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Hidden Ireland: How a shipwreck turned into an abbey

As part of the Hidden Ireland series, Neil Jackman looks at three fascinating places to visit this weekend in Wexford, Galway and Meath.

WELCOME TO THE bank holiday weekend – if you are lucky enough to have a few days off, check out some of these fascinating spots.

Tintern Abbey, Co Wexford

Tintern Abbey was said to have been founded in 1200 when the powerful Norman knight  William Marshal set out to pay his first visit to Ireland after his inheritance as Lord of  Leinster. However his ship was struck by a storm off the east coast and was close to sinking.

He vowed to God that if he safely reached the shore, he would found an abbey wherever he landed. He managed to get ashore at Bannow Bay in County Wexford, and Marshal kept his vow, granting 3,500 hectares to the Cistercian order to establish an abbey. Hence  Tintern was occasionally called ‘Tintern de Voto’ or ‘Tintern of the Vow’. As the Earl of Pembroke, William Marshall was also the patron of Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire in Wales, he brought monks from the Tintern in Monmouthshire to settle in his new foundation in Wexford, that they named Tintern in honour of their original home.

Tintern was a wealthy and powerful Cistercian foundation, thought to be the third wealthiest Cistercian abbey after Mellifont and St Mary’s in Dublin. Tintern would have followed the standard format for all Cistercian abbeys in Ireland based on the ‘mother house’ of Mellifont. The cloisters were positioned at the south, and were surrounded by a range of domestic and spiritual buildings, with a cruciform shaped church to the North.

Excavations have revealed a number of these features, including the discovery of a thirteenth-century sewer. Although a little unpalatable to some (ahh, the glamorous life of an archaeologist), this stone-lined drain produced real insights into thirteenth century life, and particularly the diet of the monks. They ate cereals, apples, figs, raspberries, sloe berries, hazelnuts, beef, mutton, pork and goat. They also had seafood with evidence being discovered for mussels, oysters, cockles, and whelks. This shows they had a rich and varied diet that was probably far above what the general population would have enjoyed in the 13th century.

I’m particularly fond of the unusual sandstone gargoyle heads that run along the northern side of the chancel wall of the church (facing the carpark). I’m sure one or two of them (see below) look familiar from a night out in Coppers!

Like most other Irish monastic sites Tintern became private property after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1540s during King Henry VIII’s reign. The lands were granted to Anthony Colclough, an army officer and he and his descendants made extensive changes and modifications to the Abbey to change it from a Cistercian place of worship into a fashionable but fortified home.

One of the most identifiable features of Tintern is the lovely castellated bridge over the head of a stream and tidal inlet. It dates to the 18th century. Nearby is the remains of a large limekiln which shows some of the more industrious activities needed on a large estate of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Tintern is a lovely place to visit. It is free to enter and is under the auspices of the  Office of Public Works. Please see here for more information on opening times. You’ll find Tintern roughly 16km south of New Ross off the R734, or 29km from Wexford off the Wexford to Ballyhack road R733.

Claregalway Abbey, Co Galway

Another abbey! Well Ireland does have a large number of well preserved examples that are always great to explore due to the variety of architecture and sculpture. Claregalway Abbey is another fine example, and it is one that is easy to drive by without noticing, but it is well worth pulling in for an hour or so to have a look.

This friary was originally commissioned by the Norman knight John de Cogan in the middle of the 13th century. The main structures on the site are the large nave and chancel church that  probably dates between the late 13th – early 15th century, and later in the middle to late 15th century, a large bell tower, an aisle and a transept were added.

The site must once have been a busy and bustling centre,  as the remains of a deserted medieval settlement lie adjacent to the Friary next to the river. The settlement would have grown up around the Friary, with a substantial lay population of farm labourers, stonemasons and builders, merchants and craftsmen and women all working to provide supplies and labour for the Friary.

Claregalway Friary is one of Ireland’s finest Franciscan Friaries.  It is thought that the Franciscans first arrived in Ireland in the early 13th century, shortly after the death of the orders founder St Francis of Assisi in 1226. They established a base in Dublin, and by the middle of the 13th century they had Friaries in Kilkenny, Waterford, Wexford, Drogheda, Athlone, Cork, Ennis, Limerick, Dundalk, Carrickfergus, New Ross, Multyfarnham, Nenagh, Ardfert, Kildare, Armagh and here at Claregalway. Most of these friaries were founded by Anglo-Norman nobles like John de Cogan, and the powerful William de Burgh is said to have commissioned a foundation in Galway.

You can find a de Burgh tomb here at Claregalway Friary with a gothic style canopy probably dating to the 15th century. A later tomb plaque dating to 1648 was added to it.

The friary has a number of well preserved medieval and post-medieval tombs, and you can see some great sculptural details if you keep your eyes open around the site.

Like so many of Ireland’s monastic foundations, Claregalway was dissolved by King Henry VIII in the early 1540s during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the Reformation. After King Henry had rejected Papal authority, he quickly moved to have all the religious orders closed down as they were under the authority of the Pope, though perhaps his prime motivation for closing down all the wealthy monastic sites was to raise much needed capital to finance his foreign wars. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I the friary was used as a barracks for her troops.

