Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

Random Quote
Random Date
Old map of Ireland





The Stone Age

Human settlement in the Blackwater Valley can be traced back at least 9000 years to the Early Mesolithic period when Stone Age fishermen, hunters and gatherers began to clamber upon its river banks. Archaeologists are constantly digging up their discarded arrowheads, mudstone axes and primitive knives and indeed the Blackwater is one of the richest sources for such finds in Ireland from this period. The valley appears to have side-stepped the mighty ice-sheets which battered the rest of the island during the last hurrah of the glacial age, circa 10,000 BC.

The first Neolithic farmers to settle in the valley arrived in about 4000 BC and swiftly began to clear back the forests to make way for the very first fields in Ireland. These people certainly had some form of religion and at Labbacallee, close to the Mount Cashell’s ancestral home at Kilworth, there stands today one of the largest wedge-tombs in Ireland which dates from this time.[1]

Youghal is deftly sheltered between the heads of Knockadoon and Ram before opening onto the wider expanse of the Irish Sea. Youghal also stands at the mouth of the Blackwater, welcoming the river waters which voyage over seventy five miles west across Ireland from the Kerry mountains. With its excellent geographical location at the mouth of such a great river, Youghal would have been an obvious base for these Neolithic farmers. They would also have appreciated the abundance of pottery clay in the area.

The Age of the Celts

The earliest settlement at Youghal was probably a rath, or fortified enclosures, built during the Celtic Age approximately 2500 years ago. The name ‘Youghal’ actually derives from the old Irish word ‘eochaill’, meaning ‘yew wood’ and referring to the yew forests that once grew nearby. At the Ballynatray demesne, five miles north of Youghal, there are at least two raths dating to this time. The Celts also left their mark locally with standing stones at Dunmoon, Knockaun, Ballynafinshoeige and Propogue. With modern archaeological innovations, such as radio carbon dating, we may get a more accurate year for these in due course.

The word ‘Celt’ is derived from the Greek word keltoi, denoting a vast ethnic group whose domain eventually extended from Scandinavia to the south of Spain and from the western shores of Ireland to the Baltic Sea. Their driving force was the cult of the Sun God, Lugh, from which we get the Irish word, lughnasa, meaning August. Celtic civilisation was not the creation of a separate race but a language and a way of life that spread from one people to the next, much as democracy, capitalism and rock n' roll did in the last century. It began somewhere between Bohemia and the east bank of the Rhine over 4000 years ago. By 500 BC, they dominated the northern half of Europe, Ireland included. Some believe their influence in Ireland began as early as 1500 BC. Others insist there was no significant alteration of native culture until the Second Century BC by which time Celtic power in Europe had been heavily curbed by the rising Roman Empire. Ireland has traditionally been a land in which newcomers are absorbed with remarkable speed. It seems plausible that these new Celtic-thinking peoples inter-married with what indigenous peoples they encountered and together sired the ensuing generations. Sadly, aside from the cryptic letters of Ogham, the ‘Celts’ left no written records and so we are dependent on their enemies - predominantly later Christians - for any account of their day-to-day lives.

The Ghosts of Glendyne

A romantic stroll alongside a rivulet at Ballynatray brings one to the wooded glen of Glendyne (Gleann Damhain, or the Glen of the Oxen). This was once a chief seat of the Celtic druids and still retains an aura of superstition for older people in the area. One popular legend tells of a woman whose husband was fighting for the Irish Brigade in Europe. She came to Glendyne and gazed down into a natural water basin. There she beheld a vision of her husband perishing in the course of a battle. She duly ‘died of a broken heart’. On the day of her funeral, word arrived in the locality that her husband had indeed died in battle at the time of the vision.

The Coming of Christianity

During the Fourth Century AD, the crumbling Roman Empire realised it was in dire need of something adhesive to unite their innumerable subjects against the increasingly militant hordes to the north and south. Thus was born Roman Catholicism; a religion loosely based on the Judaic teachings of the Old Testament together with the four ‘Christian’ Gospels and miscellaneous letters, psalms and essays deemed suitable. Missionaries were encouraged to go into the dark corners of Europe and spread the word.

