Advent Calendar of medieval Religious institutions: December 10th: St Mary’s Abbey Ferns.

StMFerns1StMFerns2JPGStMGerns3The town of Ferns in County Wexford, Ireland stands at an important strategic site as the area was historically the capital of the Kings of Leinster. The first christian community roughly on this site was founded by St Aidan in about 600.

The legend is that whilst he was building his monastery his followers were complaining that water couldn’t be found. So St Aidan ordered them to dig in a certain spot. Beautiful clear water then emerged from the hole and became known as St Mogue’s well (Mogue being another name for Aidan). The well is now under the road next to the abbey, but it is still accessible from a more modern structure just to the side. It is said to have curative powers, including the ability to reduce baldness.

The abbey you see today was founded by Diarmuid MacMurrough King of Leinster in 1158 as an Augustinian Abbey. The foundation charter of the abbey included a portion of all the beer brewed in Ferns. Not much of the abbey remains today; only parts of the church and the vaulted chancel survive sadly. The bell tower is the most unusual feature, the base is square shaped and then it tapers into a round top as it reaches higher. Stairs to the top of the tower still survive.

The abbey’s founder MacMurrough holds the dubious distinction of being the Irish king who invited the Anglo-Normans to Ireland (they never left again). MacMurrough lost his kingdom in the late 1160s and he sailed to England to invite the Anglo-Norman lords to come and help him reclaim it. Richard Strongbow Lord of Striguil (now called Chepstow) was the key lord to answer his call and MacMurrough promised Strongbow his kingdom on his death and marriage to his daughter Aoife if he would help. Strongbow agreed and MacMurrough took sanctuary at St Mary’s in 1167/68 while his waiting for his Anglo-Norman allies to arrive.

MacMurrough died in 1171 and is buried in the abbey’s grounds.

Strongbow had married Aoife by this point and he became the ruler of Leinster. The Anglo-Norman lords never left Ireland again. Strongbow’s daughter was Isabel de Clare who married William Marshal and inherited Leinster in her own right.

The abbey continued to function under Anglo-Norman rule and it was dissolved in 1539 as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

References:

Site visits 2012 and 2015

Ferns: Ancient capital of Leinster book.

https://historicalragbag.com/2016/12/20/advent-calendar-of-castles-december-20th-ferns-castle/

https://historicalragbag.com/2014/11/27/marriage-alliances-1180-1250-part-4-isabel-de-clare/

The photos are all mine.

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