“The little narrow trodden way that runs
From the white road to the Abbey of Corcomroe
Is covered up; and all about the hills
Are a circle of agate or of jade.
Somewhere among great rocks on the scarce grass
Birds cry, they cry their loneliness.”
– WB Yeats, ‘The Dreaming of Bones’
Corcomroe Abbey, situated in the remarkable landscape of the Burren is one of the finest examples of a distinctly Irish style of Cistercian Abbey decoration and its not surprising that Yeats was inspired by the structure and its setting to act as the backdrop to his play ‘The Dreaming of Bones’ and its tragic and treasonous ghostly lovers Diarmuid and Dervorgilla.
It is believed that Corcomroe Abbey was established between 1205 and 1210, Cistercian monks had been brought to the area by Donal Mór Ua Briain, and Corcomroe was built under the patronage of King Conor na Siudane Ua Briain. According to folklore King Conor had five of the masons that worked on the abbey executed once its construction was complete to prevent them from working on any rival abbeys and monasteries! However this was probably not the case as very similar decoration became the hallmark of Abbeys from the “School of the West”, these being buildings built by masons in the Connaught and North Thomond area. These Abbeys both Cistercian and Augustinian were built in a very Irish Romanesque style and were elaborately decorated. Cistercian Abbey’s in England were of a less decorated and unadorned nature, and this period of building between 1200-1240 is looked upon as one the last schools of Romanesque architecture in Europe.
The Cistercians did not engage in pastoral work unlike many other orders but they did have their links to the community, for example in 1268 Conor na Siudane Ua Briain was killed in battle and buried at Corcomroe. Another battle took place in 1317, however this time it was an internal O’Brien feud and the abbey was used as a barracks by Dermot O’ Brien. In the 14th century the O’Cahans (O’Kane or Keane) family became owners of much of the area around Corcomroe, it is uncertain how they came into the land, whether it was bought of forcibly taken. The land later came under the control of the Tierney family, and appears to have fallen into decline in the 15th century, the church even being shortened physically by 13 metres! It appears by this time that large parts of the monk’s quarters were no longer in use.
The English Reformation and dissolution heralded the demise of Corcomroe and the lands were granted to the Early of Thomond/Baron Inchquinn, Murrough O’Brien. The abbey grounds stayed within the O’Brien family into the 18th century, but the abbey continued to fall into ruin and was acquired by the Office of Public Works in 1879.
Legend states that the abbey is haunted by the ghosts of a poet named Cearbhall O’ Dalaigh and Eibhlin Kavanagh who eloped in the 15th century and wished to be secretly married at midnight on Christmas Eve. It is not known if they got married before Eibhlin’s father caught up with them and murdered them in the Abbey, their ghosts are said to reappear at midnight on Christmas Eve each year. We still can hear the echoes of Cearbhall and Eibhlin’s love in a song written by Cearbhall himself in her honour, ‘Eileen Aroon’ (an Anglicisation of Eileen, my love’) which is still very popular within the folk music world.
When one visits Corcomroe it is easy to see what fascinated Yeats about the place, the carvings of animals, faces and the overall decoration is far more elaborate and fantastical than one would imagine. The defiance of the Irish masons and religious orders to create this work against the decree of their orders in England could not have been lost on Yeats as he wrote his play on Irish freedom ‘The Dreaming of Bones’. The play revolves around the ghosts of Diarmuid and Dervorgilla who are blamed for the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland appearing to an Irish rebel. The Abbey sets the scene for many aspects of the play and it is no surprise that it was performed in late summer 1972 within the abbey walls.
GPS: 53.1269, -9.05415