Lorrha is a parish steeped in history that has flourished in the peaceful days of the saints and scholars, been raided and pillaged by marauding Vikings, recovered to become a major monastic settlement only to be overrun by the forces of Oliver Cromwell.
Among the spirits still lingering in the cold grey stone of Lorrha’s many abbeys and castles are saints, monks, kings, rebels, murderers, Vikings, Normans, Cromwellians and even a lake monster!
St. Ruadhan was first to put Lorrha on the map coming here in the middle of the 6th century. He was educated in Clonard Co. Westmeath by St. Finian and was known as one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. He is said to have replaced St. Brendan (the navigator) at Lorrha who preceded to cross the Shannon and set up his monastery at Clonfert Co. Galway
Ruadhan founded a monastic settlement here that would have consisted of a monastery and various other buildings including cells for the many monks that would have lived here. Also a ditch or large mound would have been built around the settlement to keep animals in and intruders out, the outlines of these are still visible today. Life for the monks would have been tough but simple, rising early from their beds which would have consisted of rushes or straw placed on the bare ground. They then would pray and fast between their domestic chores. The settlement would have been self sufficient in those days providing everything from food, clothing, to shelter.
On the site of this settlement are the remains of an 11th century church probably on the spot of Ruadhan’s original monastery. It has at the west end of the south wall an ornate doorway that shows many carved motifs including a pelican drawing blood from its breast. Also there are the remains of two high crosses with only the decorated shafts remaining, one of these is said to mark the grave of a Munster king who died at Lorrha, the other is said to mark St. Ruadhan’s grave although it seems to have been crafted many years after his death. Villages and towns often popped up around monastic settlements as trade and refuge attracted the local people, the origin of Lorrha village can be attributed to this.
There are many legends attributed to Ruadhan but he is probably most famous for his curse on the High King’s residence at Tara after the king, Diarmuid Mac Cerbhaill, had violated the sanctity of the church by taken a hostage from its protection. The downfall of Tara from a once thriving royal residence is credited to Ruadhan.
The bell of St. Ruadhan which was found in a well named after the Saint is kept in the British Museum after being discovered many years ago. This well is situated across the road from the present day Church of Ireland.
“My splendid cloak adorned with gold which was on the altar of Rome, bring it to Ruadhan of Lortha, since we shall die this day” extract from the last will and testament of the high king of Cashel.
THE VIKINGS ATTACK
The peace and tranquillity of Lorrha was smashed abruptly in the 9th century with the arrival of the dreaded Vikings. The monastery of Ruadhan was targeted twice in the middle of the century. The Danes would have sailed their long boats up the Shannon and docked there. They often had long ports based on the Shannon to direct their operations from. The unsuspecting monks and local civilians would have been sitting ducks for the bloodthirsty Vikings waving swords and wielding axes that slashed and hacked everything in their way, they pillaging and burnt as they went. What lured the attackers to the likes of Lorrha, Terryglass and Clonfert were the precious possessions of the monasteries including their chalices and shrines.
One of the attacks on Lorrha was led by the notorious Viking warlord, Turgesius, who met his own brutal end after been captured by the King of Leinster. Legend has it he was placed in a wooden barrel that had been hammered with many nails, he was then rolled down a bumpy hill and into one of Westmeath’s many lakes and left to drown!
The next group of outsiders to visit Lorrha were the Normans, who descended from the Vikings. They would have came to Lorrha sometime in the late 12th century, evidence of this is the structure known locally as Lorrha Moat, which is what remains of a former motte and bailey. This was a man made hill with a ditch dug around it for protection and it held a timber castle on top. Their arrival did not settle too well with the local chieftains and the castle was burnt in 1208, only been rebuilt 14 years later.
