KILLCOMMAC – Saint Brigit

KILLCOMMAC – Saint Brigit
shall we date free
Image by Irish Dominican Photographers
THE quest for Dominican ruins has revealed quite a few surprises since I started on it almost three years ago. Our official sources claimed that we had a house in Longford and a house of refuge in Kilcommoc in the south of the county. I set off to investigate these sites and then discovered that the good people of Abbeyshrule had a spanner for my works. Their parish bulletin claimed that; “The eleventh century saw the golden age of monasticism in the parish. In 1150 the Cistercians built Flumen Dei a major foundation and the major endowment of The O`Farrell. Meanwhile at the extreme western end of the parish the Dominicans founded The Red Abbey of Derg. Extensive ruined remains of both remain to this day.” However, James Ware lists the Red Abbey as a house of Canons of Saint Augustine founded by Gormgall O’Quinn under the titular of Saint Peter and therefore, sadly, not another site for me to explore.

Whilst Ambrose Coleman and Daphne Poucin-Mould give the name of the Dominican Church as “Saint Bridget” but the 1837 Topographical Survey of Ireland claims it was dedicated to “The Blessed Virgin” and the site is now occupied by the “Church of Saint John.” Giving the obdurate nature of place names I would suspect that Saint John would be the default choice as the original name. I have never encountered a situation where the Anglicans rededicated any of the churches that they took possession of.

The most famous incident in the history of this priory was the murder of two of the brethren in 1651. Both John O’Heyne and O’Farrell record this sad event in their work. Apart from that the story is quite short on detail. The priory was founded in 1400 and burned down in 1429. It was rebuilt and continued to function in some form until its suppression in 1557. The friars were expelled and moved into the area around Kilcommoc about ten miles south of Longford. The contemporary parish is called “Saint Dominic’s”. That is a title that probably was given in honour of the friars rather than a name brought by the fleeing brethren.

There is a small ruined chapel in the graveyard at Kilcommoc today. This stands in an isolated area beside an impressive fortified house. The house could be seventeenth century and was identified by Daphne Poucin-Mould as the likely home of the friars. Today it is a sheep stall. It is quite likely that the friars only moved here after the murders of their two brethren in 1651 rather than at the time of the suppression. In support of this I would draw your attention to the list of names given by John O’Heyne in 1707. Seven of the nine friars he named shared the surname O’Farrell. As members of the dominant local family it is quite possible that the community continued in a new home somewhere else in the town. O’Heyne and O’Farrell both imply that the men were arrested in the abandoned church in Longford. That church had been in the hands of a tenant for over a century by that time. It would certainly seem that the community remained and was tolerated in the town for over a hundred years after suppression.

The death of the two brothers shook the local community, catholic and protestant alike. The accounts stress that it was the work of an outside army and not of the local Protestants. That is because the local Protestants were simply members of the O’Farrell family that adopted reformed worship and the friars were members of the same family that hadn’t. Longford was still largely Gaelic at that time and de Burgo was an Anglo-Norman and blood is thicker than faith. The local governor, unnamed but likely an O’Farrell, appears to have afforded the nearest thing to a state funeral to his murdered cousins – a brave move if there was a band of Puritans watching the area.

Longford was situated on the main route from the isolated Anglo-Norman bastion of Sligo and the safe hinterlands of the old Pale. Regular traffic on that road made it unsafe for friars to stay in the area and that was the probably reason for the move to Killcommoc. Set in an area far from any major route the friars could have lived quite a safe and comfortable life in their rural seclusion. The community was probably never much bigger than four or five at that time although there seemed to always be two or three on mainland Europe during the seventeenth century.
Father Gregory O’Farrell died in 1672 in the friars’ house near Longford so we can assume that this was at Killcommoc. The question arises as to what kind of work the friars could have undertaken in this kind of place. The idea of the early friars to bring the monastery into the city was strong among Dominicans and remains quite strong to this day.

The land in south Longford is mostly suited to pasture. The Anglo-Norman settlers favoured land suited to tillage and as a result the Gaelic septs wandered more freely through places dotted with forests, moors, bogs and lakes. South Longford was not a prime site, isolated with its only major road leading into Roscommon; so Killcommoc would have served ideally as a holy place where the semi-nomadic Gaelic herdsmen and their families could congregate. Unlike the more organised parishes of the towns; the rural areas of Ireland were religious but quite unstructured. It would have been like a shrine where marriages could be blessed, children be baptised, prayers be requested and then, they would move on. The local farmers and the passing drovers would have quietly lived their lives oblivious to the raging of the second Reformation ten miles up the road.

