Fáilte Romhat

  Convent of Mercy, Clonakilty

Convent of Mercy

THERE are few more pleasant drives than that from Bandon to Clonakilty, provided the weather be favourable. The road is excellent and it is flanked by verdant plains and gentle knolls which have a modest charm all their own. Just before we reach Clonakilty and from a spot whence we can glimpse the picturesque position of the town at the head of the bay, we are suddenly confronted by a solid massive building crowning a gentle hill. This stately building with its fine architectural proportions seems to stand as a guardian at the entrance to this historic town. It may well claim the title of guardian, for this Convent of Our Lady of Mercy has guarded the youth of Clonakilty for  over  one  hundred  years.

A tour of the grounds and the building is well repaid. Broad fields encircled by pleasant walks surround the Convent. The land rises gently and from the topmost field of the farm it is possible to view trans-Atlantic liners on their way to America. When asked what word best describes the interior of the Convent visitors almost invariably say "spacious." The corridors and rooms of this three-storey building are all lofty and wide. The windows too are in keeping with all this spaciousness. But the gem of the whole building and rightly so, is the chapel. Its altar of Caen stone and marble is dignified and beautiful. Three stained glass windows form its background. They represent The Sacred Humanity, Our Blessed Lady and St. Joseph and are truly works of art. In the Chapel of Mary at the epistle side of the High Altar there are two marble altars, one dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and the other to Our Lady of Dolours. Here the stained-glass windows are of smaller dimensions but none the less beautiful. They represent the Annunciation, the Pieta, and the Crowning of Our Lady in Heaven. In the centenary year 1956 another beautiful window was added, that of Our Lady of Lourdes.

So far we have studied an accomplished work and one cannot refrain from speculating as to its origins. Its beginnings were very humble and can be briefly told.

The so-called Famine years of '46 and '47 were bitter memories to those of the Catholic Irish who survived the disease and emigration which followed them. In 1853 the quiet of exhaustion had fallen on this one time prosperous little town but slowly and surely the resurgence whose heavings could be felt all over the country was stirring the countryside along the southern coast. The fruits of Catholic Emancipation were ripening. Religious Orders of men and women had been born when the nation seemed to be almost in the throes of its death-agony. The Irish, naturally of a rebounding temperament, spontaneously rose on the crest of the wave to welcome the privilege of Catholic education for their children as a sure means of ultimately freeing their nation from the grasp of a tyrant who had enslaved them body and soul. Very Rev. Fr. Morgan Madden appointed P.P. of Clonakilty in 1847 saw in the Religious Orders a means of controlling the education and spiritual direction of the children of his parish. Finding the girls' national school (attended almost entirely by Catholics) not under the control or management of the local clergy he had endeavoured but without success, to become its manager. Nothing daunted, with the consent of his Bishop, Most Rev. Dr. Keane, in 1853 he had the foundation of a fine school laid. He had little or no money of his own for this project but he was very substantially helped by his parishioners, and friends of his own.

In 1856, having secured the consent of the Superioress of the Convent of Mercy, Kinsale, to provide Mm with a teaching staff of at least four nuns, he opened the Immaculate Conception Primary School. The opening day was something in the nature of a triumphal march. Having assembled the children in the old Parish Church he addressed a few words of advice and instruction to them. He then consecrated them all to Mary Immaculate, recited the Litany of Loreto and at the head of a procession of eight hundred children he walked from the Church to the new schools. Thus on May 19th, 1856, was the Convent National School opened. A detailed description of the building hardly comes within the scope of this article but suffice it to say that after one hundred and three years the building is still solid and comfortable and completely free from dry rot a fine tribute to the tradesmen of Clonakilty of that period.

So far no other building had been erected. The four nuns were installed in a country cottage on the grounds. This is described in the Annals of the Convent thus"It was a pleasant spot to look at with its graceful windows looking out on the sloping lawn which seemed from within to terminate in the shining waters of the Bay. The green Venetian blinds, the walls covered with luxuriant passion-flower and white roses and a creeping shrub with rich red berries, while all around it were beds of the rarest flowers with such tempting gravelled walks between, that the weather should be very bad indeed to keep one indoors. It was truly a pretty spot and we spent many sunny hours in it! But its day is passed!! It will not shelter us any more!! We leave it to travel three storeys high with all our luggage!!!" The above was written when in January 1861, the health of the nuns began to suffer from the dampness of the cottage. It was then decided to transfer the Community to the top storey of the Primary School until the new Convent should be completed. It may be of interest to note here that the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in the Convent grounds is built against the old gable wall of this cottage. This fixes for us its exact site.

