Kells, County Meath

IMG_4212For a town with a population of not much over 6000 Kells has made an inordinately strong mark on Irish History.

It is best known as the original home of what is , arguably,  the most famous illuminated manuscript in the world.

But while the Book of Kells is truly incredible, and I’ll talk more about it later, Kells itself (especially the abbey) has its own fascinating history. I am also slightly biased as some of my family comes from Kells and the surrounding area. A plaque to one of my ancestors can still be seen in the church at the abbey.

This post isn’t going to cover the entire history of Kells, there’s simply too much of it. It will, however, look at the early history of the town, the Book of Kells, and some of the key buildings in town.

So to begin at the beginning.

There were possibly people in the area before, but the history of Kells as a settlement dates back to the 6th century, when it was a fortification of the High King Diarmait mac Cerbaill.  The site was gifted to Saint Colmcille who founded the abbey which remains today, though none of the exisiting building are contemporary.

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The second image is an etching from the late 1700s.

Saint Colmcille (known in latin as Columba) was born to the ruling family of present day Donegal. Still standing in Kells today is Colmcille’s cell which dates around the 10th century. It is too late to actually have been used by Colmcille and was in fact probably an oratory that may have housed his relics, with some sleeping accommodation for some monks. IMG_4260

In roughly 561 Colmcille travelled to Scotland as a ‘pilgrim for Christ’ and to convert the Picts. In 563 he settled on Iona and founded the abbey there. It went on to be one of the most influential in the area inspiring the foundation of other houses, including Lindisfarne. In the 9th century Iona was subject to fearsome Viking raids and they relocated most of the community to Kells in 804. It is agreed by most scholars that the Book of Kells originated in around 800 making it possible that it was originally made in either Kells or Iona. It was definitely at Kells by 1007 when the Annals of Ulster record it as being stolen from the stone church in Kells.

This is not the church we see today. From 808 to 814 a new church was built, though it was rebuilt after the Viking raid of 920 and most likely again after other raids over the years. By 1655 it was well and truly in ruins and it was used as a horse barracks by Cromwell. The current church dates to 1788.

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It is in St Columba’s Church that you can also see the plaque dedicated to my ancestor.

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However there are parts of the site that do date to earlier. Firstly the round tower. Round towers are honestly one of my favourite structures ever and I’ve visited quite a number. You can find out more about their history in this previous post.

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The Kells round tower dates to the 10th century and it is 90 feet tall without its roof, which would have been conical. Is has six floors and would probably have been accessed by ladders. There is still a lot of debate as to the purpose of round towers. It is possible that they were simply bell towers, part of the system of the call to prayer with the height made necessary by the size of the ecclesiastical sites. They may have also been symbols reaching towards the glory of God and illustrating the importance of the ecclesiastical site, conveying messages of spiritual and temporal power. There is also an argument, though currently thought of as a little less likely, that they were watch towers and were part of defence systems. They may have been built partly as a response to Viking and other attacks. The monks would have been able to climb in, store their treasures, burn the stairs to the door, keep the raiders out and possibly ring bells from the top of the tower to call for assistance. Essentially no one is absolutely certain as to their purpose. It is also plausible that there were multiple purposes, combinations of the possibilities listed above.

Kells Abbey also boasts three partly complete high crosses. There are between 60 and 70 high crosses remaining in Ireland (in varying states of repair), they are usually richly decorated often with biblical scenes and probably served as sermons in stone, telling the stories of the bible to the mostly illiterate population.

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The 9th century south cross depicts: the crucifixion, the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the sacrifice of Isaac, Daniel in the lions den, the fall of man, the death of Able, Saints Paul and Anthony and the Evangelists.

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The 10th century west cross depicts: the entry into Jerusalem, the presentation in the temples, the miracle at Canna, the baptism of  Christ, Noah’s Arc and the fall of Able. There would have been more on the arms of the cross.

IMG_4253IMG_4254The 12th century east cross shows the crucifixion

There is also a north cross, of which only the stub remains and I don’t have a photo. In the town of Kells itself is the market cross, which unfortunately I didn’t see on my visit, so I don’t have a photo of it either.