Although Longford is in the province of Leinster to the Englishman of the seventeenth century it was more like Connacht. The area would not remain Gaelic for long. The coming decade would see an influx of evicted landowners move in from south Leinster. The Anglo-Normans had settled in small pockets along what in now the main road between Dublin and Sligo. Most of these sites at places like Granard and Edgewordstown had sizable populations but most of the county was left to the Gaelic population; partly because it was not great land and partly because the dominant power in this area was O’Farrell – and he was Gaelic.

This would have been a homely culture shock for the friars. Although they were of Gaelic origin they had all studied on mainland Europe and some were noted preachers. One of the murdered priests was a Preacher General. This would indicate that he was either perfectly eloquent in Latin or English but more likely the latter. Although many of the friars spoke Gaelic it is quite likely that it was not the first language of the more cosmopolitan friars that settled in Kilcommoc. But Gaelic was the first and only language of their neighbours and visitors. That might have changed soon afterwards with the arrival of the embittered dispossessed and English-speaking Cromwellian transplants filtering into the area. This is the kind of possibility that opens many channels for exploring local history. Great wars have risen from localised brawls in a bierkeller – some things are not as unimportant as they might seem!

(John O’Heyne)
In Coimty Longford an abbey was erected for the Dominicans in 1400, by O’Farrell, the illustrious, ancient and powerful prince of that territory. This abbey was a fine structure as the ruins still show; it was also well endowed by the munificence of this illustrious family, which had its place of sepulchre there. In 1424, the illustrious Cornelius O’Farrell, bishop of Ardagh, very celebrated for his charity to the poor, was buried there, according to Ware, and there are much more authentic Irish records of this event which I have seen at home. This community had many distinguished members; of those of more ancient times I have no knowledge, but of the modem fathers

Those that occur to my mind are: —
FATHER LAURENCE O’FARRELL, bachelor of theology, and FATHER BERNARD O’FARRELL, preacher-general. Both these fathers were captured together very early in the morning, in the church of their convent at Longford (the other friars having fled at the approach of the hostile Protestant army) and were put to death, each in a different way. The impious soldiers immediately after their entry wounded Father Bernard in more than twenty-four places, though he was afterwards able to receive the last sacraments before he died, as he had foretold. Father Laurence on being brought before the commander was recognised as an adherent of the Catholic army (which indeed he was in defence of his faith and in obedience to the Apostolic Nuncio), and condemned to be hanged. The next day, he advances towards the place of execution with a joyful mind; the tyrant moved by the intercession of friends grants a delay of three days, which is very trying to the martyr. Upbraiding those who interceded for him, he spends the whole of those three days in tears of penance and fervent prayer, begging God that he may not lose a martyr’s crown. His soul being at peace, he consoles the Catholics from the top of the ladder, and speaks against heresy with such energy, ardour, and strength of argument, that the commander shamed by his words orders him to be silent. The martyr bids farewell to all, puts his rosary around his neck and holds his crucifix in his right hand; then placing both his hands very meekly under his scapular, gives himself up to the executioner, who throws him from the ladder. While hanging there, wonderful to relate, he draws forth both hands from underneath his scapular and joins them together, raising his crucifix aloft as a mark of his triumph. The bystanders were struck with the wonderful spectacle, as was also the governor, who ordered the body to receive honourable burial, and having given a safe-conduct, allowed all the clergy and people to come together and celebrate the obsequies. This event took place in 1651.

FATHER GREGORY O’FARRELL, of the same community, studied in Spain, and after his return taught philosophy at Limerick, where he was also an excellent master of studies. At the termination of this office he was elected to accompany the prior of Limerick, then about to attend the provincial chapter at Athenry. Father Gregory, contrary to general expectation, was made provincial, a position he filled with singular prudence, and to the satisfaction of the province. After his provincialship, he looked after our Galway nuns, whom he brought to Spain, on the taking of the city by the enemy, and at once obtained a convent for them from his Catholic Majesty. He dwelt in the convent of Estella all the time of the exile, and I heard at Salamanca, from Father Rincon, who was prior in Estella while this father was staying there, that he did not know a more humble religious. In 1664, he returned home; when a novice in Athenry I saw him there in 1665, and he was received by all the fathers as a good angel. He was of a very meek and mortified appearance and practised silence and observance as far as he could in that most afflicted country; so that the people esteemed him as a mirror of virtue. He died in the Lord, having devoutly received the last sacraments of the church, in the house of our fathers near Longford, in 1672.

