Tuesday 14 July 2020

Dominican Abbey of Our Lady of Thanks, Youghal

 One of the aspects of the Reformation which caused a great deal of distress both in Ireland and in England was the suppression of the monasteries and the iconoclasm which accompanied it. In some cases images were able to be hidden and preserved, even if the monasteries that once housed them eventually fell into ruins. One thing which has struck me over the past few years of reading the Victorian religious press is how the image of monastic ruins, usually windswept and with ghostly presences half-glimpsed at twilight, stands as a powerful evocation of past glories lost for people caught up in the 'Celtic Revival'.  There is a sense of rediscovery in the article below from 1895 on the Dominican Abbey at Youghal, which the writer, 'Laura Grey', feels is unknown even to the inhabitants of the town and which did not seem to form a part of the official tourist trail. I would like to know more about the author, certainly there was no lack of opportunities for female writers to contribute to the popular religious press at this time. She provides a romantic view of the story of the famous shrine of 'Our Lady of Thanks', also known as 'Our Lady of Graces' which the Abbey once housed. Tomorrow I will bring another account of the shrine, a fourteenth-century ivory plaque depicting the Madonna and Child, which was once the object of a medieval pilgrimage. For more information plus a beautiful photograph of the shrine I can do no better than recommend a post on the subject by the Medieval Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland site here


Laura Grey.

THE sun was tinting with an amber glow the waves breaking on Youghal strand, when my friend and I strolled down the main street of the old town. That morning we had sailed up the Blackwater from Mount Melleray Abbey, and our day had been spent rambling through quaint alleys and rows of gabled houses. We had visited St. Mary's ancient church, Sir Walter Raleigh's mansion, the site of the Franciscan abbey, and our tourist's catalogue was nearly exhausted. One item still remained, and that was the ruins of the Dominican Priory. The inhabitants of Youghal seemed unconscious of its existence, yet in old histories of the County Cork I had read of its strong tower and fortified walls. Conflicting guides pursued us on all sides; some pointed one way— their opponents the other. Thrown on our own resources, we resolved to discard their services, and pilot our own footsteps. On the northern outskirts of the town we discovered a crowded burial ground, with a clump of trees standing sentinel amongst the graves. Here and there, through the foliage, peeped out a fragment of masonry, and stepping across the green mounds we found ourselves underneath the Western window of the Priory of "Our Lady of Thanks."

 All that remains of this once famous Dominican abbey are sundry broken columns, a shattered arch, and a window, yellow with lichen. One graceful cluster of pillars riveted our gaze. Twined round the capitals were lilies carved in stone, white and waxen, as if they had but left the artist's studio.   This group formed the entrance to the shrine of "Our Lady of Thanks," from which the abbey derived its title.

It was Thomas Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald, Lord Offaley, who invited the Dominicans to Youghal, and built this Priory for their reception. Hither the brethren came on August 5th, 1268, and here they flourished until the year 1581, when Elizabeth of England levelled their home to the ground, and sent them adrift.

In 1296 the founder, Lord Offaley, died, and was buried at the right-hand side of the altar. Seven years later, the abbey doors were flung open to receive the mortal remains of its munificent benefactor, Robert de Perceval.

In the year 1351, a funeral cortege might be seen wending its slow course along the avenue of yew trees, fronting the massive portals. On the bier lay the lifeless form of Maurice Fitzgibbon ("the White Knight,") and the second founder of Kilmallock Abbey, County Limerick. He was advanced in years when he took the habit of St. Dominic in his own Abbey of Kilmallock, but later on joined the Community at Youghal. On his dying bed he craved to be buried with his consort in the tomb he had erected for both in Kilmallock, and his request was granted.

Time wore on, and the once thin band of Dominicans had grown into an opulent Brotherhood. Repelling the inroads of avarice amongst men vowed to lead a life of evangelical poverty, we find the Master-General of the Order, Bartholomew de Comatio, on Irish soil, making a visitation of Youghal Abbey. In 1493 he reformed its inmates.

In the days when the Dominican Abbey at Youghal was at its zenith, there stood at the gates an Italian youth— a sculptor, seeking admittance amongst the brethren. No dowry he possessed, save his chisel and a block of Carrara marble. These he placed at the disposal of the Community, and was accepted by them as a novice, taking the name of Carthage.