The high crosses in the church yard were constructed in a time of great prosperity for the abbey and the town. By the tenth century it was the most important Columban abbey in Ireland. The downside was that as it was wealthy Kells became one of the most attacked towns in Ireland. In 951 a Viking raid was said to have carried off 3000 people and goods. By the 12th century Kells had been burned twenty one times and plundered seven times. These were not all Viking raids, several Irish kingdoms were also responsible. It was also not all raids. In 1152 the Synod of Kells was held and many laws were codified. It was in this period that the other treasure of Kells (apart from the Book of Kells) was probably made. the Crozier of Kells dates to the 9th 11th and 12th centuries and is housed in the British Museum.

By the time the Normans arrived in 1172 Kells (along with the rest of Meath) passed into the hands of Hugh de Lacey one of  Henry II’s barons and one of the key Normans in Ireland. A castle was constructed in Kells in around 1176, though pretty much nothing remains today. The town’s walls were constructed by de Lacey in the early 1170s. The Normans also founded the abbey of St Mary and the priory of St John again pretty much nothing remains of the buildings.

Over the following centuries Kells suffered and profited with the fortunes of both England and Ireland. It was burned a number of times and rebuilt, it was caught in raids and rebuilt. Today it is a small Irish town steeped in history and its greatest legacy and claim to fame is the Book of Kells.

I’ll be using two of my favourite books to discuss the Book of Kells.

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher De Hamel

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It is a fascinating dialogue with some of history’s most interesting illuminated manuscripts. De Hamel not only tells the stories of the manuscripts, he traces his own journey in accessing the manuscripts. It is a truly remarkable read.

The Book of Kells by Bernard Meehan

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This book is an in depth examination of the Book of Kells and contains truly incredible facsimiles of much of the Book of Kells. The photos you’ll see below are my pictures of images in Meehan’s book, I apologise for the glare in a handful of them.

So, as I explained earlier the first definite mention of the Book of Kells was when it was stolen in 1007. The Annals of Ulster describes it thus:

“The Great Gospel of Colum Cille was sacrilegiously stolen in the night from the Western Sacristy of the church of Cennas. It was the most precious object of the Western Would, on account of its covers with human forms. The Gospel was recovered after two months and twenty nights, its gold [probably a shrine it was housed in] having been taken off it and with a sod over it.”

The Book of Kells remains a ‘treasure of the Western World.’ It is a national monument of Ireland, it’s included on the Memory of World list put together by UNESCO, it’s been on Irish coins, Irish stamps and its designs and scripts are synonymous with Ireland. Today it is housed in Trinity College library in Dublin and attracts 520 000 people to view it each year, of which I was one in 2012. You can see the viewing queue below

IMG_6389The Book of Kells was absolutely worth the wait, it is truly remarkable.

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But how did it come to end up in Dublin at Trinity College?

The Book remained in Kells until 1641 when Irish rebellion against Protestant settlers caused serious harm to Kells. The church would remain ruined for another forty years. It was decided the Book wasn’t safe there anymore so it was removed in Dublin probably in 1653 by the Governor of Kells Charles Lambert, 1st Earl of Cavan. Henry Jones the Bishop of Meath presented it along with the Book of Durrow to Trinity College. The Book entered popular consciousness in the early 19th century and at this time it was assumed that it dated to the 6th century and had been created by Columba. Queen Victoria was shown it as the book of Columba. In 1874 it was described as the oldest book in the world, which is definitely not true. The Queen’s visit and the Exhibition in Ireland generated even more interest and the Book became cemented in the consciousness of Ireland.

The Book of Kells is a manuscript of the four Gospels:

Matthew

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The opening page of this gospel is portrait of Matthew

Mark

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The opening page of this gospel is the four symbols of the Evangelists.

Luke

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The opening of this Gopspel is the word QOU N IAM

John

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The opening of this Gospel is a portrait of John.

The evangelists aren’t the only portraits in the Book of Kells. Other key biblical figures feature as well. Such as:

Jesus

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and Mary

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Along with others. It is reasonable to assume that originally portraits of Mark and Luke were probably also intended. They may have been lost over the years. The Book of Kells has been rebound at least five times. One of the most disastrous was the rebinding in 1826 by George Mullen. He trimmed the pages so he could gild them (losing decoration in the process), he painted some of the margins with purple wash and filled in all the natural holes in the vellum with new vellum.

