Kilcooly Abbey, Co. Tipperary, Ireland

Kilcooly Abbey, Co. Tipperary, Ireland

Mon 6 Apr - Kilkenny to Cork

There are some towns along the South coast which I would love to have had time to visit, especially Youghal, which I have heard is very attractive, but time just didn't permit. Kilkenny was the only town outside Dublin where I was going to spend more than two nights - and I'm very glad that I did - but it meant a bit of time pressure on the rest of the trip, and a fair amount of driving on some days. Of course, stopping every few hundred metres to take photos doesn't help! Nor does getting lost, which I did this morning, despite having continuous wifi and Google Maps in the car.

I'm not sure where I read about Kilcooly Abbey, but somehow it made it onto my itinerary. It certainly isn't on the main tourist route. It's looked after by the Office of Public Works, but it's not one of the sites where they have staff, charge admission, and have people arriving in droves in coaches.

In fact, when I stopped at a particularly confusing crossroads to ask a couple of men for directions, one shrugged his shoulders and looked at the other, who sent me to the wrong place. I ended up in the middle of a working farm, where ancient ruins formed part of the farm buildings.

One of the reasons Kilcooly Abbey is hard to find is that it is set in the midst of Kilcooly Estate, nearly 1,200 acres almost totally surrounded by a high stone wall. The real estate agent's blurb when it was offered for sale in 2013 refers to "an imposing 18th century mansion", but it is empty and derelict, the only value being in the land, the great majority of which is leased to a government-backed agricultural management company, Coillte. "Of the remaining 220 acres, about 180 acres is good grassland, the balance is in fine woodland, avenues, grounds around the house and there is also a 5 acre ornamental lake with boathouse", not to mention the ruins of Kilcooly Abbey, and a rather elegant 1829 Church of Ireland church.

  • I was looking for Gortnahoo!

  • Barn in ancient ruins

  • Kilcooly Parish Church, 1829.

  • Kilcooly Abbey

[By the way, don't be disturbed by the different spellings you'll see for many Irish place names, as for example Kilcooly, which I have adopted because that's how it is spelt on the OPW signage at the Abbey, and Kilcooley, as it appears on the map and in the real estate link. Obviously the transliteration from Gaelic into English is an inexact science.]

Kilcooly Abbey was a Cistercian foundation dating from the 1180s. It was a daughter monastery of Jerpoint Abbey, which I visited a couple of days ago.

There were three locals out walking their dogs, who chatted for a while and told me quite a bit about the estate (and everyone seems to have a relative in Australia) and then went on their way. So I was miles from anywhere, not a soul in sight, just a few horses, blue skies, warm sunshine, a chorus of bird-song .... Nothing to do but imbibe the history and the peace. It was heaven.

For more info on Kilcooly, go to the Footnote at the bottom of this page. There's also a write-up here from October 2015, when the estate was put up for sale for a mere 8 million Euros.

As a post-script, there is a housing estate in Bangor, Co. Down, called Kilcooley. What a travesty!

The rest of the day just had to be an anti-climax after that, and it was. The village of Fethard was a bit of a disappointment, or maybe I just didn't explore it well enough, put off by lots of road works. As a 13th century walled town, much of it still intact, it could have had a lot to offer.

This aerial shot gives you an idea of its extent. I was on the river side, bottom right, whereas the main entrance seems to be towards the top, which was largely blocked off to traffic.

There were a couple of interesting features to do with the surrounding countryside, however. First, it started to become apparent here the degree to which Ireland has gone in for wind-generated power, whereas I might have expected hydro to predominate, as in New Zealand. More anon.

Secondly, it is horse country, and studs and their environs give off a strong whiff of wealth.

Next stop - and almost not a stop - was Cashel. The "Rock" of Cashel was hugely important in Irish history - it was the traditional seat of the Kings of Munster for centuries before the Normans arrived, although most of the present-day buildings date from the 12th and 13th centuries. Wikipedia describes it as a "picturesque complex ... [with] ... one of the most remarkable collections of Celtic art and medieval architecture to be found anywhere in Europe". Well, that's as may be, BUT ....

