05 February 2016

An afternoon in Kells, one of the largest
mediaeval ecclesiastical ruins in Ireland

Sheep grazing on a ridge above Kells Priory, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

On our tour of ecclesiastical and archaeological sites of south Co Kilkenny earlier this week, two of us also visited Kells, which claims to be the mediaeval capital of Kilkenny. This is a small village on the banks of the King’s River, but Kells Priory is one of the largest and most impressive medieval monuments in Ireland, nestled in the fertile farmlands of south Co Kilkenny.

Kells is one of the most impressive Augustinian priories in Ireland and a unique example of a fortified monastery, combining elements of both religious architecture and late mediaeval military architecture.

The Augustinian priory is set in a picturesque location on the banks of the King’s River in rolling countryside, 0.5 km east of the present village of Kells, and about 12 or 15 km south of Kilkenny city. The priory is a National Monument and is in the care of the Office of Public Works.

The fortified walls are known locally as the “Seven Castles” or “Seven Towers.” The sheer length of these walls is overwhelming, and they give the priory the appearance more of a fortress than of a place of worship.

The Office of Public Works has provided a small car park and some picnic tables near the site. On the edge of the car park stand the ruins of Saint Kieran’s, a small church that is now locked up.

We got into the priory site through a gate at the car park, and walked down a slope through the meadow, entering the buildings through a large gate tower. We had the site all to ourselves that afternoon, and were soaked in the rain as we soaked it all in.

The Prior’s Tower has been restored in recent years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The priory is divided into two parts: a large outer enclosure to the south and an inner monastic precinct along the banks of the King’s River. The remains include the church and domestic ranges, built between the 13th and 15th century, and two 15th century fortified enclosures: the monastic precinct and an adjoining enclosure known as the Prior’s Vill.

The Prior’s Vill is the only example of an upstanding late mediaeval castellated enclosure in an Irish monastery, and consists of high walls and tower houses. These mediaeval tower houses are spaced at intervals along and within the walls that enclose a site of 12,000 square metres (about 3 acres). One of the purposes of this defence mechanism was to protect flocks of sheep from thieving marauders, and the grounds are still used for grazing sheep, so that the sheep droppings scattered throughout the rain-soaked ground required being nimble-footed as we made our way through the site.

Kells was founded by Geoffrey FitzRobert de Monte Morisco ca 1193 as a priory of the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine, also known as the Austin Canons or Black Canons. FitzRobert’s first wife, Basilia, was a sister of Richard de Clare, also known as “Strongbow,” and as Strongbow’s brother-in-law he became the Lord of Kells, which was granted a borough charter in 1211 or 1216.

Geoffrey brought four canons from Bodim Priory in Cornwall to establish a new Augustinian community outside his borough of Kells. The priory was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary or Saint Mary and the canons were granted a site near a pre-Norman ecclesiastical site dedicated to Saint Kieran. They also received half of the parish of Kells in land and held several granges or farms within and outside the parish.

The monks who arrived from Cornwall in 1193 had no concerns about security and defence. They built their monastery in a hollow on an island that flooded and has since been filled with silt.

The fortress-like appearance of the priory once developed after the priory was attacked and burned on numerous occasions in the 13th and 14th centuries. It was first attacked and burned in 1252 by Sir William de Bermingham, who was related by marriage of Geoffrey FitzRobert.

The FitzRobert line died out in the early 14th century. The powerful magnate, Gilbert de Clare, 8th Earl of Gloucester and 7th Earl of Hertford, died in 1314. The Liberties of Kilkenny were then divided between his three sisters and brothers-in-law: Hugh Despenser, the younger (died in 1326), Roger Damory (died in 1322) and Hugh de Audeley (died 1347). Kells fell into hands of High de Audeley’s hands.

Edward Bruce reached Kells in March 1317, and Kells was attacked for a second time.

In 1324, the Bishop of Ossory, Richard de Ledrede, paid a Lenten visit to Kells Priory. Following an inquisition, Alice Kyteler and William Outlawe were ordered to appear before the Bishop to answer charges of witchcraft. Outlaw was supported by Arnold de Paor, Lord of Kells, who arrested the Bishop and had him imprisoned in Kilkenny Castle for 17 days. This caused a scandal and on his release the bishop successfully prosecuted the heretics.

Alice Kyteler fled to England and remained there, Alice Smith also fled, but her mother Petronella de Meath became first heretic to be burned at the stake in Ireland.

In the early 14th century, Arnold de Poer or Power referred to the poetic writings of Maurice Fitz Thomas FitzGerald, a future Earl of Desmond, as the rantings of a rhymer rather than bardic verses. FitzGerald was supported by the Butlers and Berminghams, and de Poer, who was aided by the de Burgos, had his lands laid to waste and Kells Priory was sacked and burned when it was assaulted by another William de Bermingham and the FitzGeralds in 1327.

Torrents of blood flowed on both sides and it became a near nation-wide conflict with all major towns reinforced with soldiers. The justiciary effected a reconciliation between the warring parties the following year, and although it was the season of Lent the truce was celebrated with grand banquets in Dublin. The walls and fortifications probably date from this period of unrest.

