Building of the Month - June 2019

Ballintubber Abbey, County Mayo

Ballintubber Abbey 01 – Representative View (2010)

Figure 1: Ballintubber Abbey, arguably the finest of the ecclesiastical antiquities in County Mayo, traces its ancestry back to 1216 and the foundation of an abbey for the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine by Cathal O’Conor (Cathal Crobhdearg Ua Conchobair) (1153-1224), King of Cannaught. A preeminent example of the Hiberno Romanesque style, the church was burnt in 1256, the ensuing repairs reflecting the emerging Gothic taste. Suppressed during the Reformation, surrendered to the Crown in 1542, and destroyed by Cromwellian forces in 1653, the abbey fell into ruins although Mass continued to be celebrated within its walls throughout the period of the Penal Laws. An ambitious attempt at restoration (1846-8) fell victim to the Great Famine (1845-9) while a later restoration (1889-90) by George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921) concentrated on only the eastern portion of the ruins. The full restoration of Ballintubber Abbey was completed (1963-6) under the supervision of Percy le Clerc (1914-2002) of the Office of Public Works

County Mayo boasts a particularly fine collection of early monastic buildings whose ruined carcasses, each set within a distinctive landscape, have long attracted the admiration of the antiquarian, the artist, the historian and the photographer. The buttressed shell of Rathfran Abbey (established 1274; dissolved 1577) occupies a slight hollow on the northern bank of the Palmerstown River as it flows into Killala Bay; the fifteenth-century remains of Burriscarra Abbey (established 1298; dissolved 1607) catch the eye in a setting of verdant fields; Burrishoole Abbey (established 1470; dissolved 1606) enjoys a picturesque setting on a gently rolling eminence overlooking a tidal estuary with forested hills and the craggy peaks of Ben Gorm as a backdrop. Ballintubber Abbey, a short distance south of the county town of Castlebar, is similarly well positioned, facing and almost in a dialogue with the lofty Croagh Patrick, but it alone can claim a legacy of over eight hundred years of continuous worship. This despite periods of suppression and ruination and a particularly long period of recovery and restoration (fig. 1).

The history of Ballintubber as a place of religious worship can be traced back to the earliest of times and the site marks the start of an ancient path winding through heaths and over stony hillocks, finishing, some twenty-two miles west, at Croagh Patrick. The path predates Christianity in Ireland but took on a religious significance in 441 when, according to tradition, Saint Patrick carried out a baptism at a druidic well, established a church, and made a pilgrimage to “The Reek” to be closer, physically and spiritually, to God. Inspired by Saint Patrick, pilgrims adopted the practice and followed the route which, over time, became known as Tóchar Phádraig (“Saint Patrick’s Causeway”). The path went into decline in the late sixteenth century and was scarcely used during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Ballintubber Abbey 02 – Plan (1888) The present church dates back to 1216 and the foundation by Cathal O’Conor (Cathal Crobhdearg Ua Conchobair) (1153-1224), King of Connaught, of an abbey for the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine (fig. 2). Martin Joseph Blake (1838-1907), writing in 1904 and quoting The Annals of the Four Masters (1225), records the name of the first abbot when in “Anno, 1225, Maelbridgde [Bricius] O’Maicin, abbot of Tober-Patraic went to rest in Christ; he was a virgin and a sage; and it was by him the church of Tober-Patraic was begun and its sanctuary and crosses were diligently finished, in honour of Patrick and Mary and the Apostle St. John”[1]. The church, a cruciform structure comprising a nave, a crossing with transepts, and a rib vaulted chancel with two chapels on either side, is a preeminent example of the Hiberno Romanesque style. The three-light transitional East Window, dressed in sandstone, features the engaged colonettes ‘returned across the sill [in] a rather favourite Irish treatment’[2], foliate capitals and chevron archivolts characteristic of the style (fig. 3).





