Tripartite


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. 


Traces of Former Glory

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. 

Plainly Ruined



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.

Where Goats May Safely Graze




On high ground offering superlative views over the surrounding countryside, this is St Osnadh’s church, Kellistown, County Carlow. It dates from 1810 when built with assistance from the Board of First Fruits, replacing a mediaeval church, the remains of which stand behind the present structure. St Osnadh’s is small and plain, with no windows on the north or west sides and it seems never to have been supported by many parishioners; as early as 1891 an observer noted that it was ‘no longer alas used for Divine Service, and apparently since the demise of its Rector, Rev. Garret, has been more or less closed.’ (This is presumably a reference to the Rev James Perkins Garrett, who died in 1879). Meanwhile, by the same date ‘the burial-ground is being quietly grazed by two goats; a donkey, and occasionally a pig, is allowed to stretch its limbs in a wild chase.’ The grounds today are no longer home to sundry livestock, but the church is a roofless shell.



How the Mighty have Fallen (Part II)


Last July, one of Ireland’s major banks, AIB, announced plans to withdraw all cash services from 70 of its 170 branches. Although the company – in the face of near-universal outcry, not least from politicians in whose constituencies the threatened branches lay – quickly withdrew the proposed withdrawal, its original declaration of intent provided proof of what has long been evident throughout the country: the seemingly irreversible decline of regional towns. One by one, the staples of a thriving Irish urban settlement, whether it be the community hospital, the agricultural mart, the creamery, the post office, the bank and so forth, have packed up and left. For more and more of their needs, residents in smaller towns have been expected to head to a handful of bigger conurbations, where all the major services are congregated. Although this phenomenon is much discussed and analysed, one important aspect of the decline rarely appears in such discourse: the near-total disappearance over recent decades of Roman Catholic religious orders and the consequent abandonment of their buildings. 






The Presentation Order (full title: the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary) was founded in Cork in 1775 by Honora ‘Nano’ Nagle, member of a wealthy Roman Catholic family. Within a few years of its establishment, Presentation nuns had begun to open and run schools for girls, first in Ireland and then elsewhere around the world. In its country of origin, the order soon came to have a presence in every town of significance: indeed, by the mid-19th century the presentation of a Presentation Convent and attached school could be seen as indicative of a town’s economic and social importance. There was, therefore, widespread delight when the first three nuns of this order arrived in Mitchelstown, County Cork in June 1853. As if to emphasise the significance of this event, the site they would occupy dominates the town: immediately adjacent to the Catholic church (built at the same time) on high ground to the east of New Square. A month after their arrival, the nuns opened a school and within a few weeks 637 children of all ages had enrolled there for classes. Thus matters continued for the next 150 years, during much of which time it must have seemed as though the Presentation order would long remain a notable presence in Mitchelstown. However, towards the end of the last century, the numbers of nuns declined and those remaining grew ever older. Twenty years ago, in 2002, the last of them left and the convent they had once occupied, along with the school they had run, became vacant.






The former Presentation Convent in Mitchelstown consists of a three-storey, five-bayed central block facing due west. Gable-ended wings on either side extend eastwards to the rear, making the entire building U-shaped. The north wing held the chapel, described by Frank Keohane in his Guide to the Buildings of Cork as ‘a charming if old-fashioned Gothick affair with a rib-vaulted ceiling with bosses and pendants, a gallery on clustered columns and tracery-like panelling to the E wall.’ Following the departure of its original residents, the entire site was sold to a development company, Irish and European Properties, which in 2007 received permission from the local authority to convert the existing buildings for ‘community and commercial use’, create an underground two-screen cinema complex with associated car park spaces and then cover much of the surrounding grounds with apartment blocks. The economic crash of the following years put that scheme on hold but in 2012 Cork County Council granted an extension to the developers’ plans. Nothing happened – except that the company went into receivership – and two years later, in 2014, the council announced plans to prosecute the owners of the former convent under the Derelict Sites Act. Although it seems some remedial works were then carried out on the building, little has since happened and so the place has fallen into a state of almost complete ruin. In the past, the claim was sometimes made that Ireland’s country houses suffered neglect and abandonment because the majority of the population felt no sense of association with them. That argument does not apply in this instance: the Presentation convent was an important part of Mitchelstown’s identity for some 150 years, representative of the town’s importance and a centre of education. There must be many local residents who attended school here, and who can remember how it once looked. Furthermore, it is not as though the convent has disappeared: these buildings still dominate Mitchelstown, but their present condition now tells a very different story, one of disuse and decay. This is not a problem unique to Mitchelstown. There are many other towns throughout Ireland with similarly dilapidated complexes previously occupied by religious orders. As much as the closure of banks and post offices, they demonstrate the ongoing decline of Ireland’s regional towns.

