07 September 2018
Exploring the monastic ruins
at the abbey founded by
Saint Canice in Aghaboe
Although many Irish counties have a number of cathedrals – Cork has five and Galway has six – Laois, Leitrim, Louth and Wicklow are the only counties in Ireland without working cathedrals. But Louth has Saint Patrick’s in Dundalk which is known as a pro-cathedral, and Wicklow has the cathedral and monastic ruins at Glendalough.
So, on the way from Kilkenny to Limerick last week, two of us stopped at the monastic ruins at Agahboe Abbey, once one of the most important abbeys and priories in Co Laois, and for a brief few years the cathedral of the Diocese of Ossory.
Saint Canice founded an abbey at Aghaboe around 576 or 577. It was in the Kingdom of Ossory whose first king, Óengus Osrithe, lived in the second century. In his Vita Sancti Columbae (Life of Saint Columba), Adomnán refers to the abbey, saying that its name means ‘a little field of the cow.’
In time, the abbey at Aghaboe developed into a major centre of learning, commerce and agriculture. Monks from the abbey included Saint Virgilius (Feargal), who was Abbot of Aghaboe before he left Ireland and built the first cathedral in Salzburg in the eighth century. He was canonised in 1233.
The Annals of Inisfallen note that ‘Scandlán, grandson of Tadc, abbot of Achad Bó,’ died in year 782.
Aghaboe was plundered by the Vikings in 913 and rebuilt in 1052, when the relics of Saint Canice were enshrined in the abbey.
The monks of Aghaboe founded a second house in Kilkenny, the capital of Ossory. When the Synod of Rathbreasail first divided Ireland into territorial dioceses in 1111, both Aghaboe and Kilkenny were included in the Diocese of Ossory, with the bishop’s seat in Kilkenny, where the church became Saint Canice’s Cathedral.
The abbey was burned again burned in 1116. The abbey was rebuilt in 1189. The monastery was burned again in 1234, and was rebuilt as an Augustinian priory.
Aghaboe was destroyed again in 1346 during an attack on the Norman castle on the adjoining motte. The records say ‘the one-eyed Diarmaid Mac Giollaphádraig (Dermot FitzPatrick) ... aided by the Uí Céarbhail ... burned the town of Aghaboe and the cemetery and church and cruelly forsaking Saint Canice, abbot, patron of the neighbourhood and found of the place, he, like a degenerate son to his father, burnt and completely destroyed with the cruelest fire, the saint’s shrine with his bones and relics.’
However, this burning may have been accidental. Aghaboe Abbey had been long under the protection of the FitzPatricks of Upper Ossory and it way have been burned during a FitzPatrick attack on Norman fortifications next to the abbey.
The ruins seen on the site today are part of a Dominican friary founded in 1382 by Finghan FitzPatrick, Lord of Upper Ossory. The friary was suppressed in 1540 with the dissolution of the monastic houses at the Reformation.
The ruined friary church has a carved, three-light window at the east end, and despite the stark appearance of the ruins, carved ogee recesses and piscinas have survived in the main church and the south transept.
The ruins were restored in 1984. That year, Dr Jakob Mayr, Bishop of Salzburg visited the abbey in honour of Saint Vergilius. President Mary McAleese visited the abbey in 1994, and the Austrian ambassador, Dr Paul Leifer, visited in 2001.
Saint Canice’s, the Church of Ireland parish church, is a detached, four-bay, Georgian Gothic church built beside the abbey ruins 200 years ago in 1818. It stands where that priory once stood, and incorporates fragments salvaged from the Augustinian and Dominican buildings, including a mediaeval carved limestone head on the east side of the doorway.
The small bell-tower has the same proportions as one from the 1200s, and the upper stage is on an octagonal plan. A mediaeval octagonal font is also on the site. Nearby are the tree-covered remains of a Norman motte.
Aghaboe is part of the Rathdowney Union of Parishes in the Diocese of Ossory (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory) in the Church of Ireland, and the Revd Richard Seymour-Whiteley has been the Rector since 2015.
But, was Aghaboe ever a cathedral?
There are claims that the Diocese of Ossory was originally based at Aghaboe and that it was later transferred to Kilkenny, or that Aghaboe was the cathedral of the diocese from 1111 to 1200.
However, the historian John Bradley argues convincingly that these claims are based on a 16th century misinterpretation of a transfer of property in the 13th century.
So, it seems Laois never had a cathedral, and both Laois and Leitrim remain the only counties in Ireland without a cathedral, whether functioning or in ruins.