... this was Easter Monday, school holidays, lovely weather, and the only "remarkable collection" I could see was the hundreds of coaches and thousands of tourists. After the bliss of my solitary morning at Kilcooly, I couldn't face it. So I headed on South towards Cork.

Apart from the approach to Wexford , this was the first I travelled any significant distance on main roads, the M8 in this case. Excellent road, light traffic, lovely mountain scenery as one moved South, but one strange thing: sections of these main arterial roads are tolled, which is fine, but the toll is set at Euro 1.90, for heaven's sake. Why not make it 2 Euro, and make life easier for the drivers and cut down on the number of people they have to employ to hand out 10 cents change???

But I had a couple more detours and stops before I reached Cork. One of the stops was involuntary, when I encountered a Gardai (Police) road-block, although I have to say it was a pretty casual one. I was third in line. The guy at the front was engaged in quite a lengthy conversation before being allowed to proceed; the next car less so.

When it came my turn, the Garda just asked me was I enjoying the weather, I replied in the affirmative, and he sent me on my way. Either my accent or something about the rental car registration may have convinced him I wasn't who or what he was looking for.

The only reason I was interested to see Mitchelstown is that it had been mentioned in a book I had read, "A Tenant's Tale - A Chronicle of Life in Rural Ireland" by Terence Casey. It is supposedly the recollections of an old man who had lived on the land in that area during most of the 20th century, and was a cousin of James Stephens, one of the founders of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. I never worked out whether the book was genuinely biographical or historical fiction. But it was an interesting and enjoyable read.

Apparently there are some interesting caves in the vicinity of Mitchelstown, but the town itself doesn't have a great deal to recommend it. There's a large town square with a statue of "John Mandeville, Patriot". He was one of the leaders of the land rights agitation which included a rent strike against the local landowner. When Mandeville and his co-leader William O'Brien MP were being tried in the town, a protest meeting outside got so unruly that the police fired into the crowd, killing three men, whose names are commemmorated on the statue.

William Trevor, the noted author, was born in Mitchelstown in 1928. His father worked in the bank, so the family moved around southern Ireland a fair bit. William did a history degree at Trinity, and moved in 1952 to England, where he has lived ever since, mostly in Devon.

I'm afraid I don't quite understand the strange modern sculpture I came across in my next and final stop of the day, Fermoy. I think it refers to the fact that Fermoy originated as a Cistercian abbey in the 13th century. On the base of each statue is one of the three words forming the Irish name of the town, Mainistir Fhear Maíghe (= monastery of the Men of the Plain). The central figure is holding a bible, but I can't work out why the two outer figures are faceless, empty monks' habits.  We encountered the same concept, but in metal, in Tallinn, Estonia, in July 2016.

In more modern times, Fermoy was prominent in the Irish War of Independence (1919 - 1921), and James Joyce's father was born here on 4 July 1849 (yet another with that famous birthday!), although he grew up in Cork, before moving to Dublin after his father's death in 1866.

And so to Cork, and my first encounter with its dreadful one-way traffic system. It took me about three circuits and one illegal turn before I eventually managed to head in the right direction to find the River Lee Hotel and a very welcome pint of the Black Stuff.



