Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Monaincha Abbey, County Tipperary

Saint Elair was said to have founded a small monastic site at Monaincha on a small island surrounded by a lake in the seventh century, but most of the visible remains on the site date to the Augustinians who established a small monastery here dedicated to Saint Mary in the twelfth to fifteenth centuries.
The name Monaincha comes from Mainistir Inse na mBeo meaning The Monastery of the Island of the Living, originally the monastery was on a small island surrounded by water, but agricultural drainage works in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries drained the lake and left the monastery perched conspicuously on top of a mound in a low boggy field.

The beautifully decorated Romanesque doorway
The strange powers of the island were recorded by the twelfth century Norman clergyman and chronicler Gerald of Wales. He discusses the island on which the monastery stands in this excerpt, Monaincha is the smaller island he describes, I’m not sure where the larger island is.

There is a lake in the north of Munster which contains two islands, one rather large and the other rather small. The larger has a church venerated from the earliest times. The smaller [Monaincha] has a chapel cared for most devotedly by a few celibates called ‘heaven-worshippers’.
No woman or animal of the female sex could ever enter the larger island without dying immediately. This has been proved many times by instances of dogs and cats and other animals of the female sex. When brought there to make a trial, they immediately died.
A remarkable thing about the birds there is that, while the males settle on bushes everywhere throughout the island, the females fly over and leave their mates there and, as if they were fully conscious of its peculiar power, avoid the island like a plague.
In the smaller island [Monaincha] no one has ever died or could die a natural death. Accordingly it is called the Island of the Living. Nevertheless the inhabitants sometimes suffer mortal sicknesses and endure the agony almost to their last gasp.
When there is no hope left; when they feel that they have not a spark of life left; when as the strength decreases they are eventually so distressed that they prefer to die in death than drag out a life of death, they get themselves finally transported in a boat to the larger island, and, as soon as they touch ground there, they give up the ghost

(From The History and Topography of Ireland by Gerald of Wales, translated by John J.O’Meara and published by Penguin Books, 1982)

The high cross at Monaincha is a composite of two different crosses. The base appears to be decorated but it is very weathered and difficult to make out, is said to date to around the 9th century, the long thin shaft with a depiction of Christ at the apex is later, dating to the 12th century.

Some of the wonderful detailed decoration on the chancel arch
The church has a really beautifully decorated Romanesque-style doorway resplendent with designs of chevrons, zigzags and foliage carved into the sandstone. The church itself is quite a simple nave and chancel church, with the chancel arch again in the Romanesque style. However evidence of the later activity on site can be seen in the architecture of some of the windows that appear to be later insertions. A small addition to the church has been tacked on in probably around the fifteenth century, it consists of vaulted chamber that may have been a sacristy and a set of steps leading to an upper chamber little of which survives today. The construction of this addition seems a bit rougher than the well constructed original parts of the church.
The vaulted chamber, perhaps originally a sacristy?
I do recommend a visit to Monaincha, especially as you can team it up with a visit to the heritage town of Roscrea, with its impressive castle, Damer House, friary and round tower. To find Monaincha from Roscrea drive north east along the old Dublin Road till you come to a roundabout, then take the exit for Monaincha, the site is signposted Monaincha Church. Monaincha is along a very narrow bumpy track, unless you are in a 4x4 driving along it even in good weather is a bit of a hair raising experience and there is very little room to turn at the end of the track. I’d recommend leaving the car safely pulled in before the track, and walk the 400m or so down to the site. The site is located in a field full of livestock (pretty lively bullocks when we visited on 1st July 2013) so be sure to wear adequate footwear and please close any gates behind you.
A view from the chancel through to the nave of the church
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All photographs © Neil Jackman / abartaaudioguides.com