The current binding was undertaken in 1953 by Roger Powel, many of Mullen’s additions were removed and Book of Kells was split into four volumes, one for each Gospel. The Book of Kells has had a hard life and it is remarkable that any of it has survived.

It is a symbol of a time of learning and culture. The detail is extraordinary as is the depth of colour, even in the pages that are predominately writing.

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The work is very Celtic, very much of its time. We have no hope of understanding what all the symbols and imagery would have meant to the people of the time. We can, though, appreciate it for its beauty and have the enjoyment of trying to understand the people who could have made something this exquisite.

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The Book of Kells will always be inextricably be linked with the town of Kells, as it should be. But as I hope I’ve shown, the Book is not the only worthwhile part of the history of Kells. This small Irish town has been at the heart of Irish history for centuries, it is well worthwhile being celebrated in its own right.

References:

Iona Past and Present with Maps by Ritchie 1934

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher De Hamel 2016

ISBN: 9780241003046

The Book of Kells by Bernard Meehan 2012

ISBN: 9780500238943

The Antiquities of Ireland Volumes I and II facsimile copy 1982

ISBN: 0946198020

The Story of Kells by  Leo Judge

ISBN: 18724901070

http://www.heritagetowns.com/kells.shtml

The photos are all mine apart from the photo of the plaque and one photo of the church which are by Penny Woodward (used with permission)

 

 

St Michael’s Mount

St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.

IMG_4617St Michael’s Mount stands off the coast of Marazion in Cornwall.

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It can only be reached by boat or by a tidal causeway.

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The origins of the castle  are medieval, it began life as a 12th century monastery. The castle you can see today is formed from this original monastery, but the majority dates to much later. It is run and part owned by the National Trust but still part owned by the St Aubyn family who do still live in areas of the castle.

The origins of the rock itself are even older. The rock of the Mount is one of a number of granite outcrops along the Cornish coast. These are the remains of a granite intrusion that rose up some 300 million years ago and has worn down over millennia to the outcrops you see today. Others in Cornwall include St Agnes Beacon and the Godolphin Hills.

Geology aside, legend has it that the Mount was the work of giants. There are several versions of the tale, but one is that it was built by the giant Cormoran and his wife Cormelian. This particular legend adds that chapel rock, which lies between Marzion and the Mount, fell from Cormelian’s apron as she carried it to the Mount. You can see the rock below.

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Other stories tell of the Mount being used in the giants’ sports as a sort of platform where targets were laid to be hit by rocks thrown from Trencrom Hill. Looking at the Mount protruding so dramatically, it is very easy to see why it attracted stories of giants.

IMG_4606The Mount was probably used by the local Celts and has been caught up in Arthurian legends and the Tristan and Isolde myth in particular. It has also been tradition that it was a central point for shipping tin to the continent, but sadly this hasn’t been born out by archaeology.

The origins of the current castle on the Mount are medieval. There was probably secular occupation of the Mount before the 11th century, but in the late 11th century the Mount was granted (possibly by Edward the Confessor) to the monastery of Mont Saint Michel in Normandy. The matching  names of the two rocks is not a coincidence (but very confusing), their geographical and geological similarity wasn’t lost on the medieval monks.

Between 1135 and 1144 a church was built on the Mount by Abbot Bernard. It is this monastery which is the core of the existing building. The monastery was fortified in 1193 when it was seized by Henry de la Pomeray who disguised his men as pilgrims. Pilgrims were common on the Mount and the path you follow today runs along the main pilgrim route to the castle.

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The Mount was re-garrisoned a number of times through various English-French wars and the War of the Roses. The monastery was a casualty of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and came into Crown hands. In 1599 Elizabeth I sold it to Robert Cecil. In 1640 the Mount was sold to Sir Frances Basset and he fortified it for the Crown in the Civil War, the garrison surrendered in 1646 to Parliament and Captain John St Aubyn was put in charge. He bought the Mount from Basset’s son in 1659. It has been in the St Aubyn family ever since. The Mount has seen a number of battles including driving off a Napoleonic ship and being the site of  one of the beacons lit to alert London to the arrival of the Spanish Armada.