Figure 2: A plan of Ballintubber Abbey by George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921) showing the phases of construction and restoration from the early thirteenth century to the mid nineteenth century with the earliest phase, the chancel and side chapels, shaded in black; the nave and transepts in hatched grey showing ‘EARLY POINTED WORK (ABOUT 1270)’; the seventeenth-century de Burgo mortuary chapel shaded in grey; and the works of the abortive first restoration, principally the alteration of the openings, highlighted in white as ‘MODERN WORK (1846)’

Ballintubber Abbey 03 – East Window (2010)

Figure 3: The three-light transitional East Window, dressed in sandstone, features the engaged colonettes ‘returned across the sill [in] a rather favourite Irish treatment’, foliate capitals and chevron archivolts characteristic of the Hiberno Romanesque style

Ballintubber Abbey is rightly renowned for the quality of its carvings, particularly fine on the elongated corbel shafts supporting the chancel ceiling, with a variety of animals and birds, domestic and mythical, intertwined with stylised foliage. The carving, described by Blake as ‘equal in execution to any work of the time’[3], is attributed to a group known as the “School of the West” with the finest carving ascribed to an unknown craftsman known only as “The Ballintubber Master”.

Blake, quoting The Annals of the Four Masters (1265), records that the prosperity of the original church was short lived and in “Anno, 1265, The Monastery of Tober-Patraic was burned”[4]. That the chancel and side chapels were vaulted with stone appears to have spared the eastern portion of the church the full effects of the fire. Those areas roofed with timber and finished with oak shingles, on the other hand, were destroyed. The ensuing repairs, carried out circa 1270, coincided with the emerging Gothic taste with the resulting church, where pointed arches stand cheek-by-jowl with Hiberno Romanesque openings, prompting Donal Faughnan of the Irish Tourist Association to remark on ‘the duality of styles’[5].

Adaptation and alternation, extension and improvement continued throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, including the insertion of a particularly fine Gothic doorcase (figs. 12-13) and a traceried West Window, but legislation passed in the 1530s, aimed at the dissolution of monasteries and the seizure of their assets, heralded the slow demise of Ballintubber Abbey. A chancery inquisition taken at Cong on the 4th September 1606 names the last abbot as “Walter McEvily alias Staunton” and records that he surrendered the abbey and its properties to the Crown on the 1st March 1542[6]. The surrender appears to have been a gesture of compliance only and, the legislation proving difficult to enforce in the remote west, there is evidence that the order continued to occupy Ballintubber Abbey, and to benefit from donations, well into the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) who ‘hath no commodity in the same’. Having made a successful petition to Rome in 1632 a mendicant order of Augustinian friars settled in the abbey precinct in 1635 but their tenure was brought to an abrupt end in 1653 when Cromwellian forces set the church alight and demolished the domestic buildings.

The vaulted roof over the chancel successfully withstood this second attempt at its destruction and, affording a level of protection from the elements, allowed the celebration of Mass to continue over the next two centuries, including the period when new legislation was introduced penalising the practice of the Roman Catholic faith. The ruined Ballintubber Abbey, its tumbledown walls cloaked in ivy, eventually attracted the attention of the antiquarian and the admirer of the picturesque and one of the earliest depictions, a somewhat idealised sketch by the Italian-born Angelo Maria Bigari (fl. 1772-9), was used to illustrate the first volume of The Antiquities of Ireland (1791) by Francis Grose (1731-91) where it accompanied a description of the church as ‘a noble structure, of excellent workmanship, and the whole admirably finished’[7] (fig. 4). A later depiction by Edward Hasell (1811-52), published by the architect George Wilkinson (1814-90) in Practical Geology and Ancient Architecture of Ireland (1845), portrayed a bleaker, and probably more accurate scene with a group of four worshippers hearing Mass said by their priest in a setting of splintered walls and scattered debris (fig. 5).

