With its rich monastical and religious past from the days of early Christianity, Ireland is home to some astounding Abbeys. Scattered all over the county, these Abbeys all tell a story of the people who lived there, and the histories that they wove that is embedded into our cultural heritage.
In the tranquil valley of the River Mattock, a subsidiary of the Boyne, lie the noble ruins of Mellifont, the first Cistercian monastery to be established in Ireland. Founded in 1142 by St. Malachy, the monastery was consecrated amidst great pomp and ceremony in 1157 at a great national synod attended by seventeen bishops and the High King. The new monastic order was successful in re-introducing discipline into what has become a very lax Irish Church. Over forty other Cistercian monasteries were opened in Ireland following the success of Mellifont.
The monastery is also poignantly remembered in Irish history for a more tragic happening; it was here, following his defeat at the Battle of Kinsale, that the great Hugh O’ Neil formally surrendered to Mountjoy in 1603, a surrender that marked the deathknell of the Gaelic civilisation which can be tracked back to centuries before the time of Christ.
Jerpoint Abbey is located about 1 mile from Thomastown and is undoubtedly one of the finest Cistercian monastic ruins in Ireland. The Abbey was founded by Donal Mac Gillapatrick, King of Ossory, in 1158 for the Benedictines, but it was later colonised by the Cistercians from Baltinglass in 1180. Jerpoint, in its turn, became the mother house for the Abbeys of Kilcooly, Co. Tipperary and Kilkenny in 1184. In 1227 it became affiliated to Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire.
The lay-out is typical of a Cistercian monastery, with a three-aisled church standing on the north side of a quadrangle, on the other three sides of which lay the cloister and the domestic buildings including the Chapter House, refectory, dormitory and kitchen. The eastern end of the church may date to as early as 1160, though the original east window was replaced by the present window in the 14th century. The rest of the church was built about 1180, and although the aisles have bluntly pointed Gothic arches, the capitals are still Romanesque in character, as are also the round-headed windows in the west wall.
The picturesque ruins of this Augustinian Abbey stand in the shadow of Croagh Patrick. There is a great deal of piety, heroism, poetry and drama enshrined in the history of the Abbey. It is no wonder the ruins have been declared a National monument. The Abbey was founded in 1457 when a letter from Pope Callistus III gave permission to an Augustinian Hugh O’Malley of Banada Friary, County Sligo to establish a Church and Priory at Murrisk on land donated by Thady O’Malley who is described as a chieftain of that area. The East window behind the altar is the finest architectural feature in the ruins, it has five trefoil pointed lights surmounted by interconnecting bar tracery and according to Dr. H. Leask, the Irish authority on Church Building, “is perhaps the best window of its type in the West of Ireland.
Sligo Abbey was founded in 1252 or 1253 for the Dominicans by Maurice Fitzgerald, 2nd Baron of Offaly, who was also founder of the town. Having escaped the ravages suffered by the now destroyed Sligo Castle in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Friary was accidentally burned in 1414, but was rebuilt two years later by Friar Bryan MacDonagh with assistance from Pope John XXIII. The Friary was burned in 1641 by Sir Frederick Hamilton, and it was afterwards granted to Sir William Taffe.
The church has a nave with side aisle and a south transept. The choir, with its eight lancet windows, is the oldest part of the church and dates to shortly after the foundation. The 15th century east window replaced the original three lancet windows.
One of the best preserved in Ireland, this Cistercian Abbey was colonised from Mellifont in 1161. the building of the chancel, and the transepts with their side-chapels, must have begun shortly after this date, though the lancet windows in the east gable were inserted in the 13th century. There is an interesting combination of rounded and pointed arches in the transepts and crossing. The large square tower formed part of the church from the beginning, though it was raised in height at a later stage. The five eastern arches of the nave and their supporting pillars were built at the end of the 12th century, and have well-preserved capitals typical of the period. Although built at the same time, the arches of the northern side of the nave are different in type, and have differently shaped columns and capitals. The three westernmost arches in the south arcade, with their attractive leafed and figured capitals, and the west wall were built after 1205 but before the church was finally consecrated in 1218.
Founded by the MacNamaras in the middle of the 14th century using some of the curtain wall of the Anglo Norman castle built around 1280 by Richard de Clare. The cloisters were erected in 1402 and remain one of the features of the abbey. The Franciscan friars came later in the century. The view from the top of the tower is quite spectacular. A caretaker is on the grounds full time and should be contacted before entering.
Claregalway Abbey was founded in 1290 and in spite of a very turbulent history remained in use into the last century.There still remains the graceful tower, nave, choir (with a de Burgo tomb), a fine east window, north aisle and transept. Nearby is the massive square keep of a de Burgo Castle which figured in Norman Warfare with the O’ Flaherty’s.
Dating back to 1170 Dunbrody is an excellent example of a Cistercian Monastery in Ireland. It’s located about 8 miles south of the County Wexford town of New Ross.
The site of the ruins of Dunbrody Castle now houses a craft shop with quality hand-made local crafts. There is a small museum within the tearooms with family information and a very large dolls house – a scale replica of the castle. There is a small pitch and putt course and a full size hedge maze – one of only two in Ireland.
Dunbrody Craft Gallery has an extensive range of locally made crafts, including knitwear, terracotta and stoneware pottery, woodturning, copper repouse, cut glass, heraldic crests, and lots more to appeal to visitors from near and far.