As its name indicates, the County Longford village of Abbeylara (‘Mainistir Leathrátha’, meaning ‘Abbey of the half – or small – fort’) grew up around a religious house. In this instance, a monastery is supposed to have been founded here in the fifth century by St Patrick, who then appointed St Guasacht as its first abbot. Guasacht, who also acted as Bishop of the short-lived diocese of Granard, just a few miles away, was the son of Maelchu, the man under whom Patrick worked as a slave when a youth in Ireland. Following Patrick’s return to this country, it is said that Maelchu preferred to lock himself into his home and set fire to it – perishing in the flames – rather than encounter his former slave. His son Guasacht, on the other hand, did so and was duly converted to the Christian faith.
The present remains of a monastery at Abbeylara can be traced back to 1205 when the Anglo-Norman knight Richard Tuite invited a group of Cistercian monks to settle there. Tuite, who had come to Ireland as one of Richard de Clare’s supporters, was granted large swathes of land in this part of the country and in 1199 had built one of the largest motte and baileys in Ireland. A daughter house of St Mary’s Abbey in Dublin, the Abbeylara monastery was likewise dedicated to the Virgin. When Tuite, by then Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, died in 1210, he was buried here. A century later, in 1315, Edward Bruce – brother of Scotland’s Robert Bruce – who arrived in Ireland with his army earlier that year, having first burnt nearby Granard, seized control of the Abbeylara monastery and spent the winter there. The monks returned following his departure but the establishment’s decline appears to have begun soon after: in both 1410 and 1435 the Papacy permitted funds to be raised for the buildings’ repair through the sale of Indulgences.
From the start of the 15th century until its eventual closure, the monastery at Abbeylara had come under the control of a powerful local family, the O’Farrells, as testified by the fact that successive members of this family were appointed its abbot. The last of them to do so, Richard O’Farrell, surrendered the abbey with its lands and possessions to Henry VIII in 1539: in return, he was appointed Bishop of Ardagh. At the time of its dissolution, the Abbeylara house held over 5,500 acres of land but the buildings were falling into ruins. Today little remains other than the former abbey church’s great central tower, and the adjacent north and south walls: high on the latter can be seen a badly weathered figure which may be a Sheela-na-gig. A Church of Ireland church which once occupied part of the surrounding graveyard has long since been demolished.