“I have never beheld so many skulls collected together as at this place, since I visited the Catacombs at Paris, – but unlike them, they are here heaped about in such glorious confusion, as if a grand battle must at some period have been fought in the neighbourhood ; it is difficult otherwise to conjecture how they could all have found their way to this spot. In one place they form a thick wall, matted and massed together, but in all parts, moss-grown skulls and human thigh and leg-bones are strewed about so plentifully, that not a step can be taken without encountering them.”
This is the sight that welcomed an English tourist named John Barrow when he visited Ross Errilly Friary in 1835. The Friary would have lain in ruin at that stage but his statement. which elicits such a horrible vision. was only the end game in what was one of the most bloody and terrible histories of any of the Irish Friaries. Today Ross Errilly is a beautiful and peaceful ruin, but when one begins to scratch the surface of its history the place becomes all the more poignant and moving.
It is believed that Ross Errilly was founded around 1351 but most of the buildings that occupy the site date from around 1460. Ross Errilly was a distinguished Friary and a centre for learning, in 1473 several Franciscans from Ross Errilly went to Donegal on the request of the Tyrconnell clan. There they founded the Donegal Friary where the Four Masters would write one of the earliest and expansive Irish historical records ‘The Annals of the Four Masters’. The first attack on the Friary happened in 1538 in the aftermath of the English Reformation, English authorities imprisoned two hundred monks and evicted and murdered an indeterminate number of others.
Ross Errilly was confiscated by Queen Elizabeth I and given to Richard Burgh, the 2nd Earl of Clanrickarde. Burgh was a descendant of the de Burghs who had originally helped finance the Friary and after a couple of years he quietly gave the Friary back to the Franciscans. In 1584 the Friary was again confiscated and given to an English noble, who evicted the monks and plundered its contents. Subsequently in 1586 the Earl of Clanrickarde purchased Ross Errilly and returned it to the Franciscans. However by the end of the 1500s it was once again confiscated and used as an English garrison during the nine years war. Yet again the de Burghs came to the rescue of the monks when the 3rd Earl of Clanrickarde, Ulick Burke, financed the reoccupation of the Friary in 1604.
In 1612 the Lord Deputy of Ireland ordered the Protestant archbishop of Tuam, William Daniel, to evict the monks and smash the altars at Ross Errilly. Daniel sent advance word to the friary and it was evacuated before he even reached Headford. The monks returned in 1626 and lived peacefully at the site until the 1650s. In February 1642 the monks and Ulick Burke rescued Protestant refugees of the uprising and tried to lead them safely to Ross Errilly, however as the people were being led from the town of Shrule the Catholic soldiers who were escorting them opened fire and massacred 65 people.
The 1650s saw the violent campaigns of Oliver Cromwell when the friary became home to Catholic clergy fleeing Cromwell’s forces in the east. By 1656 Cromwellian troops reached Ross Errilly and found no-one there, the monks had fled, throwing the bell from the bell tower into the nearby Black River, where it rests to this day. Cromwell’s forces ransacked the friary, destroying crosses, religious iconography and defiling tombs. The monks returned again in 1664 but the introduction of the Popery Act of 1698 placed a bounty on the heads of Catholic clergy and Ross Errilly was abandoned.
The Friary was rebuilt during the 1750s thanks to funding from Lord St George, a local noble. These were the years of the Penal Laws and Lord St George took an incredible risk funding Ross Errilly. When Lord St George became involved in a lawsuit his vengeful counterpart informed the English authorities of St George’s protection of the friary. Luckily he was tipped off before the authorities arrived and evacuated the Ross Errilly, whitewashing the interior and setting up a mock factory with weavers at their looms. The monks never returned. They instead built cabins on a small island in the Black River, the island, which no longer exists, was named Friar’s island. The monks continued to celebrate mass in the deteriorating building over the next thirty years.
Ross Errilly is widely accepted as the finest example of a Franciscan Friary in Ireland. The cloisters, bell tower, nave, chancel and outbuildings are still sublime and considering the dereliction of the site they are in a more than reasonable state. I highly recommend a visit to Ross Errilly, its haunting to think of the amount of violence and tension that its walls have seen in contrast to the peaceful and pleasant ruin that we see today.
GPS: 53.47966, -9.13153