Carrowmore “Great and Celebrated”

Following the Flight of the Earls and the Plantation of Ulster, the Protestant church took ownership of the ancient monastic lands of the Diocese of Derry which included Inishowen. Throughout the seventeenth century a number of long and bitter disputes arose in which the monastic sites were the battleground. Powerful spiritual and temporal vested interests clashed repeatedly. The City of London was granted rights in the planted territories of the diocese and these were represented by the Irish Society. The Protestant Bishop of Derry had control over church lands and he was determined to establish his claim to the fertile lands, stone buildings, church plate and fishing rights. While the City of London had access to an army of highly trained lawyers, surveyors and architects, the Bishop of Derry had the advantage of being in situ, with members of the gentry at hand to carry out his wishes and defend his interests. 

In 1669, he spent almost three months on a visitation of the entire diocese, monitoring observances, inspecting buildings, assessing income and inspecting personnel. He spent almost a week in Inishowen starting on Tuesday 23 June and Wednesday 24 June with a  visit to Moville and lodging with Major Cary of Redcastle. On Thursday, he inspected Culdaff and Cloncha, which included the monastic site of Carrowmore. He stayed the night with Captain Butler, who resided a few metres from Carrowmore. Culdaff and Cloncha had subsumed the territories and income of Carrowmore; the name of the latter was no longer in use and only the ancient Irish name of the monastery, Both Chonais (the hut of Conas)  survived in the name of the Catholic parish of Culdaff.  (now Bocan). The Bishop would have passed close to the High Crosses of Carrowmore to travel from Captain Butler’s house to Cloncha but he makes no reference in his diary to the site. It is most likely, however, that he would have stopped to make a spiritual visit to the High Crosses, because of their importance in the ancient penitential stations. On Friday, he visited Donagh and Clonmany and stayed overnight with Captain Butler before his final visitation to Fahan. It is significant that in all cases, he stayed in the houses of the gentry, his allies in his conflicts with the Irish Society. In fairness, the residence of the rector and churchwardens were probably unsuited to accommodate the Bishop and his entourage, coachman and assistant clergy.  

While the fame of the monastery at Carrowmore was dimmed long before the 1700s, its reputation as a place of learning and distinction survived. In his Statistical Account of Donegal in 1802, William M’Parlan referred to it as “formerly a great and celebrated abbey”. M’Parlan writes in a cold clinical style but writes effusively about Carrowmore. He searched in vain for the ancient manuscripts and books of the library, one of which was hand-written by St. Maoliosa. He speculated that some of the documents were in the hands of the local clergy of the district. His comments were based on local sources. References in the Ordnance Survery Memoirs thirty years later seem to confirm M’Parlan’s suspicions. The material culture of the abbeys has survived in some rare cases, for example, the Bell of St. Boden in Bocan and the Bell of St. Mura, which is on display off Oxford St., London.

With renewed interest in Carrowmore, it is hoped that some of the manuscripts may be uncovered in the world’s great libraries.  

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