I have extracted this from the web site

One of Ireland’s true hidden gems, Kilcooley Abbey is a simply wonderful place to visit. It is located in the beautiful Sliabh-Ardagh region of Tipperary, and is located within the walls of the Kilcooley estate, an impressive Georgian house with over a thousand acres of land (now available for the bargain price of €2.1m!). Kilcooley Abbey was founded in 1182 after a grant of land to the Cistercians by Donal Mor O’Briain, King of Munster. It was the ‘daughter house’ of Jerpoint Abbey in County Kilkenny, and Kilcooley is without a doubt one of Ireland’s finest Cistercian abbeys and is a wonderful example of Gothic architecture. I haven’t been able to find much on the next couple of centuries of Kilcooley’s history, but the Abbey is recorded as being attacked and burned in 1418 and later again it was recorded as being almost completely levelled by an armed force of men in 1444. After this attack, the Ormond Butlers instigated a programme of reconstruction which removed the nave aisles and added a new north transept and tower. Most of the stunning sculpture around the Abbey dates to this period of reconstruction and renovation under the patronage of the powerful Ormond Butlers. The works were carried out under the eye of the Abbot, Philip O’Mulwanayn, and his graveslab dating to 1463 shows him holding his bishop’s crozier and book of prayer. He appears to have been part of a dynasty, as his son William, and his ancestors after him, were abbots of Kilcooley until the mid-sixteenth century.

The Butlers were rewarded for their patronage by having their tombs placed inside the sacred areas of Kilcooley. The most stunning of which is the incredible tomb of Pierce Fitz Og Butler. The tomb likely dates to 1526, and depicts Pierce Butler in his armour. At his feet a small dog indicates his faithfulness and loyalty, and ten of the twelve apostles are depicted below. Unusually, we know who actually created the tomb, as the name of the sculptor Rory O’Tunney (Roricus O Tuyne) is clearly marked.

It is almost impossible to do justice in this short article to the sheer wealth of incredible sculpture at Kilcooley, for example the ornate Gothic east window is beautifully carved, with the stone formed to look almost like flames or delicate foliage. The ‘abbots chair’ (or sedilla) is also incredible, and is matched on the other side by another, slightly plainer example. The screen wall separating the southern transept from the sacristy is also elaborately decorated with a number of scenes including Saint Christopher crossing a river with the infant Jesus, the crucifixion with Mary and Saint John on either side, a pelican feeding its young within a chalice, a charming mermaid with a comb and mirror, and the Butler coat-of-arms. Beyond this area you can enter the cloister. The cloisters was an important feature of Cistercian monasteries, and were always located to the south. They were usually a covered walkway enclosing an open square area. Very little remains of any covered walkway at Kilcooley, and it appears that perhaps the cloisters were converted to a courtyard in its later history.

You can see other more domestic quarters at Kilcooley though some of these are kept locked and inaccessible to the public for health and safety reasons. Outside of the abbey you can see a small circular tower, this was a dovecote where the monks kept pigeons. The pigeons were a handy source of protein and the pigeon dung also made good fertiliser: very little was wasted in a medieval monastery! In its heyday, the Abbey would have also had other agricultural buildings like mills and a large lay population to work the land.

Kilcooley Abbey ceased to be a place of monks and contemplation when it was surrendered during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540. However the lands were granted directly to the Butlers, and it is recorded that they allowed monks to remain at Kilcooley, until they sold it to Sir Jerome Alexander in 1636.After the Catholic Confederacy rebellion in 1641, Cistercian monks returned to Kilcooley, until they were finally removed from the site by Cromwell’s forces in 1650.

Ten years later the Alexander family regained the Abbey and when Elizabeth Alexander married Sir William Barker of Essex in 1676, the Abbey was converted into being a domestic house. In 1790 the grand Kilcooley House was built and replaced the abbey as the main residence.

Today the site is a National Monument, and under the care of the Office of Public Works. The site is gated, but the gate is often left unlocked during the day to allow visitors to enjoy one of the finest heritage sites in the country. Kilcooley is located around 20km east of Thurles in County Tipperary, off the R690. It’s just east of Gortnahoe. When you go up the drive of Kilcooley Estate you’ll see signs for the Abbey, but before you get there be sure to park your car at the relatively modern Church of Ireland and take a moment to see the quite remarkable 18/19th century pyramid shaped burial monument of the Barker family. It’s well worth a look! The abbey is just further along the track, less than a five-minute walk from there.

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