FATHER ANTHONY O’MOLLOY, otherwise of the Rosary, studied in Spain and was made procurator-general for the Irish province, a position he held for about forty-three years to the admiration of the clergy and citizens of Bilbao. For with admirable care he looked after the wants of the young men streaming into Spain for their studies, just after their profession, as well as of the students who were returning to Ireland. Well indeed was he named after the rosary; for he was greatly given to this devotion, and in all things was a devout client of the most Holy Mother of God. Whenever he was pressed by any want, he devoutly applied himself to our Blessed Lady of Bigonna, by means of which God works many miracles in that city. Being ordered to go to Louvain after my studies, I remained with him for a month and a half, waiting for a ship to sail, and could not but admire the holy life of the venerable old man. He was very strong when I bade him farewell in 1675, and I cannot state exactly when he died, but I can say that he was full of years and really good.

FATHER THOMAS O’FARRELL studied with success at Louvain, where he was professed for the convent of Longford. He was a youth of wonderful meekness and a good singer and organist, accomplishments which are uncommon among our fathers, not from want of capacity but of due and early training in such things. This has been the result of the continual oppression of our country for many centuries, principally after the rise of Protestantism and more accentuated after the reign of Elizabeth. This father, while still young, was called to another life.

FATHER BERNARD O’REILLY, of the same community, after finishing his studies in Spain, filled the office of procurator of the province with diligence, and after some years piously closed his last day in the city of Bilbao.

FATHER DOMINIC O’FARRELL studied with success at Louvain, and was lector and master of studies there. On his return home he ruled his convent as prior with laudable prudence. Being exiled, he lived by permission of his superiors, with a certain gentleman at Cambrai, where he died a pious and penitent death, fortified by the last sacraments, in 1704.

Of the members of this community still livings those known to me are only: —
FATHER LAURENCE O’FARRELL, who studied at Prague, in Bohemia, taught philosophy at Rome, in St. Sixtus, and theology to the English Dominicans, in convent of SS. John and Paul. On his departure thence, he lived full missionary faculties from the Holy Father, England, Ireland and Scotland, that is, for any single place of these kingdoms, according to his own wish. In the discharge of his duty in England, he was arrested and placed in close confinement in London for over a year, after suffering much in prison he was liberated at length the providence of God, and came to Belgium where underwent a long sickness and other hardships, ‘finally he went to Spain where he is living at present.

FATHER JOHN O’REILLY studied in the convent of our blessed Lady of Atocha, near Madrid, and afterwards on his way through France, was elected prior of the college of Holy Cross at Louvain, a position he filled with prudence, acting with singular foresight in that time of war and famine in Belgium. He was afterwards vicar and procurator of the province in Bilbao, and for the last six years has been serving as chaplain in the cavalry of his most Christian Majesty.

FATHER JAMES O’FARRELL studied in the Roman province, read philosophy there with success and is still making progress in the schools of the same province; I hear that he is an intelligent and religious man.


[Ambrose Coleman]
Founded under the title of St. Brigit, probably by Cornelius O’Farrell, O.P., bishop of Ardagh, 1418-24, who died in the latter year and was buried in the Dominican abbey.

1429 March 15 Martin V. granted an indulgence to all the faithful who should contribute to the restoration of the church which had been destroyed by fire. 4

1433. Mar. 11, Eugenius IV., renewed the indulgence and in the brief mentions that the fire was caused by wars which had been going on in those parts, especially during the previous six years. The brief also states that the abbey was consumed as well as the church, and that the friars had been obliged to move elsewhere. This indulgence was renewed by the same pope five years afterwards.

1448. There was in this year an infectious disease of which great numbers died, amongst whom were Connor, the son of Aedhbuy O’Feargail, Diarmud M’Commay and Henry Duife M’Fechedan, three righteous friars of the monastery of Longford O’Feargail.

1557. (4th & 5th Philip and Mary). This abbey, situated in Le Annaly, was granted for ever, in capite, to Richard Nugent: royalties excepted.

1578. (20th Eliz.) This abbey, containing half an acre, with a house, a cottage, twenty-eight acres of land and six acres of the demesne land, with commonage to the same, was granted to Sir Nicolas Malbye, knt., and his heirs, at the annual rent of sixteen shillings.

1615. Jan. 29. Jas. I. granted the abbey to Francis Viscount Valentia.

In 1756, there were three fathers attached to the community and two in 1767. According to Dr. Troy’s report in 1800, there were probably four fathers doing parochial work for the secular clergy at that date.

