The Roscommon Abbey Watercolour

A mystery examined

The writer’s attention to this picture was first drawn when seeing an image of it on attending an illustrated talk by local architect, Brian O’Carroll ( d. 2011), on the visit of the Ulster Architectural History Society to Roscommon in 1984. As the writer was keen on finding out more on the background to this exceptional picture, he paid a visit to the owner, Mrs Mary Fullard of Abbey St who was happy to relate what she knew about it. It had been in her family for a long time, coming through her mother’s people, the Harris’s, who lived directly across the road from where she now lived. Mary’s interest in the Abbey was increased in no small measure by the fact that her mother’s burial was the last to occur there in 1961 before it was closed.

She was always of the opinion that it was painted by a nun

In her front hall the small framed picture had pride of place. Measuring about seven inches by five inches ( 18 by 13 cm ), it has a gold coloured border around it with a written label on the centre bottom reading  Roscommon Abbey 1812, all within a black frame under glass.It is possible that the border and framing were a done at a much later time and the date on the label should be treated with caution. She was always of the opinion that it was painted by a nun, probably local, from whom it was received by the Harris’s. All she could surmise was that it must have been a very long time ago as it was considered to be old when she was a child. As the Sisters of Mercy came to Roscommon in 1859 this might indicate a starting point for the execution of the picture, but it could very well be from a much later time or it could be argued as from earlier than this date depending on the focus of opinion on any of the disparate elements within the picture.

View of watercolour

Description of watercolour

The general scene is of a funeral cortege working its way towards the Abbey burial ground with a fine accurate rendition of the Abbey itself. The field in the middle ground is being made up with cocks of hay, showing two people using a fork and rake. There are a number of other people near the east gable of the ruin and two horned cattle just beyond the haymakers. In the foreground a man and a woman look on the scene while leaning against a low wall that travels across the entire scene sheltering some low bushes. The man wears a distinctive swallow-tail type jacket, while the woman wears a wrap around shawl with ankle length dress. There is not enough indication in the clothing to help definitively in dating.

A rising well can be seen pushing its way through stones and marshy ground

In the near foreground two horned cattle ruminate contentedly, while to the left the flow from a rising well can be seen pushing its way through stones and marshy ground. Mary said that this was the well that Bianconi’s horses drank from when resting before continuing their journey. She was sure of this as she often heard about it in the household when she was young. This may in fact be the origin of the name The Well Lane which travelled down to the well and is a much older road than the Circular Road which was constructed about 1856 at right angles to the Well Lane thus linking the Infirmary and Athlone Road. A good quality Lawrence photograph taken in 1903 of Church St but taking in the top of the lane in question shows clearly a sign Well Lane. There is some uncertainty of the origin of the name Henry St. Some observers say that this name came from a dedicatory stance to Henry Grattan. Despite much enquiry as to why this street is named so remains elusive as ever.

Photo of Abbey about 1883, taken by Henry Crawford , Engineer and Antiquarian, OPW

The view of the Abbey is from the north and shows the ruins generally as they appear today. A tree growing inside the east gable  leans through the east window and this is very reminiscent of the view in Grose’s Antiquites published in 1791.The remains of the tower along with the arches in the north aisle which are extant in Grose’s work are not seen in the watercolour, having fallen by neglect or being purposefully made fall as reported in some accounts, prove the watercolour post Grose. A substantial two-storey slated house stands to right of picture and it cannot be confused with the Infirmary which stood a little further to the right but was out of the artist’s view. No trace of this building can now be discovered and it does not appear on the first Ordnance Survey map of 1838. It is known that an establishment known as The Abbeytown Inn stood in the area and it may be candidate for the building in the picture, but is nothing more than speculative.