The Butlers were the Norman overlords of this area up until the 17th century and the local clans of the O’Kennedys and McEgans would have been under their authority, this area was previously controlled by the O’Carrolls. Many battles were fought between the two, three of which were fought on Carrigahorig hill, with the O’Carrolls emerging victorious each time. Carrigahorig translates into “the meeting place” and must have been a location to settle differences between rival clans. It now exists as a quiet gathering of houses around a traditional public house, but many times in the distant past the sounds of swords clashing would have replaced the pleasant silence with the fury of battle.
THE AUGUSTINIAN PRIORY
A much more welcome and peaceful group of newcomers arrived in Lorrha in the 12th century, these were the priors who were devoted to Saint Augustine. The priors would have lived to the saints often controversial teachings which were known as the rules of Saint Augustine. They dressed in black cloaks and were often known as `Black Canons’.
On the top of the ornate doorway on the south wall is the carved head of a woman wearing a horned headdress, one suggestion is that this lady was the wife of the Norman overlord who might have commissioned its building as was normal practice in those days.
The Priory also held a piscina with credence. The piscina was a small carved stone basin used for washing the communion vessels and the credence was an ornate shelf that supported the piscina.
These two items were removed in the 1880`s and brought to the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Minneapolis. One James McGoldrick, who was Bishop of Minneapolis at the time, was originally from nearby Aglish. He was a frequent visitor to his homestead at the time and he presumably brought the items back with him from one of his visits.
The priory lasted in Lorrha for over 400 years and one prior in particular had a gruesome fate in the late 16th century!
THE DOMINICAN FRIARY
The Dominican Friary is located beside the present day Roman Catholic Church. It was founded in 1269 by Walter De Burgo, Earl of Ulster and a major local landowner, who was of the Burkes that were to settle in nearby Portumna Castle. The Dominican Order was founded in 1215 by St. Dominic; their rules were based on poverty and preaching. They wore a black cloak and hood over a white tunic; hence they were often referred to as the ‘Black Friars’. The order came to Ireland in 1224 and by 1300 had 24 friaries, Lorrha of course being one of these.
One can only imagine the life of a friar down through the centuries, their strict lifestyles consisting of hours of silent prayer, long periods of fasting and working to provide for and maintain their upkeep. They would have worked the mill (still situated beside the Friary) on the banks of the Lorrha River which would have provided bread, a most important part of people’s diet in those days. Anyone passing by the Friary might also have become accustomed to the sound of numerous holy men chanting and singing from their various psalms. They might also leave their quarters to preach to the local people who in those times were still hanging on to the old pre-Christian beliefs and were often at war with neighbouring territories. The friars would have had living quarters close to the main building of worship and there is structural evidence that these might have been situated under the Roman Catholic Church.
A statue of St. Ruadhan is believed to have been situated in a niche in the south wall and is suggested to have been carved from wood; no trace of it remains today. Also inside the church and placed on the wall are grave slab memorials of two important families of Lorrha’s past, the O’Kennedys and the McEgans. There is evidence the monastery was burned at one time with traces of smoke staining under the large window at the east gable. Cromwell’s army is believed to be responsible for this and as Lorrha was on their path as they marched from Athlone to Limerick it is most probable that the Friary would not have escaped their ‘fire and sword’.
The Monastery seems to have survived the Cromwellian campaign of the 1650’s and the dissolution of the monasteries in 1537. In 1688 when Ireland was under the rule of Catholic King, James II, a Provincial Chapter (large congregation) was held in the monastery which meant the Friary at Lorrha was superior to other houses in the province or district at that time. The last record of a Dominican friar is that of Rev. Alex Fitzgerald who died in 1797 and whose name was recorded on the Holy Water font in Rathcabbin church. The Dominicans were active in Lorrha for over 500 years and survived through many turbulent times in Irish history. Their legacy is now the skeleton of the once bustling Friary that stands a silent reminder of Lorrha’s historical and monastic past.
