Roscommon Town Heritage
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History & Heritage

Roscommon Town

The Town of Roscommon - Tim Cronin 1978

The modern town of Roscommon is built on a raised hub of land from which seven roads radiate. It was called Bearna-na-headargana before St. Coman founded his monastery there; since then it has been known as Ros Chomain. The word ‘ros’ describes the site.

At least six saints were named Coman but the Coman who founded Roscommon is the Coman whose death is recorded in 742 thus – “Coman of Ros, who was Abbot of Clonmacnois, a man full of the grace of God, died”.

Coman’s connection with Clonmacnois, and the fact that he was the author of the monastic rule which was observed in most of the monasteries throughout Connacht, indicated Roscommon’s connection with the development of Irish monasticism. Saint Ciaran, the founder of Clonmacnois, came from Fuerty. The site of St. Coman’s original monastery is aid to be where the Church of Ireland in Church Street stands today. The well associated with him, Dabbach Chomain, is still marked in the O.S. maps: it is to the east of the cattle mart (Dunne Stores).

The boundary of St. Coman’s termon, or sanctuary, was marked by trees, one at Carricknabricken on the Castlerea road; another at Bohergarve on the Strokestown road; another at Clonybeirne on the Lanesboro road; another, the “Black Stick” at Ardsallagh on the Athlone road; another on a hill near the old barracks beside the Athleague road, and the sixth on the road to Fuerty.

St. Coman’s monastery was attacked by the Vikings in 802. It continued however as a leading monastery and when monastic revival and re-organisation began after the Synod of Rathbreasail, it was to Roscommon that King Turlough O’Connor introduced the Canons of St.Augustine from Arrouaise in France, about the year 1150.

About this time to the monks of Roscommon made a magnificent shrine to hold a relic of the True Cross which Turlough had obtained for the monastery. This shrine, known today as the Cross of Cong - because it was found at Cong many centuries later - has the following inscriptions:-

  1. Hoc Cruce Crux Tegetur gua Pasus Conditor Orbit.
  2. Or do Mureduch U Dubtaig Senior Erend.
  3. Or do Therrdel (buch) U Conch(bair) do Rig Erend Lassanderrand in Greasa.
  4. Or do Domnull Mac Plannacan U Dub (thaig) d’Epakub Connacht do Chomarba Chomman agus Chiaran Icanerrnad in Gressa.
  5. Or do Mael Isu Mac Bratdan U Echan Doirigni in Greassa.
This reliquary is regarded as a fine example of post-Viking Celtic arts and is now in the National Museum in Dublin. There is a splendid replica in the Sacred Heart Church in Roscommon.

A secondary monastery was built in Roscommon in 1253 when Felim O’Conor introduced the Dominican Friars to the site where the ruins of the Dominican Priory may still be seen. The Normans made a raid into Roscommon in 1262 and marked out the site for the castle, but they did not begin to build it until 1269.

A third monastery, of Franciscan Friars, was built in 1268, but was burned down along with the Dominican monastery in 1269. Possibly the building of the castle gave rise to an outbreak of the trouble which reunited in this burning, because Aed O’Conor, who had been ill when the castle was commenced in 1269, recovered, and took the castle in 1270.

The Franciscan Friary was never re-built, as its patron had died. The Normans returned, re-built the castle, but lost it again to O’Conor in 1277. Its subsequent history is a story of the Normans efforts to hold it, recover it, repair it, but inevitably lose it in the end. Its importance lies in the fact that it was then their outermost outpost, in the O’Conor enemy country, and it represented the ultimate in the defensive requirements of the 14th century. Many of them are still there today.

The English State Papers and the Irish Annals tell us much about Roscommon Castle. In 1304 the English had recovered it but it needed to be repaired and John de Exeter, its keeper, paid 2d a day to “an artilleryman to make and repair warlike engines” for it. He also paid for the “repair of the well of the castle and strengthening it with stone of the thickness of three feet so that the well may remain at the breadth of five feet and the depth of 32 feet and be completely covered with wood”.

He paid “forty shillings for repairing three drawbridges of the castle and portcullising of the two gates and two outward bridges”. Earlier, in 1276, another forty shillings had been paid out for ten bands of iron delivered for the fortifications.

At that time too, Richard Payne had been paid 46 shillings and 8 pence for his cart and two horses lost in the King’s service while bringing provisions to the garrison, and Lambert Denaunt had been paid £42 for 18 hogsheads of wine for them. The castle has the finest twin-towered gate building in Ireland on its east side. The pont-a-bascule type drawbridge on the west side is most unusual in this country and though destroyed at some period, is now partially restored. The sanitary arrangement with the screened garderobe chutes leading into a moat, may still be examined, and a mid-Elizabethan restoration of the North-east tower and surrounding area gives the unique spectacle of a castle with a Norman tower with its looped recesses for the bowman at the South-west end, and, and a renovated Norman with its mullioned and transomed windows at the opposite corner.

