Biography, Waterford history

Thomas Harriot and Molana Abbey

Thomas Harriot and Molana Abbey

Niall C.E.J. O’Brien

In 1580 the English courtier and adventurer, Sir Walter Ralegh, was planning his expedition to the New World, specifically to an inlet north of the Carolinas which in 1585 received the name of Virginia and his friend, Dr. John Dee was there to advised. The Welsh magician’s chief advice to Ralegh was that to tackle navigation he needed to get a good mathematician. But Ralegh did little on the matter until in 1583, with his expedition nearly ready to sail, he went in search of his mathematician and found Thomas Harriot.[1]

Desmond rebellions

Between 1579 and 1583 the Earl of Desmond and his supporters waged a fierce rebellion across the Province of Munster against the increasing control of the English government. This rebellion was costly in lives and money for the government of Queen Elizabeth of England. It followed from an earlier rebellion in 1569 to 1572 led by one of the chief supporters of the Earl of Desmond. At the end of this second rebellion the English government decided to take advantage of the death of the Earl in 1583 to forfeit all his lands and those of his chief supporters and give the land to English settlers in what was termed the Plantation of Munster.

Sir Walter Ralegh was initially given the maximum amount of 12,000 acres like the other large undertakers but when two undertakers pulled out of the Plantation scheme Ralegh had the connections to secure their shares and add them to his own. Thus Sir Walter Ralegh came to acquire an estate of 42,000 acres, the largest by far of the any in the Munster Planation.

Sir Walter Ralegh and Molana Abbey

One of the properties Ralegh acquired was the former estate of Molana Abbey. The Molana estate was given by King Henry VIII to the Earl of Desmond following the Dissolution of the Monasteries. After the First Desmond rebellion the estate was forfeited to the crown. On 8th February 1572 it was leased to John Thickpenny for twenty-one years with a renewed lease in 1577.[2] John Thickpenny was victualler for the Munster army in the 1570s and into the 1580s. Following the death of John Thickpenny in 1583 his widow, Ann Holton, acquired his crown lease on Molana Abbey.

But the government believed a woman was unsuited to protecting the English interest in Munster and pressure was put on to get Ann Holton out of Molana. By 1587 the government won and a new lease was given to Sir Walter Ralegh on 2nd July 1587.[3] Like in other places across his vast estate Ralegh leased Molana Abbey to an English settler and his family. The settler who came to Molana was Thomas Harriot.


Thomas Harriot

Early life of Thomas Harriot

Thomas Harriot was born in County Oxford in 1560 to a family of unrecorded lineage. While his father is mentioned as a commoner and records note a married sister along with relations in Berkshire, virtually no other genealogical information is known. Yet the innate genius of Thomas Harriot was noticed by somebody such that he got a place at Oxford University. There he matriculated as a commoner in St. Mary’s Hall in 1577 and graduated with a BA in July 1580.

While at Oxford Thomas Harriot was befriended by the geographer Richard Hakluyt and the astronomer, Thomas Allen. Hakluyt is said to have introduced Harriot to Walter Ralegh who was then studying at Oriel College, Oxford.[4] From about 1583 to 1595 Thomas Harriot installed his scientific instruments in Durham House where he taught Ralegh’s sea captains the practical mathematics and its application to the problems of navigation. Durham House was one of the great palaces of London and Ralegh got a lease on much of it from the government in 1583.[5]

Thomas Harriot was on the 1585 expedition to Virginia funded by Sir Walter Ralegh and led by Sir Ralph Lane. Raleigh’s expedition was not original. Fishermen were for century’s crossing over to the Grand Banks; Spanish sailors were crossing the Atlantic two or three times a year; there were maps of the North American coastline available and Spanish cities were growing across the Americas. What made Ralegh’s expedition stand out was the work done by Thomas Harriot as he catalogued everything he saw and recorded everything in minute detail.[6]

The colony on Roanoke Island, Virginia

When the fleet of ships arrival in Virginia Thomas Harriot made a study of all he could see. He also learnt some words of the native Indians which further added to his research. Harriot’s inaction with the Indians, playing tricks with lenses and magnets among other things, was vital to the English settlers as they relied almost totally on the Indians to provide food. The leader of the Roanoke Island colony, Sir Ralph Lane, was a military man and most of the settlers were soldiers earning wages. There were few among them who knew farming.[7]

The Indians were not farmers in the European sense, producing a surplus and stock piling food. Instead they just grew enough and lived on shellfish, roots and berries between harvests. The job of feeding over a hundred English was beyond their capabilities. Sir Richard Grenville had left for England at the end of August 1585 and was due to return to Roanoke Island in the spring of 1586 with supplies. But war between England and Spain prevented his immediate return. A fleet under Sir Francis Drake dropped off supplies while heading home from the Caribbean but bad weather also arrived and the ship Drake left for the colonists took opportunity to turn for England instead of going inshore to Roanoke Island. The colonists were unsure if Ralegh would be able to send a relief fleet and so they decided to all return to England in June 1586 with Drake. Two days later Ralegh’s supply ship arrived to find only Indians on Roanoke Island.[8] Although the first English colony in North America had ended the work of Thomas Harriot would prove that the end was but a brief interruption.