By 1859 the Community had been established as an independent branch of the Order of Mercy. Rev. Mother Genevieve O'Donoghue and her staff had also been reinforced by the admission of several postulants, among whom we find the names : Sister Mary de Sales Murray, a native of the town; Sister Mary Gertrude Cowhey of Mallow, Sister Mary Antonia Madden of Cork, and later on Sister Mary Canice Murphy of Cuckoo Hill. Two novices trained in the Kinsale Noviceship for Clonakilty had already arrived in March 1857. They were Sister Mary Joseph Murray an elder sister of Sister M. de Sales and Sister Mary Teresa Scully a native of Ardfield. From 1859 onwards subjects seemed to crowd into the Community. The four provinces were well and honourably represented in the Sisterhood of the Convent of Mercy, Clonakilty, while it was yet a very young foundation.

On July 16th, 1860, Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the foundation stone of the Convent was laid but no building-was commenced until May, 1861, for want of funds. However the farmers did useful work in the interval. They gave their horses and their own labour to the drawing in of stones and lime. Here in the Annals we find the gratitude of the nuns expressed. "The farmers and their families are well entitled to the prayers of our Community as long as it exists for their efforts on behalf of this work." On July 16th, 1861, the laying of the Foundation Stone was commemorated by the blessing of the quoin stone and placing in it a bottle containing an inscription and some medals.

It is interesting to note here with reference to the Diocese of Ross that His Lordship, Most Rev. Dr. Keane, was transferred to the Diocese of Cloyne in 1857 and Most Rev. Dr. Michael O'Hea, a native of Woodfield, Rosscarbery, was consecrated Bishop of Ross in Skibbereen on February 7th, 1858. Both had been very interested in the progress of the new school and very helpful to the young Community.

The building went on in. spite of the fact that the funds were expected to fall from Heaven as did the manna in the desert. Somehow money seemed to turn up always at the critical moment. Father Madden's brother, Father Patrick Madden, then on the Australian mission, was an untiring benefactor. The people of the town were generous, and aid was sought even among the Irish in America and not in vain. Rev. Mother Genevieve's method seemed to be that of employing the men from week to week always depending on Providence to enable her to pay them at the end of each week. And Providence did not fail her. We read in the Annals at this period 12th November, 1859, "Father Madden has invited Dr. Croke of Doneraile to preach the Charity Sermon in town for our benefit." Later "The Charity Sermon at which there was a huge concourse of priests and people resulted in a collection of 1,000." But sums of money big and small from rich and from poor were handed in at the most unexpected moments. It is not out of place here, to quote from a letter of encouragement written to Rev. Mother Genevieve O'Donoghue by Most Rev. Dr. M. O'Hea in 1862 while the building of the Convent was in progress "I shall not dwell on the advantages which the tradesmen and labouring men of the town of Clonakilty have derived from the employment given them up to this. They have not felt that distress which alas! is too prevalent in the Carberies. No meals, no coal committees have been established in your town. Should the Convent works from want of funds be forced to be discontinued what alternative remains for the men with their families but to take refuge in the Workhouse and thus forget, forever perhaps, that position and comfort which their honest industry had secured them. I trust such a consideration will have weight with the humane and the good and urge them to come to your aid."

On July 16th, 1864, the new Convent was completed and solemnly blessed under the title Convent of Our Lady of Mercy of the Sacred Heart, and the grounds were called Mount Carmel. Very Rev. Father M. Madden did not live to see this day. He was taken suddenly ill when visiting the Convent and died on 18th Jan., 1864, in the Convent while Holy Mass was being celebrated for him. His remains were buried in the site for the proposed Convent Chapel. They now rest with those of his brother Rev. Fr. Patrick Madden in a vault under the floor of the Chapel of Mary. The foundations of the Chapel were being dug on April 4th, 1866, and the Quoin Stone bearing this inscription way laid: "This Corner Stone of the Church of Reparation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was laid by Most Rev. Michael O'Hea, Lord Bishop of Ross, in memory of the late Very Rev. Morgan Madden, P.P. of Clonakilty, Founder of the Convent and Schools this 4th day of April, 1866."

Very Rev. Henry Leader, P.P., V.G.
Rev. Patrick Madden, Chaplain.
Messrs. Pugin & Ashlin,  Architects.
Mr. John Scannell, Builder.

Source - Clonakilty District Past & Present - A Tourist guide to the area.

My thanks to Henry McFadden for providing this information.