In the mid-14th century, the relationship between Kells and the mother house at Bodmin were loosened, and local priors began to be appointed. Elias of Shortallstown was the first local person to be elected Prior of Kells.

An insight into the sophisticated lifestyle of the community is provided by Brother Walter who was in charge of the provisions for the monks in 1382. In April that year he bought saffron, pepper, geese, pigs, wooden bowls, figs and oil for the lamps.

In 1421, the Augustinian canons of Kells complained that the income from their churches had been reduced because of the constant wars in the area that threatened their economic survival. In 1446, the fragile alliance between the Butlers of Ormonde and the FitzGeralds of Desmond collapsed, and Kells was devastated at the hand of Desmond and his Irish allies.

The Burgess Court at Kells Priory was built between 1460 and 1475 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Kells Priory had become as much a military installation as a place of prayer, and the Burgess Court was built between 1460 and 1475 to protect the local people and their livestock and valuable possessions from armed raiders. Nevertheless, the priory continued to prosper for another century.

The original priory church was a simple cruciform building, but, over time, was extended in almost every possible direction, including the second enclosure in the 15th century.

The Prior’s Tower, which has been restored in recent years by the OPW, is a late addition to the Priory, dating from the late 15th century, and was part of the south wall. It is four storeys high and has a wooden roof with a walkway and parapet, chimney and turret. I have been told the stairs are steep, but it was padlocked this week and no-one was on the site to allow access.

In the 15th century, the outer enclosure was referred to as Villa Prioris but in more recent times it has been known as Burgher’s Court, the Burgess or Burgess Court. In the past, Burgess Court was thought to have been the site of the mediaeval borough of Kells, but modern research shows that this was not the case.

Today all the monastic remains are grouped together in the Precinct while Burgess Court is little more than a walled field populated by tourists and sheep.

At the Reformation, Kells Priory was dissolved in March 1540. The last Prior of Kells, Nicholas Tobin, and two canons were granted pensions. Tobin retained a rectory and continued as curate of Kells.

In 1541, the church and its properties were surrendered to James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormonde, by Henry VIII. In secular hands, the priory was turned into a farm and the Prior’s Tower with the cloister was used as farmhouse. Part of the church was used as a parish church.

The once affluent town of Kells then went into a slow decline, although the Augustinians tried to maintain links with the area. Patrick Comerford (1586-1652), an Augustinian canon, was appointed Commendatory Prior of Kells and Perpetual Prior of Callan by Pope Paul V in 1619 and also became Bishop of Waterford and Lismore.

Patrick Comerford has been described as the “last and noblest of all” the Priors of Kells. The priory was in ruins, and the Augustinian community was dispersed through the country round about. He gathered the scattered Augustinians together within sight of the Kells Priory, and he secured for them a temporary abode, where, for 10 years, the friars managed to keep their rule, perhaps enjoying the protection of “Walter of the Rosaries,” Walter Butler, 11th Earl of Ormonde, and other members of the Butler family of Ormonde.

Patrick Comerford was consecrated Bishop of Waterford and Lismore by Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio, assisted by two other bishops, on 18 March 1629 in the Church of Saint Sylvester on the Quirinal in Rome. Although he went into exile after Waterford fell to Cromwell, he remained both Bishop of Waterford and Lismore and Prior of Kells. When he died in France on 10 March 1652, he was buried in the episcopal vault in Nantes Cathedral.

Kells Priory is one of the largest ecclesiastical sites in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Kells Priory became a National Monument in the guardianship of the Commissioners of Public Works in 1893. Since then, works of conservation have been undertaken at various intervals.

The archaeologist Tom Fanning of NUI Galway began an excavation of the site in 1972, and his work was completed by Miriam Clyne. The excavation is one of the largest ever undertaken in Ireland at a monastic house and the 2007 report, Kells Priory, Co Kilkenny: archaeological excavations by Tom Fanning and Miriam Clyne is one of the largest ever published on a rural mediaeval site in Ireland.

The excavations uncovered a wealth of material including decorated floor tiles, fragments of wall paintings and of painted window glass. In all, there were 20,000 archaeological finds, ranging from pieces of carved stone, pottery including Ham Green, floor and ridge tiles, metal objects as well as a collection of painted window glass which has allowed the reconstruction what some of the window patterns may have looked like.

This is one of the largest ecclesiastical sites in Ireland and yet, compared with neighbouring sites such as Jerpoint, Duiske and Graiguenamanagh, Kells remains largely unknown. It is off most tourist trails, and we found we were the only visitors that afternoon.

The OPW has finished an excellent, painstaking, reconstruction of the Prior’s Tower in the centre of the priory, but the restoration work seems to have slowed down or come to a halt because of the downturn to the Irish economy. A lot of scaffolding is still in place, there are platforms and wooden walkways in some places, but the signage is minimalist and there are no guides.

The large mill beside the priory is being restored and will serve as a much-needed visitor centre with a craft area and a café. Kells badly needs a visitor centre with detailed information on the priory and the village, along with full-time guides.

The restoration work at Kells Priory seems to have slowed down or to have come to a halt (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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