No standing trace of St. Coman’s monastery, or of that of the Augustinian canons that succeeded it, may now be seen, but the remains of the cell at Clooncraff, where the Cross of Cong is said to have been made, may still be seen beside the River Hind. Nor is the name Mae Isu U Echan forgotten; there are Egans about Clooncraff to this day.
An interesting feature of the ruins of the Dominican priory is the tomb of Felim O’Conor, its founder, in its canopied niche. The recumbent effigy of Felim lies on the tomb, and belongs to the 13th century: the figures in front belong to a later period.

The Roscommon Dominicans were active in promoting the Crusades in Connacht, and their long association with the area lasted until 1872. During the Penal days many of them found refuge in Creggs and Athleague.

A great change took place in Roscommon throughout Connacht in 1566 when Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Deputy, Sir Henry Sydney, placed a garrison in the castle. This garrison was under Sir Thomas Le Strange, and its coming was preceded by an agreement between Sydney and O’Conor Don on 14 November 1562: by this agreement O’Conor Don agreed to surrender the castle – which the Irish had held for 160 years – to the Lord Deputy.

When Sir Nicholas Malby was appointed the second Governor of Connacht in 1576 he came to live in Roscommon castle, having got a grant of the Castle land and the lands of the two Roscommon abbeys. He modernised part of the castle and introduced a colony of English settlers to live on the lands.
The Elizabethan settlers included John Crofton, John King, Richard Maypother, William Clifford, Andrew Ruttledge, George Harrison, Edward White, Robert Irwin, George Goodman, and Richard Bingham who succeeded Malby as Governor, and also lived in the Castle.

The nine years war saw Roscommon Castle under siege, with Henry Malby leading the defenders. During the Spring of 1596 he was forced to burn chairs, tables and even the stairway which his father had made for the castle. His account of the siege survives, as does an account of the first ‘democratic’ election held here after the war was over. The election of 1612 was a lively affair, and resulted in this petition “Charles O’Conor was elected for one of the Knights of the shire, but Sir Oliver St. John, Vice-President of the province, called (after most of the freeholders had departed) for those who would elect Sir John King and took notice of them, but called not for the rest, though they were the greatest number, and some of the freeholders who had departed the house, understanding of this second election to give their voices, but were kept back by Oliver St. John’s soldiers, who kept the door, only some few permitted to enter, who gave them money. By this means Sir John King was returned as the sheriff”.

An order was given on 15th October 1612 to draw up a fiant of incorporation of the town of Roscommon, in order that it might be represented also at Chichester’s Parliament; an attempt had also been made in 1304. The list of burgesses in given:- Martin Lisle, Sir Oliver  St. John, William Marwood, John Davys, Richard Maypother, William Hinde, John Marvin, George Blackney, Anthonie Ormesbie, John Haywood, John Winter, Alexander Vrryn, John Hancocke.

When Fr. James Fallon visited the town in 1631 the Dominican Priory was partly destroyed, except for a part which served as a courthouse, and another part which was a private house. Roscommon was burnt on Xmas Eve after the outbreak of the 1641 war, unfortunately for itself, at the centre of hostilities for the next ten years and more.
For much of that time it was held by Sir Charles Coote’s Cromwellian faction.

When Confederate forces under Preston came to besiege it in 1646, Preston was accompanied by Massari, Dean of Fermo in Italy, the secretary to Archbishop Rinnucini, Nuncio to Ireland.

Massari tells how Preston occupied the Dominican priory and took the outworks of the Castle. Then the defenders “who scarcely a month before escaped death on the field of Benburb, took counsel together and despatched a trumpet to Preston challenging him to fight. But when he appeared with his ordered ranks, the enemy sounded the retreat.
“Ashamed of this three Scottish Cavaliers rode out to do battle as many of the Irish. They were met by three Captains of ours, Williiamson, Barnell and Pinglas, but before they could come within sword’s length, two of the Scots fled, one, however remaining behind and inviting who so wished to measure weapons with him.
“All eyes were fixed on this one and Barnwell was elected before all others to meet him. Having discharged their muskets without inflicting a wound they came to close quarters and Barnwell killed the Scottish champion”. Preston went on to take the castle after terms had been agreed, and broken, on 18 July, 1646.