The Abbey Hotel

The present Abbey Hotel does not bear any resemblance to the building depicted. Some evidence exists to erection of the building of what is now the Abbey Hotel about the time the Courthouse and the New Jail were built between 1822 and 1832. A partner in the architectural group involved was Richard Richards. He may have designed it and lived here for a time. It subsequently came into the possession of Inspector Burke of the constabulary, who came to Roscommon around the time of the Great Famine, then onto his son Joseph Burke, solicitor, and then onto grandson Stephen St Lawrence Burke who died in 1916. It then was acquired by the O’Connor family who lived here until the early 1960,s and then acquired by the Grealy family who run the hotel up to the present.

Such fine detail and excellent colouring

The most impressive element in the picture is a funeral cortege working its way towards the burial ground. There is quite a big crowd around the cortege, some in front and some at the rear and of both adults and children. The hearse is pulled by a single horse who appears to be of a spotted colouring and the driver has a whip in his hand. The hearse is of the fancy decorative type complete with plumes and gathered drapery. It is driven on spoked wheels and displays the coffin. All this detail in an area the size of a fingernail is quite remarkable. Some well accomplished artwork completes the stands of trees in autumnal shades behind the Abbey and the other buildings. As the overall painted area is quite small the artist excelled him/herself fitting in such fine detail and excellent colouring of a national monument, pastoral scenes, a spring well and  a local event important to those involved, a funeral. The instance of a good quality hearse is not of critical worth in determining a dating horizon as such vehicles were available throughout the 19th century especially in the larger towns.There may have been less demand on this style of vehicle during the Great Famine when the vastly increased amount of deaths necessitated other wheeled contrivances for the graveyard journeys.

The 1867 right-of-way trouble

In November 1867 a meeting was called by John A. Holmes, land-agent for the landlord Capt. Goff who owned the well field to try and get the people to obtain the original passage to the graveyard for future use. The attendance on the day was smaller than expected due to the inclement weather. Attending were Dr Thomas Philips P.P., Joseph Burke, Sessional Crown Solr., John Kelly, County Surveyor and a number of people who tried to identify their allotted portion of the graveyard. Capt. Goff objected to the right of the public to use the passage through the well field and to use the original passage. Mr Burke objected to the claim of Capt. Goff to close up the present passage and produced leases to show that the passage could not be interfered with and would remain there as long as the Abbey was a burying ground.

It appears then that Holmes wrote a second letter withdrawing Capt. Goff’s claims. It is not clear from the newspaper article (The Roscommon Journal, Nov 2,1867) whether Holmes wrote this on the spot or went back to consult with the landlord who lived at Carraroe Park, close to the town. One of the gentlemen present suggested getting the graveyard into a proper state of repair and those having a right to be buried there to get up a headstone, if not already up. John Kelly was praised for his arduous efforts in making out a list of names of all those who have any right to be interred in the Abbey burial-place. One wonders whether the passage being used in the watercolour is the present or original passage referred to above. An interesting aside to John Kelly is the erection of a cut stone vault for himself and his family adjacent to the north facing side chapel just under its window. The date of building of this vault is uncertain, but appears in an Office of Public Works photograph taken by Henry Crawford in the mid 1880s.It is not seen in the watercolour which helps to again to confine a dating horizon.

William Wilde’s Visit

William Wilde made a visit to Roscommon in 1870 and took in an opportunity to look at the Abbey ruins. His reaction of anger made him write to the local newspaper and this was also published in The Irish Builder (Oct.19th, 1870). It appears in the Crawford photograph and is still there today in good order. Some of Wilde’s comments are worth quoting:

‘The present state of this structure is a disgrace to the Christian religion- a shameful national neglect, and to leave it longer so desecrated will show that while Roscommon can liberally contribute towards patriotic funds, and even for the relief of foreign nations, its inhabitants allow this noble ruin to perish , and the veritable tomb of its royal founder, Felim, eldest son of Cathal Crovdearg O’Conor, to be polluted by filth and eventually obliterated by the debris of the walls of the surrounding sanctuary. We cannot now restore to its original purpose the Abbey of Roscommon, but we can arrest its further decay, render it decent to the sight, display its architectural features, and bring to light the tombs of its kings and the graves of its abbots and those of the Roscommon families that were interred within its walls. We cannot do all this without money but we can perform the following works at once. Let a proper wall be at the north-western side, from Mr Kelly’d mausoleum to the end of the building in that direction; let an iron gate be put up at the western entrance , we can get one for a couple of pounds ; cut down one or two of the old trees that are now threatening the destruction of the eastern gable’.