Thomas Harriot spent over a year writing a book of his Virginia survey work with illustrations by John White = A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia = which book opened the Americas to the world and inspired future settlement for over a century.[9]

The English speaking New World promoted by Thomas Harriot and others attracted many English and Scottish settlers in Ireland to leave for the New World in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Towards the end of the eighteenth century Irish Catholics began to settle in the area known as the Thirteen Colonies. Following American independence more Irish Catholics headed across the sea. At the start of the nineteenth century increasing numbers of Irish went to the United States of America. Some went of their own means but many were aided by assisted passage by their landlord or from relatives who were already in America.

When the Great Famine forced one million people to leave Ireland, many thousands went to America assisted again by their landlords or relatives or the charity organisations. Without the work of people like Thomas Harriot these immigrants would possible be going to a Spanish speaking America. The exploration, promotion and colonisation by Thomas Harriot of Molana Abbey and others the area now known as the United States of America became English speaking.

In 1589 Thomas Harriot began to survey the Irish estates of Sir Walter Ralegh. Nine years later he was still working on the survey. Unfortunately no records of the survey survive. In between doing the survey Harriot continued his other activities and frequently crossed over to England. Yet Molana provided a peaceful setting to complete his Brief and True report and other studies. He was at Molana in 1593 when the plague struck London. In November 1594 Sir Walter Ralegh granted Thomas Harriot the Molana estates to “hold forever”. In 1598 Harriot mortgaged the property to Sir William Floyer for £220. In 1601 Thomas Harriot sold Molana to William Floyer.[10]

Other activities of Thomas Harriot

Thomas Harriot was a friend of the playwright, Christopher Marlowe, and perhaps provided the intellectual character that was Dr. Faustus.[11]

In the dozen or so years that Thomas Herriot taught Ralegh’s sea captains the mathematical calculations needed for navigation and how to chart the stars he was also teaching himself. Such was his fame that Johannes Kepler, one of the most important and influential astronomers of the seventeenth century, sought advice from Harriot on optics.[12]

In 1608-9 Thomas Harriot used his intellectual appetite for optics to beat one of the greatest astronomers of his time, or of any time, Galileo. In September 1608 Hans Lippershey, a spectacle maker of Middelburg in Zeeland patented a working telescope, then called a spy-glass. Lippershey saw the invention as a device that would be useful for shipping. His patron, Count Maurice of Nassau saw the spy-glass as a good invention for war and wanted to keep the technology secret. But news of the telescope quickly spread across Europe and people started to develop their own versions to circumvent Lippershay’s patent.[13] In England Thomas Harriot saw the telescope as a good device for looking at the night sky. On 26th July 1609 Thomas Harriot was the first person to make a drawing of the Moon through a telescope, over four months before Galileo. Although Thomas Harriot was well known in academic circles across Europe, and corresponded with the leading scientists of the day, he did not become as famous as Galileo. Instead Harriot did his observations and left fame to others.[14]

As an astronomer, Thomas Harriot formulated the theory of refraction, and as a mathematician, he developed algebra. His algebra book Artis Analyticae Praxis (1631) was published posthumously in Latin. But the editors did not understand much of the text and removed the parts they did not comprehend such as the negative and complex roots of equations. Because of this and other reasons a full annotated English translation of the Praxis was not completed until 2007.[15]

Another contemporary mathematician was Robert Hues who studied at Oxford the same time as Thomas Harriot. Over the years Hues and Harriot worked together on astronomical and mathematical studies. Hues was a student of Harriot in Durham House before he went off to circle navigate the world with Thomas Cavendish, another person who had gone on the1585 voyage to Virginia. When Robert Hues was writing his book, Tractatus de Globis, Thomas Harriot was there to help.[16]

Long friendship of Ralegh and Harriot

The friendship developed between Sir Walter Ralegh and Thomas Harriot extended across the good times and the bad times. They both had a strong intellectual enquiry to discover and understand. Thomas Harriot was one of the principal assistants to Sir Walter Ralegh when the latter was preparing his book, History of the World. Thomas Harriot was a frequent visitor to Ralegh’s home in the country, Sherborne House. Thomas Harriot was named as one of the overseers of Ralegh’s estate in the latter’s will.

