At some date between 1202 and 1216 Alexander FitzHugh, Anglo-Norman Lord of Castletownroche, County Cork settled a group of Augustinian Canons Regular on the western bank of the Blackwater: the Augustinians had already been popular with reformers of the Irish church over the previous decades. To ensure the occupants of Bridgetown Priory would flourish FitzHugh provided them with thirteen carucates of woodland, pasture and arable land. A carucate was a mediaeval unit of land approximating the amount of ground a plough team of eight oxen could till in an annual season and is reckoned to have been the equivalent of 100-120 acres: therefore FitzHugh’s gift covered some 1,300-1,500 acres. In addition he gave the canons a third of the revenue from his mills and fisheries, and all income from tolls collected on the bridge that once crossed the river here. The first canons came from two existing Augustinian houses, those at Newtown Trim, County Meath and at the Abbey of St Thomas the Martyr in Dublin, both of which were wealthy establishments. Although Bridgetown Priory was never as affluent, in the Papal Taxation rolls for 1306 the house was reckoned to have the substantial value of £40.
By this time responsibility for the place had passed into the hands of the Roche family from which nearby Castletownroche derives its name. The Roches were descendants of Richard FitzGodebert who had come to Ireland with Richard de Clare, otherwise known as Strongbow in 1170. Like him, the FitzGodeberts had a castle in Pembrokeshire, in their case built on an outcrop of stone. As a result they became known as FitzGodebert de la Roch, a name eventually abbreviated to Roche. An early 15th century altar tomb in the chancel of Bridgetown Priory testifies to the authority of the Roches: carved on its west side is an upside-down shield featuring a fish, one of the Roche devices (the inverted shield indicates its bearer is now dead). Despite the support of this powerful family and although Bridgetown Priory may have housed as many as three hundred persons at its height, decline had already set in during the 14th century. This seems to have had less to do with internal problems and more with the state of the country. Widespread warfare and economic stagnation left its mark on this, as well as many other religious houses, and Bridgetown Priory’s fortunes never recovered. When closed in 1541 its buildings, including a ‘church with belfry, domitory, hall, buttery, kitchen, cloister, and cellar,’ were already largely in ruins and the site valued at just £13. The last Prior was pensioned off and Bridgetown granted to an English solder, Robert Browne.
A 17th century tower built into the western end of the church at Bridgetown Priory indicates the site was still occupied in the post-Reformation period. But given its semi-ruinous condition then, the property soon became derelict thereafter although still used for local burials as various tombstones testify. When Cork antiquarian John Windele visited Bridgetown in the 1830s he noted the remains were ‘low, covered with ivy and afford no picture.’ On the other hand, they were not entirely without occupants: for the two previous years an elderly woman and her cats had been living in a tomb vault and supplied with food by kind local people. In 1905 local parish priest the Rev Michael Higgins commented the existing remains would likely fall to pieces in a short time and that Bridgetown Priory ‘will be but a memory.’ Just over a decade later the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society remarked ‘Alas! That it must be recorded, 20th century vandalism, aided by the corroding tooth of Time, has rendered the ruins of the Priory an object of pity to the antiquary.’ Fortunately those ruins survived and in the 1970s were cleared of vegetation by the local authority so that they might continue to be enjoyed. Not easily found, Bridgetown Priory receives few visitors but that makes it even more alluring to those who do find their way there and are able to experience the place alone.