How the Mighty have Fallen



South-east and to the rear of Kilkea Castle, County Kildare are the remains of a 13th century church, once associated – as was the main building – with the FitzGeralds, Earls of Kildare (and later Dukes of Leinster). Only the east gable and the remains of a chapel to the north survive, along with fragments of monuments to this once-mighty family. Inserted into a wall, for example, is a carving of a chained and collared animal, which might be a dog or perhaps a monkey which featured on the FitzGerald arms. Aforementioned arms can also be found on another stone. Kilkea Castle is today an hotel.


A Local Landmark



A local landmark, this is the round tower at Rattoo, County Kerry. Due to the flatness of the surrounding countryside, it is possible to see this building from many miles distant. Built of yellow sandstone and rising more than 27 metres, the tower dates from c.1100 and is located next to an ancient religious settlement; the ruined church here is 15th century. The conical top remains but a large portion of it was replaced in the early 1880s, while during more recent restoration work, a sheela-na-gig was discovered on the inner face of the north window, the only known example of such carvings on a round tower. Further restoration work was halted during the pandemic and has not since resumed, leaving part of the base stilll encased in scaffolding.


A Last Hurrah




This week marks the 150 Anniversary of the consecration of Holy Trinity in Westport, County Mayo, thought to be the last church to be built prior to the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1871, and therefore acting as a last hurrah of the old ecclesiastical order in this country. Designed by Thomas Newenham Deane and constructed on a site provided by the third Marquess of Sligo, the building replaced a late 18th century church (now ruinous) elsewhere on the estate. The work is thought to have cost more than £80,000, this high price explained by the exceptional craftsmanship evident throughout, not least the elaborate carvings around all doors and windows on the exterior; these were the work of one William Ridge, about whom it appears little else is known. The interior is just as generously decorated with stained glass provided by Alexander Gibbs and Company of London, the windows frames in mosaic supplied by another London firm, Clayton and Bell. But the most notable feature of the interior are the inlaid murals covering large areas of the walls. Mostly representing scenes from the Gospels (including a depiction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper over the west door), these are made from white marble with traced designs outlined in dark cement; the backgrounds are of gold leaf. These murals were made for the church by Samuel Poole of M.T. Bayne and Company of Westminster.



A Resting Place for Kings



The chapel which forms a centrepiece of Mitchelstown College, County Cork. Despite its name, this was never an educational establishment, but a group of almshouses occupying the north side of King’s Square and built between 1771-87 under the terms of the will of James King, fourth Baron Kingston, who died ten years before work began on the site. Designed and built by John Morrison, there were originally 24 houses but some of these were later sub-divided so that today there are 31. The chapel originally had a cupola, but this was soon replaced by the tower which can still be seen today: the original 18th century interior was entirely replaced in 1876. Directly beneath is the crypt of the King family where the remains of the 11th Earl of Kingston were recently placed.


Tucked Away



Tucked down a minor road north of Drogheda, this is St Nicholas’s church, Ballymakenny, County Louth. It was designed by Thomas Cooley for his patron, Richard Robinson, Archbishop of Armagh, whose country residence, Rokeby Hall, stands a few miles further still further north. Cooley died in 1784 before the work was executed and therefore the job passed to the young architect Francis Johnston, then just on the onset of his career. This charming little rural church is 18th century Irish Gothic at its best, a simple design with the tower at the west end flanked by modest vestries and then the main body of the building being a long, plain hall. The most notable feature of the exterior is above the entrance, the archiepiscopal insignia and Robinson’s arms in beautifully crisp limestone (just look at those ribbons ending in tassels). In recent years, the church has been used by a local Baptist group, although it is a pity that much of the glass on the north side (where the latticed windows are actually blind) has been broken and not repaired.