Published in Gems of Architecture, Issue 2 (March/April 2020), Volume 28

Carra, Co. Mayo

By Damian Murphy

Above: The interior of Ballintubber Abbey—restored in the 1960s as it may have appeared in the thirteenth century but taking into consideration the liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council. (Ballintubber Abbey)

County Mayo boasts a fine collection of early monastic buildings whose ruined carcasses, each set within a distinctive landscape, have long attracted antiquarians, artists, historians and photographers. Ballintubber Abbey, facing and almost in a dialogue with lofty Croagh Patrick, claims a legacy of over 800 years of continuous worship despite periods of suppression and ruination and a long period of recovery and restoration. The site marks the start of an ancient path, finishing some 22 miles west at Croagh Patrick. The path pre-dates Christianity but took on religious significance in 441 when, according to tradition, St Patrick carried out a baptism at a druidic well, established a church and made a pilgrimage to ‘the Reek’.

The present church dates back to 1216 and the foundation by Cathal O’Conor, king of Connaught, of an abbey for the Canons Regular of St Augustine. 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 pre-eminent example of the Hiberno-Romanesque style. The three-light east window features the foliate capitals and chevron archivolts characteristic of the style. The carving 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’.

Fire almost entirely destroyed the church in 1265. That the chancel and side chapels were vaulted with stone appears to have spared the eastern portion its full effects. Repairs in c. 1270 coincided with the emerging Gothic taste so that pointed arches stood alongside Hiberno-Romanesque openings.

Legislation of the 1530s aimed at the dissolution of monasteries heralded the slow demise of Ballintubber Abbey, and in May 1653 Cromwellian forces set the church alight and demolished the domestic buildings. The vaulted roof over the chancel successfully withstood this second attempt at destruction and ad hoc celebration of Mass continued over the next two centuries. The ivy-cloaked ruin eventually attracted the attention of antiquarians, and a sketch by Italian-born Angelo Maria Bigari was used to illustrate the first volume of The antiquities of Ireland (1791).

The first attempt at rehabilitation was unfortunately timed: work began in 1846 but was suspended in 1848 as the Great Hunger took its toll on parishioners. The second attempt at restoration, completed (1889–90) to designs by G.C. Ashlin (1837–1921), was at pains not to repeat the errors of the preceding generation and was limited to the eastern ‘T’ of the church.

The third restoration marked the 750th anniversary of the foundation and, carried out (1963–6) under the supervision of Percy le Clerc (1914–2002), Inspector of National Monuments, saw the nave re-roofed with Westmoreland green slate and the interior restored as it may have appeared in the thirteenth century but taking into consideration the liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council (1962–5). In a fortuitous turn of events, the church was visited by the poet Cecil Day Lewis (1904–72), who was recognised by the parish priest and asked to write a poem that could be sold to raise funds for its restoration; the result was The abbey that refused to die (1967).

Damian Murphy is the Architectural Heritage Officer, National Inventory of Architectural Heritage. Series based on the NIAH’s ‘building of the month’,


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