The former Cistercian abbey of Holy Cross in County Tipperary derives its name from a fragment of the cross on which Christ was supposed to have been crucified. There are various stories told about how this fragment came to be housed here, both Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II and Isabella of Angoulême, second wife of Henry’s son King John, being cited as donors, although neither case seems probable since neither woman ever came to Ireland nor had they any direct dealings with the country. More likely it was given by Donal Mór O’Brien, King of Thomond, who granted the establishment on the banks of the river Suir its foundation charter in 1185/6 (although Cistercian monks from Monasteranenagh, County Limerick seemingly settled at the site a few years earlier). Initially, the new monastery struggled to survive and its survival was in question. However, in the 15th century, from which period most of the extant buildings date, Holy Cross Abbey came under the patronage of the powerful Butler family, receiving particular favour from the fourth earl of Ormond, and this marked a turning point in the house’s fortunes. It also appears that around the same time the monastery became a place of pilgrimage, owing to the possession of the aforementioned cross fragment: might the latter only have arrived on the site then?
As already noted, most of the surviving buildings at Holy Cross Abbey date from the 15th century. From the time of its foundation, only the north arcade of the church’s aisle, parts of the south aisle, the monks’ doorway to the cloister and some traces of early Gothic lancets in the west gable, remain. Otherwise, what one finds here was created during a wholesale reconstruction in the 1430s. As noted by Roger Stalley in his monograph on Ireland’s Cistercian monasteries (1987), the church’s design ‘followed a conventional layout, with a square presbytery and two chapels in each transept. There are lierne vaults over the presbytery, crossing and north transept, and the windows contain a varied range of curvilinear tracery.’ To the south of the church lie what remains of the cloister and the ranges around this, that to the east incorporating a barrel-vaulted sacristy and chapter house, while the west side three linked dwelling chambers above vaulted basements. As for the cloisters, the section along the north side closest to the church was largely re-erected some decades ago, while smaller sections to the west and east survive. Further east of the claustral enclosure are additional, free-standing ruins which may have been the abbot’s dwelling, guest accommodation or an infirmary.
Like all such establishments, during the 16th century Reformation Holy Cross Abbey was closed and its occupants, the monastery and its land being granted to the then-Earl of Ormond, a member of the same family which had once done so much for the same place. Yet, as was often the case in this country, although the religious house had been officially shut, members of the order continued to live in the buildings or within their vicinity; there were, apparently monks at Holy Cross until the mid-18th century after which the old church and monastery fell into ruin. In the late 19th century, the remains were declared a national monument, and almost a century later, work began to restore the church so that it might be used for religious services again; today it acts as the local place of worship for Roman Catholics. While the restoration of the church was widely applauded, not everyone was equally enthusiastic about further alterations subsequently undertaken elsewhere on the site, Stalley commenting, ‘Some of the more recent work is of an unacceptably low standard for what is one of Ireland’s outstanding national monuments.’ And it is disappointing to see so little respect shown for the historic fabric even of the church. The chancel, for example, contains a splendid 15th century limestone sedilia, often considered the finest of its kind in Ireland. Rising 17 feet with a lavishly carved canopied roof over the seats, ugly electric wiring is draped across the top of this important monument, and an array of sockets and other items installed immediately adjacent in a frankly crass manner. Especially after the trouble and expense taken over rescuing it from ruin, the management of such an important part of our heritage deserves greater consideration.