Clontuskert Priory, County Galway is a little-known religious site which yields ample pleasures for the traveller who troubles to find it. The present ruins date from the 15th century, but it is claimed that originally a monastic settlement was founded here around 800AD by Saint Baedán. If this were the case, no trace of that establishment survives. Later, probably towards the close of the 12th century, the prominent Ó Ceallaigh (O’Kelly) family invited members of the Arrouasian order – a particularly austere division of the Augustinian canons – to found a house here, the Priory of St Mary. The Ó Ceallaighs remained closely associated with this establishment, which became one of the richest in this part of the country. Members of the family were consistently appointed to the position of Prior, even though, on a number of occasions, they were illegitimate (in the medieval church, illegitimacy was a barrier to holy orders or the holding of a benefice, so papal dispensation had to be sought). In 1444 Eoghan O’Kelly, then-Prior of Clontuskert was slain in a battle with a rival family, the McCoughlans. There were several instances when corruption seems to have been rampant: in 1463, for example, Thady O’Kelly, a canon in the priory, reported to Rome that the Prior, John O’Kelly was guilty of immorality, perjury and simony. Thady O’Kelly then in turn became Prior, after which another canon, Donatus O’Kelly accused him of killing a layman. Donatus next became Prior, after which he was accused by another canon Donald O’Kelly, of scattering the priory’s goods, keeping a concubine and committing homicide. And so it went on.
In 1404 Clontuskert Priory was struck by lightning and set alight, destroying the buildings and their contents. A Papal order was subsequently issued offering ten-year indulgences for those who contributed to the cost of its rebuilding. So what we see on the site today are the remains of a 15th century priory. The O’Kellys seem to have continued to be associated with the Priory up to the time of the Reformation in the 1540s, a number of them holding benefices under the control of the house. In the mid-16th century the lands hitherto owned by Clontuskert passed into the hands of the de Burgos, Earls of Clanricarde, in 1570 the second earl receiving a grant from the government of the priory. However, the family remained Catholic and the Augustinian canons remained on site, even though they had lost their possessions. A keystone inserted into the doorway leading from nave to choir is dated 1633 indicates they were still there then. But by the end of the 17th century the de Burgos had converted to the Established Church and it would appear that thereafter Clontuskert Priory was abandoned and left to fall into ruin.
While portions of Clontuskert Priory’s cloister survive, the main interest of the site lies in the church. Here the east wall, with its beautiful traceried window, collapsed in 1918 but the pieces were saved, allowing for reconstruction in the early 1970s. Much further restoration work was undertaken on the site in the previous decade. The north and south walls of the choir feature a number of fine tombs. The choir itself is accessed via a substantial arcaded stone rood screen, one of the features reconstructed some decades ago. Originally there would have been no end wall, so that the arches would have offered a view through to the choir where services were taking place. However, a wall was built at the east end of the rood screen (when the aforementioned door with the date 1633 was inserted) thereby fundamentally changing the appearance of the space. But the most attractive aspect of Clontuskert Priory is its west doorway, which carries the following inscription: ‘Matheu : Dei: gra : eps : Clonfertens : et : Patre’ oneacdavayn : canonie’ esti : domine : fi’ fecert : Ano : do : mcccclxxi’ (Matthew by the grace of God, Bishop of Clonfert and Patrick O’Naughton, canon of this house, caused me to be made. Anno Domini 1471). The exterior of the doorway is covered with carvings, including the figures of the Archangel Michael carrying a sword and scales (for weighing souls), Saints John the Baptist, Catherine of Alexandria and, it is thought, Augustine of Hippo; they are flanked by smiling angels each holding a shield. Stones on either side are carved with the likes of a pelican feeding her young, a pair of mythical beasts, two ibexes with intertwined necks, and a mermaid holding a comb and mirror. Just inside the door is a water stoup, again bearing two figures believed to be, again, Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo. Largely bereft of visitors, Clontuskert Priory is something of a hidden gem, but one definitely worth discovering.