In AD 432, Christianity arrived in Ireland when a refugee called Patrick, a self-confessed ‘sinner, the simplest of men’, lit a powerful bonfire upon the Hill of Slane and proceeded to explain the word of God. A monastery was established at Ardmore shortly afterwards.

Molana Abbey – The Birthplace of Canon Law

On the island that stands in the Blackwater, directly in front of present-day Ballynatray House, is one of the most important churches in early medieval Ireland. Over 170 years after Patrick, an Irish missionary known as St Maelanfaid, or Molan the Prophet, founded an abbey here on an island known as Dairinis, the island of the oak-tree. It is known today as Molana Island. Maelanfaid’s abbey soon became a great centre for learning and religious reform.

By the early 8th century, Molana was a major stronghold of the Céili Dé (Servants of God), a monastic order determined to reform the church. Its abbots subsequently played a key role in the subsequent introduction of Continental ideas to Ireland. Indeed, as Dr Dagmar Ó Riain-Raedel noted in her thesis on the island, the Abbey’s greatest hour came in about AD 720 when its Abbot, Ruben Mac Connadh of Dairinis, working with Cu-Chuimne from the island monastery of Iona, produced the Collectio Canonum Hibernensis. This was a profoundly valuable and important book for the church, written in Latin, effectively dictating the first rules of Canon Law. Its very title reflects its origin as a compilation of over two hundred years worth of canon law and synodal decrees. The text itself drew heavily upon previous ecclesiastical regulations and histories, all dating from the centuries prior to 725. It also included papal epistles, acts of synods, eccleiastical histories, a definition by Virgilius Maro Grammaticus, a compusticial tract by Pseudo-Theophilus, spurious 'Acts' of the council of Caesarea, the so-called dicta of Saint Patrick and several quotes from all but one of the works of Isidore of Seville.

Indeed, there is reason to believe that Molana Abbey may have been home to the first library in the south of Ireland. Unfortunately, none of these original manuscripts have survived but copies can be found in archives all over the Continent. Collectio Canonum Hibernensis was circulated throughout Western Europe for the next four hundred years.[2]

Vikings Ahoy!

There's nothing like an axe-wielding Viking to put the fear of God in one's soul. The Irish Annals are filled with the scrawls of terrified monks bemoaning their inevitable demise at the hands of these hard-drinking Scandinavian anti-Christs. The first Viking assault on Ireland took place at Lambay Island in Dublin Bay in AD 795. Within 50 years they had established settlements along the south coast at Dublin, Limerick, Cork, Waterford, Wexford and, closer to home, Youghal. From these bases, the Norse Vikings advanced up the rivers of Ireland in pursuit of the immense wealth of gold and jewellery reputed to hidden in monastic schools and villages. On an island in the middle of the Blackwater, Molana Abbey was no exception. The Abbott and monks repeatedly fell prey to the dragon-prowed long-ships. Often these ships were bound for Lismore, eighteen miles upriver, which they repeatedly sacked. In AD 864 the Decies clan from the neighbouring countryside destroyed the Norse fort at Youghal.[3]

A century later in AD 945, the land between Molana Island and Glendyne became the scene of a bloody battle between the rival Vikings armies, recorded in The Annals of the Four Masters:

‘AD 945. A battle between the Ravens [Northmen] of Munster in Gleann Damhain at Dair-inis, and a victory was obtained over the Ravens of the West, and many of them were slain there”.

The combination of Viking raids and repeated flooding left Molana Island virtually desolate by the eleventh century.

Raymond & the Augustinians of Molana

In the summer of 1169, an Anglo-Norman army consisting of just 30 knights, 30 cavalry and 600 foot-soldiers sailed into Wexford's Bannow Bay and so began the Norman conquest of Ireland. Within less than a decade most of the eastern half of Ireland had come under the rule of the English throne. The petty kings and High Kings didn't stand a chance against the Norman's super-efficient chain-mail clad army of cavalry, lancers and archers. Their ponies and horses looked like field mice when compared to the gigantic Arab steeds of the invaders. In 1173, Strongbow, the Norman leader, was waiting with supplies at Youghal when unexpectedly attacked by a fleet from Cork including both Irishmen and gaelicised Vikings. A sea battle was duly waged at the harbour mouth in which the Normans ultimately proved victorious.

