Abbeyknockmoy Abbey, Galway, Ireland

Abbeyknockmoy is a Cistercian abbey founded in 1190 by Cathal Crobhdearg O’Conor, the self styled ‘Kathaldus Rex Conacie’ or ‘King of Connaught’, and is a fine example of the work of the ‘School of the West’ sculptors. Cathal Crobhdearg, brother of Rory O’Conor the last high King of Ireland, founded the abbey partly due to a vow he had made prior to his victory in battle over English forces led by Almeric de St.Lawrence. However another reason has been purposed, this being that a storm on Lough Ree claimed the lives of Cathal’s son and his close friends, the abbey was built as thanksgiving for Cathal’s survival. Either way nothing could protect the abbey when it was plundered by the Anglo-Norman William de Burgo while Cathal was in exile in 1202. The title King of Connaught was hard won for Cathal as he was engaged in endless local struggles, which inevitably led to him relying on the support of the Anglo-Normans, receiving a formal grant from King John in 1210. Cathal wished to establish a clergy in the area that was sensitive to his needs, even going as far as appointing his brother in law Felix O Ruanada as archbishop of Tuam and also as evidenced by an endowment given to Ballintubber Abbey in Mayo. Cathal entered the abbey in the latter years of his life and was buried there in 1224. Generations of O’Conor were buried at Abbeyknockmoy right up until the 14th century when it came under the control of the O’ Kelly family, lords of Uí Mhaine.

The O’Kelly’s were both financial supporters of the abbey but also controlled it by making successive abbots O’Kelly family members. In 1402 Malachy O’Kelly, lord of Uí Mhaine, was buried in a prominent tomb on the north wall of the presbytery, his wife Finnuala O’Conor was interred with her husband one year later. The monastery began to fall into disrepair during the middle of the 15th century which was only hastened further by abbot John Burke who in 1483 was accused of setting fire to the abbey! The monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1542, however the abbot Hugh O’Kelly kept his possessions by acknowledging the supremacy of the King and renouncing the pope! He was also forced to furnish 60 horse-men, a troop of Galloglasses’ (Scottish mercenaries) and sixty foot soldiers for the ‘King’s Service’ in Connaught. It seems the abbey was then used as a parish church. In 1620 Abbeyknockmoy was granted to Valentine Blake by James I and remained in the Blake family until it came under the care of the OPW.

I am compelled to return to Abbeyknockmoy as it is home to some particularly fine stone carvings but also beautiful 16th-17th century frescoes, which unfortunately I was unable to get access to on the day of my visit. These frescoes show three dead kings and three living kings and acts as a memento mori, to remind the living of their own mortality, an inscription under the kings reads, ‘We have been as you are, you will be as we are”.

GPS: 53.44049, -8.74297

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