View of tomb of King Felim O’Conor, Roscommon, d.1265. From Journ. Kilkenny Archaeological Society

Isaac Weld’s visit in 1832

We can be grateful to Isaac Weld for giving a fairly good description of the Abbey and the surrounds ( Statistical survey of Co. Roscommon, RDS, 1832, pp449-458). Giving a view of the aisles and the arches on the northern side, he lucidly makes it clear that the arches were still in position at that time:

 ‘The arches of communication between the nave and the aisle, varying from fourteen feet seven inches, to fifteen feet eight inches in span, are all of the broad lancet kind, and in pleasing proportion; they are four in number; the inner pair resting upon two intermediate circular pillars; and the outer pair, on the pillars on one side, and at the otheron corresponding pilasters in the walls’.

This would indicate another timepost for the watercolour marking its execution sometime after Weld’s visit. He also gives a vivid description of the approach to the well, which complements the detail in the watercolour:

‘The ruins of the Abbey of Roscommon stand at the foot of the hill occupied by the town, in a flat meadow or lawn, behind some old villa residences  on the road below the Infirmary. The gardens of these houses open out towards the ruins. But another and public way of approach lies down the lane , from the parish church, which leads to a style on the verge of the meadow, beyond which there is a footpath: and in this direction bodies are brought for interment in the Abbey, which is still much used or the purpose.

 The stile is one of the most frequented spots about the town or neighbourhood; for just withinside of it , on the margin of the meadow, lies a well, occasionally overflowing with clear and delicious water , whither the inhabitants come to draw as long as there is a drop to be had. During a great part of the year the supply is ample ; and the reservoir which is about six feet deep  and long and broad enough for a bath, not only remains full to the brim, but generally sends off a little stream. But in the course of the summer the water is sure to fail many times, to the great inconvenience of the neighbouring habitations ; for the deficiency of water in the town is general; and so severely felt, that the very puddle at last, becomes an object of contention.’

Weld went on to say that the well may have been a factor in siting the monastery as ‘fine water was one of the essential requisites for a monastic establishment’. Only in the last fifteen years has this well been piped and covered (c.1996) due to the new boys’ national school, already built close-by, and more housing  developments proposed  a short distance away.

Keening woman

Keening woman in Frederick William Burton’s painting ” The Aran Fisherman’s drowned child”, 1841

Weld also adverts to the presence of a keening woman in the burial ground on the same occasion:

‘At last having determined, as nearly as the scattered stones would permit, the place where the grave ought to be, over which she had come to perform a mournful ceremony, she deliberately laid aside her conspicuous red mantle, fell upon her knees, pulled down her long raven locks, extended her arms, and beat her breast, setting up at the same time, a howl which pierced my ears, and echoed through the ruins far and wide.’

A neighbour of Mary Fullard’s, Jimmy Curley ( d.1994, aged 83 years), who also ran a shop in Abbey St, told me some years ago, that as a boy, attending a funeral in the Abbey he heard keening happening, and it would appear that he was the last person alive locally , at the time of speaking to me, able to relate this age old phenomenon. It appears that it died out in the first two decades of the 20th century in rural areas.

Dating the watercolour

The various elements in it when viewed with the considerations outlined above, puts a date tentatively between 1832 and 1870, probably nearer the latter date. The existence of the subject matter in this watercolour has prompted questions on wells, haymaking, structural decay, of buildings, rights-of-way, funerals and keening women. These matters always exercise the mind and quicken the blood, and the watercolour has proved to be a fruitful vehicle to throw more light on an area of Roscommon town that must have been quite lively and colourful one hundred and fifty years ago.


The writer would like to record his indebtedness to the late Mary Fullard for her welcome and the information which she freely bestowed about the watercolour. He would also like to thank the family of Mary for their help in its future preservation.

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