THE MURDER OF PRIOR O’HOGAN
It is recorded in the ‘Annals of the Four Masters’ that in the year 1599, John O’Hogan, a prior in Lorrha, was slain by a party of the O’Kennedys. The location of this killing is said to be Gurtcroo Hill (hill of the slaughter), a high rise of ground between Lorrha and the O’Kennedy homestead of Lackeen Castle, O’Hogan was seemingly making his way from the Augustinian Priory in Lorrha to the small chapel at Curragha when apprehended by the O’Kennedy assassins. One tradition is that he was hung from one of the many tall trees that covered the hill.
No certain motive has been discovered for his murder but a few theories have been passed down through the centuries. One suggests that the prior intervened in a family dispute involving a woman who fell pregnant by one of the O’Kennedys concerned and that he let his feelings on the matter be known from the alter. The second suggests that O’Hogan disapproved of the O’Kennedys support for Redmond Burke, who entered Ormond from Clanricard to raise support for Hugh O’Neill and rebelled against the occupying English forces in the Nine Years War (1594-1603). Whatever the reason for the O’Kennedys slaying of the unfortunate prior, it caused a lot of ill feeling towards the O’Kennedys at that time and would have brought great shame to the well respected and noble family. As a result the guilty party was banished from the O’Kennedys territory forever.
O’ SULLIVAN BEARE AND THE SHANNON CROSSING
Following the battle of Kinsale in 1601 which resulted in the defeat of the Irish forces against the crown, Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare and 1,000 followers set out for Co. Leitrim in the depths of winter from his homeland of West Cork. Their path brought them through Lorrha where they had to cross the River Shannon; the party camped at the old ruined church at Curragha on their first night in the parish and the next at Redwood in a place known now as Poll na Copall (hole of the horses). It was here that his men killed and skinned their horses to build boats to make the crossing.
On the day of the attempted crossing O’Sullivan was attacked by Donogh McEgan, the Queens Sheriff, who lived at Redwood Castle and was from the famous Brehon family.
A hail of lead flew towards the southerners and they duly replied as they anticipated the bold move. In the skirmish McEgan was killed and O’Sullivans party escaped to the Galway side. Some of O’Sullivans group were not so lucky and drowned in the Shannon’s icy waters, a few more remained in the local area while the smoke settled and eventually stayed permanently, hence some local families hold the claim to be descendents of O’Sullivan Beare and his great marching brigade.
LACKEEN CASTLE AND THE O’KENNEDYS
This tower house was constructed in the 16th century by Brian O’Kennedy, who was head of the O’Kennedy Fionn (fair) branch of the clan at the time. A defensive wall known as a bawn surrounds the castle that remains in remarkably good condition, this is helped by the fact that a roof remained on the building up to recent times preventing corrosion and weathering.
Lackeen was an O’Kennedy stronghold of Lower Ormond and would have been a bustling centre of activity in the 16th century. There are the remains of a mill by the river at Lackeen and a village known as Piperstown was recorded as having been on the O’Kennedys estate although all traces of it have disappeared over the centuries.
The O’Kennedys lost possession of the castle and estate that stretched over 1,000 acres in the 1650’s; this was due to the Cromwellian confiscations. The owner of Lackeen at the time was Donogh O’Kennedy who was subsequently transferred to Connaught; he received a much smaller and lesser valuable estate in Clonfert Co. Galway.
The O’Kennedys must have regained Lackeen at a later stage as John O’Kennedy is credited with the discovery of the ‘Stowe Missal’; tradition has it that it was hidden in the walls of Lackeen in the 18th century. This priceless manuscript is said to be one of the oldest books of its kind in Europe and is said to have been written in the 9th century at Ruadhan’s Abbey in Lorrha. The manuscript is held in the Royal Irish Academy and it’s beautifully jewel filled protective shrine is to be found in the National Museum.
REDWOOD CASTLE AND THE MCEGANS
Situated by the Shannon banks, Redwood Castle was originally built by the Normans in the 12th century. The McEgans received the Castle from the O’Kennedys who took possession of it from the Normans. The Castle was reconstructed to its former glory by Michael McEgan in the 1970’s and is now open to the public.