It was fortified again in World War II against German invasion and Ribbentrop had apparently chosen it as his residence if Germany won the war. In 1954 the National Trust was given part of the Mount and part remains in the ownership of the St Aubyns.

As you can see the Mount has had a long and varied history and any visit to it highlights its complex path. When I was lucky enough to go there in 2012 it was such a wet and miserable day that I certainly got a real feeling of how desolate the Mount can be.

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Getting to the Mount is very much tide dependant. Even in the horrific weather, which certainly added to to the drama of my visit, a large number of people were waiting impatiently for the tide to die down enough to cross to the Mount and climb up to the castle.

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The castle is very much not alone on the Mount. There is also an active harbour and town. IMG_4627IMG_4626There has been some sort of settlement on the rock for centuries and today 30 people live and work on the Mount.

The buildings that stand at the top of the Mount are collectively known as the castle, but also contain a church and a 19th century mansion. They are all built on the foundations, physical and metaphorical, of the original priory. There is also a Victorian garden clinging precariously to the edge of the Mount. I don’t have any photos of it specifically, it was too wet to get close enough, but you can see the very attractive wilderness in the photo below.

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When you reached the castle itself, its immensity is actually quite surprising.

IMG_4632I’m not going to cover every room in the castle, but just highlight some of my favourites.

The Library:

It was part of the monastic buildings, but from the late 18th century was used by the family for relaxing. What really strikes you as you walk in is how intimate and cosy the room is, especially when you consider the gale which was howling outside.

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The Chevy Chase Room:

This area was originally the priory’s refectory, but it became the great hall of the castle. The plaster frieze around the walls is of the medieval hunting ballad the Chevy Chase. The frieze was created some time between the late sixteenth and mid seventeenth century. It has been meticulously restored.

IMG_4638IMG_4643IMG_4645The other highlight of the Chevy Chase Room is the stain glass windows which were gathered from chapels and priories from all over Europe. IMG_4642

The Priory Church

It stands on the summit of the Mount and dates back to the original 12th century monastery, though the current building is very much an amalgam of the decades.

IMG_4650IMG_4656IMG_4657Protected inside the church is a truly beautiful 15th century lantern cross. It is carved from one piece of stone, which probably came from Padstow. The pinnacles are part of the nineteenth century restoration. It has four panels which depict: the Virgin and Child, a king who may be Edward the Confessor, the crucifixion and an ecclesiast who is probably one of the priors of the Mount.

IMG_4662The Blue Drawing Room

In complete contrast to the grand hall, library and the church is the Blue Room which is very late 18th-early 19th century

IMG_4665The room would have originally have been the Lady Chapel of the priory, which by the late 18th century had fallen into disrepair and was rebuilt as the drawing room you see today.

There are other intriguing parts of the castle, but what you are left with most after your visit is an impression of time, and in my case the power of the weather. The Mount reflects many eras and it remains in many ways a family home. It is a place steeped in legend as well as history and deservedly holds its place as one of the jewels of Cornwall.

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References:

Site visit 2012

Castles and Ancient Monuments of England by Damien Noonan. ISBN: 9781854106216

Cornwall: A History by Philip Payton. ISBN: 9781904880059

https://www.stmichaelsmount.co.uk/

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/st-michaels-mount

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000654

http://www.cornwall-online.co.uk/heritage-trail/heritage-national-trust/stmichaelsmount/Welcome.asp

The photos are all mine: the rain drops on the lens in some of them were a bit unavoidable.

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 25th: Abbaye-aux-Hommes, Caen

This is the final post in my advent calendar. Thank you to everyone who has read them along the way, commented, shared and most importantly enjoyed them. Have a great Christmas and holiday season

Ellen

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The Abbaye-aux-Hommes was founded by William the Conqueror. It was a Benedictine abbey and dedicated to Saint Steven. The church of Saint-Etienne was consecrated in 1077. The majority dates to the 11th century but the choir was redesigned in the 13th century to reflect the then contemporary gothic style. The majority of the church is built in the romanesque style. The monastic buildings were erected in the 11th century but they were destroyed in the first war of religion  (1562-63) the first of the wars fought between the Roman Catholics and the Huguenots. They were rebuilt in the 18th century.