Figure 4: An illustration published in the first volume of The Antiquities of Ireland (1791) by Francis Grose (1731-91) showing the arches of the crossing which originally supported ‘a low battlemented Tower as at Jerpoint Abbey [with] the portion of the Church enclosed by those arches having been vaulted in stone’. The original sketch was made on the 23rd July 1779 by Angelo Maria Bigari (fl. 1772-9) while on a tour of Connaught with Gabriel Beranger (1729-1817) and includes a second figure casually strolling into view from the south transept. The sketch was subsequently adapted as the lithograph “BALLINTOBER ABBEY Co. Mayo” by Morison’s Lith: Bachelor’s Walk with additions and omissions including the introduction of a trio of ecclesiastical scholars deep in conversation in the foreground and the removal of all of the debris and, curiously, the altar. None of the reproductions addressed an error in the original sketch where the number of bays in the chancel is shown as four instead of three

Ballintubber Abbey 04 – The Antiquities of Ireland (1791)

Ballintubber Abbey 05 – Practical Geology and Ancient Architecture of Ireland (1

Figure 5: A reproduction of a scene by Edward Hassell (d. 1852), originally published in Practical Geology and Ancient Architecture of Ireland (1845) by the architect George Wilkinson (1814-90), showing a small congregation hearing Mass in a setting of splintered walls and scattered debris

Wilkinson’s publication coincided with the first attempt at the rehabilitation of Ballintubber Abbey which, it cannot be denied, was unfortunately timed. Archbishop John MacHale (1791-1881), looking for support for ‘the revival of the old and venerable ruins of the abbey of Ballintubber for a parochial church [for] the moral and religious improvement of the poor’[8], drew on its then six century-long history of uninterrupted worship. Work had already begun in 1846 but, despite MacHale’s efforts, the project was suspended indefinitely in 1848 as the Great Famine took its toll on his parishioners and funds were diverted to charitable causes. Some of the work completed thus far met with criticism with the ‘new window works of cut limestone prepared for the insertion of timber sashes’ singled out as ‘out of character with the architecture of the old building [and] it is perhaps fortunate that the disastrous famine prevented the renovation being then further proceeded with; and the characteristic features of the old structure were not further interfered with’[9]. Nevertheless, the abortive works succeeded in stabilising the shell of the church, and the arches of the crossing, in readiness for a second attempt at restoration. The ivy-covered roofless shell continued to attract attention including from the pioneering photographers Edward King Tenison (1805-78) and Thomas J. Wynne (1838-93) of Castlebar (fig. 6).

Ballintubber Abbey 06 – Thomas J. Wynne (1838-93)

Figure 6: A photograph (1880) by Thomas J. Wynne (1838-93) of Castlebar showing the ivy-enveloped ruins of Ballintubber Abbey in the period just before Reverend Thomas Joseph “Tom” Reidy (1862-1938) set about a second phase of restoration ‘[rather] than to see a new church which cannot compare with it built beside it’. Where the Hassell sketch with its huddled congregation stressed the religious significance of the church, the top hat-wearing flâneur in the foreground here appears to revive the theme of the Bigari sketch with Ballintubber Abbey first and foremost an object of interest to the antiquarian and sightseer

Ballintubber Abbey 07 – Perspective View (1888)


The second attempt at restoration, completed (1889-90) to designs by George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921), was at pains not to repeat the errors of the preceding generation and, despite the support of wealthy benefactors including the FitzGerald-Kenny family of Clogher House and George Augustus Moore (1852-1933) of Moore Hall, was limited to the eastern “T” of the church (fig. 7). Much of the work has since been replaced but Ashlin, whose services were secured by Sir James Talbot Power (1851-1916) of Leopardtown Park in County Dublin, consolidated the walls, glazed the openings in the transepts with conservative Y-mullion fittings, oversaw the installation in the East Window of ‘stained glass of mediæval pattern procured from Mayer & Co. of Munich’, and completed the roofing of the chancel, crossing and transepts with a structure of Memel timber finished with green slate ‘specially procured from Cumberland’[10]. The project, carried out by unpaid volunteers from the congregation and wider parish, saw four-fifths of the abbey restored with only the shell of the nave open to the elements (fig. 8).


