Fermanagh Gold Introduction

Enniskillen Town Hall - Book Launch 29th June, 2000.

Welcome. Failte a Easpog agus a daoine uasail. Welcome to this launch of Monasteries and Early Church sites of the River Erne.

This idea for this book had its origins with an invitation from Fr. Dawson of Clogher to give a talk to Cuman Clar Clochair about the lesser known monasteries of the River Erne. I managed to gather up seventeen monastic sites to talk about on that occasion and we were all so impressed by this number that it was decided to go ahead with the research and writing of a book on the Monasteries and early Christian sites of the Erne and tonight is the culmination of that cooperative effort between Cuman Clar Clochair and myself.

The Erne has been the chief physical influence on Fermanagh and its people for the past ten thousand years since the last ice age. In Fermanagh we have, to use a seafaring term, become landlubbers in the last 150 years. We now see Lough Erne as an obstacle rather than as the main highway historically of Fermanagh and parts of other adjoining counties especially County Cavan.

The River Erne and its associated lakes and tributary rivers have a catchment area of over a million acres. This is the third biggest river system in Ireland after the River Shannon and that of the Barrow, Nore and Suir in the southeast of the country. The Erne catchment area begins almost as far east as Carrickmacross in County Monaghan.

Everybody who has been anybody in Irish history has passed up and down Lough Erne from the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages through the early Christian missionaries, the Vikings, the Normans, the great Medieval Irish chieftains such as O’Donnell, O’Neill and Maguire and the Planters of the 17th century. People engaged in religion, in war and in trade have used the Erne down to relatively close to our present time when roads took over from our waterways. It therefore takes a bit of a mind shift for us today to think of the Erne as a communications artery rather than a barrier. It has only appeared a barrier in local eyes for less than 150 years. Some monasteries were built in out of the way places but those on islands in the River Erne or its lakes or build along its shores obviously wished to be at the heart of the communities of their time.

The practice of monasticism seems to have originated in Egypt where hermits went to live in the wild and desolate areas of the desert to cut themselves off from the world and in their isolation get themselves closer to God. Unfortunately for them the word soon spread that here was a holy man and disciples flocked to live nearby and to emulate his prayer and lifestyle. In time a system of Rule developed and as it was copied by other groups the idea of monasticism evolved.

At an early stage the organisation of the church in Ireland took a different path to that of anywhere else in Christendom. The original administration of a diocese ruled over by a bishop was subsumed under an organisation of monastic districts ruled by an abbot and the bishops were confined largely to confirming and ordaining. Hence Fermanagh as we know it today belonged to no diocese but was ruled from its chief monasteries at Devenish, Lisgoole, Cleenish, Innishmacsaint, Clones and Ballyshannon etc. The monastery bell summoned the people to prayer and their children went to the monastery school. People learned their trades in the monastery workshops and the institution acted as a hospital, almshouse, and refuge for those seeking sanctuary and as a local market place.

Monasteries were firstly places of prayer where men or women devoted themselves to the service of God in order that they might go to heaven when they died. To do this they fasted and prayed constantly and tried to help others.

They wrote books in the monasteries copying them by hand. Sacred and secular manuscripts were continually copied and illuminated. The books were often beautifully illustrated. Sometimes when they were bored they wrote little poems on the sides of their books. The death of the monastery scribe was often recorded in the Annals.

The monasteries, however, were not solely institutions for adults. Children were educated and fostered at monasteries. Education began at the age of seven with the Psalms, using wax tablets and styli. Monastic schools were in many ways the precursors of our modern universities. Monasteries acted as a neutral ground where warring kingdoms could come together to make peace. They acted as retirement homes for aged kings or queens who gave up their kingdoms and spent their final years in prayer and making amends for their sins in the past.

They operated as hospitals and hospices at a time when these were otherwise unknown. The monastery garden grew medicinal herbs and monks passed on the knowledge they gained from others. Leprosy, a disease unknown today was relatively common in ancient Ireland and lepers were kept in isolation lest they infect others by touch. Templrushin Church at Holywell near Belcoo has a little window in the wall of the church known as the leper window where those with this illness could look in to observe mass but could not attend.

They provided food and accommodation for visitors, travellers and the poor. In 650, the poet Cumin of Conor described Devenish as a "house of hospitality for everyone in Erin."

Irish monastic settlements functioned as the nearest equivalent to towns in Ireland at the time. Ireland had not been part of the Roman Empire and did not have its system of administration which was based on urban areas. People made useful objects from wood, metal, leather and stone and traded them. Merchants and travellers came and went. In addition to the monastery, church, and refectory, there might be a guesthouse, school, dairy, blacksmiths and carpenters workshops and farm buildings such as granaries.

Many monasteries become rich and powerful so much so that an Irish attack on the monastery of Kells states that 3,000 men were captured plus a large booty of goods, horses, gold and silver. In an attack on Armagh by the Airgialla in 996 they drove off 2,000 cattle from its monastery. The Vikings are usually credited with the burning and looting of Irish monasteries but in fact the local Irish despoiled them far more often. Between 612 and 792 the Annals record the burning of thirty monasteries and of these three are ascribed to lightning. Some may have been mishaps but there is no doubt that rich monasteries were prime targets for attack. In times of plague, famine or scarcity attacks on monasteries increased. After the famine of 773 there was a spate of attacks on monasteries and the cattle plague of 777 resulted in raids on Kildare, Clonmore and Kildalkey.

