Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Murrisk Friary, County Mayo

Murrisk Friary is beautifully situated beneath Croagh Patrick, on the southern shores of Clew Bay in Co. Mayo. Today the Friary stands in ruin and a modern graveyard has developed around it. The Friary is thought to have been founded in 1456 and was handed over to the Augustinian Friars. According to historical sources, Hugh O’ Malley (a Sligo friar) built a monastery on land granted to him by the powerful O’Malley family. The O’ Malleys were important land owners in this part of Mayo, and the famous Pirate Queen GrĂ¡inne Mhaol (Grace O'Malley) was one of their more illustrious descendants.
It is thought that the lands were leased in 1578, during the reign of Elizabeth I, to James Garvey. We do not know if the monks remained at Murrisk after this time, however, it is likely that they retained a presence at the friary. A foundation like Murrisk, which, was in an isolated location, away from the eyes of government, may well have escaped the full effects of the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the Reformation. 

The Friary also appears in a poem by a Fr. William Bourke in 1730 which describes “lovely Murrisk, so tranquil and mild …” 
[see the bottom of this article for the full poem].
The East Window

Murrisk next appears when the Archbishop of Tuam notes that there was one Friar living in Murrisk in 1801. It seems that the site was abandoned by the mid-nineteenth century and is today maintained by the Office of Public Works.

The main part of the visible remains today appear to date to the fifteenth century. You can see the remains of the church, with some domestic buildings to the north giving the site a distinctive 'L' shape. One of the notable features of the site is the east window, beautifully sculpted in the flamboyant Irish Gothic style. 

The crenellations or battlements, crowning the building are thought to be of a later date. There are carved faces on the southern and eastern walls of the friary. It is unknown who these faces represent, but it was quite common in the medieval period to display depictions of wealthy patrons of the church on the walls of the building. The domestic buildings of the monastery would have been situated around the simple church at right angles to it. The remains of the sacristy and the chapter house are all that survives of these buildings today. The chapter house was one of the most important structures in the Friary as it was the place where the monks met to discuss the day to day running of the abbey and where the Rules of the Order were read to the community of monks working, living and praying in the Friary. There are no above ground traces of other domestic buildings associated with medieval religious houses such as the Refectory (kitchen) or the Dormitories where the monks would have slept. 

Early medieval shrines like Shrine of St. Patrick's Tooth and the Black Bell of St. Patrick may have been stored and venerated at the friary at Murrisk as it is a stopping point on the pilgrimage up the holy mountain. Indeed Murrisk Friary itself was dedicated to St. Patrick shortly after its foundation. The Viscount Mayo Chalice is also associated with Murrisk as the inscription incised into the 17th century chalice reads: “Pray for the souls of Theobald, Lord Viscount Mayo, and his wife, Maud O’ Connor, who caused me to be made for the monastery of Murrisk, 1635” It is thought that this chalice continued to be used until the 18th century. 

The site at Murrisk is a very interesting example of a later medieval religious house. The site is made even more spectacular by its incredible setting at the foot of Croagh Patrick – the Holy Mountain of Ireland – and on the shores of Clew Bay. It is well worth a visit if you are over in the west. To get to Murrisk, make your way west from Westport towards Lecanvey and Louisburgh. The site is located down a narrow lane to the right of the main road, on the opposite side of the car park for Croagh Patrick, close to The National Famine Monument

The Friar’s Farewell to Murrisk,
Fr. William Bourke, 1730.

Farewell to you lovely Murrisk,
So tranquil and mild,
And to the fine lordly mountains,
That rise up on all sides,
As I walked on the strand there,
The curlew’s refrain,
Was sweeter than all the music,
On this side of the plain.

I promised to obey,
The friars placed over me,
And to submit my desires,
To those of the community,
This is what has left me,
Condemned here to long craving,
For I would never have left Murrisk,
And its beautiful havens.

If I can hold out,
Until the cuckoo’s call beguiles,
I will then go to Murrisk,
And rest there a while.
The folk here are not,
The pleasant wise company I knew,
But are like idols of oak,
With an axe rough hewn.

From: The Story of Mayo. 2003. Mayo County Council.