An abbey is defined as the building occupied by a community of monks or nuns and is under the governance of an abbot or abbess usually linked with monastic life and an enclosed religious order, which in Ireland links back to Christianity beginning in the 5th century. Increased Christianity provided an environment in which abbeys thrived on this island. Monastic life really came to the forefront when Ireland was converted to Catholicism by our patron Saint Patrick leaving us with a super stock of built heritage in which Ireland’s abbeys truly blossomed. These abbeys are dotted all over the island, some lie in ruins, while others are still in use.
Kylemore Abbey, Galway
Ireland’s most enduring and well-loved visitor attractions in the heart of the Connemara countryside may look like a fantasy castle from the exterior, but it is actually home to an order of Benedictine nuns since 1920. Originally, this estate was purchased by Mitchell Henry who built an impressive castle as an elaborate gift for his wife, altering Kylemore from a barren, rugged landscape to the lush woodland with a magnificent 6-acre Victorian Walled Garden in the wonderful lakeside setting that visitors find today.
As well as a tour of the house where a number of rooms are open to the public, one can take the short walk to the chapel and from there it is about a 20-min stroll to the Ireland’s largest walled garden (shuttle buses are also available). Visitors are free to browse the on-site craft and design shop for gifts including Kylemore Abbey Pottery and award winning chocolates handmade by the Benedictine nuns.
Nearby to Kylemore abbey, is Killary fjord where it is worth taking a boat trip on Ireland’s only fjord and also visit the village of Leenane, where the Irish film The Field was set.
Mellifont Abbey, Louth
Founded in 1152, this Cistercian abbey was the first abbey of this order to be built in Ireland, at the invitation of St Malachy, archbishop of Armagh. Monastic life continued here until King Henry VIII’s suppression of monasteries in 1539, forcing its closure at which time the abbey became a private manor house. This abbey’s setting is of historical significance when, in 1603, the Treaty of Mallifent was agreed between the English Crown and Earl of Tyrone and later, in 1690, it served as William of Orange’s headquarters during the Battle of the Boyne.
Little of the original abbey remains, save a 13th-century unusual octagonal lavabo (where the monks washed their hands before eating), some Romanesque arches and a 14th-century chapter house. There is a visitor centre that houses an interesting exhibit on the work of masons in the Middle Ages displaying their craft alongside relics of the abbey’s gate and its church.
This Mellifont Abbey is not to be confused with New Mellifont Abbey founded in 1938, home to the Cistercian Order located in Collon, a small village in County Louth.
Monaincha Abbey, Tipperary
Often described by local people as ‘Tipperary’s best kept secret’, the visible remains of this abbey date back to the Augustinians who established a small monastery here dedicated to Saint Mary in the 12th to 15th centuries. Originally this monastery was built on a small island surrounded by the water of Lough Cre and was given the Gaelic name Mainistir Inse na mBeo meaning The Monastery of the Island of the Living. Today, the lake is drained and this abbey now sits on top of a mound in a low boggy field making easily accessible to visit. Romanesque-style architecture, high crosses, vaulted chamber add to the beauty of this hidden gem. Interestingly, there was a smaller second island in that had a small church on it which is now, unfortunately, destroyed.
This abbey is not for the superstitious! Folklore surrounding this monastic site says that no women could ever set foot in the water or cross it without dying instantly. Another tale surrounds the name of the island and says that it is impossible to die while on this island – making those on it immortal.
A wealth of information about the Early Christian period has survived in Ireland ensuring these abbeys offer plenty to explore, not just on their monastic sites but also in local surrounding areas. Their growth, is significant, and has something to contribute to the type of nation Ireland has become today.