 A year after he had assumed the white habit, St. Brendan's feast came round. The name of Ireland's "traveller" saint was borne by the Prior, and the brethren were vying with each other in preparing divers simple offerings to present to their spiritual Father. Brother Carthage was selected to carve a statue of the Blessed Virgin, with the Infant Christ standing on her knee. The block of marble, which had been the novice's dower, had been hewn into a stately column, and nought remained for his chisel to fashion. But one day, strolling by the seashore, a piece of bone floated in on the tide, and he carried it home in triumph, resolved to frame a statue, and paint it in glowing colors. How his design was accomplished we shall read.

"Summon hither Brother Carthage, that my unworthy blessing may rest on the soul that conceived, and the hands that modelled, yonder miracle in carving," spoke the Prior to his religious children on St. Brendan's feast. But nowhere was the artist Brother to be found. Morning ripened into day, and heavy grew the Prior's heart at the absence of the novice. The bell sounded for the mid-day repast. The brethren were all seated, when slowly up the refectory moved Brother Carthage, his back bare, and bleeding from strokes of the discipline. Advancing towards Father Brendan's chair, he knelt, with downcast eyes.

"Rise, son," was the reassuring greeting. " Nought but smiles should wreathe thy brows to-day." But the prostrate friar still wept on.

"In the virtue of holy obedience, I command thee to unloose the fountains of thy grief," continued the Prior, rising. But Brother Carthage waved him back, and pointing to the statue, said: "Into yonder piece of bone thou thinkest truly, I have breathed a soul. I shall not gainsay thy words. God be praised for having guided my chisel aright! Since I crossed this sainted threshold one sombre winter ago, I have not wilfully transgressed the rules of the brethren. Last midnight, when all had sunk to rest, a temptation fell upon me, crushing in its force. I rose to sate my vanity with a view of my handicraft — the Mother and the Son carved in bone, for thy festal day. The pale moon- beams lit up the chapter room. Hard by lay my brush and colors. I seized them. Divers last strokes were wanting, and I painted them.  A voice whispered: 'Work on' and I obeyed. A ray of starlight played on the figures whilst I flushed with nature's tints the sullen bone. Not until the Matin chime stole upon the breath of morning did I falter. Ah me! I have bartered the heritage of Blessed Dominic's trammels for a mess of pottage. Kind Father, forgive an erring son."

The Prior rose, and, casting his mantle over the kneeling novice, said: "Brother Carthage, thy humble confession has unsealed the well-springs of God's compassion towards thee. In His Most Holy Name, and in the Name of His Virgin Mother, I absolve thee from thy fault. Arise; be comforted."

The Brother stood erect, and his brethren crowded round to imprint the kiss of peace.

A year later, a costly shrine was erected to receive the image of the Blessed Virgin. In course of time the statue was deemed miraculous, and the title of "Our Lady of Thanks" was bestowed on it by the pious pilgrims who thronged the abbey. Jewels, gemmed lamps, and diamond-hilted swords hung from the walls, and flashed in the blaze of a hundred lights. But dark days were near, when the spoiler's hand would quench the flame, and wrest the votive offerings from the shrine.

 Father Carthage had grown into an aged man when the sacrilegious tocsin of Elizabeth of England rang throughout Ireland. Yesterday, the Franciscan Abbey at Youghal had fallen, and the oaken magnificence of its roof was reduced to smouldering embers; today, the "requiem" of the Dominicans would be chanted!

The Community had entoned Vespers for the last time, when the tramp of soldiery was heard in the hush of evening. In that wild hour Father Carthage thought of the statue he had carved. How he longed for the elasticity of youth to scale the walls and bear it away to a place of safety! In his distress he commissioned a younger Brother to execute the task. Seizing the relic, the novice wrapped it in his scapular, and retreated to a knot of trees. Perceiving one hollow yew standing apart, he dropped the statue down into the centre of the trunk, and fled. His life paid the penalty of his devotion. A mailed hand was laid upon his shoulder, and he was slain under the green leaves where he stood. Father Carthage meantime was ignorant of the Brother's death, and of the fate of the statue.

The shrine of "Our Lady of Thanks" had become a shapeless ruin, and the tower of the abbey from which the sweet chimes once pealed, now reeled under the roar of artillery. The trees were cut down and shipped to England. The brethren were dispersed, hiding amongst the crags, and wandering by the margin of the Black water; the devoted peasantry supplied them with the necessaries of life, craving in exchange, a Mass in some dark sea cave.

