If you take the coast road from West Cork to Cork City, you go through Timoleague, a beautiful village at the top of Courtmacsherry Bay. This little town has a main street of colourful houses and shops, a large and imposing Catholic church with notable stained glass windows, a medieval bridge spanning the inlet, and lovely walkways by the Arigideen River.
What makes us stop, though, no matter how often we have visited it before, is the Friary. Perched on a knoll overlooking the river, this Franciscan establishment was built in the 13th or 14th Century, and subsequently enlarged and extended. It somehow managed to survive the reformation but was finally abandoned when it was burned in 1642.
The Franciscans first arrived in Ireland about 1230. The order spread quickly and in time there were many Franciscan houses in Ireland. Followers of the Rule of St. Francis, they lived in fellowship in the friary, but went out every day to work among the people. Unlike monks in abbeys or monasteries, they did not shut themselves away to follow a strict regimen of prayer and work. Instead, the friars depended upon their parishioners for sustenance, devoted themselves to their flock during the day and returned to the friary for their simple meals and prayers.
Despite this avowed simplicity, the friary is large and imposing. The remains of the cloisters give evidence of the daily meditation and recitation of the Divine Office. Their living quarters included a chapter room, refectory and infirmary.
The church would have been impressive in its day, with large and elaborate windows, a long nave and a sizeable transept. The columns between the nave and the transept are massive: the cut stone demonstrates the high quality of masonry that went into the building of the Friary.
A wander through the ruins is a delight. There is a wart well, old gravestones (while away half an hour deciphering some inscriptions!) and niches that would have held the tombstones of dignitaries. Lichen of every colour clings to the stones while low archways appear around every corner, with inviting vistas of further corners to explore.
Timoleague is named for St Molaga, who is also associated with other locations in Ireland. Many stories are told of St Molaga. Here is one, recorded by Colonel James Grove White and provided online by Cork City Librarians.
Close to Temple Molaga is a copious spring well, which was always held sacred by the people and should be used only for drinking and curative purposes; but on one occasion, the lady of the manor, an unbeliever, would insist on cooking her husband’s dinner in the water of the sacred spring. When the water had time to boil, the cook remarked it was icy cold; more logs were placed on the fire, still to no effect. The logs were still being piled on, the fire blazed, but when the dinner hour arrived, the water was still as cold as ever. The lord waxed hungry, and, like other mortals, became angry; he rushed into the kitchen to ascertain for himself the cause of the delay, had the cover lifted off the huge pot, and, although the fire was crackling and blazing high about it, he felt the water was quite cold; but what astonished him more was to behold a beautiful trout swimming about in it, without apparently suffering the least inconvenience. He became wonder-stricken, and had his advisers called in. They told him to take the water back to the well without delay and pour it in. This being done, the trout again became invisible, and is since rarely seen, except by certain votaries.
In the district it is a common saying when water is slow to boil, “perhaps the Molaga trout is in it.”
Timoleague Friary, as the largest medieval religious ruin in West Cork, is a unique and special part of the West Cork landscape.