The Castle came to the end of the road following the signing of the Articles for the surrender of Roscommon on 3 April 1652. On the 10th March 1654 Cromwell ordered Coote “to see to the careful demolition of all superfluous castles in Connacht”. The wonder is that Coote allowed so much of it to survive, but the massive piece of masonry beside the present entrance is probably a result of this order. Patrick Sarsfield was also concerned about the destruction of Roscommon castle. On 20 August, 1690, he wrote to Lord Dillon ordering him to demolish it, having previously ordered him to see to it that civilian population were properly treated by the soldiers. Roscommon however remained a military centre. Alexander Montgomery was stationed there in 1702, and on 8 October he reported:- “As for the Mass house in Roscommon it was up before the barracks was built. I showed it to Brigadier Langston who advised me to acquaint the Government with it. I have heard of no Papists coming armed there, nor any disorder committed; neither am I afraid of them, though there are a thousand of them meet constantly at Mass, who if they had any evil design, being so very near, may surprise us either in Church or at the barrack. But if the Government thinks their being so near in the neighbourhood is not inconvenient, I am no way afraid of them”.

That was one side of the story: there was another, “The humble petition of Christopher Marshall, Samuel Belshier, Edward James, Thomas Griffiths, Martyn Wilcox, and John Clifford – sheweth – that one James Kilkenny, a Franciscan Friar, having been rescued as he was going to jail of Roscommon, the Lords Justices issued a proclamation the 7th November 1715 and offered a £100 reward for the apprehension of Patrick Baken of Carrow Ward, Una Mac Manus and Margaret Tristan or other persons concerned in the rescue”. Etc. etc.

By 1749, the modern town of Roscommon was taking shape. The parish had 240 houses, all but 25 of them being in the town. There was only one house in Ardsallagh. The total population of the parish was 1102, of whom 42 were Protestants.

The householders included 98 labourers, 36 widows, 15 weavers, 9 butchers, 8 tailors, 8 publicans, 6 shoemakers, 3 broguemakers, 3 bailiffs, 2 saddlers, 2 carpenters, 2 brewers, 2 skinners, 2 hawkers, 2 chemists, 2 shopkeepers, as well as a gardener, a jockey, a gaoler, a revenue officer, a herd, a builder, a sawyer, a fiddler, a slater, a joiner, a custom’s man, a thatcher, a miller, a turnkey, a distiller, a tobacconist, a piper and a clerk.

The principal employers were Murtagh Crogan, a weaver, who had seven employees; Thady Murray, a blacksmith, who had five – four of whom were women-:Lawrence Brogan,  a weaver, who had four: Roger O’Connor, a shopkeeper, who had nine; Hugh Hanly, the distiller, who had eight: Michael Lynch, the other shopkeeper, who had seven; Jonathan Robinson, a farmer in Killerny, who had four; and Lawrence Walsh, a Carmen, who had four.

Gradually other public buildings were built to join the barracks and the gaol. The Courthouse was built between 1761 and 1763; the plans, estimates and letters relating to this building are available. It was sold and became a church when the present Courthouse was built, and it became the Harrison Hall after the Sacred Heart Church was built in 1903. The old Gaol, which still stands, was replaced by a new Gaol which doesn’t. It was said to be small for its purpose. The story of Lady Betty and the hangings there are still remembered in local folklore.  There are many surveys and descriptions of Roscommon available, the most important being those of Isaac Weld, Arthur Young and Samuel Lewis. Weld describes the Old Infirmary where the County Library is today, and tells of a skin-graft operation done there by Dr. Lysaght, whom he describes as both “physician and surgeon”.

Lists of its citizens are available from 1749, and a considerable amount of information is available about it prior to that. It has been a centre of population for at least 1250 years, and while the amount of documentation that concerns it is vast, and widely scattered, at least a start has been made to provide copies of documents in the County Library. The modern town remains what it has been traditionally, one of the great marketing centres in Western Europe for top-quality sheep and store cattle. Here, as always, the emphasis is on quality.
Up to 10,000 cattle and more than 12,000 sheep may pass through the Roscommon Co-operative Mart during a single month.

The newly established Connacht Meats plant at Athleague provides a further outlet for the products of the farmer; from refrigerated trucks bring the finest lamb in the world to the most discerning of all markets – Paris.

The greatest change in the town has been in the field of industrial employment. Starting with mosaic designs, Roscommon has diversified into the production of shower units, table tops, aluminium ladders and trolleys, ladies and children’s wear, joinery, poultry processing, investment castings, furniture, watch straps  and leather goods, plastic filters, venetian blinds, stainless steel sink units and other light engineering products. This change has meant new jobs in industry for 542 people, 178 ladies and 364 men, up to January 1978.