Figure 7: A perspective view by George Coppinger Ashlin showing the projected outcome of the second phase of restoration (1889-90). The works, estimated at £1,520, were described by the architect in an accompanying report (1888) as including the repointing of the stone work, the alteration of the openings with ‘inner stone frames grooved to receive leaded lights’, the construction of a tie beam roof ‘as the best calculated to strengthen the building and to avoid any outward pressure on the walls’, and the groining of the crossing ‘in stone [as the] arches, which now span the nave and transepts…would otherwise have no use or meaning’. It appears that neither the groining nor the proposed substitution of ‘three long lancet windows in [the gables] for the single windows built in 1846’ were executed

Ballintubber Abbey 08 – Restoration (1889)

Figure 8: A photograph (1889) showing a group of workmen standing outside the newly re-glazed and reroofed Ballintubber Abbey. The workmen were closely supervised by Reverend Thomas Joseph “Tom” Reidy (1862-1938) who, according to The Irish Builder and Engineer (31st January 1920), ‘studied architecture to qualify himself for superintending the work [and who] might often be seen bolting on the rafters, or mixing the mortar to excite the competition of the labourers [who] gave their labour free, each man being detailed for so many days a month’. Courtesy of Ballintubber Abbey

Ballintubber Abbey 09 - Restoration (1966)

Figure 9: A photograph (1966) showing the third phase of restoration in progress with a roof of native oak and Westmoreland green slate weatherproofing the entire church for the first time since its destruction by Cromwellian forces in 1653. Courtesy of Ballintubber Abbey

Reverend Thomas A. Egan (1909-79) is the often unsung hero of the third restoration of the church which was timed to mark the seven hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of Ballintubber Abbey (figs. 9-14). The ‘preservation of the National Monument [being] a matter of National importance by reason of the historical architectural and archaeological interest attaching thereto’, the Commissioners of Public Works were appointed by an indenture dated 26th March 1963 ‘to be the Guardians of the said National Monument for the purpose of maintaining the same’. The restoration (1963-6), carried out under the supervision of Percy le Clerc (1914-2002), Inspector of National Monuments, saw the nave reroofed with Westmoreland green slate and the interior restored as it may have appeared in the thirteenth century but taking into consideration the liturgical reforms recently sanctioned by the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (1962-5). The lofty nave features a tessellated quarry tile floor, whitewashed unplastered walls, windows re-glazed with clear glass and an exposed native oak roof. Ballintubber Abbey is one of three abbeys restored as parish churches by the Office of Public Works, coming before and setting a high standard for Holy Cross Abbey (1169; restored 1970-5) in County Tipperary and Duiske Abbey (1204; restored 1974-80) in County Kilkenny.

Ballintubber Abbey 10 – Interior

Figures 10-11: Two views of the interior following its restoration (1963-6) for which Percy le Clerc (1914-2002), Inspector of National Monuments, was awarded the RIAI Silver Medal Award for Conservation. The highlight of the interior is the rib vaulted chancel where carved capitals showing animals and birds intertwined with foliage belong to a recognised group known as the “School of the West” with the finest carving ascribed to “The Ballintubber Master”. The sacristy, originally constructed in the seventeenth century as a mortuary chapel for the de Burgo family and reroofed and repurposed in 1899, features as its artistic highlight the canopied tomb of Sir Richard Bourke (1567-1629), alias Tibbot ne Long (“Theobald of the Ship”), first Viscount Mayo: it is believed to have been fashioned from an old altar with an arcade, partly destroyed, filled with figures representing the apostles. Courtesy of Ballintubber Abbey

Ballintubber Abbey 11 – Interior

The anniversary of the foundation of Ballintubber Abbey, and its successful restoration, were both marked by 5p and 1/- commemorative stamps issued by the Department of Posts and Telegraphs in 1966 featuring the Hassell scene in sepia and monochrome respectively. In a fortuitous turn of events the church was visited by the poet Cecil Day Lewis (1904-72) who, according to his wife Jill Balcon (1925-2009), was immediately recognised by the priest and asked to write a poem which could be sold to raise funds for its restoration: the result was “The Abbey that refused to die” (1967)[11].

