One of the Most Important and Magnificent Monastic Edifices


‘The Abbey of Mellifont, in the County of Louth, situate about five miles from Drogheda, in the Barony of Ferrard, was originally one of the most important and magnificent monastic edifices ever erected in Ireland. It was founded, or endowed, by Donough M’Corvoill, or O’Carroll, prince of Oirgiallach, the present Oriel, A.D. 1142, at the solicitation of St. Malachy, the pious and learned archbishop of Armagh, and was the first Cistercian Abbey erected in Ireland.
The monks by whom it was first inhabited were sent over from the parent Monastery of Clairvaux in Normandy, by St. Bernard, and four of them were Irishmen, who had been educated there for the purpose. On the occasion of the consecration of the Church of Mellifont in 1157, a remarkable Synod was held here, which was attended by the primate Gelasius, Christian bishop of Lismore and apostolic legate, seventeen other bishops, and innumerable clergymen of inferior ranks. There were present also Murchertach, or Murtogh O’Loghlin, King of Ireland, O’Eochadha, prince of Ulidia, Tiernan O’Ruaire, prince of Breiffny, and O’Kerbhaill, or O’Carroll, prince of Ergall, or Oriel. On this occasion the King (Murtogh O’Loghlin) gave as an offering for his soul to God, and the Monks of Mellifont, 140 oxen or cows, 60 ounces of gold, and a townland, called Finnavair-na-ningen, near Drogheda. O’Kerbhaill gave also 60 ounces of gold, and as many more were presented by the wife of Tiernan O’Ruaric, who was a daughter of the prince of Meath, that is a former prince Murchad. She likewise gave a golden chalice for the high altar, and sacred vestments. &c., for each of the nine other altars that were in the church. This was the unfortunate Dearbhfhorguill, or Dervorgal, whose abduction by the profligate Dermod Mac Murrogh, King of Leinster, was the first link in the chain of events which led to the introduction into Ireland of the British arms, under the celebrated Strongbow. Her pious donations to the abbey of Mellifont appear to have been in some measure intended as an expiation of her crime; and hither she retired towards the end of her life, which she closed in religious exercises about the year 1193…’





‘On the establishment of the English power in the district called the Pale, in which Mellifont is situated, it was taken under the especial protection of the settlers. In 1177 a confirmation of their house and possessions was granted by King Henry II. as appears by the Charter of his son John, who renewed and confirmed the same; and in 1203 a new charter was granted to the abbey by King John, confirming to it several additional possessions which it had acquired after the arrival of the English. Many other grants and confirmations were made by succeeding Princes.
For a considerable period the abbey of Mellifont, as well as the other Cistercian monasteries in Ireland, continued to be connected with the parent establishment at Clairvaux, to which monastery, considerable sums of money were continually remitted. To correct this abuse, an act was passed in the reign of Edward III. enjoining all ecclesiastics not to depart the kingdom on any account whatsoever, nor to raise or transmit any sums of money privately or openly from hence, contrary to the form of the statute. In consequence of this enactment, Reginald, the abbot of Mellifont, was by a jury in 1351, found guilty of raising from the abbots of Boyle, Knockmoy, Bective and Cashel, the sum of 664 florins, one half of which he had remitted to the abbot and convent of Clairvaux; and again, in the year 1370, the abbot, John Terrour, was similarly indicted for remitting to the same abbey the sum of forty marcs. This abbot was, in the year 1378, indicted for killing one of his monks, named John White, in the year 1367; but the jury acquitted him. In 1380, it was enacted by parliament that no mere Irishman should be permitted to make his profession in this abbey…’





‘In 1540, Richard Conter, the last abbot, surrendered his abbacy, and had an annual pension of £40. granted to him for life. He had 16 fishing corraghs or skin-boats at Oldbridge, on the Boyne, which produced him annually £13. 13s. 4d., which, with various other possessions, amounting in the whole to £315. 19s. were granted to Sir Edward Moore, (ancestor to the present noble family of that name,) who made it his principal seat, converting the abbey into a magnificent residence, and, at the same time, a place of defence. In the memorable rebellion of 1641, a considerable body of the Irish sat down before it, and the garrison, which consisted of only 15 horse, and 22 foot, made a vigorous defence; but, on the failure of their ammunition, the foot surrendered, and the horse, charging vigorously through the enemy, arrived safe at Drogheda.
Such are the chief incidents in the history of this important monastic foundation, of which but trifling remains are now to be found, but these are sufficient evidence of its ancient beauty and splendour. They consist of the ruins of a beautiful little chapel, dedicated to St. Bernard, which in its perfect state was an exquisite specimen of the Gothic, or pointed architecture of the thirteenth century.
This chapel had a noble eastern window, and three smaller ones on each side, nearly all of which are now destroyed, together with the entrance doorway…This doorway was ornamented with a profusion of gilding, and painting in variegated colours, and was justly considered as one of the most beautiful specimens of the kind to be found in Ireland. It is said to have been sold to make a chimney piece!
Not inferior in architectural elegance to this chapel, are the ruins of an octagonal building, supposed a baptistery, on the top of which was a large cistern, from which water was conveyed by means of pipes, to the different offices of the abbey. The style of this building, which is Roman, indicates an earlier age, and it is probably coeval with the foundation of the monastery.
To these is to be added, the lofty abbey gateway; it is now appropriated to the humble purpose of a mill-dam.’


