Back to Manister Local History

Talk Given by Mainchín Seoighe in Manister Abbey, 14 August 1992

          Táimid bailithe le chéile in áit seanda bheannaithe. Thángamar anseo chun bheith i láthair ag Aifreann, agus chun ómós a thabhairt do chuimhne na manach a bhí anseo nuair a bhí Mainistir an Aonaigh faoi bhláth, a cuid foirgneamh go léir ina seasamh, díon orthu, agus 'an t-Aifreann doimhin' dá rá ann gach lá. Is mór idir inné agus inniu. Tá Mainistir an Aonaigh ina fothrach anois, tá a cuid manaigh imithe, ach an Creideamh inar baisteadh iad maireann sé fós d'ainneoin ar deineadh ar feadh na gcéadta bliain chun é a dhíbirt as Éirinn. Ár mbuíochas do mhanaigh na mainistreach seo, agus do mhanaigh na mainistreacha eile in Éirinn, agus do na sagairt, agus don phobal dílis féin go bhfuil an scéal amhlaidh.

          We are gathered here this evening in this sacred and historic spot to be present at Mass - where Mass was so often celebrated in the past, and we are gathered here too to honour the memory of the generations of Cistercian monks of Mainistir an Aonaigh, whose steadfast faith and good works were an inspiration to this part of County Limerick.

          This area was a place where people gathered long before the first stone of the abbey was laid. On high ground across the river from here was the site of an ancient aonach, Aonach Cairbre, the origins of which are lost in the mists of prehistory. An aonach was an assembly of the people of a particular territory, in this case the territory of Uí Cairbre. Uí Cairbre was a long, fairly narrow tract of land extending from the Cork border to the Shannon, and embracing such places as Kilfinane, Kilmallock, Bruree, Athlacca, Croom and Adare.

          At an aonach, such as that of Aonach Cairbre, much more went on than the mere buying and selling of goods or animals. Laws for the territory were enacted, judgements were given, matches were made, ancient laws and legends were recited; there were competitions for poetry, the poetry being recited to a harp accompaniment; there was horse racing and athletic events. So you can imagine all the life and colour and excitement that once was to be found just across the Camogue from here, at Aonach Cairbre.

          The site of an aonach was a sacred place and usually was located near the cemetery where the dead of the territory were interred. Some of the earthen forts and mounds over there across the river may have formed part of that cemetery. The site of the aonach, or its immediate vicinity, also happened to be the site of a number of sanguinary battles.

          In the year, 1138 A,D,, near the where Rathmore Castle now stands, Tarlach Ó Briain, a member of the powerful O'Brien family, and a descendant of Briab Ború, defeated an army of Irish and Vikings who had conspired against him. Before the battle, Tarlach promised that, if victorious, he would build a monastery dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He was true to his word, and founded this monastery, here on the banks of the Camogue, a tributary of the Maigue.

          By the Irish, the abbey was known as Mainistir an Aonaigh - the Monastery of the Aonach - because it was built so close to the site of the ancient Aonach Cairbre, the memory of which still survived. In more formal Latin, the monastery was called Monasterium de Santa Maria de Magio. It would appear that the de Magio in the name comes from the Irish word máigh, which is the Irish name for the River Maigue, but which can also mean "a plain". So the Latin name can mean "the Monastery of St. Mary of the Maigue", or "the Monastery of St. Mary of the Plain". If it means "the Monastery of St. Mary of the Maigue", one wonders why it was not called "the Monastery of St. Mary of the Camogue", seeing that it was built on the banks of the Camogue?

          Monks to take over the new abbey of Mainistir an Aonaigh were brought over from Mellifont, Ireland's first Cistercian monastery, which had been founded by St. Malachy in 1142. The beginnings of the Cistercian Order go back to the year 1098 when Robert, Benedictine abbot of Molesme in France, founded a new order in a remote part of Burgundy called Citeaux, or, in Latin, Cistercium; it was from this latter name that the name of the order came. Some time later, St. Bernard, who had joined this new Order of Cistercians, became abbot of Clairvaux.

          In 1139, the Irish St. Malachy visited Rome. On his way there, and on the return journey, he visited St. Bernard at Clairvaux, and was very impressed by what he saw in the monastery, so much so that he left some of the young men who had accompanied him in the monastery to study there and be ordained. After ordination, these returned to Ireland and were among Mellifont's first monks. St. Malachy again visited Clairvaux in 1148, but took ill there and died in the arms of St. Bernard. It is surely appropriate then to see both Malachy and Bernard commemorated in two windows in the new church in Manister.

          Mainister an Aonaigh, itself a daughter-house of Mellifont, later became the mother-house of four monasteries: Holy Cross and Inishlounaght in Co. Tipperary, Abbeydorney in Co. Kerry and Midleton in Co. Cork. So whenever people from this district visit the beautifully restored abbey of Holy Cross they can justifiably feel a surge of pride at the thought that the monks to establish that abbey came from the spot where we are now gathered.