The obits contain the names of Father J. Weever, who died about 1797, and Father Bernard Keenan, who died before 1818. The abbey church has been in use for two centuries as the Protestant parish church.

From James Farrell’s HISTORY OF COUNTY LONGFORD, 1891
It was at this time (1651) that the full fury of religious persecution burst on Longford, resulting in the capturing and murdering of every regular clergyman the bigoted and fanatical Puritans could lay hold of. We shall therefore interrupt our episcopal list, in order to insert a particular account of the cruel death of two Dominican clergy seized in the Dominican Convent at Longford : —

The RevFathers Laurence O’Farrell and Bernard O’Farrell, O.P., appear to have been brothers, and were of the ancient family of O’Farrell. Of Father Laurence, Dominick de Rosario remarks, that he was educated at Lisbon, and was subsequently Prior of their college there. De Burgo says that Father Bernard was Predicator Generalis of the Order. De Burgo and Fontana give the following account of their martyrdom: —

"They were seized at early morn, whilst praying in the church of their native convent, Longford, which had been abandoned by the brethren on account of the violence of the persecution. Father Bernard was at once overwhelmed by the persecutors with more than four-and- twenty deadly wounds, whereof he expired; yet lingered long enough to receive the last Sacraments from another of our Fathers before he died; and this he himself had foretold. Brother Laurence they dragged, wounded, before the governor, and on discovering that for the faith, and in obedience to the authority of the Nuncio, he had joined the Catholic army, he was condemned to death. He was to have been executed on the following day, and joyfully awaited his fate, but by the intercession of some friends it was deferred for three days. This was most grievous to Laurence, who blamed his intercessors, and spent the whole three days in prayers and tears, beseeching God not to suffer him to lose the palm of martyrdom. At length he obtained his desire, and from the top of the ladder he addressed an eloquent exhortation to the Catholics; then placing the rosary round his neck, and holding a crucifix in his right hand, and bidding the people farewell, he blessed them, and meekly folding his hands under the scapular, submitted himself to the executioner. When the executioner, after placing the cord round his throat, pushed him off the ladder, whilst hanging, he drew both his hands from under his scapular, and raised the cross on high in both as the emblem of his triumph. The heretical governor was so much struck, that he allowed his body to be given to the Catholics and solemnly interred by them, and gave a safe conduct for the clergy to attend, fearing lest otherwise there might be tumults."

Another Father Laurence O’Farrell, O., is mentioned who also was an alumnus of the Convent of Longford, and studied at Prague, in Bohemia, but read his philosophy in Rome, with the Irish Dominicans, in the Convent of SS. Sixtus and Clement, and theology with the English Dominicans, in the House of SS. John and Paul. He thence proceeded to England, and, whilst discharging the duties of an apostolic missionary, was seized and confined in a most strict prison in London, where he suffered much for more than a year. At length, by the favour of God, he was set free, and proceeded to Belgium, where he patiently bore a long illness. He returned to England, and was again imprisoned, but was sent as a German into Portugal with the Archduke Charles, afterwards Emperor of the Germans. From thence he took an opportunity of going to Spain, where he piously died, serving as a chaplain to Berwick’s regiment, in 1708.

ThRev. Anthony O’Farrell, O.S., was taken, whilst preaching, by the Cromwellians, at Tulsk, in Roscommon, in the castle of Sir Ulysses de Burgo, and immediately hung, a.d. 1652.

ThRev. Christopher O’Farreldied in prison, about 1664, for the defence of the authority of the Pope. Whilst in prison he was obliged to lie on the bare earth, the luxury of a bed being denied him.

From 1670 to 1710 an interregnum of forty years occurred, during which there was no bishop, owing to the severity of the penal laws and the general confusion in the affairs of the kingdom. It is recorded that Father Cornelius Gaffney, who had represented the diocese of Ardagh in the Catholic Confederation Council, ruled the diocese for some years ; but the date of his death is not given.


From A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, 1837
This place, anciently called Athfadha, was at a very early period the site of a monastery, of which St. Idus, a disciple of St. Patrick, was abbot; and in 1400 a Dominican abbey was founded here in honour of the Blessed Virgin, by O’Ferral, prince of Annaly. This house was destroyed by fire in 1429, and Pope Martin V. and his successor, Eugene IV., granted indulgences to all who should contribute to its restoration. The establishment appears to have subsisted till the dissolution, after which it was successively granted to different parties in the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth, and was finally given to Francis, Viscount Valentia, in 1615, by James I., who had previously granted a market and fair to be held at this place.

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