10 September 2018
How two brothers and a papal count
shaped and designed Roscrea Abbey
During my recent visit to Roscrea, Co Tipperary, I visited the two parish churches dedicated to Saint Cronan, Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic, the monastic ruins at the site of Saint Cronan’s abbey, including the Romanesque entrance and round tower, and the former Franciscan friary, and Roscrea Methodist Church.
But, perhaps, the best-known monastic place in Roscrea is Mount Saint Joseph Abbey, the Cistercian abbey and school across the county boundary in Co Offaly.
The story of Roscrea Abbey involves an interesting story of the working relationship between a papal count and two brothers, William Beardwood, the abbey architect, and Joseph Beardwood, an architect who became the Abbot of Roscrea as Don Camillus.
For almost a century and a half, the Cistercian monks at Mount Saint Joseph have welcomed guests and visitors who come to experience the peace and prayer of the monastic environment. This monastery of the Order of Cistercians of Strict Observance, or Trappists, was founded in March 1878 when 31 monks from Mount Melleray Abbey in Cappoquin, Co Waterford, moved to Roscrea.
The property known as Mount Heaton Demesne was bought for the monks by Arthur John Moore (1849-1904) of Mooresford House near Tipperary and Aherlow Castle. He was born in Liverpool, was a Roman Catholic landlord and Home Rule MP for Clonmel (1874-1885) and Derry City (1899-1900), and became a papal count in 1879.
Moore was well known to the monks of Mount Melleray and although he was only in his late 20s he wanted to establish a second Cistercian monastery in Ireland. The Mount Heaton estate cost £15,000; Moore paid £10,000 of this himself, and the new community raised the remaining £5,000 with a mortgage.
The Mount Heaton Estate was about two miles east of Roscrea, across the county boundary in Co Offaly. It took its name from the Revd Richard Heaton, who became owner in the 1630s and died there in 1666.
Heaton is recognised as an early Irish botanist, and two of his botanical finds have been commemorated on Irish postage stamps. His son, Francis Heaton, had changed the name of the Ballyskenagh estate to Mount Heaton by 1710.
Dom Athanasius Donovan, from Murroe, Co Limerick, was the first superior of the new community at Mount Saint Joseph. Under his guidance, the old mansion, which is now the guesthouse, was transformed into a temporary monastery.
In 1879, the year after the monks came to Roscrea, work began on building a new monastic church. The architect was William H Beardwood, who practiced in Dublin and Manchester.
The abbey church, built in 1880-1884, was the first structure the Cistercians built when they moved to Mount Heaton to establish Mount Saint Joseph Abbey. The stone for the church was quarried on the land, although some accounts say the stones were taken from the old goal in Tullamore.
Several monks, as well as many outside masons and labourers, worked on building the church, which was built with a nave, chancel, side aisles. The abbey church was designed by the Dublin-born architect, William Henry Beardwood (1842-1930) the eldest son of William Haughton Beardwood and a brother of John Francis Beardwood.
William Haughton Beardwood was a carpenter and builder originally from Lancashire who converted to Roman Catholicism and moved to Ireland. His son, William Henry Beardwood was practicing as an architect and developer in Manchester by 1875. When his business failed in Manchester, he returned to Dublin in 1880, setting up his own practice but also working for Dublin Corporation, eventually becoming a member of the architects’ department.
Outside, the abbey church has black limestone walls, buttresses, pointed-arched windows and doors, paired windows, lancet windows to apse, a projecting gabled entrance bay, and a broach tower with a belfry and pinnacles. The most significant feature of the church is the carved entrance arranged in three orders. The door surround contributes to the significance of the church.
Inside, the church is devoid of embellishments. There is an arcaded, 11-bay nave, side aisles and an apse, and the wonderful arcading to the side aisles with simple limestone columns makes an appealing arrangement.
The monks’ graves in the community graveyard are marked with metal crosses, but there are some stone Celtic crosses too.
The church was dedicated on 18 September 1881 and opened to the public – an extraordinary achievement in such a short period by a community burdened by a large mortgage. The preacher that day referred to ‘the pious donations that have poured in from benefactors near and distant, the tasteful devotion which has raised these massive columns, and converted the very windows into books of golden instruction’ – a reference to the 11 stained glass windows in place in the church from the beginning.
Three years later, the church was solemnly consecrate on 9 August 1884. By then, the altars, choir stalls, and rood screen were all in place.
Mount Saint Joseph became an abbey at the end of 1886, and in August 1887, Dom Camillus Beardwood, the Bursar of Mount Melleray, was elected Abbot. Dom Camillus was born Joseph Beardwood, and was a brother of the architect of Mount Saint Joseph. Before becoming a monk, he had trained as an architect with Sir George Moyers (1836-1916), who was Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1881.
Under the guidance of the two Beardwoods, abbot and architect, the monastery buildings were completed and a fine farmyard begun. From the beginning, farming provided the main source of income for the community, with many of the monks deeply involved in this work.
Beardwood also designed alterations for the Cistercian Abbey in Cappoquin, Co Waterford, and then designed the secondary school built at Roscrea in 1902-1905.
Count Moore, the abbey’s great benefactor, visited Mount Saint Joseph on 4 February 1902, when he, Abbot Camillus and William H Beardwood, chose the site for a new college.
This school was designed by WH Beardwood on a U-plan, with nine-bays, two-storeys and an attic. There are square-headed twin-light windows, limestone surrounds with hood-moulding, pointed-arched window that are both triple-light and twin-light, dormer windows, decorative finials, and limestone steps leading up to a Tudor arched door with timber panelled double doors.
Inside, there is a large stair-hall with an attractive double return stairs.
The cost of the new college buildings was £21,000. Count Moore donated £2,600 towards the costs, and the college opened for the first 50 students in September 1905. But by then Count Moore had died on 9 January 1904. He is buried under the altar in Saint Joseph’s Chapel in the abbey church, and is commemorated in a monument in the church.
The abbey church is connected to the monastery buildings to the south-west. This is an L-plan, two-storey multiple-bay, Gothic Revival monastery, built ca 1905, with cloisters to the rear and with the addition of an extra wing. This building incorporates outbuildings and yard from the former Mount Heaton House to the rear, built around 1800.
The tower and spire were added to the abbey church in 1938-1940. They were designed by the Dublin-based practice of Jones and Kelly and provide a focal point in the complex, providing a striking addition to the church.
The college chapel was built in the Gothic Revival style in 1940 within the grounds of Mount Saint Joseph’s Abbey. Joined to school by corridor. Four-bay nave with triple-pile transepts, canted-bay A stone plaque outside at the apse reads: ‘Dom Sub Invocatione Deiparae Immaculate Reginae Virginum Ad MCMXL.’
As time went by, the strength of the community at Mount Saint Joseph led to the foundation of other monasteries, including Nunraw, near Edinburgh, in 1946, the first Cistercian house in Scotland since the Reformation, and Bolton Abbey in Moone, Co Kildare, in 1965.