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Monastries near Ballinasloe

Ballinasloe History Online
 Damian Mac Con Uladh

CLONFERT - CLUAIN FEARTA- [The Pasture of the Grave]


The original monastery was founded here by St Brendan in 563 and it is here that the great navigating saint is buried. From the 12th to the 16th centuries Clonfert was also the site of St Mary’s De Purto Puro Augustinian Monastery of Arroasian Canons Regular, and of a nunnery of the Canonesses Regular, which was a subsidiary to Kilcreevanty. The earliest part of the church dates back to the 12th century. Its doorway is the crowning achievement of Irish Romanesque decoration. It is in six orders, and has an amazing variety of motifs, animal heads, foliage, human heads etc. Above the doorway is a pointed hood enclosing triangles alternating with bizarre human heads, and below this is an arcade enclosing more human heads. The early 13th century east windows in the chancel can be numbered among the best late Romanesque windows. The chancel arch was inserted in the 15th century, and is decorated with angels, a rosette and a mermaid carrying a mirror. The supporting arches of the tower at the west end of the church are also decorated with 15th century heads, and the innermost order of the Romanesque doorway was also inserted at this time. The sacristy is also 15th century. The church had a Romanesque south transept, which is now in ruins, and a Gothic north transept, which has been removed. In the Roman Catholic church one mile to the south is a 14th century wooden statue of the Madonna and Child, and on the roadside near this church is a 16th century tower-house.


Augustinian Priory

Nothing remains of an early monastery founded here in 805 by St Baedán who died around 809. Some time in the 12th century the Augustinians were introduced, and the earliest surviving parts of the present church, such as certain windows near the alter, show that the church was erected in the 13th century. By the end of that century it had become one of the richest monasteries in the diocese. In the second half of the 14th century it had become corrupt, and in 1413, when the monastery consisted only of a prior and twelve canons, it was completely burned. Shortly afterwards, 10-year indulgences were granted to all those who contributed to its repair, and most of the present building is due to this 15th century restoration. Of this period are the fine east window and the unusual rood-screen (mediaeval rood loft) signed by a master mason Joh[ann]es - both reconstructed in the 1970s. The very fine west door was erected by Matthew Mac Craith, an Augustinian canon, and Patrick Ó Neachtáin in 1471. The top of the door has sculptures of St Michael the Archangel with scales for judging the souls, St John the Baptist, St Catherine of Alexandria and a bishop or abbot, possibly St Augustine (the last two standing on a serpent); the two sides include a pelican giving its blood for its young, a mermaid with mirror, two deer with intertwined heads and a dog biting its tail. There is also a unique holy-water font with figures of St Catherine and a bishop. Two years after the building of this door, the prior was accused of keeping concubines and homicides! After the Dissolution in 1551 the monastery passed to the de Burgos, the Earls of Clanrickard, but the monks returned in 1637 and built a new west wall for the choir and re-roofed it. The domestic buildings, originally built in the 13th century, were re-used too, as one of the rooms served as an oven. The south wall of the nave fell in 1968.


Franciscan Friary

William M. O’Kelly, Lord of Hy Many or Uí Mhaine, founded this new friary for the Franciscans in 1353 [Egan claims 1363] on the site of an older monastery founded by St Conall in the sixth century. Franciscan friaries in Ireland normally consisted of a cloister – where monks walked and prayed – surrounded by a church and tower to one side and domestic buildings for eating and sleeping to the other. Their decoration was often fairly basic, in line with the teaching of St Francis of Assisi, the founder of the order. The building consists of a church with nave, choir, south transept and aisle, and some domestic buildings. Originally the church was simpler than it is today and just consisted of a nave where the congregation sat and a chancel where the altar was placed.

The nave is entered by a finely moulded west doorway with a 15th century window above it. The other windows also appear to be of 15th century date. The north wall of the church has two fine tomb niches. That near the west door has well-carved figures of Saints Johanes (John), Lodovic (Louis), Maria, another John, Jacoib (James) and Dinois (Denis): the names of Louis and Denis suggest French influence. This tomb possibly belonged to the O’Kelly’s, but as the inscription has worn away this is uncertain. The other fine tomb is that of the O’Daly’s in the choir. Tradition says that the daughter of the founder built the tower and the main part of the church; certainly the tower was added later. The sacristy to the north of the choir was also added later. There are the remains of a simple cloister with a wide variety of mason’s marks; each mason had his own individual mark so that his work could be identified for payment. Remains also exist of conventional buildings, with the refectory in the north-west corner. The Mortuary chapel was erected by Tully O’Donnellan in 1412 and the wayside cross by John O’Donnellan in 1682. At the insistence of Malachy O’Kelly the friars adopted the Observantine rule of the order in 1460, and the friary was suppressed in 1541. The Catholics repaired the church in 1604. In 1616, there were 6 friars left. In the same year James I granted the monastery to Charles Calthorpe. It was besieged but not taken by the Cromwellians in 1650. Tradition has it that the friars were finally expelled only a few weeks before the Battle of Aughrim in 1691.


  • Egan, P. K., Ballinasloe. A Historical Sketch, Ballinasloe (Ballinasloe Tostal Council), 1953. p. 36
  • Egan, P. K., The Parish of Ballinasloe. Its History from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Dublin (Clonmore & Reynolds), 1960.
  • Harbison, Peter, Guide to the National and Historic Monuments of Ireland, Dublin (Gill & Macmillan), 1992. pp. 151-152.

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