A modest village in County Laois, Aghaboe (from the Irish Achadh Bhó, meaning ‘field of cows’), has been briefly mentioned here before (see Happily Disposed in the Most Elegant Taste « The Irish Aesthete) in relation to Heywood, some 12 miles away, where a pair of mediaeval windows have been incorporated into an 18th century folly. But Aghaboe itself deserves attention, since it was once the site of an important early Christian monastery, adjacent to which is now a restored early 18th century house along with other buildings of interest.
The original abbey at Aghaboe was established in the 6th century by St Canice, who was interred here and around whose tomb would grow a substantial monastic settlement. In the 8th century, one of the abbots was St Fergal (otherwise Virgilius), mathematician and astronomer who would later move first to France and then to Austria where he became Abbot of St Peter’s Abbey in Salzburg. Nothing from this period in the monastery’s history survives due to repeated assaults on the place. The abbey was attacked and plundered by the Vikings in 913 before being rebuilt in 1052 with the relics of St Canice enshrined here. It was burned again in 1116 and rebuilt in 1189. In 1234 an Augustinian priory was established on the site (a Norman motte and bailey had already been constructed nearby). However, both the priory and a town which had grown up around it were burnt in 1346 by Diarmaid Mac Giollaphádraig, St Canice’s shrine being destroyed in the process. In 1382 Finghan MacGillapatrick, Lord of Upper Ossory established a Dominican friary here and this survived until its suppression in 1540. What remains at Aghaboe are traces of the Dominican church, a long, barn-like building without aisles typical of the mendicant preaching orders, with one transept at the south-west end. There is a fine window at the east end of the nave and an ogee-headed piscina nearby on the south wall. In the transept, the east wall features a tall arched niche and there are also a couple of smaller aumbries. A watercolour by Daniel Grose dated 1792 depicts an elaborately carved doorcase on the south side but this has since disappeared. A few other traces of the church’s former decoration survive on the exterior of the Church of Ireland church lying behind the ruin: this dates from 1818 although the curious tower here – the lower portion square-shaped, the upper an awkwardly-placed octagon – may be a survivor from the Middle Ages, along with the three much-weathered heads over the west door.
Just a few hundred yards south-east of the ruined and present churches, and overlooking both, stands Aghaboe House, a curiously double-fronted residence. The south facade, thought to date from c.1730, is of seven bays and two storeys, with a fine limestone pedimented doorcase. The north side is some 40 years later and is of five bays, centred on fan-lit doorway below a Venetian window above which a pediment breaks the shallow roofline. Internally, the house – which may incorporate elements of an older residence – is similarly divided into two parts, suggesting it was originally one room deep, with the larger rooms to the north, not least the double-height staircase hall with benefits from the Venetian window on the upper floor. Recently offered for sale, Aghaboe House was in a semi-ruinous condition when bought almost 40 years ago in 1984 by its present owner who has since gradually restored the building, along with others on the site, including another two-storey block diagonally to the immediate east. This might once have had a match on the western side; if so, it has long since disappeared. For much of the last quarter of the 18th century, Aghaboe House was home to the historian and Church of Ireland clergyman Rev Edward Ledwich (author of the text accompanying Francis Grose’s Antiquities of Ireland, published 1791-95) which suggests it could have served as a glebe house until a new one was built in 1820. The enlargement of the main house might even have been undertaken by Ledwich while he was in residence, since he and his wife had at least four daughters and four sons. Along with its neighbours, Aghaboe House contributes to an assemblage of buildings covering some 1,500 years of Irish history.
For more information about Aghaboe House and its sale, see: Aghaboe House, Aghaboe, Ballacolla, Co. Laois – Property.ie