As was mentioned last week Kilcooley, County Tipperary stands on land formerly settled by Cistercian monks. The order established a house here c.1182 at the request of Donal Mór O’Brien, King of Thomond and a thrice-great grandson of Brian Boru. It was one of no less than four Cistercian monasteries initiated by O’Brien and soon became a daughter house of Jerpoint Abbey, County Kilkenny, established a couple of years earlier. Like so many other such properties, Kilcooley was subject to attack, especially during the fifteenth century when many religious establishments became caught up in feuds between rival families. Having already suffered from an assault in 1418, in 1445 it was reported the abbey had been burnt and almost completely destroyed by ‘armed men.’ This led to the construction of the present church, albeit largely on the footprint of its predecessor. The work was carried out under the direction of then-abbot Philip O’Mulwanayn whose burial slab was formerly sited in front of the main altar but is now suspended on the north wall of the chancel.
Access to Kilcooley Abbey is via a well-preserved entrance chamber, in effect the church’s north transept, composed of two bays the outer having a handsome traceried window on the east wall. The inner bay has retained its stone vaulting and to the south stands a carved stone baptismal font. One then enters the church, notable for flamboyant tracery windows at the east and west ends. The main body of the building has lost its roof but this remains over the oblong crossing which supports a hefty tower, and over the chancel. To the south a narrower two-bay, rib-vaulted transept – serving as a pair of small chapels – in turn leads to a succession of other rooms, as well as offering access to the night stairs, and to the cloister garth beyond: almost nothing of the last of these now remains other than outer walls. Several other buildings in the vicinity, such as chapter house and refectory, survive in various states of ruin.
The interior of Kilcooley is memorable for two features: the chancel tombs and the doorway leading from south transept to sacristy. With regard to the former, the finest tomb here is that against the chancel’s north wall erected in memory of Piers Fitzjames Oge Butler who died in 1526. This work is attributed to Rory O’Tunney, member of a County Kilkenny family responsible for carving a number of such tombs during the first half of the 16th century. Butler’s monument features the deceased lying on top of the tomb clad in a mixture of chain and plate armour and with a loyal dog at his feet. Below him runs an elaborate panel featuring ten apostles, each in his own niche. Passing through the south transept, one is confronted by a remarkable carved screen carrying a number of images seemingly scattered at random and on sundry dates. Yet as Roger Stalley has noted (in The Cistercian Monasteries of Ireland, 1987) ‘this cannot be so as the stones have all been carefully cut to suit their present positions.’ However the impression of an ad hoc design remains: two tracery panels beneath the arch, for example, are smaller than their neighbours. Further down, panels are placed with no evident concern for their location. One shows a mermaid with comb and mirror being observed by two fish, another has an abbot inside an ogee arch, but not to the centre of it. A crucifixion scene above the door is likewise off-centre, sharing the space with St Christopher carrying the Christ child. The whole design appears simultaneously wilful and whimsical.
Likely because of its links with the Butler family, following the Dissolution of the Monasteries Kilcooley became the property of the Earls of Ormonde. In 1636 the twelfth earl (and future first Duke of Ormonde) sold the estate to Norfolk-born judge Sir Jerome Alexander for £4,200. On his death in 1670, Kilcooley was inherited by his daughter Elizabeth who married another English-born lawyer, William Barker. In 1676 he became the first of four successive baronets bearing the same name, the last of whom built a new house on the estate around 1770. Prior to that date the Barkers may not have spent much time at Kilcooley and when they were present they lived in the old abbey which had been modified to serve as a private residence: this helps to explain why it is better preserved than many other mediaeval monasteries in Ireland. Following the death without direct heir of the last Sir William Barker in 1818 the estate was inherited by his nephew, Chambre Brabazon Ponsonby on condition he adopted the surname Barker. When he in turn died in 1834 Kilcooley passed to his eldest son, William Ponsonby-Barker some of whose idiosyncrasies were discussed last week. Again he died without leaving a son, so the next owner was his brother, Captain Thomas Ponsonby, known as ‘Damnation Tom’ owing to his habit of using the expletive in every sentence. But he only lived a further three years before dying in 1880. His son Chambre Brabazon Ponsonby, married to Mary Plunkett, sister of Sir Horace Plunkett, went to the United States with the intention of buying land there and selling Kilcooley, but died during his return journey across the Atlantic in 1884. The estate passed to six-year old Thomas Brabazon Ponsonby, whose guardian was the aforementioned Horace Plunkett, pioneer of agricultural cooperatives in Ireland. Imbued with his uncle’s idealism, Thomas Ponsonby was a progressive farmer, establishing many new enterprises on the estate including a cheese factory, a large pig enterprise and saw mills. Narrow gauge railway lines served the pigs, and this line extended to a hill where timber was felled and loaded onto bogies which would roll downhill to the saw mill. Likewise he and his wife Frances Paynter modernized the main house, with central heating installed throughout the building including the basement, the whole fired by a large coal boiler below ground in the north yard, and the water circulated by thermo-syphon. The boiler house had a glass roof, so that if there was an explosion, the force of the blast would go straight up.
Kilcooley remained in the ownership of the Ponsonbys until some ten years ago, since when it has experienced what could best be described as mixed fortunes in various hand. It recently came on the market at the centre of an estate running to more than 1,200 acres. Given its fascinating history and exceptional collection of buildings – of which not all have been described here – one can only hope that it soon finds a new custodian, one who proves as sympathetic to the place as were the Ponsonbys.