The so-called abbey in Mungret, County Limerick. There had been a monastery here, supposedly founded in the mid-sixth century by Saint Nessan, but due to frequent assault and despoliation over subsequent centuries, no trace of the original buildings survives. Instead, what can be found here dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1179 Donal Mór O Brien, King of Leinster granted the monastery and its lands to the Bishop of Limerick, and this subsequently became a parish church for Augustinian Canons Regular. The building is divided into three sections, the oldest part at the east end being the chancel, followed by the nave and then, at the west end, a square tower added in the 15th century and incorporating living quarters for a priest. Following the 16th century Reformation, the building continued to be used by the Church of Ireland until replaced by a new church designed by the Pain brothers in 1822 and located a short distance to the west of the older structure. The Pains’ work – which took the form of a Greek cross – did not survive long, since falling numbers of parishioners meant the new church at Mungret closed just 55 years later in 1877, before being unroofed in 1900, with much of the stone then reused to build a parochial house in nearby Raheen.
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.
The remains of a church that was once part of a Carmelite monastery in Castlelyons, County Cork. This religious house was established in 1309 by John de Barry, but much of what can be seen today dates from the following century. Although sections of the cloister also survive, the church is the most substantial extant part of the site, a long nave separated from the chancel by a semi-ruinous three-story crossing tower. The building’s best-preserved details can be found on the west front, featuring a pointed doorway with hoodmoulded surround below a twin-light, ogee-headed window.
Not too far from Termonfeckin Castle, seen here earlier in the week, stands St Fechin’s church, alas now standing forlorn and neglected in the midst of a graveyard. Here can be found a sandstone High Cross, some nine feet tall and somewhat weathered but with an unbroken nimbus ring. Above a tapered shaft decorated on all four sides with abstract, interwoven patterns, the centre of the east face shows the Crucifixion, while the west face depicts Christ in glory.
The remains of the cloister garth at Ballintubber Abbey, County Mayo. This house was founded in 1216 by Cathal Crobhdearg Ua Conchobair (Cathal O’Conor) King of Connaught, and given to the Canons Regular of St Augustine. The church was almost destroyed by fire half a century later, but rebuilt and, along with the ancillary buildings, survived until the 17th century when badly damaged by Cromwellian forces. The church and some other structures on the site have been restored over the past 50 years, but the cloister, in its present form dating from the 15th century, remains as shown here.
‘The Abbey of Killagha [County Kerry] was erected on the site of the abbey of St. Coleman by Geoffrey de Marisco for Canons Regular of St. Augustine, and dedicated to our Blessed Lady. Hervey de Marisco, one of the first Norman knights who came to Ireland, acquired large tracts of land in Tipperary, Wexford and Kerry. He died without descendants, and his large estates passed to his brother, Geoffrey. The latter is mentioned as Judiciary of Ireland in 1215. Smith, in his “History of Kerry”, says Killagha was erected in the reign of Henry III, which would be some time after 1216. Geoffrey de Marisco founded also a house for Knights Hospitallers in Awney in Limerick, and built the castle of Castleisland.
It is to be regretted that the records of the Augustinian order in Ireland are of the most meagre character. The Canons Regular aimed at a contemplative rather than a missionary life. They sought to realise the spirit of an à Kempis rather than a Dominic. Hence they were not bound up in such close relations with the people among whom they lived as were, for example, the Dominicans or Franciscans. When the ties were broken in the sixteenth century that bound the Canons Regular to their abbeys, they did not look back with the same wistful longing as did the members of these two orders, to recover their lost homes and renew old relations. As a consequence, we see the Dominicans and Franciscans dwelling once more beside their old monasteries, while hardly an instance occurs of the Canons Regular returning to the place that they left.’
‘The Abbey of Our Lady grew into importance soon after the Canons Regular had taken possession of it. It received large tracts of land in different parts of the county. Tithes and glebes were added, and the abbey became very wealthy. The Canons Regular happily united industrious habits of life with contemplation, and probably spent part of their time in manual labour. Lands were tilled and woods planted, and the surroundings of Our Lady’s Abbey became quickly changed. The place came to be recognised as one of unusual beauty, and the abbey henceforth to be known as Killagha, or the Abbey of Our Lady de Bello Loco…
…I have very little to record of Killagha during the intervening years down to the sixteenth century. Some improvements were made in the church, most probably in the fifteenth century. The beautiful east window was put in, also a handsome double-lancet window at the south side of the chancel, an aumbry within the sanctuary, two Gothic doors leading to the church from the south side, and a square window of three lights in the western gable. The insertion of these windows and doors has led Archdall to conclude that the foundation of the abbey is of more recent date than that assigned to it. “The architecture,” he says, “which is of a dark marble, bespeaks the structure to be much more modern than the time before mentioned.” The windows and doors that I have named are, indeed, more modern, but the other parts of the building, which are altogether different in character from the insertions, date most probably from the time of Henry III.’