Father Carthage was one of those who survived the wreck of Youghal Abbey. Even the hirelings of Elizabeth respected his silver hairs and noble bearing. A benefactor once presented him with a gift of firewood. Amongst the brushwood was found an ancient yew tree, covered with lichen, and scarred with years. All day long the brethren strove to separate the trunk from the branches. The limbs of the aged Fathers were numb from exposure, and fuel was needed to kindle a fire. Axe and saw were alike employed in vain. Some one whispered, "Call Father Carthage to our aid. In the springtime of his youth he was wont to carve the solid rock; in the fall of his years he can surely pierce the porous rind of the yew tree."

At their summons the hoary Dominican appeared, leaning on his staff. ''This log of timber hath long lain in brine," quoth the old man, separating the fibres of the bark with his hands. "Yea, Father," answered one of his companions. "The donor hath even now told us that it was swept in yester morn by the tide."

"Give me the saw, my son," said the priest.

He pressed the sharp teeth into the sides of the tree. With a crash the hollow trunk sprang open, and lying within, wrapt in a roll of white serge, lay the long-lost statue of "Our Lady of Thanks." A layer of young wood had grown across the upper end of the aperture, sealing the trunk against the inroads of wind and rain.

The sight of the statue proved too great a joy for Father Carthage. Clasping it passionately to his breast, he leaned against one of the brethren for support, murmuring the Nunc Dimittis. They were his last words on earth. He died of an overflow of  delight. The aged heart was unable to bear the pressure of that unexpected meeting.

The Geraldines seem to have been the tutelary angels of this monastery. There are those who ascribe the safety of the miraculous statue, so dear to the faithful, to a daughter of this family, who is said to have watched her opportunity and carried it off during the days of carnage. However, we have here given the beautiful and touching legend of "Our Lady of Thanks."

We have not been able to trace the relic further through the vicissitudes of that troublous era. Its voyage across the sea to Youghal must always remain a mystery. No doubt, it had never quitted the hollow trunk in which the Dominican novice had placed it the night the abbey was stormed. The new growth of wood was clearly a miracle wrought by the Mother of God to shield her image from harm, and to gladden Father Carthage's eyes before he sank to rest.

 In the year 1644, we find the statue mentioned in a General Chapter of the Order held in Rome. At the present time the Dominican community in Cork preserve the statue under the title of " Our Lady of Youghal."

There, in these later days, a solemn Triduum was celebrated on the occasion of the consecration of two new altars, and installation of the miraculous statue. One of the altars is dedicated to the Holy Rosary, and the other to St. Dominic: both are of polished marble. The ceremony of consecration attracted great numbers of the faithful. The prelates who officiated were, the Most Rev. Dr. Browne, Bishop of Cloyne, and the Most Rev. Dr. O'Callaghan, O. P., Bishop of Cork. The Pope, at the request of Dr. O'Callaghan, granted a Plenary Indulgence to all who, after Confession and Communion, should visit the Rosary altar and pray for the intentions of his Holiness. The faithful availed them- selves of this great favor granted by the Holy Father, and during the three days of the Triduum the altar rails were crowded with communicants at all the Masses.

 On the last day of the Triduum, the ceremony of installation of the miraculous statue took place. It was borne in the procession by the Bishop, and placed in a silver shrine on the altar of the Rosary. The procession was composed of the Fathers of the community, and other distinguished ecclesiastics, the Altar-boy's Sodality, the Sodality of St. Thomas of Aquinas, consisting of about 300 young men, and the members of the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary.

The statue is enclosed in a silver gilt shrine, presented by Lady Honor Fitzgerald, of the Geraldine family. It is elaborately ornamented, and bears the following inscription, in Latin: "Pray for the soul of Honor, daughter of James Fitzgerald, who caused this to be made A. D. 1617."

Many miracles are said to have been worked through the intercession of our Lady of Youghal, and the statue itself bears evident traces of the ardent devotion of the faithful. Parts of it are very much worn, owing, no doubt, to the kisses of devout pilgrims, who came, in a past century, from every part of Ireland, to visit the miraculous shrine, in the old Dominican convent of Youghal. The convent gave many martyrs to the Church, and conferred many glories on the Order.

The Rosary Magazine,  Vol VII, (November 1895), 496-502.

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