The ruins of Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, Wales are justifiably famous, but less well known is what remains of her little sister, also called Tintern Abbey, in County Wexford. This foundation was often called Tintern de Voto, owing to the fact that it was established as the result of a vow taken by William Marshal, first Earl of Pembroke. Seemingly while sailing to Ireland in 1200, his ship was caught in a violent storm and he promised to establish a monastery close to the spot where he landed. The vessel came into Bannow Bay and here the abbey was duly built, and endowed with 3,500 hectares of land. Marshal was already patron of the Cistercian Tintern Abbey in Wales (which was duly known as Tintern Major), and so monks from that house were brought to this country to set up the new monastery, which soon grew into one of Ireland’s most important religious settlements, successive abbots sitting as peers in the Irish parliament until the mid-15th century and enjoying considerable prestige.
Cistercian monks remained in residence at Tintern Abbey until 1539 when, on instructions from the English government, the entire property, valued at over £93, was seized and granted first to Sir James Croft, future Lord Deputy of Ireland, and then in 1557 leased to the Staffordshire-born soldier Sir Anthony Colclough; 18 years later he received ownership of the former abbey, which he had already converted into a domestic residence (although it had been attacked and burnt by the Irish in 1562). Although the building was subject to attack during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s, Colclough’s descendants remained on the site, albeit often through complicated lines of inheritance, until 1959 when the last member of the family to live there, Lucy Biddulph-Colclough, handed over what remained of the property to the Irish state.
Placed in the care of the Office of Public Works in 1963, it was almost twenty years later before restoration began on Tintern Abbey, an enterprise that involved returning the site to its monastic origins. One must lament that this approach was taken, since the place had been a rare surviving example in Ireland of a religious building converted to secular, domestic use; had a different approach been taken during the restoration, today it would offer a fascinating opportunity to explore that aspect of post-Reformation history. Little evidence now remains of the Colcloughs’ centuries’ long occupation of the property, although of course it can be detected in the layout of the surrounding landscape. But the building itself is almost clinically clean and largely devoid of personal character. A short walk away from the main complex is a little late-mediaeval single cell chapel, known as a Capella-ante-portas, built to serve the needs of the local lay population who were not permitted within the precincts of the abbey. It contains a number of Colclough funerary monuments, including a large stone plaque mounted on the south wall commemorating the original Sir Anthony. Here, rather than within the monastery, can be found a better sense of the former secular ownership of Tintern Abbey.