Work on the abbey precinct has continued to the present day and the overgrown Tochár Phádraig was restored in 1987 to accommodate the hundreds of modern-day pilgrims who make the journey to Croagh Patrick each year. In 1994 the chapter house adjoining the south transept, entered by a fine thirteenth-century Hiberno Romanesque door, was reroofed as a dorter or meeting room. Another phase of restoration is now in progress and, when completed, should see the walls of the dormitory adjoining the chapter house raised and roofed and a section of the arcaded cloister, built in the fifteenth century and rebuilt by le Clerc, given a glass roof to protect visitors, architectural enthusiasts and pilgrims alike, shelter from the typically inclement Mayo climate. Archaeological testing, a condition of the planning granted in 2016 on the eight hundredth anniversary of the church, has recently been completed and will inform the final specifications for this latest episode in the eventful history of Ballintubber Abbey.




Figure 12: The finessing of the interior was finally completed in 1972 with the installation of a set of charming timber stations of the cross by Imogen Stuart (b. 1927) and stained glass by Gabriel Loire (1904-96) of Chartres. The semi-abstract memorial window filling the fifteenth-century tracery frame is recognisable as a tree, its three branches representing the Holy Trinity, with pale blue forms on either side said to depict Adam and Eve. The lights over the altar, however, are entirely abstract and are said to represent, in the interplay of light and shade, the conflict of good and evil in the human spirit or the damnation and salvation of souls at The Last Judgement. The transept windows, also by Loire, feature brightly-coloured expressive figures of Saint Brigid and Saint Patrick

Ballintubber Abbey 12 – Gabriel Loire (1972)

Ballintubber Abbey 13 – Doorcase (1966) Ballintubber Abbey 14 – Doorcase (2010)

Figures 13-14: Among the improvements made to Ballintubber Abbey in the fifteenth century was the insertion of a particularly fine Gothic doorcase whose ogee hood moulding finishes in elongated crocketed pinnacles. Similar doorcases are also found at Ballyhaunis Friary (1348) and Ardnaree Abbey (1425) in Ballina. The doorcase was removed in the nineteenth century for reuse in the Church of Saint Charles the Martyr (Kilcommon), Hollymount, leaving a gaping hole which was hastily infilled. In a happy coincidence, the closure of the Hollymount church coincided with the revival of Ballintubber Abbey allowing for the return of the doorcase to its original setting. A photograph by Professor Edwin C. Rae (1911-2002) shows the newly restored doorcase with the surrounding stone work awaiting pointing: the door into the crossing, a conservative Georgian Gothic device possibly dating back to the 1846 restoration, can be seen in the background. A photograph taken in 2010 shows a similar view and the patina that has been achieved over a half century. Figure 13 by Professor Edwin C. Rae (1911-2002) © TARA – Trinity’s Access to Research Archive

Ballintubber Abbey is open daily and visitors are welcome. Click here for more information


[1] Blake, Martin Joseph, “Ballintubber Abbey, Co. Mayo: Notes on its History” in Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society Volume III Number ii (1904), p.67

[2] ibid., pp.69-70

[3] ibid., p.88

[4] ibid., p.67

[5] Faughnan, Donal, Burriscarra and Ballintober Antiquities in Irish Tourist Association (1945), n.p.

[6] Blake, Martin Joseph, “Ballintubber Abbey, Co. Mayo: Notes on its History” in Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society Volume III Number ii (1904), pp.76-7

[7] Grose, Francis, The Antiquities of Ireland Volume I (1791), p.41

[8] The Irish Catholic Directory (1847)

[9] Blake, Martin Joseph, “Ballintubber Abbey, Co. Mayo: Notes on its History” in Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society Volume III Number ii (1904), pp.85-6

[10] ibid., p.86

[11] Day Lewis, Cecil, The Complete Poems (1992), pp.671-2

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