Like all human institutions monasteries often began with great enthusiasm. They might wither away or become rich and powerful. Often the original ideals were lost sight of and people more interested in riches or power might take over. Sometimes they were plundered and destroyed. Sometimes they revived their old enthusiasm and became active again. Despite everything there are still people following the monastic ideal all over the world in many religions and cultures. Devoting one’s life to God seems to be something essential to many people.

This book contains a history of all the monastic and early Christian sites, on the islands and along the banks of the Erne and its tributaries with an additional section dealing with monastic sites in the rest of the Diocese of Clogher. There are a total of 70 ancient sites mentioned and 57 of these were sited along the artery of the River Erne. It has a glossary of terms to help you sort out your Franciscans from your Dominicans and your Augustinians from your Culdees. It has a section on life of the times of the early church in Ireland and a map giving the location of these sites.

The cover of the book was drawn by my daughter Sonya who unfortunately cannot be here tonight as she works for the Derry Journal until 9.00 on a Thursday night.. All the items on the cover have a meaning – it is called iconography. In medieval paintings for example any saint holding keys represented Saint Peter and similarly the items here have all been chosen to convey a message as well as fulfill a decorative function. The cover is framed with a decorative briar and ancient stonework representing the ruins of ancient sites. The roots and sap of the briar were mixed with a copper solution and provided the ink with which the old annals and manuscripts were written. The stones record the names names of some of the ancient monasteries.

St. Davog’s Heath at the bottom left records a saint associated with the foundation of the Pilgrim Island of Lough Derg and whose name is recorded in local placenames as in Lough Avoge near Belleek and Seeavog meaning the seat of Davog near Pettigo. This plant is a relict plant from the last ice age and apart from a few places in Mayo and Galway has its nearest population center in northern Spain. Nowadays, modern Davoica heathers originating from this plant are planted in suburban gardens all round the world and recall St. Davog but few planting them know this. The Robin in popular legend is the bird that tried to pull the thorns from Our Lord’s head and in consequence has a red breast ever since.. The Heron represents the phrase enjoining missionaries and monks to be fishers of men and nature’s most obvious fisherman around the Erne is the heron. And finally the Butterfly to remind us of the transience of life which was much more real and closer at hand in those days of long ago. Devenish round tower, a head from the doorway of Kilmore Church of Ireland Cathedral near Cavan which originally on Trinity Island in Lough Uachter, Drumlane Abbey and the church and reflected image of Drumlane Church of Ireland complete the cover.

My thanks to Cuman Clar Clogher for the opportunity to write and research this book and especially Fr. Marron of Fintona and Fr. Mc Gourty of Irvinestown who were my immediate contacts during the compilation of this book.

I wish to thank my never failing friends of Fermanagh County Library, Mirana Maguire and Margaret Monaghan who put up with a lot of requests and invariably come good backed up by that great treasure trove of the Nawn Collection compiled by our dear friend Jim Nawn who has left such a treasure to the writers and people of Fermanagh. Thanks also to Tom Sullivan of Cavan County Library who kept me right in the unfamiliar historical territory of County Cavan and especially Fr. Augustine Leaden, now of Sligo Town and who despite failing health gave freely of his vast knowledge.

Finally a word of praise or indeed thousands of words of praise for the historians of the past. Without the articles written by numerous historians and published by our great historical journals such as The Clogher Record, The Donegal Annual, Breifne Antiquarian Society, the Ulster Journal of Archeology etc. and seminally important books like Archdales, Monasticul Hibernicum (Archdale being another Fermanagh man albeit with roots in East Anglia in England) and the book the Medieval Religious Houses of Ireland by Hancock and Gwynn I would still be researching this book for another ten or twenty years if I had that time left to me. I stand briefly as all historical writers do on a cairn of knowledge provided by others going back to the compilers of the great annals of Ireland and they too built on older sources which are now mostly lost.

I use their writings to add another stone to the historical cairn and stand back to let others built on top of it. I have had the fortune to be taught by three of Fermanagh’s great historians of the recent past, Fr. Livingstone, Bishop Mulligan and the incomparable Fr. Paddy Gallagher of the long conversations, the little drop of Paddy Whiskey and the slow burning pipe that consumed more matches than it ever consumed tobacco. Perhaps tonight sometime I will get a chance to toast his great spirit with a little of his favourite spirit. I owe them all a debt of gratitude and Fr. Paddy advised me once concerning the writing of history. In his case the analogy was one of steps. He advised me that we climb up and put another historical step in place and leave it for others to climb and to build upon it. Tonight we step back having heard the satisfying sound of another step safely in place and good luck to the next generation of builders.

Thank you.

John B. Cunningham 29-6-2000

How to buy the book:
Direct from John Cunningham at Adam4Eves@aol.com

The book costs £5 stg with P&P £1.50 in the UK and £4 airmail. The publisher is Cuman Clar Clochair - The R.C. Clogher Clergy group