‘The church is the only portion of the abbey buildings that at present remains; a few feet of masonry attaching to the south side of the chancel are all that we now see of what was once the abbey of Killagha. I am inclined to think that the materials of the abbey were removed soon after it was destroyed in 1649, as Smith and Archdall make particular reference to the church, but make no reference to the abbey structure…
The church is of rubble masonry, and though of plain workmanship, is solidly constructed. Though still in a fair state of preservation, there are evidences of approaching decay. Rents appear in the western gable, and the southern wall; and the joints are becoming much open in the east window. The church, rectangular and without aisles, lies east and west, and very long for its width; length 128 feet five inches, and breadth 23 inches five inches. The walls are very massive, those at the sides 4 feet 8 inches, and in parts 5 feet, eastern gable 4 feet 4 inches, western 4 feet 7 inches. It was divided, at intersection of chancel and nave by a steeple, or bell tower.’
Extracts from The Abbey of Killagha, Parish of Kilcoleman, Co. Kerry by the Rev. James Carmody in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland , Series 5, Vol. XVI, 1906.
‘The abbey is still almost perfect, except the roof and some buildings on the North side, which were taken down about 1750 by the then proprietor, Knox, to furnish materials for a dwelling house which was erected nearby…The church is 125’ long by 20’ broad towards the East; from the West door to the tower the breadth varies from 40’ to 50’; on the broadest space is a gable with a pointed window of stone and of fine workmanship. To the Eastern wall of this portion of the building were two altars, having a piscine to each; between the altars there is an arched recess, which would seem to have been a place of safety for the sacred utensils of the altars…On the right side of the aisle is a range of arches corresponding with the height of that tower, done in hewn stone; the arches, which are hexagonal and turned on consoles, support the tower, which is nearly in the centre of the church, and about 100’ in height. The ascent to the summit of the tower is by a helix of 101 steps.’
(From Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, Thomas Walsh, 1885)
‘The Abbey itself is almost perfect, except the roof and some buildings on the north side, which were taken down about forty or fifty years ago, by the proprietor, to furnish materials for a dwelling house which was erected nearly on the site of the old walls and joined the church…The sacrilegious had that had done this, I was told by the country people, never came to any good after, nor any of those who had been concerned with it. Certain it is the house was but a short time inhabited and is now completely in ruins. One might suppose that time, while, with an unrelenting hand, he committed so many ravages on the house that was thus so sacrilegiously reared, had in pity spared the remains of the adjoining edifice that had once, with its peaceful and inoffensive inhabitants, been devoted to the offices of religion and piety.’
(From Anthologia Hibernica: or Monthly Collections of Science, Belles Lettres and History, by ‘J.C.’, January 1794)
‘The Abbey of Moyne, situated on the estuary of the River Moy, is certainly one of the noblest of the Franciscan Abbeys in Ireland. It is two miles from Killala, six miles from Ballina on the old road by the river. It is barely one-eighth of a mile from the public road, yet on entering its precincts its loneliness, its solitary air and surrounding, is the first impression produced. The Still ‘Pool,’ as the arm of the Moy beneath is called, the solemn tower, casting its long shadow over the countless graves and tombs, the stillness of the luxurious fields around, where the silent cattle graze, but where man is not seen, the rising or ebbing flow of the Moy scarcely making a ripple on the sweet strand, all without a sound, give the first impression as utter loneliness. One is at once forced to feel that here was a fit place for a Community to live away from noise, from care, from the tramp and traffic of the world’s ways, to have thoughts fixed on the quiet and “rest that remaineth for the people of God”.’
