Muckross Abbey was founded in 1448 by Donal Mc Carthty Mór as a Franciscan friary for the Observantine Franciscans, situated on the site of an earlier monastery built by Saint Fionan in the 6th century. Mc Carthy Mór decided to build Muckross after a vision he had which told him to build a monastery on ‘the rock of music’, Mc Carthy searched around his local area and found a place on the shores of Lough Leane, where he heard mysterious music with no source, this is where Muckross was founded. The Friary was built over a period of fifty years and due to its violent history was repaired and restructured on several occasions during its lifetime.
The first attack on the Friary came in 1589 when soldiers of Elizabeth I attacked the community. Fr Donagh O’Muirthile and his companions fled and hid all their sacred vessels and valuables on one of the islands in Lough Leane, however they were captured and put to death. The friary was sacked and burned in 1652 by the Cromwellian army under Lord Ludlow, a year later Fr Francis O’Sullivan who was the head of the sixty Franciscan houses in Ireland was put to death on Scariff Island near Derrynane, his body is buried somewhere on the island but his skull was preserved in the sacristy of the Killarney Friary.
The Friars returned in smaller numbers until the Penal Laws came into effect on the 1st of May 1698. Under these laws all Catholic orders were to leave the country under the pain of imprisonment, transportation or death. Fr Anthony O’Kelly, who was the Franciscan Provincial at the time, decided to obey the law and the majority of the order went into exile in France or Spain, many returning to Ireland at a later date. The Friars that did not leave went into hiding in small cottages in what is now known as Friar’s Glen between the mountains of Magerton and Torc.
Muckross Abbey is in a fine state of preservation and its cloisters are particularly attractive and striking. They are built around a Yew tree that is believed to have either predated the structure or was planted on its establishment, making the tree over 550 years old. Inside the abbey are the three graves of Kerry’s most famous poets of the 17th and 18th centuries, Geoffrey O’Donoghue, Aodhagan O’Rathaille, and Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin, the grave of the fourth ‘Kerry poet’ Piaras Feirtear is buried in the graveyard beside the abbey.
There are many legends of ghosts, miracles, and weird occurrences of a ghoulish nature at Muckross. One legend is that of the ‘Brown Man’, a newly wed man whose bride came to Muckross looking for him one night, only to find her husband knelt over a recently dug up corpse, feasting on its flesh. Another tale tells of a religious hermit who lived alone in the deserted friary for ten years during the 18th century, he had rejected all worldly goods and slept in a coffin left in the grounds. The Dúchas schools folklore collection ahs repeated entries of a tale about a local landlord named Herbert. Herbert had demanded some of his servants dig up the graves in the church, burn the bones and scatter the earth on his gardens. One day Herbert was walking near the church and a woman in white jumped up behind him and hit him, knocking his face 180 degrees so he lived the rest of his days facing backwards, his dying words years later were “Muckross must I leave you”. Muckross is also famous for ‘The miracle of Our Lady’, which tells the story of one of the raids on the abbey, during it the friars rescued the statue of the Virgin Mary and buried it under a dead tree to keep it hidden, the statue was svaed, and the dead tree sprung back to life.
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