When Sir Walter Ralegh was sent to the Tower of London, Thomas Harriot didn’t disown him but instead became a regular visitor. In fact Harriot’s friendship with the Earl of Northumberland and Sir Walter Ralegh would cost him some jail time. After the latter two were connected to the Gunpowder Conspiracy Thomas Harriot was sent to jail. But Harriot’s direct connection with the Plot was not proven and he was soon set a liberty. Yet in the winter of 1605-6 Thomas Harriot voluntarily took up residence in the Tower of London to be near Sir Walter Ralegh.[17] During that winter they must have talked about the New World and the future for Virginia among other subjects. Could they have imagined the vast number of people who would eventually settle in Virginia and the wider United States of America and Canada and make two great nations in that New World.


The view from Molana across the River Blackwater – a view which reminded Harriot of Virginia

The New World and the Gathering

Many centuries after Ralegh and Harriot, one of these settlers who went to America was William Myers from the parish of Kilcockan. He was the son of Denis Myers and Rachel Myers. He was born in May 1854 and went to America in 1871. William Myers settled in Woonsocket, Rhode Island where he married a local girl (Margaret Fitzpatrick) of Irish parents (James Fitzpatrick and Bridget McKenna)[18] and had at least three sons.[19] Away in America, trying to make a new life, William Myers did not forget Ireland and the land around Knockanore. When his mother died on 24th December 1892 William did not forget her but send money home so that a headstone could be erected in the Kilcockan graveyard to her memory and that of her family.[20] William Myers died on 9th January 1933 still living at Woonsocket, Rhode Island.[21]


This talk [on 2nd August 2013] began the history of medieval Knockanore on a small island in the River Blackwater called Dair Inish which became the site of Molana Abbey. The history of medieval Knockanore ended on that island in the 1580s when Thomas Harriot opened the New World and the modern age. The work of Harriot and others allowed Irish people somewhere to go when Ireland had ceased to bring hope to their lives. At this Gathering Festival, and other such festivals across Ireland in 2013, we gather to bring the diaspora home.

In conclusion I would like to thank the Knockanore Heritage Group, the Gathering Festival Committee, the various landowners for allowing access to the medieval sites and thank you to you the audience for staying on past eleven o’clock and wish everyone a great Gathering Festival 2013.


End of post


[1] Robert Lacey, Sir Walter Ralegh (Phoenix Press, London, 2000), p. 60

[2] Rev. Patrick Power, ‘The abbey of Molana, Co. Waterford’, in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. LXII (1932), p. 145; John T. Collins, ‘Fiants of Queen Elizabeth relating to the City and County of Cork’, in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, Vol. XLIII (1938), p. 13

[3] John T. Collins, ‘Fiants of Queen Elizabeth relating to the City and County of Cork’, in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, Vol. XLV (1940), p. 130

[4] Donal Brady, Waterford Scientists: preliminary studies (published by author, 2010), p. 11

[5] Robert Lacey, Sir Walter Ralegh, pp. 52, 60

[6] Robert Lacey, Sir Walter Ralegh, p. 61

[7] Robert Lacey, Sir Walter Ralegh, pp. 80-81

[8] Robert Lacey, Sir Walter Ralegh, pp. 69, 81-2, 85

[9] Robert Lacey, Sir Walter Ralegh, pp. 88-91

[10] Donal Brady, Waterford Scientists: preliminary studies (published by author, 2010), p. 16

[11] Robert Lacey, Sir Walter Ralegh, p. 61

[12] Robert Lacey, Sir Walter Ralegh, p. 61

[13] accessed on 5 December 2014

[14] accessed on 5 December 2014

[15] accessed on 5 December 2014

[16] Robert Lacey, Sir Walter Ralegh, p. 112

[17] Robert Lacey, Sir Walter Ralegh, pp. 61, 180, 182, 246, 314, 319, 320

[18] accessed on 18 September 2013

[19] accessed on 18 September 2013

[20] Information from the inscription on the grave headstone at Kilcockan graveyard

[21] accessed on 18 September 2013


2 thoughts on “Thomas Harriot and Molana Abbey

  1. Eoin Flanagan says:

    I see you mentioned Dr John Dee was a friend of Walter Raleigh. Did Dr John Dee visit the Cork/Waterford area or have anything to do with Molana Abbey?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s