The remains of the Augustinian Priory in Ballinrobe, County Mayo. This was the first religious house established by the order in Connaught but there remains some uncertainty over who was responsible for its foundation: it has been suggested that the priory owed its origins to Elizabeth de Clare (a granddaughter of Edward I) who in 1308 married John de Burgh and four years later had a son William, in celebration of which Ballinrobe Priory was established. On the other hand, another proposal is that the priory was set up in 1337 by Roger Taaffe, perhaps on behalf of the de Burghs. Whatever the facts, the house thrived, despite a bad fire early in the 15th century and even survived suppression in the 1540s, with members of the order still in residence 100 years later. Thereafter it fell into ruin. Restoration work was carried out on the site some twenty-five years ago but, despite being surrounded by a graveyard (and by an increasing number of new houses) the priory looks to be falling into serious neglect again: a future as unclear as its past?
The massive form of Quin Friary, County Clare is due to the fact that when the Franciscan order came here in 1433 it settled inside the ruins of an Anglo-Norman castle. This had been built around 1280 by Thomas de Clare, Lord of Thomond with a square courtyard and cylindrical towers at each corner. However, just six years later the building was attacked by the indigenous Irish who, in the words of a contemporary, left it a ‘hideous blackened cave.’ So it remained until the arrival of the Franciscans who adapted the ruins for their own purpose and remained there for just over a century until the suppression of all such religious houses by Henry VIII.
How the earth darkens! not a day-beam cheers
Its pensive look, or gilds the evening sky;
While through the gloom, from other worlds appears
No smile to bid the gathering shadows die.
All is so sadly still! The cooling breeze
That from yon mountains their mild freshness bears,
Now breathes not, – floating through the blossomed trees,
To fan the sable garb which nature wears…
I gaze where Jerpoint’s venerable pile,
Majestic in its ruins, o’er me lowers:
The worm now crawls through each untrodden aisle,
And the bat hides within its time-worn towers.
It was not thus, when in the olden time,
The holy inmates of yon broken wall
Lived free from woes which spring from care or crime,
Those shackles which the grosser world enthrall…
I mark the venerable Abbot stand
Beneath the shadow of his church’s towers,
Grasping the wicket in his trembling hand,
Reverting to past scenes of happier hours,
And dwelling on the many years gone by
Since first his young lips breath’d his earliest prayer,
To lisp of Him who lives beyond the sky,
And nurse the hope he might behold him there…
No more the banners o’er their ramparts wave,
Or lead their chieftains onwards to the fight,
Where die the vanquish’d, or exult the brave,
For victory – basking in its worshipp’d light.
Gone are the heroes of the days of yore;
Their enemies, like them, have felt decay;
The Chiefs of Ossory, and Leix O’More,
Are mingled in the dust with common clay…Line
Extracted from Lines Written at Jerpoint Abbey by Samuel Carter Hall (1823).
Among the splendid ecclesiastical remains of Cong [County Mayo], the twelfth century advocates may revel, and defy us to prove an earlier date for their erection than that of the introduction of the Augustinian Order into Ireland, even if their ornamentation and design did not afford ample data for judging their age. These ruins would scarcely have held together to the present day, had not Sir B. L. Guinness restored several of the dilapidations, cleared out much of the rubbish which had accumulated within and around them, and rendered the burial ground sufficiently decent for the interment of Christian people. We enter the abbey from the village by a very beautiful doorway, which, although it has been often figured, we would here present to our readers, but that we know it is of the “composite order,” having been made up some years ago of stones taken from another arch in this northern wall. Within it, we find ourselves in the great abbey church, one 140 feet long, entirely paved with tombstones; facing the east window, with its three long, narrow lights, and having in each side wall of the chancel a slender window looking north and south. The chancel walls are perfect, but the northern wall of the nave no longer exists. Underneath the chancel window the guides and village folk maintain that Roderick O’Conor was buried, when, after fifteen years’ retirement within this abbey, he died here in 1198. But this we know from history to be incorrect, for the Donegal Annals distinctly state that “Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair, King of Connacht and of all Ireland, both the Irish and English, died among the canons at Cong, after exemplary penance, victorious over the world and the devil. His body was conveyed to Clonmacnois, and interred to the north of the altar.” But, although Roderick himself was not buried here others of his name and lineage were. Thus we read that in 1224, “Maurice the Canon, son of Roderick O Conor – the most illustrious of the Irish for learning, psalm-singing and poetical compositions – died and was interred at Cong.” It is probably his tomb which is pointed out as that of the king. “A.D.1226, Nuala, daughter of Roderick O’Conor, and Queen of Ulidia, died at Cunga Feichín, and was honourably interred in the church of the canons.” And in 1274, Finnuala, daughter of King Roderick, died at, and was probably buried at Cong. But although the dust of the last monarch is not beneath our feet, that of chieftains, warriors, and prelates remains and especially that of the abbots, down to the days of James Lynch, whose decorated tomb is dated 1703; and even later, for the Rev. Patrick Prendergast who was always styled “The Lord Abbot,” was interred here in 1829.’
