A NARROW road of overgrown trees with sweeping fields visible through the breaks in the hedgerows is what teases you towards this ancient ruin, west of Cork City. The peak of a tower appears as you roll across an old stonewalled, humpback bridge.
There are two sites here. A grove walkway leads you to the friary which is beside a tiny car park.
The castle, however, looms in the distance and can only be seen as a shadow amidst an island of trees. Late in the evening the tip of the castle was gently emblazoned by the last bit of golden sun whilst the rest remained in the darkness.
There’s a haunting element to this place, with great cavernous rooms absent of light and mild currents of sorrow in the air.
Although the castle is built on farmland, it’s open to the public, with an access track running through a swaying field of wheat, making the walk feel all the more dramatic. A warning sign is at the entrance, reminding visitors to be cautious when wandering around the ruin.
The Franciscan way of life descends from an Italian man, Francis Bernardone, who was born into a family of lavish opulence in 1182, Assisi. By the age of 23 he had renounced his wealth and began to live a life of monastic austerity, dwelling in caves and church ruins. He displayed a genuine empathy for those who suffered and over time, he grew a following which multiplied and, rather quickly, spread all over Europe and beyond. In 1231, a Franciscan mission was sent to Ireland which led to the establishment of many friaries all over the country.
Kilcrea Friary was founded for the Franciscan Observants in 1465 by Cormac Láidir Mac Carthaigh, Lord of Muskerry.
Cormac was the 6th lord of Muskerry, which was a lordship near Cork city (Muskerry East and West). He recovered the land from the Anglo-Norman Barret family in 1420, which was once part of the medieval Kingdom of Desmond.
Cormac also built the castle which is half a kilometre from the friary. Records claim that he was killed by his own brother and nephew at Carrignamuck Castle, Dripsey, in 1494. His grave site is still clearly displayed within the friary.
The name Kilcrea (Cill Chré) means the Church of Cré, and was named after a 6th century woman who is said to have founded a nunnery nearby.
The monastery once had a scriptorium, and the friars would sit in there working on their handwritten manuscripts. The scriptorium was chosen on the basis of it being the most brightly lit room in the monastery. Most hours of daylight were spent in here, therefore summer was favoured for this venture.
A strict code of silence was in place in the scriptorium so friars would communicate with little written notes to each other - some are still visible on some manuscripts.
A script written in the friary dating back to approximately 1475 is now preserved in Rennes, France. The manuscript contains preaching material as well as an Irish translation of the 14th century adventures of an English knight, Sir John Mandeville. They describe his exploration of the Holy Land and sightings of strange and exotic creatures.
During the dissolution of the friaries in 1542, they remained under the protection of the MacCarthys. After some years and generations of protection, finally the castle was plundered by English soldiers in 1584.
The soldiers fought so hard over the spoils of the building, two of them were killed by each other in the process after suffering deadly wounds. Records state that a beautiful, gold and silver, rood cross once hung from the tower in the church and was sadly destroyed during this attack.
By 1599, English soldiers were permanently stationed at Kilcrea Castle, which meant that the friars, who had moved nearby, were no longer able to frequent it.
After much persecution under Queen Elizabeth, in 1603 Catholics were given leniency during the reign of King James. This meant they could repossess their lands, so Kilcrea Friary was repaired and the friars returned to their friary.
However, this spell didn’t last long and by 1616 they were no longer welcome due to Protestant ownership, further persecution, and wars.
Over the centuries there were different phases where different Friars were appointed as guardians of the building, but by 1892 the Board of Works had taken it over and issued it as a protected monument.
Kilcrea Friary is one of the few Franciscan friaries to have survived almost in its entirety. The ruin is a fine example of an Irish Franciscan Monastery and most of it survives in good condition.
It is now used as a burial ground by the local community with graves dating back to the 17th century.
* Richard would like to thank Mary Horgan of Local Studies, Cork City Library who helped him with his research for the series.
Next Week: Three Castle Head
More in this section