Claregalway Friary was given to the Earl of Clanricarde in the early 17th century, and the Franciscans returned in the early 1640s though they lacked the capital to conduct all the necessary renovations to return the site to its former glory.

By the 18th century the decline of Claregalway Friary was clear enough that the French diplomat Coquebert de Montbret wrote in 1791 that “the monks are settling down among the ruins”.

Today Claregalway Friary is certainly worth visiting when you are in the area. It is free to enter and couldn’t be easier to find, it is just on the N17 road from Galway to Tuam on the northern side of Claregalway. The site is surrounded by a modern graveyard, but is still easily accessible with a small carpark.

Kells heritage town, Co Meath

Kells is a wonderful town to spend the afternoon with a real treasure trove of superb heritage sites to discover. Kells or Ceanannas Mór (meaning Great Fort) was associated with legendary figures from the Irish sagas like Conn of the Hundred Battles and Cormac Mac Airt. Evidence of the importance of the area during the prehistoric period can be seen in the enormous hillfort to the north-east of the town. Legend has it that Queen Medbh and her armies camped on the hill on their way to steal the Brown Bull of Cooley in the Táin Bó Cúailnge. More recently Edward Bruce, brother of Robert the Bruce, also camped on the hill following their victory over the Anglo-Normans at the Battle of Kells in 1314. Edward

Bruce was leading a Scottish invasion of Ireland to help to distract the English from the Scottish border area. Today the Spire of Lloyd, a wonderfully quirky inland lighthouse constructed in 1791, stands at the summit of the hillfort and gives outstanding views over the landscape.

Kells itself rose to prominence in the early-medieval period. The High King Diarmuid Mac Caroll is said have granted the Dún or fort of Ceanannus to Saint Colmcille (also known as Saint Columba) in the sixth century to establish a monastery. Excavations behind ‘St Colmcille’s House’ in the late 1980s uncovered some seventh century activity, however the clearest evidence comes from the ninth century onwards. St Colmcille’s community on the Island of Iona (off the western coast of Scotland) had been repeatedly raided by the Vikings and in AD 804 the monks were granted land at Kells. By AD 878 the raids on Iona had become so frequent that the relics of Colmcille were moved from Iona to Kells (presumably including the famous Book of Kells now on display at Trinity College in Dublin).

By the end of the ninth century Kells was becoming an increasingly important monastic site and you can still see the wonderful round tower that dates to the 10th century. The round tower probably served as a bellhouse and would have been an obvious marker in the landscape to weary pilgrims who were travelling to visit the sacred relics of Saint Colmcille. This tower also has a darker story, it is within this tower that Murchad Ua Máelsechnaill, King of Mide and High King of Tara was murdered in 1076.

Close to the tower you can see one of the wonderful early-medieval high crosses at Kells. This the South Cross, also crafted in the ninth century. It is named such as it originally bore the Latin inscription ‘Patricii et Columae Crux’ [The Cross of Patrick and Columba]. This is also the only cross to bear the name of its maker, and the now worn away  inscription in Latin that read: ‘Muirdeach made this’.

Two other early medieval high crosses are within the walls of the monastic site, the North Cross with its wonderful depictions and the so called ‘unfinished cross’ that is located just to the side of the eighteenth century church.

Perhaps the finest high cross at Kells is now located just outside of the Old Courthouse (below). It originally stood in the centre of the crossroads in the town but it was moved to its present location to protect it from damage from traffic. The cross is ninth century and around 3.5m tall. It depicts stories from the Bible, but also displays some more unusual figures like ‘Celtic’ spirals that may have drawn their influence from the tombs of the Boyne Valley, it also displays wrestling figures, horsemen with shields, centaurs and a wonderful depiction of a deer hunt. You can spend ages trying to work out what each of the scenes depicts, it really is one of Ireland’s best examples of an early-medieval high cross.

As well as the monastic site Kells also boasts a rare example of an early Irish church. Known as St Colmcille’s House (below), you can find it on Church Lane. The stone built church possibly dates to as early as the ninth century, and local tradition has it that it was in this building that the Book of Kells was completed. With its steeply pitched stone roof it reminds me strongly of the iconic St Kevin’s Kitchen at Glendalough.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of wonderful features that Kells has to offer. Working with the superb Kells Tourism Forum I recently launched an audioguide that leads a visitor around Kells and tells the story of its long and fascinating history. This guide is available  absolutely free of charge. Just click here and download to your computer before transferring to your mobile phone, iPod, Mp3 player or whatever media player you prefer. If you’d like to download it straight to your iPhone it is also available as a free app through Guidigo.  (Android in development). For more information about Kells, see

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, and next week I’ll be visiting the lovely Faughan Valley in County Derry, and seeing sites in Antrim, Donegal and Fermanagh so if you have any suggestions for sites in your locality please let us know by leaving a comment below or send an email to

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 If you’d like to receive daily updates about great heritage sites then please consider following us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

All photographs © Neil Jackman/

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