A band of Cistercian monks came to the area from the abbey at Inislounaght in Co. Tipperary in the late 12th century. Sources vary as to the exact founding date (1180–1200). The foundation is attributed either to Donal Mór Ua Briain (Donald O'Brien), the patron of a number of other religious structures in the historic Thomond region, who died in 1194 or his successor Donough Cairbreach. If it is true that Corcomroe established a daughter-house in 1198 at Kilshane (Co. Limerick) the former is more likely. Alternatively, Kilshane may have been the first attempt by this group of monks to set up a monastery and after that failed in 1200, Corcomroe may have been the site of their second try. On stylistic grounds, the founding is thought to have occurred around 1205–10.:4–5
Construction of the abbey used local limestone. Legend maintains that the building was indeed commissioned by King Conor na Siudane Ua Briain (see below). According to the legend, Ua Briain executed the five masons who completed the abbey to prevent them from constructing a rival masterpiece elsewhere.
The documentary evidence on Corcomroe Abbey is scanty. Moreover, since the Cistercians did not engage in pastoral work to the same extent as some other orders, few traditions on the abbey were maintained by local folklore. In 1226, a papal mandate addressed to the Bishop of Kilfenora and the abbot of Corcomroe shows that the abbey was integrated into the Cistercian network at that time and that the abbot was an important functionary in the local church. Another missive, from 1359, concerned the finances of the archdiocese of Tuam and the diocese of Kilmacduagh. In between, in 1228, the relationship with the mother-house at Inislounaght was ended and Corcomroe became subservient to Furness Abbey. This was part of an attempt by the order to bring the more remote houses of the order in Ireland under closer control. In 1227, 1280 and 1287 there were complaints that the abbot of Corcomroe had failed to appear at the General Chapter at Citeaux for a long time.:10–4
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As with most dates from this period, the year in which the monastery was founded is somewhat uncertain, but apparently the early 7th century is deemed the most likely.
Colman was abbot/bishop at the monastery until his death. Of his successors, only one appears in the annals by name, one Indrect (died 814), before the arrival of the English.
This site was of such importance in medieval times that it became the centre of a new diocese, or Bishop's seat, the Diocese of Kilmacduagh, in the 12th century.
The early monastery was victim of multiple raids and finally ruined by William de Burgh in the early 13th century. To replace it, the local lord Owen O'Heyne (died 1253) founded the abbey of St. Mary de Petra as house for the Augustinian canons. The abbey is also attributed to Bishop Maurice Ileyan (died 1283) but the architectural evidence, according to Harold Leask, allows only the later added east range of the abbey to be associated with bishop Maurice. During the reformation this was granted to the Earl of Clanricarde.
The round tower was repaired in 1879 under the supervision of Sir Thomas Deane, with financial support from Sir William Henry Gregory of Coole Park.
The Diocese of Kilmacduagh is now incorporated into the Diocese of Galway.
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