‘The O’Duffys were distinguished ecclesiastics in this locality, and the Annals contain many entries concerning them. Thus we read that in “A.D. 1150 Muireadhach Ua Dubhthaigh, Archbishop of Connacht, chief senior of all Ireland in wisdom, in chastity, in the bestowal of jewels and food, died at Cunga on the 16th of the month of May, on the festival of St. Brénainn, in the 75th year of his age.” His name is inscribed on the great processional “Cross of Cong,” made in 1123. “A.D. 1168, Flannagán Ua Dubhthaigh, bishop and chief doctor of the Irish in literature, history, and poetry, and in every kind of science known to man in his time, died in the bed of Muireadhach Ua Dubhthaigh, at Cunga.” Cadhla or Catholicus O Duffy, and several of the name, attained to the see of Tuam; in 1136, we read of the death at Clonfert, of Donnell O Duffy, “Archbishop of Connacht and successor of Cíarán, head of the wisdom and piety of the province”; and Cellach O Duffy was Bishop of “Mayo of the Saxons” in 1209. But none of these died abbots of Cong, and the only Abbot of the name referred to in the Annals is the one described by the Four Masters in the following quotation, under the year 1223: Dubhthach ua dubhthaigh abb Conga decc. “Duffagh O Duffy, Abbot of Cong, died”.’
‘The original plan of this abbey is not easily made out at present. Through an arched doorway in the southern wall we pass into a low vaulted apartment, and thence into a large open space containing the principal stairs, which lead up to the second story of the great tower, the upper portion of which, however, no longer exists. The space to the east and south of this, which was formerly occupied by the monastery, is now a graveyard, and the site of the Roman Catholic chapel, and is divided by a high screen wall, the western facade of which forms the present great architectural feature of this splendid pile…It measures 80 feet in length, and contains a doorway and two windows, with circular arches; and two large and most elaborate ornamented lancet-headed doors, with undercut chevrons along the deep moulding of the arches, which spring from clustered pillars, the floral capitals of which – all of different patterns – present us with one of the finest specimens of twelfth-century stone-work in Ireland. Several stones have been inserted in these doorways, which now present us with some of the finest and most enduring specimens of carved limestone in this or any other country. Above the string course appear some narrow lights probably those of the dormitories. To the west of this wall stood the open cloisters, which were probably so low as not to obscure the decorated front represented on the foregoing page. From this point the ground slopes gradually to the river, where, according to tradition, the friars of old had a fish house – the walls of which are still standing – so constructed that, when the salmon or trout got into the crib below, it touched a wire, that rang a bell, to inform the providore or cook of its arrival.’
The Augustinian order has been mentioned here more than once. Like the Franciscans, Augustinian friars were responsible for building some of Ireland’s best-preserved mediaeval monastic settlements, and also like the Franciscans their presence was particularly encouraged by Anglo-Norman settlers. The first Augustinians are believed to have arrived in Dublin some time before 1280 (the non-mendicant congregation known as Canons Regular of St Augustine had earlier been introduced into the country by St Malachy) and were settled in several other places by 1300. During this period and almost until the end of the 14th century, Augustinian houses could be found almost exclusively in areas where the Normans had established a presence. The invaders wanted religious speaking their tongue to run schools and already-extant houses tended to teach in Gaelic. This explains why the Augustinians were slower than other religious orders (such as the Cistercians or, again, the Franciscans) to spread throughout the country and also why the Irish houses continued for so long to be governed by the English province. Eventually in the 1390s the Irish Augustinians rebelled against this control and were granted greater privileges of self-government. Further expansion followed, including the establishment of a further eight friaries in Connaught.
