Historic Monuments 2

Monastic settlements from early Christians to the Anglo-Normans

Early Christian and monastic sites, Nendrum monastery

The monastery of Nendrum on Mahee Island in Strangford Lough, was rediscovered in 1844 and finally excavated between 1922 and 1924. Three irregular oval stone walls enclose the hillside and within the central enclosure lie the remains of a church, workshops and a graveyard, as well as the stump of a round tower.

St Mochaoi, after whom Mahee Island is named, died at the end of the fifth century. However, records for the monastic settlement at Nendrum date only from the seventh century. It is suggested that a fire in 976, in which the abbot died, may have been the result of a Viking raid. With a brief period of Benedictine control in the twelfth century, by the fifteenth century the parish church at Nendrum was abandoned for a mainland replacement.

An early Christian period sundial has been reconstructed on the site and other artefacts, including a famous bronze coated iron bell, are in the care of the Ulster Museum.

Devenish Island


The monastery on Devenish Island, Lower Loch Erne, was founded by the sixth

century saint Molaise. Although it was already known as 'multitudinous Devenish' at the beginning of the nineth century, the ruins visible today date from no earlier than the twelfth century. The island suffered a Viking raid in 837 and was destroyed by fire in 1157.

The narrow St Molaise's church was built in the early thirteenth century in the Romanesque style and was later extended. Nearby, a medieval stone coffin, 'St Molaise's Bed', is traditionally believed to possess healing powers. In addition, not far from Nendrum, St Mary's Abbey, an Augustinian priory, dates from the fifteenth century. However, archaeological excavations suggest that both of these buildings replaced earlier timber structures.

The most striking feature of the Devenish site is undoubtedly the entirely intact, 25m round tower. Restored in the nineteenth century, this round tower dates from the late twelfth century and is an architectural feature common to many Irish monastic settlements. They functioned both as bell towers and refuges.

The round towers appear to have continental rather than purely local antecedents. Irish ecclesiastical establishments like Devenish were fully integrated into the European church of the early Middle Ages, as illustrated by the discovery of fine, continental pottery in modern excavations.

Anglo-Norman monastic sites

Inch Abbey and Grey Abbey are both located in Co Down and were founded under the auspices of the Anglo-Norman adventurer, John de Courcy. In comparison with the organic arrangements of Nendrum or Devenish, these Cistercian monasteries represent the integration of the Irish church into European Christendom and remain impressive testimonies to a twelfth century revolution in Irish ecclesiastic life.

On the bank of the river Quoil, near Downpatrick, Inch Abbey (from inis, meaning island) existed from around 800. Traces remain of a complex of timber buildings enclosed by an earthwork. To atone for his 1177 destruction of the nearby monastery of Erenagh, de Courcy invited Cistercians from the north of England to establish a monastery on the earlier site.

Whilst the striking cross shaped Gothic church and its distinctive features remain, only minimal traces of the cloisters, the characteristic architectural innovation of the Cistercians, can be located. Low walls around the church are the remains of the surrounding infirmary, bakehouse and workshops.

Grey Abbey, on the shores of Strangford Lough, was founded by de Courcy's wife, Affreca, in 1193. The buildings appear to have been less decorous than those at Inch, but still in the early Gothic style. The west door of the church, for example, is a typically Gothic, carved and pointed archway.

Further Reading

The Monastic World, 1000 – 1300 (1974) by Christopher Brooke; Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community in Early Ireland (1993) by Lisa M Bitel; Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings (1996) by H G Leask.