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
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
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
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
John B. Cunningham 29-6-2000