(From The Windings of the Moy, Rev, James Greer, 1924)
‘Let us now attend to the antiquities of one of their [the Culdees] ancient seats: this in old records is named Inchenemeo, corrupted from Innisnabeo or the “Island of the living” but, from its situation, most commonly called Monaincha, or the “Boggy Isle”…Giraldus Cambrensis, who came here with King John in 1185, thus speaks of it: “In north Munster is a lake containing two Isles; in the greater is a church of the ancient religion, and in the lesser a chapel, wherein a few monks, called Culdees, devoutly serve God. In the greater, no woman or any animal of the feminine gender ever enters but it immediately dies. This has been proved by many experiments. In the lesser isle, no one can die, hence it is called ‘Insula Viventum’ or the island of the living. Often people are afflicted with diseases in it, and are almost always in the agonies of death; when all hopes of life are at an end, and that the rich would rather quit the world than lead longer a life of misery, they are put into a little boat, and wafted over to the larger isle where, as soon as they land, they expire”.’
‘Monaincha is situated almost in the centre of a widely-extended bog, called the Bog of Monela, and seems a continuation of the bog of Allen, which runs from east to west, through the kingdom. Since the age of Cambrensis, and through the operation of natural causes, the lesser Isle is now the greater, and Monaincha, which contains about two acres of dry arable ground, is of greater extent than the women’s island. In the latter is a small chapel, and in the former the Culdean abbey, and an oratory to the east of it. Monaincha is elevated a little above the surrounding bog; the soil gravel and small stones. We may easily understand what Cambrensis means by the church here being of the “old religion.” The Culdees, its possessors, had not even at this period when the Council of Cashel had decreed uniformity of faith and practice, conformed to the reigning superstition; they served God in this wild and dreary retreat, sacrificing all the flattering prospects of the world for their ancient doctrine and discipline. Their bitterest enemies bear testimony to their extraordinary purity and piety.’
‘The length of our Culdean abbey in Monaincha is thirty-three feet, the breadth eighteen. The nave is lighted by two windows to the south, and the chancel by one at its east end. The former are contracted arches, the latter fallen down. The height of the portal, or western entrance, is seven feet three inches to the fillet, by four feet six inches wide. The arch of this, and that of the choir, are semi-circular. Sculpture here seems to have exhausted her treasures. A nebule moulding adorns the outward semicircle of the portal, a double nebule with beads the second, a chevron the third, interspersed with triangular frette roses, and other ornaments. It is also decorated with chalices, artfully made at every section of the stone, so as to conceal the joint. The stones are of a whitish grit, brought from the neighbouring hills of Ballaghmore; being porous, they have suffered much from the weather; but the columns of the choir are of a harder texture (though grits); close grained and receiving a good polish. Being of a reddish colour, they must have been handsome objects…It will readily occur, how great must have been the labour and expense of transporting the materials of this and other structures in cots of excavated wood to Monaincha, and before this was done, the carrying them a great distance over a deep, miry and shaking bog, before they reached the margin of the water. It appears by the tradition of the old inhabitants, that about a century ago the island was not accessible but in boats; every drain for the springs, and every passage for the river Nore being choked up with mud and fallen trees; the surface, in consequence, to a vast extent, was covered with water. Present appearances fully confirm this account.’
Text taken from The Irish Culdees, and their Abbey of Monaincha, published in the ‘Dublin University Magazine: A Literary and Philosophical Review’, Vol.LXXVI, December 1870. The Culdees, their name derived from the Irish Céilí Dé (meaning Companion of God) were early Christian hermits who lived on the same site but in separate cells, only gathering for certain communal activities such as worship in church, and sharing obedience to the same leader.
Clontuskert Priory, County Galway is a little-known religious site which yields ample pleasures for the traveller who troubles to find it. The present ruins date from the 15th century, but it is claimed that originally a monastic settlement was founded here around 800AD by Saint Baedán. If this were the case, no trace of that establishment survives. Later, probably towards the close of the 12th century, the prominent Ó Ceallaigh (O’Kelly) family invited members of the Arrouasian order – a particularly austere division of the Augustinian canons – to found a house here, the Priory of St Mary. The Ó Ceallaighs remained closely associated with this establishment, which became one of the richest in this part of the country. Members of the family were consistently appointed to the position of Prior, even though, on a number of occasions, they were illegitimate (in the medieval church, illegitimacy was a barrier to holy orders or the holding of a benefice, so papal dispensation had to be sought). In 1444 Eoghan O’Kelly, then-Prior of Clontuskert was slain in a battle with a rival family, the McCoughlans. There were several instances when corruption seems to have been rampant: in 1463, for example, Thady O’Kelly, a canon in the priory, reported to Rome that the Prior, John O’Kelly was guilty of immorality, perjury and simony. Thady O’Kelly then in turn became Prior, after which another canon, Donatus O’Kelly accused him of killing a layman. Donatus next became Prior, after which he was accused by another canon Donald O’Kelly, of scattering the priory’s goods, keeping a concubine and committing homicide. And so it went on.