Extracts from The Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 1, Number 22, November 24, 1832. The little chapel described here as being dedicated to Saint Bernard was actually the abbey’s Chapter House and likewise the ‘Baptistry’ was the monks’ Lavabo.

The Secret of Kells

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Music Sent Up to God

For many centuries the Plunketts were among the principal families of County Meath, thanks to a judicious alliance made by one of their ancestors. In 1403 Sir Christopher Plunkett married Joan, daughter and heiress of Sir Lucas Cusack, and through her acquired extensive lands in the regions of Dunsany and Killeen, becoming Lord of the latter which was in turn left to his eldest son. The descendants of that line subsequently became Earls of Fingall, a title which only died out with the death of the twelth holder in 1984. Meanwhile, Sir Christopher’s second son received Dunsany Castle, where his descendant, Randal, 21st Baron Dunsany, now lives.
Not having an estate to inherit, Sir Christopher’s third son Sir Thomas Plunkett moved to London where he became a successful lawyer. Eventually he returned to Ireland and was appointed the country’s Lord Chief Justice. At some point before his death in 1471 he ordered the construction of a church dedicated to St Lawrence at Rathmore, County Meath on land adjacent to the castle where he lived. Here he was buried in a tomb, together with his wife Marion after her own death some years later. She had been the heiress of Rathmore, but it was not in her possession at the time of the Plunketts’ marriage. An old story, most likely apocryphal but nonetheless charming, tells how thanks to a song she gained a husband and regained her ancestral lands.

Marion, or as she is sometimes called Mary Ann, Plunkett was the daughter of Sir Christopher Cruise (original spelling Cruys) who late in life had married, much to the displeasure of several nephews waiting to inherit their uncle’s estates. Disappointment turned to wrath when the young Lady Cruise became pregnant and one evening while the couple were out walking at another of their properties, Cruicetown, they were set upon by a gang of assassins. Sir Christopher was struck down, but his wife managed to run back to the castle and barricade herself inside with the help of loyal followers.
Later that night Lady Cruise had her husband buried by torchlight and encouraged a rumour her absence from the occasion was due to terminal illness. As the funeral was taking place she gathered all the family plate and jewels and had them sunk in strong chests in a little lake at Cruicetown. Together with the Cruise deeds, she then had herself placed in a coffin (holes bored into its side so that she could breathe) which was brought to Rathmore. Arriving there Lady Cruise got out of the coffin, into which she put more valuable plate and organised for this to be buried in a nearby graveyard. Meanwhile, she slipped away to Dublin and from there took a boat to London.

Soon after arriving in London, Lady Cruise gave birth to her only child, a girl she named Marion. For some years mother and daughter were able to survive on various items of jewellery brought from Ireland, but once all these had been sold the pair became so poor that they had to earn a living by washing laundry on the banks of the Thames. One day the able young lawyer Sir Thomas Plunkett was passing close to the river’s edge and heard a young girl singing in Irish. The opening words of her song, both a roll-call of the former Cruise estates and a prayer for divine intervention, ran as follows:
‘Ah ! Blessed Mary ! hear me singing,
On this cold stone, mean labours plying
Yet Rathmore’s heiress might I name me
And broad lands rich and many claim me.’
Understanding the language in which she sang, Sir Thomas stopped and spoke to Marion Cruise, who brought him to her mother where he was shown the deeds to the family estates. Not long afterwards he married the putative heiress and on the couple’s return to Ireland was able to reclaim all the lands stolen by her cousins. His mother-in-law remembered where the old plate and valuables had been hidden and this added to the Plunketts’ wealth.
It may be for this reason that the couple decided to build a church next to their castle, in thanksgiving for the return of what had been thought forever lost. Built of limestone rubble, it has a number of fine features, such as the large east window with its curvilinear tracery and a handsome belltower (now roofless) in the south-west corner. Diagonally opposite, in what had been the sacristy, you can find the Plunkett tomb, moved from the body of the church for better preservation. While the armoured Sir Thomas, his feet resting on a recumbent dog, has survived the intervening five centuries, his wife has since lost her head. If only that were the sum total of the family’s losses. In the 17th century, this branch of the Plunketts stayed loyal to the Catholic faith and ultimately had their lands and lives taken from them by Oliver Cromwell. In 1654 Rathmore and much of the surrounding area came into the possession of John Bligh whose descendants, later Earls of Darnley, continued to be significant landowners here until the early 1900s. Today Rathmore Castle is an ivy-shrouded ruin and the church serves as no more than a picturesque backdrop for grazing cattle.