The church is also the burial place of William the Conqueror. His marble tomb can be seen in the photo above.

William married Matilda of Flanders in 1053 despite the fact that the Pope had banned the marriage due to consanguinity, they were distant cousins. They fought the Papal ban for nearly a decade and when it was finally lifted both of them built abbeys in Caen as a sign of gratitude. Matilda’s abbey was the Abbaye-aux-Dames which was the subject of yesterday’s post. Matilda is also buried in the abbey she founded.

The French Revolution forced the closure of the monastery and the monks were removed. In 1802 the abbey church becme the parish church and in 1804 the monastic buildings became a boy’s school.

In WWII in 1944 the high school provided refuge for the residents of Caen during bombing and survived intact. The monastic buildings are now home to the local council.

References:

Site visit 2015

Abbaye-aux-Hommes information booklet.

http://www.caen-tourisme.fr/en/discover-caen/william-the-conqueror/abbaye-aux-hommes

https://thefreelancehistorywriter.com/2012/05/10/matilda-of-flanders-queen-of-england-and-duchess-of-normandy/

The photos are all mine.

 

 

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 24th: Abbaye aux Dames Caen

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IMG_7109The abbaye was founded roughly in 1060 by Matilda of Flanders the wife of William the Conqueror. It was consecrated in 1066 and was dedicated to the Holy Trinity. When Matilda died in 1083 she was buried in the abbaye and her tomb of black marble can still be seen today.

Matilda married William of Normandy in 1053 despite the fact that the Pope had banned the marriage due to consanguinity, they were distant cousins. They fought the Papal ban for nearly a decade and when it was finally lifted both of them built abbeys in Caen as a sign of gratitude. William’s abbey was the Abbaye-aux-Hommes which will be the subject of tomorrow’s post. William is also buried in the abbey he founded.

In the late 11th century William II of England granted the abbaye the Priory of Horestead in England, they held it until 1414 when the alien properties in England were dissolved.

Until the French Revolution the abbaye sheltered young girls of the Norman aristocracy. In return the families gave a dowry to the abbaey.

The church exemplifies the most spectacular forms of Norman romanesque architecture. The extension to the chancel was added in the beginning of the 12th century.  and the crypt was probably an 11th century addition.

The Abbaye  buildings deteriorated significantly over the centuries many of the convent buildings were reconstructed at the beginning of the 18th century at the order the Abbess Madame de Froulay de Tesse. The work was done by Benedictine Architect Dom Guillaume de Tremblaye, it took nearly a century and is still incomplete in places.

The arrival of the French Revolution brought about the end of the abbaye. The convent was closed and the property sold off. The church was used as a forage warehouse and the convent became the barracks, this is the reason for the lack of wood and decoration.

In 1823 the buildings became the Hotel Dieu and from 1908 they were a hospice. The last of the St Louis hospice nuns left in 1984 and the buildings became the headquarters of the Regional council. The buildings were then restored again and cleaned extensively in the 1990s.

The church itself remains active today.

References:

Site visit 2015

The Abbaye Aux-Dames booklet

http://www.sacred-destinations.com/france/caen-abbaye-aux-dames

http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/norf/vol2/p463

https://thefreelancehistorywriter.com/2012/05/10/matilda-of-flanders-queen-of-england-and-duchess-of-normandy/

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 22nd: Skellig Michael

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There is debate over when the Skellig monastery was first founded, but it was part of the early Christian monks’ attempts to find sanctuary, refuge, seclusion and closeness with God in distant and remote places. As a rock in the Atlantic 11.6 km off the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry, Skellig is about as remote as it gets.

The monastery was probably founded in around the sixth century, no one is entirely sure and I have been unable to find any real agreement on this date. It consists of a collection of drystone beehive huts that are as weathertight today as they would have been when they were built. The integrity of the construction is truly remarkable.

They would have been inhabited by a community of 12 monks and an Abbot. The conditions would have been harsh to say the least. We know they had fresh water because a rainwater collection system still exists, and works as well when it’s been cleaned out, but beyond that we don’t know much about their day to day existence. They would have lived and eaten very simply.

