There is a remarkable link between a fresco in a former Dominican convent in Sicily and the story of a religious community on the northern shores of Clew Bay.
Just beyond Newport, on the road west, lies Burrishoole Abbey, steeped in history and silent symbol of centuries of religious repression and tyrannical dominance. It was here, in 1469, that Richard de Burgo, chief of the Burkes of Turlough, founded the abbey for dedication to the friars of the Dominican Order.
But the Sicilian connection is related to an incident of some two centuries later, when two dedicated women laid down their lives for their faith. Honoria de Burgo, who spent her early years in her father’s castle which overlooked the abbey, decided to use her inheritance to build a small convent close by for the use of lay Dominican sisters (‘tertiaries’, as they were known, who followed the rule of the Third Order of St Dominick). There, the sisters spent their time in quiet contemplation and in helping the poor and needy of the locality.
But by 1649, the dark shadow of Cromwellian torture was to be cast across the land. Monasteries, churches, abbeys and convents were to be plundered and razed to the ground, and friars and religious put to death. The Cromwellian forces attacked Burrishoole in February of 1653. Two of the sisters – Sr Honoria de Burgo, by this time over 100 years old, and Sr Honoria Magaen – together with a young servant girl, fled for their lives.
They found refuge on Oilean na Naoimh on Lough Furnace, only to be pursued by the soldiers. Brutally beaten and thrown naked into a boat, the older sister survived for only a few hours. Honoria Magaen made her escape into nearby woods, with the servant, where she found a hiding place in the hollow of a tree trunk. There she froze to death in the bitter cold of mid-winter. Her body was found and returned to the abbey, where the two Honorias were buried.
I am indebted to historian Clare Chambers who, in a recent issue of ‘New Dawn’, traced the connection between Burrishoole and the Dominican convent in Sicily where the fresco depicting Sr Honoria Magaen in the tree trunk sits alongside those of Catherine of Siena and Thomas Aquinas. The Burrishoole story was recounted at the 1656 Dominican Chapter in Rome, where the two sisters were declared martyrs.
Thankfully, their story has not been forgotten completely, and Clare Chambers tells of leading a memorial walk in memory of the two Burrishoole sisters last year, 364 years after their horrific deaths.
In addition, a shrine to Our Lady, Queen of Martyrs, close to Burrishoole Bridge, represents the local faith community’s tribute to the two Honorias, while the annual pattern on August 4, St Dominick’s feast day, is a reminder of the esteem in which the Friars were held.
An interesting footnote to the history of Burrishoole Abbey is that it reputedly was built without Papal permission, apart from the fact that it was the last religious house to be founded prior to the Dissolution. Although the then Archbishop of Tuam had given approval, the initiation had not been sanctioned, as was required, by Rome. It took nearly 20 years for Pope Innocent VII to officially issue his approval. Consent was then given for the erection of a church with a steeple and bell, and a friary incorporating refectory, dormitory, cloisters and cemetery.