Amongst those who fought in this battle was Raymond ‘Le Gros’ Fitzgerald, a chubby man regarded as the Achilles of Strongbow’s army. It was he who conquered Limerick City for the Normans. In due course, he came to settle in the area, quite possibly at Molana Abbey itself. The Abbey’s confidence had been restored some years earlier when local chieftain, Cathal O Donnchadh, fortified the island and introduced Augustinian canons to the old Celtic Christian abbey.

The Castle at Temple Michael

At about this time, the first castle was built at Temple Michael. It would seem this was built for the Knights Templar who were recruited by the Christian church to safeguard the interests of Molana Abbey from would be pillagers. The castle was rebuilt many times over the ensuing centuries before it was damaged beyond repair by Cromwell’s canons.

Death of Raymond Le Gros

The Abbey flourished once again and an ambitious building programme was undertaken. A large church was erected, along with living quarters for the canons, a cloister-garth, sacristy chapter-room, refectory and kitchen. The choir was lit by at least ten tall windows, in addition to a great east window, now almost completely destroyed. According to the Carew Manuscripts held at Lambeth Palace Library, ‘Raymond, surnamed Le Gros’ was buried in ‘the Abbey of Molan, nere unto Yoghall’.[4] There is a small tomb just south of the Abbey’s main enclosure and, although fading with time, a plaque on the wall, surmounted by a small funeral urn, professes:

‘Here lies the remains of Raymond le Gros, who died Anno Domini 1186’

Medieval Youghal

King Henry II granted Youghal to Robert Fitzstephen in 1177. He rebuilt and extended the Viking fortifications of the town and in 1202, Youghal received its first charter from King John. In 1215, Fitzstephen passed his Irish lands on to his half-brother, Maurice Fitzgerald, ancestor of the Earls of Desmond. It is said that Maurice built the first castle at Templemichael. His descendents were to dominate Munster for the next 350 years. By the 13th century, Youghal was regarded as the second busiest port in the British Isles after Bristol. Religious institutes flourished with the Franciscans founding their first friary outside of Italy in the town in 1224 while their founder, St Francis of Assisi, was still living. St. Mary's Collegiate Church, where so many of the Smyths of Ballynatray were commemorated, was built on the site of an earlier church in 1220.[5] By 1291, according to Pope Nicholas IV’s tax records, St Mary’s was the wealthiest benefice in the entire diocese of Cloyne.

In 1275 Edward Longshanks levied a tax for the building of stone walls to replace the Norman walls.[6]. When Edward launched his Scottish campaign against William Wallace, Youghal’s prominence was such that it was the only town in Ireland required to send three ships to his aid. Youghal ultimately provided nine of the twenty seven Irish ships which took part in the campaign. On Easter Sunday 1317, Roger Mortimer arrived at Youghal on his quest to bring an end to Edward the Bruce’s invasion of Ireland. By 1350, the twelve-towered walled port of Youghal was trading with ports all over Europe. And it considered thus for the next 200 years, during which time it received additional quays, gates and sally ports. It also withstood numerous attacks from pirates, including corsairs from Algeria and a maniac known simply as Mr. Nut.

Darkest Nights at Molana Abbey

Molana Abbey slid into darkness during the 15th century, its reputation tarnished by accusations of simony, perjury and immorality levelled against its Abbot, John McInery. News of these charges reached the desk of Pope Nicholas V in 1450 and, after a short investigation, McInery was deposed.[7] In 1462, Pope Pius II granted an indulgence to the abbey at Molana for all pilgrims who visited it on certain feast days and also promising forgiveness of sins to all who contributed to its repair and maintenance. One wonders whether this still holds true for the Abbey’s present owner. That same year, Youghal was created one of the Irish 'cinque ports', granting the town special trading privileges.

