The Franciscan Abbey of Ross Errily sits on the side of the Black river a few miles outside of Headford (25 km north of Galway city - take the road to Cong [R334] from Headford). It is an imposing sight, sitting on the flat countryside a few miles from the shore of Lough Corrib. The Friary was founded in 1351 by the Norman nobleman Sir Raymond de Burgo and, according to Harbison, 'is the most extensive and best preserved of all the Franciscan friaries in Ireland'. I wish I had visited it as a child - it is a maze of corridors, stairways, rooms and courtyards, and even now, I could feel the urge to go running and whooping around the site with a toy sword (which, when you think about it, is the least appropriate thing you could do in a Franciscan friary).
Even today, the friary, with its seventy-foot tower, dominates the landscape - the land is flat and probably prone to flooding. You cannot see the lake from the friary, but you can see the mountains that border the far side of the Corrib - the Partry mountains to the north, the Maumturks to the north west and the hills behind Oughterard to the west. When I first visited the friary in February of this year (2004), snow capped all of the mountains and a bitter wind that would bring more than a tear to your eye whipped off the lake.
Most of the friary was built during the latter half of the 15th century. Like many religious settlements in Ireland during the Middle Ages, it's fate was determined by the political tumult in England. It was dissolved in 1540 (when Henry VIII decided that he wounld't be a Roman Catholic anymore, and neither would any of his subjects) and in 1562, was granted to the Earl of Clanricarde. He made two attempts to restore the friarys to Ross Errily, in 1562 and 1580 but their residency was intermittent until 1664 when they were resident until 1765.
How did Ross Errily get it's name? Sir William Wilde (Ref 14
), quoting a translations of The Annals of the Four Masters, offers a couple of possibilities:-
"[in] AD1351, the monastery of Ros-Oirbhealagh [afterwards called Roserrilly] in the diocese of Tuam, was erected for Franciscans. and when, in 1604, Brian Oge O'Rourke was buried there, the name was changed to Ross-Iriala."
Ros-Oirbhealagh means wood of the eastern pass, and Ross-Iriala means wood of Irial (or perhaps Earl). But Sir William also offers another, more mythical explanation
"The building was commenced at Ross-daff, on the north or Mayo side of the river, when three swans came and perched on it, and having remained some time, flew to the other side with some ros, or flaxseed, which there grew up forthwith; and then the former structure was deserted and the present commenced, and called Ross-an-tree-Olla, "the flaxseed of the three swans", which, in course of years and mispronounciation of the language, became Ross-Errilly."
The reference to woodland might explain something that puzzles me about the site. In 1572, Fr. Ferrall McEgan (one of the friars) built a causeway of large stones from the entrance of the friary to the nearest point of dry ground - even a century ago, it was the only means of entering the friary. But, since most of the friary was at least one hundred years old at that point, the mystery is why the friars didn't built the causeway during the construction when it would have been more useful.
Unless they didn't need a causeway when they were building it. If the friary had been built in a wooded area, the land would have been reasonably dry ( the amount of stone that would have had to be carted in to build the friary would have required dry and sturdy paths). Subsequent deforestation might have caused the land to become wetter and more prone to flooding. And who could have cut down the trees? Well,it's possible that De Burgo might have had the trees felled. However, the friary itself would have required a good deal of timber, not only for construction (scaffolding, roofing, etc) but also for heating and cooking (the monks also probably smoked their own fish). By 1572, the friars had been on site for two hundred years, so they could have got through quite a few trees by then. Who knows how many times that, as the friars stood warming themselves around a blazing fire, their conversation turned to the encroachment of the surrounding marsh and how it seemed to be getting worse every year.