In 1404 Clontuskert Priory was struck by lightning and set alight, destroying the buildings and their contents. A Papal order was subsequently issued offering ten-year indulgences for those who contributed to the cost of its rebuilding. So what we see on the site today are the remains of a 15th century priory. The O’Kellys seem to have continued to be associated with the Priory up to the time of the Reformation in the 1540s, a number of them holding benefices under the control of the house. In the mid-16th century the lands hitherto owned by Clontuskert passed into the hands of the de Burgos, Earls of Clanricarde, in 1570 the second earl receiving a grant from the government of the priory. However, the family remained Catholic and the Augustinian canons remained on site, even though they had lost their possessions. A keystone inserted into the doorway leading from nave to choir is dated 1633 indicates they were still there then. But by the end of the 17th century the de Burgos had converted to the Established Church and it would appear that thereafter Clontuskert Priory was abandoned and left to fall into ruin.
While portions of Clontuskert Priory’s cloister survive, the main interest of the site lies in the church. Here the east wall, with its beautiful traceried window, collapsed in 1918 but the pieces were saved, allowing for reconstruction in the early 1970s. Much further restoration work was undertaken on the site in the previous decade. The north and south walls of the choir feature a number of fine tombs. The choir itself is accessed via a substantial arcaded stone rood screen, one of the features reconstructed some decades ago. Originally there would have been no end wall, so that the arches would have offered a view through to the choir where services were taking place. However, a wall was built at the east end of the rood screen (when the aforementioned door with the date 1633 was inserted) thereby fundamentally changing the appearance of the space. But the most attractive aspect of Clontuskert Priory is its west doorway, which carries the following inscription: ‘Matheu : Dei: gra : eps : Clonfertens : et : Patre’ oneacdavayn : canonie’ esti : domine : fi’ fecert : Ano : do : mcccclxxi’ (Matthew by the grace of God, Bishop of Clonfert and Patrick O’Naughton, canon of this house, caused me to be made. Anno Domini 1471). The exterior of the doorway is covered with carvings, including the figures of the Archangel Michael carrying a sword and scales (for weighing souls), Saints John the Baptist, Catherine of Alexandria and, it is thought, Augustine of Hippo; they are flanked by smiling angels each holding a shield. Stones on either side are carved with the likes of a pelican feeding her young, a pair of mythical beasts, two ibexes with intertwined necks, and a mermaid holding a comb and mirror. Just inside the door is a water stoup, again bearing two figures believed to be, again, Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo. Largely bereft of visitors, Clontuskert Priory is something of a hidden gem, but one definitely worth discovering.
The great house at Summerhill, County Meath and its unhappy destruction have been discussed here before (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2013/04/01/my-name-is-ozymandias). Following its burning in February 1921 the building, having stood a dramatic ruin for some 35 years, was finally demolished in the late 1950s, and that would seem to have been the end of it. However, it transpires that sections of the building were saved and put to new use in the cemetery at another site elsewhere in the county. In 1927 an Irish Roman Catholic organisation, the Missionary Society of St Columban, bought Dowdstown, an old estate in Meath, to which the society moved permanently in 1941, naming the place Dalgan Park after their former premises in County Galway. At some date, presumably when Summerhill was being knocked down, the Missionary Society acquired cut stone from the building and used it to create a pavilion at the top of the cemetery. Of seven bays, it has a breakfront centre with round-arched loggias on either side. The central bay, the lower section rusticated, rises higher than its neighbours, and is flanked by Doric columns. This is very much a new composition made from older elements but it gives an idea of the fine quality of stonework used in the original construction of Summerhill and provides a souvenir of what was lost when the building was demolished. The only incongruous feature is a cheap metal canopy jutting out above the central arch to protect an altar table beneath (the ugly paint used on this, and the interior of the pavilion doesn’t much help either, but these errors are easily reversible. Incidentally, the date 1921 seen in the pedimented attic storey’s oculus must refer not to the death of Summerhill, but to that of an original member of the Missionary Society.