Monaincha – Inis Locha Cré – Inis na mBeó, has an extraordinarily well documented monastic history. In olden times a small island in a shallow lake, it is now a little mound in a boggy countryside, about two miles east of the town. Saint Canice of Aghaboe (end of 6th century) is the first recluse to have lived on the island, where he strove to be alone in uninterrupted prayer and penance, and there he is believed to have transcribed the four Gospels, the Green Book of Canice. Fifty years later Saint Cronan was there for a short time.
Hilary was the next great recluse and culdee reformer we hear of on the island, where he died in 807. It is related to him that the only bread that he would allow be brought to the island was the bread of Roscrea. So Roscrea brown bread has quite a history!
Flaithbertach, a king of Cashel was there for some time in 920 as a pilgrim, and the Annals of the Four Masters record that on the island in 1119 Fergal a venerable senior and select soldier of God passed to Christ. They tell us also of Mael Padraig Ua Drugáin, learned sage of the Irish, chief lector of Armagh, head of council of the West of Europe in piety and devotion, who died as a pilgrim on the island of Loch Cré on 2 January 1138. It must be remembered that the Irish pilgrim often ended his days in prayer and penance at the place of pilgrimage. He was not just a passer-by. Again the Annals record the death in 1143 of Mac Raith Ua Fiadan, head of the Island of Loch Cré. The Welshman Giraldus Cambrensis has some stories of Monaincha in his Topographia Hiberniae of 1185.
The Augustinian Canons came to the island in the latter part of the 12th century, and the present well preserved and exceedingly attractive Hiberno-Romanesque church was probably built by these canons in the 12th century. The Augustinian priory at Toomevara was a foundation from Monaincha. In a papal taxation document of 1306 the prior was assessed as owning temporalities worth ten shillings! Excessive wealth was no problem at Monaincha and yet the 14th century Book of Ballymote refers to Monaincha as the 31st wonder of the world. In 1414 the priory is described as of Saint Mary the Virgin, with Donal O’Meagher as prior. There are many other documents during the 15th century relating to the island.
Cronan began his monastic career in Connacht, where he made a number of foundations, but he abandoned each one in turn as soon as some other community wished to occupy the place he had chosen. He finally returned to his native locality, and came to Monaincha for solitude and prayer. He did not make a foundation on the island, but chose as his first site a wood on the mainland, lying between the little lake and the present town of Roscrea. The place is called Sean Ross. Here the saint built a cell and soon disciples came to him in large numbers. The poor and needy also flocked to him for help. As the place was some distance from the main road, the Slige Dála, Saint Cronan decided that he would move to a more accessible site for the convenience of these visitors. Hence, we are told in his 12th c. Latin life that the holy senior Cronan built a great monastery in that place, and a famous monastic town called Roscrea grew up there, in which Cronan reposed in Christ after many miracles. Cronan died in 665.
Roscrea a Diocese
There is a fully documented list of the Abbots of Roscrea, from Daniel, who died 761 to Mac Raith Ua Baillén (+1083), and then a list of four short-lived abbots from 1127-1134. One of the abbots is also styled Bishop of Roscrea. In any case at the synod of Kells in 1152 under the presidency of Cardinal Paparo as papal legate, Roscrea was recognised as a separate diocese, suffragan to Cashel and wholly independent of Killaloe. It was however to be a short-lived independence. Isaac Ua Cuanáin died as its bishop in 1161, and possibly Ua Carbaill, who died in 1168, was also bishop of Roscrea, but from that date there is no further trace of the bishopric, till the appointment in 1970 of Most Rev. Dominic Conway as auxiliary bishop of Elphin and titular bishop of Roscrea. Since then a number of auxiliaries in Australia, Philippines, Germany, have been titular bishops of Roscrea.
Besides the beautiful 12th century Hiberno-Romanesque church at Monaincha, there are several other architectural remains of the old monks of Roscrea. The Round Tower, erected in the early 12th century, is the most prominent structure. It now stands 18 m high despite having lost its conical roof and upper portion centuries ago. A most interesting feature is a carving in relief on a large stone on the right hand jamb of the east window. It is of a masted ship with slightly to its right a standing cross. The entire relief piece is 50 cm x 25 cm. It is a symbol of Christ calming the troubled waters of the sea in which the Church (the Bark of Peter) labours, as he assures his disciples: It is I, do not be afraid.
A slab found in the churchyard of the old church of Saint Cronan, is now in the National Museum.
The cross standing in the grounds of the Church of Ireland just opposite the round tower is a replica of the original, now on display in the Black Mills and is known as Saint Cronan’s Shrine. On one side of the cross is the figure of Christ crucified and on the other a figure known as the Image of Saint Cronan.
The well known west gable of the old church of Saint Cronan, in front if the present Church of Ireland, is believed to be mid-12th century. It is of the same style and group as Cormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel. It has been used as the model for the façade of the beautiful Honan Chapel at University College, Cork.
Quite near Mount Saint Joseph, at Inane, is the traditional well of Cronan.
Reference has already been made to the copy of the four Gospels done by Saint Canice at Monaincha, and kept for centuries by the monks of Aghaboe. Roscrea Book of Dimma now to be seen in Trinity College, Dublin, is a copy of the Four Gospels and dates from the 8th century. There are four full-page illustrations for the four Evangelists, typical of Irish art of the period. It is in a perfect state of preservation. There is also a shrine for the Book of Dimma, made of wood and copper, probably dating from the 12th century. It is however of a rather poor quality as an example of the Irish craftsman’s skill. This too is preserved in Trinity College.
There are two surviving versions of the Latin text of the Life of Saint Cronan, dating from the late 11th or early 12th century.
The original Annals of Roscrea have disappeared, but a copy of its text, made by the Irish Franciscan, Father Brendan O’Connor, about the year 1641, is now in the Royal Library at Brussels. It is a set of Irish annals beginning with creation and ending after 996.
The Irish Franciscans of Louvain have preserved another interesting witness to the literary activity of the monks of old Roscrea – a 12th century Irish poem: Echtgus hUa Cuanáin do muintir Ruis Cré cc. hc. Regulum. The rule which Echtgus here gives the monks of Roscrea is not a rule of monastic observance, but a rule of faith. It is a poem of 86 quatrains – an elaborate exposition of Catholic doctrine as to the nature and fruits of the Eucharist and the obligation to believe in the doctrine of the Real Presence. Brother Murchad O Cuinnlis is the scribe who copied this text in June 1634. This copy is in the Royal Library of Brussels.
There is another important religious site in Roscrea – the very striking remains of the Conventual Friars Minor foundation – at the entrance of the present Catholic Church. This friary dates from about 1460, but it was restored and re-founded in 1523 by Maolruany O’Cearuill, Lord of Ely – a chieftain whose praises were sung loudly by the Four Masters. After the dissolution, the friary and its thirty acres of land, was assigned to William Crow in 1568. We are told that after the suppression one of the friars, Tadh Ua Dalaig, fled to Limerick, with the intention of escaping abroad, but was captured and put to death, refusing all offers of freedom. The belfry which is still used, and also part of the nave, is the main fragment remaining.