IT’S SUPPOSED TO be an absolute scorcher this weekend, so why not make the most of it and go and explore one of Ireland’s off-the-beaten-track heritage sites?
Monaincha Abbey, North Tipperary
Saint Elair was said to have founded a small monastic site at Monaincha on a small island surrounded by a lake in the seventh century, but most of the visible remains on the site date to the Augustinians who established a small monastery here dedicated to Saint Mary in the twelfth to fifteenth centuries.
The name Monaincha comes from Mainistir Inse na mBeo meaning The Monastery of the Island of the Living, originally the monastery was on a small island surrounded by water, but agricultural drainage works in the 18th and 19th centuries drained the lake and left the monastery perched conspicuously on top of a mound in a low boggy field.
The strange supernatural powers of the island were recorded by the twelfth century Norman clergyman and chronicler Gerald of Wales. Gerald came to Ireland following the Norman conquest at the end of the twelfth century and compiled accounts about Ireland and its people (not always very flattering I’m afraid, but interesting to read nonetheless). He discusses the island on which the monastery stands as being a place where no-one could die of natural causes and a nearby island as being a place where no female of any species could step foot without immediately dying. It’s a pretty strange tale to say the least, you can read more here.
The high cross at Monaincha is a composite of two different crosses. The base appears to be decorated but it is very weathered and difficult to make out. It probably dates to around the 9th century; the long thin shaft with a depiction of Christ at the apex is later, dating to the 12th century.
The church has a really beautifully decorated Romanesque-style doorway resplendent with designs of chevrons, zigzags and foliage carved into the sandstone. The church itself is quite a simple nave and chancel church, with the chancel arch again in the Romanesque style. However evidence of the later activity on site can be seen in the architecture of some of the windows that appear to be later insertions. A small addition to the church has been tacked on in probably around the 15th century, it consists of vaulted chamber that may have been a sacristy and a set of steps leading to an upper chamber, little of which survives today. The construction of this addition seems a bit rougher than the well constructed original parts of the church.
I do recommend a visit to Monaincha, especially as you can team it up with a visit to the heritage town of Roscrea, with its impressive castle, Damer House, friary and round tower. To find Monaincha from Roscrea drive north east along the old Dublin Road till you come to a roundabout, then take the exit for St Annes, then you’ll see the site is signposted Monaincha Church. Monaincha is along a very narrow bumpy track, unless you are in a 4x4 driving along it even in good weather is a bit of a hair raising experience and there is very little room to turn at the end of the track.
I’d recommend leaving the car safely pulled in before the track, and walk the 400m or so down to the site. The site is located in a field full of livestock (pretty lively bullocks when we visited on 1 July 2013) so be sure to wear adequate footwear and please close any gates behind you.
Clonmore Castle, County Carlow
This imposing fortress probably dates to the thirteenth century judging from architectural features like the trefoil-pointed windows, but Clonmore doesn’t appear in any documentary sources until the fourteenth century when it was repaired by Sir Anthony de Lucy in 1332.
In the fifteenth century Clonmore was granted to the powerful Earl of Ormonde. The castle has been attacked on a number of occasions. It was seized by the Earl of Kildare in 1516, then captured again by the Earl of Ormonde in 1598.
During the Confederate Wars in Ireland during the middle part of the seventeenth century, Clonmore was captured and recaptured numerous times before finally being taken by Cromwell’s army in 1650.
Clonmore was once a large square enclosure with defensive towers at each corner and a range of buildings along its eastern side. The solar block is four stories high, and the halls have two stories. The remains of the buildings on the eastern side are a little tricky to work out when you are at the castle, as the site is in such ruinous condition, but archaeologist David Sweetman in his book ‘The Medieval Castles of Ireland’ (2005) suggests that the buildings relate to three phases in the castles history, with two rectangular halls and the southern end used as the main living quarters.
The castle is a great (if a little mucky) place to explore, with many early features like the windows, staircases and passageways. However the building is in a very ruinous state, and overgrown in places so do wear appropriate footwear and exercise caution if you visit. The castle is on a working farm, please make every effort to ask permission from the landowner if you wish to enter the site (particularly if livestock are in the field) and be sure to close all gates behind you.
To find Clonmore from Tullow in County Carlow, travel east along the R725 for around 8km and take the left turn signed for Lumcloon then turn right towards Killabeg, pass through Killabeg and through Gowle and you will reach Clonmore.
Be sure to pay a visit to the monastic site in Clonmore too that has a number of fine examples of medieval stonework including a high cross, and a bullaun stone – a large boulder with three depressions used as either a font for holy water or perhaps to crush iron-ore in the early medieval period.
Bective Abbey, County Meath
Bective Abbey is another fantastic heritage site located in the valley of the River Boyne. It was founded in 1147 by the King of Meath, Murchad Ua Máel Sechnaill and given to the Cistercian Order. Bective was the ‘daughter house’ of Mellifont, the first Cistercian foundation in Ireland.
Unlike many other Cistercian foundations which typically sought out wilderness and isolation, Bective was positioned on superb agricultural land, and quickly rose to prominence as an important ecclesiastical centre. Indeed Bective was high status enough, that the powerful Norman Lord of Meath, Hugh de Lacy had his remains interred at Bective for a while before he was eventually finally reburied with his wife at (the now demolished) St Thomas’s Abbey in Dublin.
By the sixteenth century, the Cistercians of Bective Abey had become wealthy from rents, tithes and donations. At the time that Bective was dissolved during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the middle of the sixteenth century, it was recorded that the estate of Bective contained 1580 acres valued at £83 18s 8p. The Abbey and its possessions were purchased in 1552 by Andrew Wyse, but he seems to have come into financial difficulties soon after and Bective changed hands a number of times, before becoming transformed into a manor in the early seventeenth century. It came into the hands of the Bolton family, and was eventually donated to the State in 1894.
The extensive ruins that you can explore today at Bective tell the story of both the Cistercian monastic site and the private home. The cloisters are superbly well preserved, and you may recognise them featuring in the Mel Gibson film Braveheart.
The site is a great place to visit and is part of a densely packed medieval landscape – close to Trim Castle, The Priory Hospital of St John the Baptist and The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul.
It is free to enter all year round and is very easy to find, as it is well signposted from the R161 between Trim and Navan in County Meath. The Office of Public Works have installed a small carpark and path at the site so it is very accessible.
The have been a series of excavations conducted at Bective Abbey by Geraldine and Matthew Stout, and you can read all about their fantastic discoveries on their blog here which also gives you a nice insight into the on-site life of an archaeologist in Ireland.
• This is part of a regular series of articles on great sites to visit in Ireland. I’m hoping to visit as many sites across the country as possible, so if you have any suggestions for sites in your locality please let us know by leaving a comment below, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Twitter, Facebook or Google+.
• You can discover more great heritage sites and places on Neil’s blog, Time Travel Ireland. Neil has also produced an acclaimed series of audioguides to Ireland’s heritage sites, they are packed with original music and sound effects and a really fun and immersive way of exploring Ireland’s past. They are available from abartaheritage.ie
All photographs © Neil Jackman / abartaheritage.ie