17 February 2017
Earlier this week, I walked from Holy Trinity Church, the Church of Ireland parish church at the west end of Rathkeale, and Rathkeale No 2 National School, which are side-by-side at the west end of Rathkeale, to the ruins of the Augustinian Abbey, dating from the late 13th century and standing at the upper end of the Main Street at the east end of the town.
Rathkeale has many once-elegant Georgian and Victorian townhouses, two banks of architectural interest, and a former courthouse and Bridewell that I visited and that are now used by community organisations.
At the top of the town are the ruins of Rathkeale Abbey, which was founded in 1280 by Gilbert Hervey for the Augustinian Canons of the Order of Aroasia. It is as though Holy Trinity Church and the the ruined Augustinian Abbey bookend the town at either end as complementary churches.
The of Augustinians of Aroasia in the Diocese of Arras, were founded in France in 1097.
Soon after the abbey in Rathkeale was founded by Gilbert Hervey, it was endowed his niece, Elinor Purcell, with the tenth loaf of every baking, the tenth flagon of every brewing, the tenth pork, the tenth mutton and a large portion of every ox killed in the Manor of Mayer or Croagh. In 1290, Benedict, the Prior of Saint Mary’s, Rathkeale, was involved in a law suit against Thomas Le Chapelin, Guardian of the house of Saint Senan on Scattery Island.
In 1307, Elinor Purcell’s son, Hugh Purcell, was sued by the Prior of Saint Mary’s for not fulfilling the grant made by his mother. The lawsuit ended in a compromise in which Hugh agreed to give to the Prior each year two crannogs of bread corn, three crannogs of oats on the Feast of Saint Michael and four porks on the Feast of Saint Martin forever. Thomas Purcell was Prior of the Abbey in 1318, when he was accused of violence at Croagh.
In 1463, Pope Pius III addressed a letter to the prior of Rathkeale, giving instructions about appointing David Fitzmaurice as the Rector of Randbarad in the Diocese of Ardfert.
The priory owned the mill and a great island and a large part of the water weir. There were six ploughlands and six quarters and it all belonged to the church with all kinds of tithes.
It was claimed that in 1436 the Virgin Mary had worked several miracles at the abbey.
In 1513, Thomas Hayes bound himself to the Apostolic Chamber for the first fruits of the Priory of the Blessed Virgin, order of Saint Augustine, Rathkeale. But O’Dowd says that the ‘original building must have been destroyed for the present structure is not later than the 16th century.’
There are few records of the priory between then and the suppression of the monastic houses in Ireland at the Reformation. The monastery was officially suppressed in 1542, but it is thought that a small community of Augustinian canons may have remained there until 1581.
According to an inquisition during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the priory was in the possession of Gerot Baluff or Gerald Balfe, who was killed during the Desmond Rebellion. After the death of this last prior, the abbey was granted to Sir Henry Wallopwho also recevied large tracts of land on the banks of the Slaney at Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, and was the ancestor of the Earls of Portsmouth.
Peyton’s Survey in 1586 noted: ‘It was found that the site of the Monastery – a castle called Cam-ne-Monaster, alias The Castle at the Head of the Monastery – together with 20 gardens, one of which was called the Prior’s Garden, contained three acres.’ In addition, there were 20 more acres in Temple Trenode in Rathkeale, eight acres in Ardagh, eight acres in Callow, and 10 acres in Nantenan, between Rathkeale and Askeaton, that were described as ‘very bad land.’
It was reported many years ago that the bell of the abbey had been discovered and given to the local bell-man, but no more is known of its whereabouts. It may have been given to Jim Murray, the last bell-man in Rathkeale.
In recent years, the ruins of the abbey were renovated by Rathkeale Community Council and FÁS in 1988. The ruins of Rathkeale Priory include is a rectangular church with a vaulted room at the north side. It has a simple four-light traceried east window. There was once a south transept, but only the arch of this remains. These ruins have been preserved and the surrounding grounds landscaped and developed as the town’s park.
The Revd Patrick Comerford, Part-Time Priest-in-Charge of the Rathkeale Group of Parish and prospective Director of Continuing Education in Limerick and Killaloe, to be also Precentor of the Joint Chapter of St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and St Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe. The Service of Installation will take place in St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, on Sunday 19th February, at 5.00pm. (Correction)