The Little Sister

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.


8 comments on “The Little Sister

  1. Henry Brennan says:

    My late Great uncle used to regularly correspond with a Marie Biddulph Colclough at Tintern until he died in 1972. He knew Tintern quite well during her/his time there until he moved to Tipperary.

  2. Finola says:

    It’s been a few years (6 or 7) since I was there, but I seem to remember lots of evidence of domestic adaptation in the interior of the main tower, kept in place by the OPW.

  3. jenjunebug says:

    I have not yet visited Tintern Abbey but it seems crazy the way it was converted back into a monastic ruin! It would indeed have been fascinating to see how it was converted to be a residence. Is the final, black and white, photo, of the place as a residence?

  4. Geralyn White says:

    Well done on text panels, very accessible , font, and line spacing way more pleasing , makes for more enjoyable engagement with wonderful images too.

  5. Mairtin D'Alton says:

    Dear Robert. The image of Tintern in Grose’s ‘Antiquities’ (c1790) show no buildings in the nave or under the crossing. The chancel and tower, along with the south transept arcade, formed the Colclough medieval residence. The chancel was already ruined by the time of Lucy Colclough, and the additional accommodation in the nave was in bad condition. This seemed to date from the early C19th and featured few spaces of any note, and was quite poorly built. So the decision was taken to return the building to how it appeared earlier in its life, which included the time of Austin Cooper. The remaining medieval spaces are still in excelllent repair. Thus, the scale, extent, and impact of demolition by the OPW can be overstated. I can send you the images if you doubt my Bona Fides ! Warmest Regards and lovely article. Mairtin

    • cuffesboro says:

      Dear Mairtin The chancel had been abandoned by the time that Vesey moved into the tower and lady chapel (or was it a chapter house?) which is where Anthony had resided when the Kavanaghs destroyed the abbot’s lodgings in which he first resided in the 16th century. The tower was continuously occupied from about 1550. The nave was mostly built over in the late 18th and early 19th century by the disreputable Sir Vesey and the unfortunate John Colclough who was killed by Alcock of Wilton. Grose’s drawing is very fanciful (see Harbison Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy:Vol. 104C, No. 6 (2004), pp. 131-190) The first bay of the west end was built by Vesey Colclough before Barralet’s visit in 1780 and finished (after his father’s death. in 1794) by John Colclough . It was certainly complete before Caesar’s before his marriage to Jane Kirwan in 1818. As an essay in Batty Langley gothick in a gothic building it was fascinating. I stayed/camped in the house in the early 1960s when Miss Colclough was living in Tintern House in Saltmills and though it was definitely shabby it was perfectly habitable and restorable. It would have made a far more interesting building than the present sterile ruins. Percy LeClerc’s unfortunate predilection for Norman purity meant that everything later was swept away leaving a banal space. I would therefore contend that the scale, extent, and impact of demolition by the OPW cannot be overstated!

  6. Paul Cullen says:

    Thank you for the additional comments in your reply to Mr D’Alton’s post. Are there any other surviving examples in Ireland of a medieval religious building converted to secular, domestic use. The ravages of time and, perhaps, a similar approach to restoration focused exclusively on Cistercian purity have left little trace of the secular histories of Mellifont and Bective.

    • Yes indeed, that is what makes the clearance of all Colclough presence on the site so unfortunate: in Ireland there are no examples of a mediaeval religious house converted to secular domestic use, even tho’ this happened to a number of them – as you cite, both Mellifont and Bective. A missing piece of the national architectural history…

Leave a Reply