monastery was regarded as the prerogative of the ruling family where abbots married and were succeeded in power by their children. The popes who had freed themselves of secular domination and dependency by the middle of the tenth century set out to reform the Church, while at the same time Ireland was gradually drawn into closer contact with Rome. At a synod held in Cashel in 1101 a start was made in tackling the abuses. Ten years later another synod was held at Rathbreasail (in Co. Tipperary). This synod was the first in Ireland to draw a clear distinction between the world of the monastery and the diocese by establishing a diocesan episcopate with dioceses coinciding with the civil territorial divisions. The work begun at Rathbreasail was consolidated at the Synod of Kells in 1152. In the meantime a leader had emerged in the Irish Church reform movement in the person of Malachy, sometime archbishop of Armagh and friend of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Malachy established the first Irish Cistercian foundation at Mellifont in 1142. He is also associated with the introduction of the Augustinian Canons Regular who followed the rule of the house of Arrouaise in northern France.

It was probably during Malachy’s lifetime (he died in 1148) that the Augustinian Priory of St. Mary was founded at Durrow. It may have been founded at the instance of Malachy by Murchadh O’Maeleachlainn, ruler of Meath, who it was already noted, died at Durrow in 1153. The Augustinian monastery appears to have been separate from the old celtic monastery of Colum Cille which apparently still had a separate existence in 1161. The monastery at Killeigh, some ten miles south of Durrow, also adopted the Augustinian rule and became a dependency of Durrow. Killeigh had a convent of Augustinian nuns and Durrow seems to have had one also, i.e. a double foundation of canons and nuns. The small community of nuns at Durrow appears to have had an association or dependency on a community of nuns at Clonard. However, the convent at Durrow may not have lasted more than one hundred years. Their property at Durrow was most likely absorbed into the property of the Canons Regular, who at the suppression of the Durrow monastery in the 1540s, were found to own land at Ballenakallagh (or Ballycallaghan). The place-name suggests the town or land of the nuns. Although the Irish reform movement found great spiritual leadership in Malachy and Laurence O’Toole (1128-80) the country lacked political leadership and suffered from instability. It was perhaps with this in mind that Nicholas Breakspeare, the only English pope, decided to grant Henry II the lordship of Ireland in 1155. Unfortunately, it did not achieve this objective and when Henry finally took up the pope’s mandate, Laudabiliter, in 1171, he came to Ireland to check the greed and power of the Norman barons, some of whom had arrived two years earlier.

Shortly after Henry’s arrival he granted the kingdom of Meath to one of his followers, Hugh de Lacy. The kingdom was, as already stated, coterminous with the diocese of Meath which at the time included Clonmacnois. Hugh de Lacy gave, in turn, grants of land to his various followers. To Meiler Fitz Henry (grandson of Henry I) he gave the cantred or territory of Ardnurcher. This was in fact the same as Fir Cell, at that time an area stretching from Birr to the hill of Uisneach in Westmeath.

After de Lacy obtained his grant of Meath he set about building a castle at Trim. While de Lacy was with king Henry in Normandy the castle was destroyed by the O’Melaghlins of Meath assisted by Rory O’Connor. However, intense struggle among the Irish did not help their position. In 1173 Domhnall Bregach O’Melaghlin was killed in Durrow by his half brother, Art, who succeeded him as ruler of west Meath while the kingdom of east Meath appears to have been assumed by Manus O’Melaghlin. In reprisal for the Irish attacks of 1173-74 the Normans hanged Manus O’Melaghlin at Trim in 1175 and in the same year plundered the monasteries of Clonard and Durrow. Thereafter the territory was for a time, perhaps one hundred years, under Norman control. The evidence of this will be found in the mottes and the castles erected at Durrow, Rahan, Lynally, Rahugh, Ballyboy and elsewhere. The Normans usually erected the castles at monastic sites as these were generally the centres of population.

Hugh de Lacy returned to Ireland in the late 1170s and resumed his programme of castle building. About 1180 he married a daughter of Rory O’Connor, who had in 1175 made a peace with Henry II by the treaty of Windsor. De Lacy was in 1181-84 chief governor of Ireland, but by 1185 was out of favour with the king. In 1186 while supervising the building of a castle at Durrow his career abruptly came to an end. The episode is described by the Four Masters as follows:

Hugo de Lacy, the profaner and destroyer of many churches; Lord of the English of Meath, Breifny, and One!; he to whom the tribute of Connaught was paid; he who had conquered the greater part of Ireland for the English, and of whose English castles all Meath, from the Shannon to the sea, was full, after having finished the castle of Durrow, set out, accompanied by three Englishmen, to view it. One of the men of Teffia, a youth named Gilla-gan-inathar O’Meyey, approached him, and drawing out an axe, which he had kept concealed, he, with one blow of it, severed his head from his body; and both head and trunk fell into the ditch of the castle. This was in revenge of Columbkille. Gilla-gan-inathar fled, and, by his fleetness of foot, made his escape from English and Irish to the wood of Kilclare. He afterwards went to the Sinnagh (the Fox) and O’Breen, at whose instigation he had killed the Earl.