          The plan of Cistercian abbeys was dictated in their early years by the rules of the Order, so that all the 12th Century abbeys are remarkably alike in layout. It was usual to choose for the site of the abbey a remote place near an adequate supply of running water. The church, the highest building, was almost invariably built to the north of the cloister, which was the centre of the monastic complex. In the expansive open green space of the cloister, which would have been surrounded by ranges of buildings, the monks could work or read, enjoying the sun when the sun was shining, sheltered from the wind when the wind blew.

          On the east side of the cloister were generally to be found the chapter house, the parlour, the monks' refectory and, overhead, the monks' dormitory. On the wset side of the cloister were the quarters of the lay brothers - refectory, cellars and dormitory above. An outer court contained the guest quarters, school, granary, brewery, bakery and gatehouse.

          Here in Mainistir an Aonaigh, according to the antiquarian, T.J. Westropp, the church, which is 190 feet long, was divided into nave, ritual choir and chancel. The present wall separating nave and choir appears to be of later construction than the church. Originally, the less drastic partition of a rood screen, on which hung a large crucifix, would have separated the two. The chancel had a beautiful east window, the central lancet of which was 27 feet high and 2 feet in breadth. Some of the very first Gothic in Ireland is to be found in this abbey. The most outstanding feature of the church was the great Gothic chancel arch which was still standing in 1840 when the antiquarian, John O'Donovan visited the abbey in the coyrse of his work with the Ordnance Survey. Of it O'Donovan wrote:

          "The shafts of this arch are about 17 and a half feet high. The arch is pointed and about 35 feet in height from the present level of the floor to the vertex of the arch. It is doubtlessly a most magnificent arch and reflects honour on the race of Brian. I had no idea that the Irish built such splendid arches before the arrival of the English."

          What a magnificent building this abbey must have been in its hey day when it stood whole and complete with its now vanished bell tower. So extensive was the abbey that today its ruins cover more ground than do all the ruins of the Rock of Cashel. A charter confirmed by King John in 1200 granted to it numerous church sites, with other lands and granges (granaries) in such far flung places as Cahercorney, Camas, Grange, Fedamore, Tullybrackey, Emlygrennan and Darragh. The importance of the abbey can be judged by the fact that its abbot sat in parliament as one of the spiritual peers from the time of King John onwards.

          It is interesting to know that Mainistir an Aonaigh - Manister Abbey - paid 10 shillings a year - a considerable sum in those days - to the abbey of Clairvaux in France, as an act of homage to that great abbey of which St. Bernard had beenabbot.

          And what of the life of the monks who once peopled this now lonely ruin, enveloped in perpetual Cistercian silence? The monks observed the rule of silence; they slept on hard straw matresses; they rose before dawn for prayer; they tended to the sick; they gave alms to the poor. They went out into the fields to tend their animals; and they tilled the ground in order to grow corn and vegetables. When not engaged in hard manual work they spent their time in prayer or study. Coming into this noble ruin of many memories, one might say, as Seán Ó Coileáin said of the ruined abbey of Timoleague:
Do stadas san ndoras tsean
'Nar ghnáth almsan' is aoíoct
Dá ndáil don lobhar is don lag,
An tráth do mhair lucht a tí.

          The Cistercian peace was shattered in 1369 when a battle fought quite near the abbey resulted in the defeat of the Earl of Desmond by Brian Ó Briain. Ever afterwards the redoubtable Brian was known as Brian Catha an Aonaigh - Brian of the Battle of Aonach. That word aonach continued to be linked with the name Mainistir or Manister. The old pre-Reformation parish in which the abbey stood still survives as a civil parish, the official name of which is spelt Monasteranenagh, a phonetic spelling of the Irish Mainistir an Aonaigh.

          There is a certain amount of tautology in speaking of "the abbey of Manister", for Manister - correctly Mainistir - means a monastery or abbey; so speaking of the Abbey of Manister is like saying "the Abbey of the Abbey"!

          The coming of the Reformation marked the beginning of the end for Mainistir an Aonaigh. In 1540 the abbey was supressed. At its suppression the abbot was found in possession of the abbey buildings and five ploughlands. The lands included the whole parish of Nenagh, that is, Mainistir an Aonaigh, as well as Ballymacsradeen, the two Morenames, Boolavvord and Grange, together with a mill and weirs for eels and pike on the Camogue. The monastic lands were granted to various planters, Sir Henry Wallop getting possession of the abbey, or as others say Sir Warham St. Leger.

          It is not clear if the monks were forced to leave the abbey at the time of the suppression, but if they were, we know that they were back in occupation at a later date. The Earl of Desmond was arrested in 1569 and lodged in the Tower of London. Leadership of the Geraldines, who were still in revolt, was taken by John of Desmond, brother of the imprisoned Earl. On the 3rd of October 1579 John of Desmond and his Geraldine forces, including the famous gallowglass troops of the Mac Sheehys and Mac Sweenys, were encamped north of Manister Abbey, about half way between the Camogue and Tory Hill.

          The English commander, Sir Nicholas Malby, happened to be marching to Limerick with a very large army, and learning that the Geraldine forces were encamped in Manister, he marched to attack them. As soon as John of Desmond saw them approach he drew up his men in battle array, and flung to the breeze the consecrated banner which his dead kinsman, James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald, had received from the Pope. On the banner were inscribed the words: In omni tribulatione et angustia spes nostra Jusu et Maria.