If the community of 12 on Skellig Michael was not remote enough then there was also a hermitage built high on another point of the rock, it’s almost a sheer cliff so currently inaccessible. It is possible that this was also a refuge during viking attacks of which there were several.

The first was in c. 795 CE. They were attacked again in 812 CE and again in 823 CE. Some records of this third attack remain beyond the fact that it occurred. It is recorded in the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Inishfallen that this time the Vikings took Etgal, the Abbott of Skellig Michael, and they starved him to death. There were also further attacks in 833 CE and 839 CE.

Somehow despite all this the Skellig community survived. It isn’t known exactly when monks ceased to live on the rock, but Gerald of Wales reported that they returned to the mainland to become part of the Augustinian priory in Ballinskelligs at the end of the 12th century, however other sources report that there was still repair work going on into the 1300s.

For more information and References see my extended post on Skellig.

https://historicalragbag.com/2015/06/14/skellig-michael/

The photos are all mine

 

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 21st: Clonmacnoise

Clonmacnoise1clonmacnoise2Clonmacnoise3Clonmacnoise  in County Offaly was founded on the banks of the Shannon River by St. Ciaran in 544.

St. Ciaran didn’t have the chance to lead the monastery he founded for long. Clonmacnoise was founded on the 23rd of January 544 and St. Ciaran died of the plague on the 9th of September 544, he was only 33.

Clomanoise has buildings from a variety of ages:  round towers, temples and high crosses from the 10th and 11th century, a cathedral,  temples and churches from the 12th century, an Anglo-Norman castle from the the 13th century and 17th century temples. Clonmacnoise has also been an important burial site since its inception, with everyone from kings to saints buried there.

Clonmacnoise was much more than a simple monastery however, it was a renowned school that was a seminary for all of Ireland not just the local area. Masters were chosen for their learning and their zeal and abbots were changed on a rotation from all around Ireland. Students flocked to the monastery from all over Europe. From the eighth to the tenth centuries if boasted a legendary Scriptorium.

In the Scriptorium monks copied and illustrated bibles and other classical works. This was the golden age of monastic arts and craft and exquisite Celtic motifs. In the community at the same time stonemasons were carving the spectacular high crosses you can see today.

Sadly Clonmacnoise wasn’t allowed to remain a peaceful site of learning. It was the object of many raids by vikings, local lords and once the Anglo-Normans arrived they enacted almost yearly raids. The monastery was burnt and rebuilt many times, either partly or wholly. The ultimate demise of Clonmacnoise was down to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It was reduced to ruins by the English garrison of Athlone in 1552. They carried away absolutely everything of value leaving the monastery devastated.

References:

Site visit 2015.

The Story of Clonmacnoise and St. Ciaran: History, stories and legends of Clonmacnoise ISBN: 9781782800217

The photos are all mine

 

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 19th: Drumlane Monastery

Drumlane 1Drumlane 3Drumlne 2The first monastery at Drumlane in County Cavan, Ireland was founded in the 6th century either by St Colmcille or St Maodhog.  The main building remaining from the original monastery is the round tower the lower part of which dates to the 10th or 11th centuries. The upper levels, which are much less well built, date probably to the 15th century.

The monastery was re-founded in the mid 12th century as a priory of Augustinian canons. They replaced the original wooden buildings and began building in stone. The buildings suffered extensive fire damage in 1246, they were burnt by the O’Rourkes, and most of what survives from the church now is from the 15th and 17th centuries.

Drumlane was for many years the site of a shrine that was said to contain relics of Saints Lawrence, Mark and Stephen. They were gifted  to Drumlane by Saint Mogue. It was believed that a false oath taken on the shrine would result in visible divine punishment. The shrine remained at the monastery until the beginnings of the 18th century when it was moved to parish priest of Drumlane. Then in 1846 it was borrowed and not returned, it eventually made its way to the national Museum in Dublin.

The abbey was dissolved in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but the church continued to be used as the parish church for another 200 odd years. The English crown granted some of the lands to the O’Reilly family.

 

References:

Site visit 2015

http://www.drumlane.ie/index.php?page=monestry

http://homepage.eircom.net/~milltownns1/hist.htm