Spread over more than three acres, the Augustinian Kells Priory, County Kilkenny is today one of the largest surviving mediaeval religious settlements in Ireland. It was founded on the banks of the King’s River in 1193 by Geoffrey FitzRobert; he had already established a church here a decade earlier. An Anglo-Norman knight, FitzRobert was married first to Basilia, sister of Richard de Clare (otherwise known as Strongbow) and then to Eve de Bermingham, widow of Gerald FitzMaurice, first Lord of Offaly (making her the forebear of the Dukes of Leinster). FitzRobert became known as Baron of Kells around 1204 when he was also appointed Seneschal (administrative officer) of Leinster. In his confirmatory charter to Kells Abbey he declared that he had founded the friary ‘for the salvation of my own soul and the souls of my predecessor and successors; for the honor of God and the Blessed Virgin; for the spiritual welfare of my Lord, William Marshall’ – who had advised the foundation and consented to it – and ‘at the desire and with consent of my wife Eva.’ In line with other Augustinian houses of the period, the first friars came from England, from Bodmin Priory in Cornwall.
One of the most notable events associated with Kells Priory was a Lenten visitation made to the establishment by Richard de Ledrede, Bishop of Offaly in 1324. An English-born Franciscan, de Ledrede had been appointed to his diocese seven years earlier by the Avignon Pope John XXII. The bishop appears to have been caught up in a family feud that chimed with his own wish to prosecute heretics. In the nearby city of Kilkenny, a wealthy merchant woman, the four-times married Alice Kyteler, had been accused by her third husband’s children of practicing witchcraft (cited as a heresy in a papal bull issued by John XXII the following year). Among the activities in which it was said she engaged were regular carnal relations with a demon. Alice’s son from her first marriage, William Outlawe was also named as being engaged in not dissimilar practices to those of his mother. The two were ordered to appear before de Ledrede and answer the charges brought against them. However, Alice went to Dublin where she sought support from the Chancellor of Ireland, one Roger Outlaw, presumably a relative of her late husband. Meanwhile her son William found help from the Lord of Kells, Arnold le Poer (tellingly, Alice Kyteler’s fourth husband was also a member of the le Poer family). Ignoring the consequences, Arnold le Poer arrested Bishop de Ledrede and imprisoned him in Kilkenny Castle for seventeen days, until the date for William Outlaw’s appointed appearance before the ecclesiastical court passed. What had begun as a trial for witchcraft now became a battle between the secular and religious authority: Arnold le Poer for example, described de Ledrede as ‘some vagabond from England.’ Ultimately, however, the so-called vagabond proved victorious. Alice Kyteler fled the country, her son confessed to heresy and was obliged to do penance, and a family servant, one Petronilla de Midia was flogged and burnt at the stake, the first person in Ireland to suffer this fate.
Kells Priory is sometimes known as Seven Castles due to the tower houses found around its outer walls which give it a fortress-like appearance. The towers were probably constructed in the 15th century but would have been of more assistance earlier, since on three occasions the place suffered from assault. The priory was first attacked and burnt by William de Bermingham in 1252, then by a Scottish force under Edward Bruce in 1326, and the following year by another member of the de Bermingham family.
Now the site appears divided into two sections, a lower to the north and closer to the river, this being the priory proper. It was rightly dominated by a church opening off the central cloister although today the most powerful presence is that of the 15th century Prior’s Tower to the immediate east: this has been extensively reconstructed and re-roofed, and rises higher than any of the other surrounding structures. To the south and on higher ground a large enclosure with five towers was developed in the 15th century, presumably in response to increasing lawlessness in the area. Known as Burgess Court, this section was once thought to have contained a mediaeval lay settlement but that does not appear to have been the case. More likely it was used to protect lifestock, and indeed the occupants of the adjacent priory.
Visitors to Kells today often comment on how they find themselves alone, despite the proximity of Kilkenny city and the scale of the ruins. Intermittently efforts are made to encourage greater interest in the site, but a large part of its appeal would be lost were the place to be overly-frequented. Best to come and discover for yourself the secret of Kells.