The recent amazing discovery of a bronze age urn at the construction works at the Sheil Hospital recalls to mind the Monk's Head which was in Catsby Cave close to the Cistercian Abbey of Assaroe in Ballyshannon. Read about Catsby Cave, one of the most beautiful landmarks in Ballyshannon, a poem written in the cave in 1830 that has turned up in Norway, and the mystery of the Monks's Head which has a new home in Rossnowlagh.
On the bank of the Abbey River, behind the ruins of Abbey Assaroe and the Abbey graveyard lies the mysterious cavern known as Catsby in a secluded and peaceful location well worth a visit.
Catsby Cave is associated with religious ceremonies and the cavern contains two bullauns and an altar hewn from the rock. Bullauns were traditionally used as baptismal fonts and are associated with early Christianity.
A stone sculptured head was in Catsby until fairly modern time and some people remember when this stone head was in Catsby Cave. It was removed for safe-keeping to Maynooth College Museum about 70 years ago. It has since been returned to the area and can be viewed at the County Donegal Historical Museum in the Franciscan Friary in Rossnowlagh. Credit to the Franciscans for providing free accommodation for the Museum and curator Louis Emerson who preserved many artefacts since the museum opened in 1952.
A close examination of the Monk’s Head, which is said to date to pagan times reveals a number of features. There are no ears visible on the stone sculpture although it is felt that the left ear may be hidden under a lock of hair. The head has a hairline also there is a moustache with chin beard and the head was designed to be built into a wall. Abbey Assaroe above Catsby was founded in the late 12th century but it is believed that the stone head dates to a much earlier period. Pagan and Christian practices merged in some instances as with wells.The meaning of the place name, Catsby, has never been satisfactorily explained, it is possible that it refers to the steep incline overhead. However Mr. Quinn who reported to the Ordnance Survey in the 1830s called this place 'Cat's Bay' or the bay of the cats !
The Priest, the Drummer Boy and Penal Times
Local tradition is that Catsby was used as a site to say Mass in Penal times, as it was sheltered and secluded, and any approaching military from the town could be observed. According to folklore, Catsby was the scene of an incident between the military and a priest at a mine entry beside Catsby.
“During penal times a priest was reading Mass there one Sunday. The military who had a barrack in the town heard of this and came to arrest him but he escaped into the mine. A drummer boy followed him and the military waited for some time but he nor the priest never returned and were never heard of since.”
| Catsby Cave on left and another cave on right which may be the legendary |
priest's cave. There also was a cave beside the Abbey bridge pictured below.
A Popular Walk 200 Years Ago
The walk from the town to the Abbey and along the bank of the river past the Abbey Mill has always been popular with local people and Mary Anne Sheil in her diary written in 1844 recalled one such walk with her sisters and a local doctor.
“Julia, Caroline, Dr. Swan and I went a delightful walk to the Abby, sat a long time in the cave at Catsby, talked over the ancient glories of the Abby. Dr. Swan told us “the story of a nun”, after a long and very pleasant seat; we took our way through the village and came home safe at five o’ clock”.
|The beautiful Abbey bridge and river near Catsby Cave|
A Poem on Catsby Discovered in Norway 200 Year's Ago
A poem written in Catsby Cave Ballyshannon, on the 21st December 1830, has been located in a library in Trondheim in Norway, by a researcher Eva Hov who has provided me with much material, since 2006, on a branch of the Allingham family who went to live in Norway. Eva has visited Ballyshannon on a number of occasions since 2006 and today is one of the foremost authorities on the poet William Allingham's family roots. In my earlier book "Ballyshannon and Surrounding Areas. History, Heritage and Folklore" (now out of print) there is a chapter on the discoveries Eva made in Norway and local Ballyshannon links that we established.
The poem was written by Mary Anne Allingham (an aunt of William Allingham, the Poet) to her nephew in Norway and shows that Catsby Cave was popular with local people over 200 years ago. Many walked from the town on a good afternoon and took in the Mill, the Abbey bridge, St. Patrick's Well and Abbey Assaroe.
Recent restoration work at the nearby Mill Wheel and the preservation of many valuable carved stones from the Abbey of Assaroe are well worth a look in this beautiful area of Ballyshannon.
Lines Written in Catsby Cave (1830)
Five years have fleeted o’er me since last I entered here;Since last I saw before me thy cave O! Catsby dear.And o’er my bosom stealing as I seat me on this stone;There comes a saddened feeling with the thoughts of days now flown.Yet I would not their returning if a wish would bring them back;But it sets the heart a mourning to look along life's track.And see so many hours have wasted been in vain;How many of life's flowers lie withered on the plainThe Summer sun was shining when I last sat in this cave;The summer flowers were twining, the birds sweet music gave.Now the torrent wildly flowing is the music meets my ear,And instead of flowers glowing but withered leaves are here.Yet, see! over yon rock streaming in wreaths all brightly green;
Like hope, o’er this life beaming the ivy plant is seen.Tho' all beneath is shaded by winters hand unkind;Green ivy keep unfaded like hope within the mind.
|Catsby Cave in September 2020|
Next Blog on Wednesday next 16th September:
" Memories of the Biggest Day of the Year In Ballyshannon"
Limited edition quality hardback with dust jacket as above available in A Novel Idea and Local Hands Ballyshannon and Four Masters Bookshop Donegal Town. Also available for postage from firstname.lastname@example.org
Topics include: How to go about Tracing your Roots/The first settlers in the area/ Newly researched history of the town of Ballyshannon and the townlands in Kilbarron and Mágh Éne parishes/ Records of the first travellers and tourists to Ballyshannon, Bundoran, Belleek, Rossnowlagh and Ballintra/An aerial guide to place names along the Erne from Ballyshannon to the Bar/Flora and Fauna of the area/ A history of buildings and housing estates in the locality/Graveyard Inscriptions from the Abbey graveyard, St. Joseph’s and St. Anne’s /Rolling back the years with many memories of the Great Famine, Independence struggle, hydro-electric scheme, Gaelic games, boxing, handball, Boy Scouts, soccer, mummers, characters, organisations, folklore and lots more.