          The battle was joined. It lasted for several hours, and was fierce and bloody, with great slaughter done. The sounds of battle, the booming of Malby's big guns, and the cries and shrieks of the combatants, must have reacehd the abbey. In the end the Geraldines were defeated. Some of the fleeing Geraldine soldiers sought shelter in the abbey, as already had done some of the men, women and children of the locality. Malby's men went after them in hot pursuit; then Malby turned his big guns on the venerable abbey walls, and when he had breached them his battl-crazed soldiers charged through the breaches and slew everyone they found within the abbey precincts, men, women, children, including the whole comminity of 40 monks. These grey walls around us, if they could speak, would tell of that awful massacre that took place here on the 3rd of October 1579.

          James Dowd, in Roundabout in County Limerick, recounts a beautiful legend about the massacre that, he says, is recorded in the Annals of the Cistercians. The legend, however, has got the date of the battle wrong, putting it on the 14th of August. Here is the legend as Dowd recounts it:

          "It is related that an old monk escaped from the slaughter, and concealed himself till evening, which was the eve of the Assumption. Alone he entered the chancel where the butchery had taken place but a few hours before, and flinging himself on the broken statue of the Virgin, wept bitterly that now there were none to keep the festival of her to whom the church was dedicated. Whilst he sorrowed broken-hearted, suddenly it seemed the chancel became filled with light, the dead arose with crowns of victory on their heads and triumphal palm branches in their hands. They took their accustomed places in the choir, and sang the vespers in strains of heavenly music. The monk, overawed, took his part in the service, not daring to raise his head to look round. All too soon the last chant died away in silence, the radiance faded into the darkness of evening, and his eyes rested only on the blood-stained walls and the gashed and gory corpses of his brothers."

          It seems incredible that after the appalling events of October 3rd, 1579, the abbey could ever again come to life as a living institution. But we are told that Aodh Rua Ó Domhnaill - Red Hugh O'Donnell - was received by the monks when he was on his way to Kinsale in the depths of the winter of 1601. O'Donnell and his hardy clansmen had just completed their epic night march from near Holy Cross Abbey, across the frozen marshes of the Sliabh Felim mountains. That was the march of which Aubrey de Vere sung:
O'er many a river bridged with ice,
O'er many a vale with snow-drifts dumb,
Past quaking fen and precipice
The princes of the North are come.
Lo! those are they who year by year
Roll'd back the tide of England's war;
Rejoice Kinsale, thy help is near,
That wondrous winter march is o'er.

          Incidentally, is there not a certain poignancy in this linking of Holy Cross and Mainistir an Aonaigh by O'Donnell on his march to Kinsale, and to what was to be irretrievable disaster for Gaelic Ireland!

          After 1601 we hear no more of Mainistir an Aonaigh. When it was finally abandoned we do not know. But if it had existed up to then it certainly would not have survived the Cromwellian conquest which resulted in the forcible closure, often with fire and sword, of all the monasteries that had managed to survive up to that time.

          From the late 17th century onward the noble fabric of Mainistir an Aonaigh gradually fell into decay. Its bell tower fell in 1807. The flagged roof covering the chancel remained in position for long, but a tree growing on one of the walls ultimately loosened it, and it fell with a mighty crash one stormy night in 1874, destroying the beautiful east window, and bringing down with it the great chancel arch which John O'Donovan admired in 1840.

          Looking at the ruins of this abbey of Manister toady, words that the Limerick poet, John Francis O'Donnell, wrote about one of the ruined Adare monasteries come to mind:
Chancel, quadrangle, tower are here,
Gaunt cloisters, roof and mullions riven,
With that clear interspace through which
Souls, tired of flesh, looked out to heaven.

          One can imagine few more impressive sights than the ruined abbey of Mainistir an Aonaigh, with its grey walls rising a sheer 40 feet above the grass and extending some 190 feet in a line parallel to the river bank. As you approach it you observe scattered around the field to the south of the main bulk of the ruin, great blocks of masonry and fragments of ancient walls that make you suddenly realise what a truly magnificent building the abbey was in its prime, and that make you think too what a wonderful sight it still might be if the storms unleashed byt the Reformation had never blown with such tragically devastating effect across the face of Ireland.

          Here and there the white limestone peeps through the uneven surface surrounding the building, giving the impression of stll greater destruction, as if the very ground had shared in the general ruin that has left Mainistir an Aonaigh what it is today, a stark ruin, full of memories of the past, full of inspiration for the future. We are priveleged to attend Mass this evening here in this holy place of martyrs.
Mainchín Seoighe
14th. August, 1992

Main sources consulted in preparing this talk:
The Churches and Abbeys of Ireland, Brian de Breffny
The Ancient Churches of County Limerick, T.J. Westropp
The Diocese of Limerick, J. Begley
Uí Cairbre Aobhdha, G. Mac Spealáin
Round about the County of Limerick, J. Dowd

Also some information received from the late
  Dáithí Ó Ceantúil of Croom

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