Roscommon offers much to the industrial employer and to those whom he employs. The town is neat and compact, with excellent schools, primary, secondary, vocational and commercial; there are fine modern hospitals; there is well equipped, newly built gymnasium and a modern heated swimming pool; there are several football pitches, one of which, the Hyde Stadium, is among the best equipped in Connacht; there is a gold course; a social as well as a private sporting centre; there is an old established racecourse, with several race meetings each year; there are clubs and associations of various kinds, social, sporting and cultural. The river Shannon and Lough Ree provide facilities for boating, sailing, water-skiing, angling and swimming, while the river Suck rivals the Shannon as great fishing water. The Hind River beside the town has a remarkable summer rise of trout to the Blue Winged Olive, and is excellent dry-fly water.

For the bird watcher the area provides a number of centres which attract a huge number of winter migrants from the Baltic and Northern Europe, as well as from Iceland and Greenland. Newly established wildlife sanctuaries hold a great variety of waders, ducks and other wildfowl throughout the winter. A great variety of passage migrants visit the area, and an Atlantic hurricane generally brings a rare American visitor, some of which defy identifications.

Further Reading Sources:
Volume 2 – 1988 Roscommon Historical & Archaeological Society Journal
  • Page 5: The Town of Roscommon by Timothy Cronin, Mount Talbot
Volume 4 – 1992 Roscommon Historical & Archaeological Society Journal
  • Page 51: Roscommon – An Independent Diocese and a Separate Kingdom
Volume 5 – 1994 Roscommon Historical & Archaeological Society Journal
  • Page 6: Roscommon In History – Roy L. Barton
  • Page 26: The Big Wind of 1839 in County Roscommon by Marian Harlow
Volume 7 – 1998 Roscommon Historical & Archaeological Society Journal
  • Page 24: DAB’s visit to Roscommon  Town in 1808 by Albert Siggins
  • Page 34: Roscommon Town 100 years ago by Marion Harlow
Volume 8 – 2000 Roscommon Historical & Archaeological Society Journal
  • Page 70: Roscommon Town as seen in 1921 “Roscommon Journal” Colm O’Callaghan
Volume 10 – 2005 Roscommon Historical & Archaeological Society Journal
  • Page 6: Co. Roscommon in 1905 by Jim Ganly
  • Page 13: The Re-Conquest of Connaught Under Elizabeth I by Martin J. Kelly
  • Page 136: Local History by Bridie Kirrane
Roscommon Association Yearbook 1981
  • Page 11: What does one write about? By Donal Brennan
Roscommon Association Yearbook 1982
  • Page 24: Roscommon 150 years ago by Liam Connellan
Roscommon Association Yearbook 1985
  • Page 27: Roscommon Town
  • Page 33: 700th Anniversary of Granting of Roscommon’s Charter by Brian O’Carroll
  • Page 51: Bad Times in Roscommon by Donal Brennan
Roscommon Association Yearbook 1986
  • Page 13: Tour Your Own County
Roscommon Association Yearbook 1988
  • Page 58: Market and Fairday in Roscommon Town Long Ago by Albert Siggins
Roscommon Association Yearbook 1992
  • Page 7: Roscommon Town – Extracts from Slaters Directory 1856
Roscommon Association Yearbook 1997
  • Page 3: Roscommon
  • Page 34: Champion celebrates 70th birthday this year by Paul Healy
Roscommon Association Yearbook 1998
  • Page 18: Roscommon Town (map)
  • Page 64: The Transfer of the GRO to Roscommon by Pat Patterson
  • Page 66: My Memories of Roscommon Town Late Thirties & Early Forties by Bridie Kirrane
Roscommon Association Yearbook 1999
  • Page 54: Official Twinning (Castle Point Borough Council, Essex, England)
  • Page 69: My Own place by Bridie Kirrane
Roscommon Association Yearbook 2002
  • Page 28: Down Memory Lane in Roscommon Town by Norman Molloy
  • Page 30: GRO Sets Roots In Roscommon Town by Pat Patterson
Roscommon Life 2004/2005 (incorporating Roscommon Association Yearbook)
  • Page 10: Changing before our eyes by Paul Healy
  • Page 84: The old town – Streets and places of Roscommon Town by Albert Siggins
Roscommon Life 2005/06 (incorporating Roscommon Association Yearbook)
  • Page 48: They put the flag a-flying by Mike Lennon
  • Page 49: The story behind the story by Kathleen Hegarty Thorne
  • Page 52: From Wards and the Mart to Tesco and Dunnes Stores by Ciaran Mullooly
Roscommon Life 2007/08 (incorporating Roscommon Association Yearbook)
  • Page 58: My memories of Roscommon’s past by Bridie Kirrane
  • Page 107: The brains behind the project by Kathleen Hegarty Thorne
Roscommon Life 2011/2012 (incorporating the Roscommon Association Yearbook)
  • Page  2: Celebrating Twinning of Roscommon and Tucon