The McEgans were Brehons and bards to the O’Kennedys and a School of Law and History was held at the castle during the 16th and 17th centuries. Two famous students were educated here; they were Michael O’Cleary and Duald MacFirbis who were later to contribute to the writing of the ‘Annals of the Four Masters’. O’Cleary is said to have brought the unfinished book here in the mid 17th century to seek advice from McEgan.
In the Confederate War of the 1640’s a leading Irish rebel, Rory O’Moore of Leix, suggested the printing of papers to help promote the Irish cause. He consulted one Constance McEgan of Redwood a move that wouldn’t have been to the McEgan’s favour when the Cromwellians arrived to quell the rebellion.
THE CROMWELLIANS AT LORRHA
A name that still sparks debate between Ireland and Britain today is that of Oliver Cromwell although he died over four hundred years ago. In Britain he is often portrayed as a hero, in Ireland he is seen in a very different light. Cromwell’s brutish campaign in the 1650’s left a trail of destruction throughout the country and all but ended the old Gaelic way of life.
The records that survive today tell how the old Irish families of the O’Kennedys, McEgans and Hogans were stripped of all their lands and homes in Lorrha and relocated to Connaught, their former estates been granted to soldiers in lieu of payment.
Lackeen was granted to a Nicholas Whyte from Leixip Co. Kildare, after Donogh O’Kennedy surrendered to the Cromwellians in 1653. In an old map tracing Cromwell’s activities, his army is shown to have passed through Lackeen while on their way from Athlone to Limerick.
The Dominican Friary is said to have been burnt by Cromwell and so too is Redwood Castle. The former high crosses at Ruadhan’s Abbey are also believed to have been shattered by them.
The sight the soldiers from Cromwell’s ‘new model army’ firing their muskets and waving burning torches must have struck terror into the hearts of the monks, local nobility and civilians alike as they ran for the protection of the hills and woods probably watching as their abbeys, castles and huts were decimated.
One old tradition claims that Cromwell set up his artillery on Moat Hill in Lorrha to blast the abbeys but needed a boot of one of his henchmen to level the uneven canon!
Many stories survive about Cromwell in Lorrha but it is more likely that it was his son in law, Henry Ireton, who led his forces here as in 1653 Cromwell was long since back in England.
THE FRIARS LOUGH
At the end of a small laneway to the west of the Dominican Friary lies the beautiful and tranquil Friars Lough a small lake surrounded by trees and inhabited by numerous forms of wildlife.
It’s peaceful and hidden location must have made it the perfect place for reflection and prayer for the monks over the centuries. It is suggested the Lough was formed when the monks from the Abbey dammed the Lorrha River to construct a place of refuge on a self made island but the dam burst and flooded the area forming the Lough! Another tradition is that a tunnel runs from Ruadhan’s Abbey all the way to the Lough and that when the Vikings attacked the monks hid their treasures there. The most famous legend associated with the Friars Lough must be that of the serpent who is said to live beneath the dark waters. He is said to have come via the Lorrha River hence its serpentine form and made his home in the lake terrorising local people and livestock. He is even blamed for eating a man, horse and plough in one attack! One brave local is said to have then shot the beast, the water remained disturbed for a full week following the incident, and the serpent hasn’t been seen since!
Lorrha parish is home to numerous other historical and mysterious sites such as the monastic settlement at Graigue, the mass rock in Sharragh bog, St. Kieran’s Holy Well at Newtown famous for its cures and the majestic hilltop fort known locally as Dermody’s Fort, an ancient monument overlooking the whole parish and much of the surrounding countryside. There are many more secret sights hidden throughout the parish and village of Lorrha, a visitor here could get lost in time while taking a walk through the centuries of Lorrha’s past
Researched and compiled by David Broderick
The Mass Rock which is located beside the Altar in the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, Redwood.
A typical thatched Irish cottage.