There is a tradition that de Lacy was murdered, not at the motte (still surviving beside Durrow Abbey house) but at a castle in Ballybought townland less than a mile away, known as Shancourt or Meeneglish. The remains of a rectangular platform and some mortared rubble can still be seen in Ballybought. The assassin who was a foster son of the Fox, the ruler of the Kilcoursey or Clara area, was no doubt assisted by de Lacy’s short stature! Gerald of Wales described de Lacy as ‘a swarthy man with deep-set eyes, a flat nose, an ugly scar on his right cheek caused by a burn, a short neck, and a hairy sinewy body. He was short and ill-made in person, but in character firm and resolute and of French sobriety’

De Lacy was buried at the cemetery of Durrow, but nine years later in 1195 the archbishops of Cashel and Dublin caused the body to be removed and had the body buried in Bective Abbey in Meath and the head in St. Thomas’s in Dublin. Apparently a controversy arose between the canons of St. Thomas and the monks of Bective concerning the right to the body which controversy was decided in 1205 in favour of the church of St. Thomas.

Notwithstanding the death of de Lacy the Norman conquest gathered momentum. Dc Lacy’s grantee, Meiler FitzHenry, erected a castle at Ardnurcher (Horseleap) in 1192. Again this was probably an earthen motte with a wooden structure built on it and was superseded soon after by a stone castle. Meiler built a church at the new town of Ardnurcher and got the bishop of Meath to annex all the churches of Fir Cell as chapels to Ardnurcher. According to Nicholls this was the origin of the great rectory of Ardnurcher which covered three baronies and parts of two more and was the biggest parish in the medieval diocese of Meath.28 The rectory was really a benefice with a right to tithes and when Meiler founded the priory of Conall in County Kildare he gave the rectory to it. Conall obtained financial advantage from this transaction because in 1541 it was receiving a yearly rent of fifty cows from the rectory at Ardnurcher. The rectory of Ardnurcher was a benefice or sinecure for which little or no pastoral work had to be done and for such work the rector would pay a vicar or curate. However, the country was so heavily forested and boggy that probably the vicar of Ardnurcher could not collect tithes in the rest of Fir Cell. In 1417 the inhabitants of Fir Cell petitioned the pope stating that:
their parish church, St. Davids of Ardnurcher, being six English miles away from them, and the country at times much disturbed, they have found it very difficult to go there for divine service, for the reception of the sacraments, the baptism of their children, and the burial of their dead, especially in the cold and rainy season of the year. Therefore they prayed that the chapel of St. Colman of Lynnela might be separated from the parish of Ardnurcher, be erected into a parish church and the chapels of Rathin Mochuda [Rahan], Killeacy [Killoughy], Raoliffen [Rathleen], Habuge [?], Drumculynd [Drumcullen], and Eglays [Eglish], all situated in the same district of Feara Kyeall and belonging to Ardnurcher parish, be limited to it.

Upon investigation the position was found to be represented correctly and in 1421 the pope elevated Lynally to a parish church with the other churches as auxiliary chapels. The petition to the pope in 1417 makes no mention of Durrow or Kilbeggan and presumably they were omitted because Durrow was being served by the monastery of Augustinian canons and Kilbeggan by the local Cistercian monastery. The people of Durrow, which would have included the Tullamore area, were paying tithes and obtaining pastoral services from the Durrow monastery.

As to when Kilbride, a chapel of ease to Durrow, was erected we cannot be sure. The architectural details would suggest a fourteenth or early fifteenth century date. The building of a church at Kilbride testifies to an enduring Christianity among the people, but the Church suffered from a failure of leadership from the pope down in the fifteenth century. Coupled with this was the continuing dynastic succession to ecclesiastical office with priests marrying or holding office while not ordained. When the dissolution of the monasteries came after Henry Vlll’s breach with Pope Clement VII in the 1530s the monasteries had reached a low ebb. When the monastery at Durrow was dissolved in 1547 and its lands surrendered to the crown the property was immediately regranted to its former prior, Contan 0Molloy, by way of lease for twenty-one years. The Augustinian monastery at Killeigh shared a similar fate. However, just as in the eleventh century when the Church seemed to be in decline so in the sixteenth century the progress of the observant or mendicant friars brought about a significant internal reform. The term ‘observant’ simply referred to those monks who wanted stricter discipline and observance of the monastic rule. The Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians all underwent this reform process. A second monastic order at Killeigh, that of the Franciscans, also lost its house and possessions with the dissolution, but the friars seemed to have remained in the area during the Elizabethan wars. In 1632 the Killeigh monastery adopted the observant reform.Tullamore Catholic Parish - A Historic Survey

This page is an extract from the book pictured on the right which is on our Books for Sale page.

With the collapse of Durrow and the taking over of the church there and that at Kilbride by the Protestants, the friars at Killeigh and the wandering clergy played an important role in serving the requirements of Catholic parishioners. Certainly it was the mendicant friars who spearheaded the counter-reformation movement from the 1580s onwards and up to the 1620s when new diocesan or secular clergy, trained in lately established continental seminaries, became available. For a period of some two hundred years after the reformation the Catholic community of the Durrow and Tullamore area was to be without any permanent church or chapel.