The FitzGerald’s again made their mark on the town when, in 1464, the 7th Earl of Desmond converted St. Mary’s Church into The College, Ireland's first post-Norman university. As a monastic establishment, The College was dissolved under the order of Henry VIII but struggled on until acquired for use as a residence by Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork. Tynte’s Castle on the Main Street was built by the Walsh family about this time, probably for the storage of valuable goods.

The Dissolution of Molana

In 1469, the Pope appointed one Edward Fitzgerald, ‘of noble (but trebly illegitimate) birth’, to succeed as Prior of Molana Abbey. Just over sixty years later, the abbey was suppressed and ownership duly passed to the Devonshire shipping captain, John Thickpenny, of whom more anon. At the date of its suppression, the vicarages of Tallow, Kilwatermoy, Kilcockan, and Templemichael were all dependant on Molana. The abbey was occupied in the late 16th century by Sir Walter Raleigh’s close confidante, Thomas Hariot, and may have been a stronghold for the atheistic ‘School of Night’.

Within the enclosure of Molana Abbey, immediately south of the nave, there stands a statue of effigy of St. Molanfidhe in the flowing robes of the Augustinians. Its inscription reads:

‘This statue is erected to the memory of St. Molanfidhe who founded this abbey for Canon Regular A.D. 501. He was the first Abbot and is here represented as habited according to the Order of St. Augustine. This Cenotaph and Statue are erected by Mrs. Mary Broderick Smyth A.D. 1820’

On the outside of the east wall of this building is another plaque from 1824, bearing the following inscription:

This Abbey anciently called Darinis or The Island of St. Molanfide since Molana was united to the mainland of Ballynatray by Grice Smyth, Esq., A.D. 1806. It was an Abbey of Canon Regular founded in the 6th century by St. Molanfide who was the first Abbot.

Molana Abbey in Modern Times

The island was joined to the mainland by Grice Smyth in 1806 and, judging by the statue of St. Maelanfaid which his widow installed in 1823, was a much beloved place for the family in those times. However, in 1916, a contemporary wrote: ‘It is to be regretted that the late owners of Ballynatray have evidently not taken the interest in this historic spot that Mrs. Grice Smyth did, else it would not be left to us to deplore the derelict condition in which we now find the venerable ruins of the ancient Abbey of Molana’.

In the 1940s, Captain Holroyd Smyth’s deer often came right up to the abbey’s ancient walls before bounding away ‘over tufts of rushes, grass and shrubbery, into the woods beyond, at the approach of a stranger’. Today the Abbey’s ruins remain ‘thickly overspread with ivy’ yet, even as the rooks circle the treetops above, it retains a strong and spiritual atmosphere. On the water between the abbey and Ballynatray House, one can still see the sprat trap and the salmon and eel weirs which the Augustinians constructed. [8]


[1] ‘Labbacallee’ translates as ‘the hag's bed’. The tomb is covered by three huge capstones and contains two burial chambers, separated by a dividing slab. One corner of this slab was thoughtfully left open to allow the spirits of the dead to come and go. When it was excavated, the remains of a woman were discovered within. However, while her skeleton was carefully buried in the inner chamber, her head was found outside.

[2] "Hiberno-Latin Literature to 1169", Dáibhí Ó Crónín, "A New History of Ireland", Vol. 1, 2005.

[3] The only known legacy of the Viking occupation of Youghal is a stone in the transept of St Mary's Collegiate Church, Youghal, which bears the faint etched outline of a longboat.

[4] "Calendar of Carew Papers in the Lambeth Palace Library', ed. J .S. Brewer & W . Bullen, London, 1867-73 (reprinted).

[5] The Benedictines of Waterford also had a cell at St. John’s House in Youghal from 1360.

[6] The walls surrounded the town on the shoreline as well as inland; most of the inland portion still survives and can be seen from St. Mary's Collegiate Church.

[7] The Pope’s information came from Donal O’Sullivan, a clerk of the Ardfert Diocese.

[8] Much of the history on Molana Abbey was provided by Dr Dagmar Ó Riain-Raedel from the Department of History at University College Cork. She concluded her thesis with a plea that the importance of the abbey be recognised by the present owner so that it might be saved from further deterioration.