04 May 2019

The mediaeval ruins at
Malahide Abbey are older
than Malahide Castle

The mediaeval ruins of Malahide ‘Abbey’ stand on the site of an earlier church dedicated to Saint Fenweis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The One Day International cricket match between Ireland and England at Malahide was slow in starting yesterday [3 May 2019]. Between the clouds and bright sunshine, it was a sunny late spring morning. As the grounds were being tested late in the morning to check its suitability for play, I strolled through the grounds of Malahide Castle.

The story of Malahide Castle dates back to 1185, when the lands were granted to Richard Talbot by Henry II. But the ruins of Malahide ‘Abbey’ within the grounds of the castle tell a much earlier story.

The ruins of the abbey church stand on the site of an earlier, more ancient church dedicated to Saint Fenweis. The ruins are often referred to as Malahide Abbey but it is more likely that in its time this was a large church, benefitting from the patronage of the affluent Talbot family.

The abbey flourished under the patronage of the Talbot family and served as the local parish church. The earliest recorded priest in Malahide was Walter Talbot, who died in 1193.

The mediaeval ruins of Malahide ‘Abbey’ date from the 15th and 16th centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The present ruins date from the 15th and 16th centuries. The church continued to function as a parish church, and is said to have been one of the finest in the rural deanery of Fingal.

The abbey grounds are said to include the family tombs of the Talbots. Among those buried within the ruins is Maud Plunkett who married Richard Talbot and died in 1482. She is said to have been ‘maid, wife and widow’ in widow in one day when her first husband, Thomas Hussey of Galtrim, was killed on their wedding day.

The church may never have been an abbey, and it does not seem to have come within the scope of the dissolution of the monastic houses at the Reformation. But tradition says that the Parliamentarian Miles Corbett (1595-1662) of Great Yarmouth, one of the regicides who signed the death warrant of King Charles I in 1649, was responsible for taking the roof off the church, and using the lead for bullets. The church was recorded as ruinous a few years later.

The regicide Miles Corbett is said to have stripped the roof off Malahide ‘Abbey’ to use the lead for bullets (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Corbet was appointed Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer in 1655. At the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Malahide Castle was restored to the Talbot family. Corbet, like all 59 men who had signed the death warrant for Charles I, took flight. Corbett went to the Netherlands, but with two other regicides, John Okey and John Barkstead, he was arrested by the English ambassador to the Netherlands, Sir George Downing, and returned to England and put on trial.

Corbet was found guilty and executed on 19 April 1662. In his dying speech he said: ‘When I was first called to serve in parliament, I had an estate; I spent it in the service of the parliament. I never bought any king’s or bishop’s lands; I thought I had enough, at least I was content with it; that I might serve God and my country was that I aimed at.’

From then on, until 1822, the Parish of Malahide was united with Swords. In 1822, the Parish of Malahide became a separate curacy, with the patronage held by the Dean and Chapter of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, and a new church was consecrated on 21 November 1822.

The church was abandoned when a new parish church was built for Malahide in 1822 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The abbey walls are still standing and include a nave and chancel divided by a Gothic arch. There is a fine decorative East window and a second Gothic window beneath the belfry tower. The two-storey tower rises above the surrounding trees and may have served as a sacristy or the priest’s residence.

There are crenellated parapets at the roof level of the north and south walls. The south transept is well preserved, and there is a carved figure with a mitred head above the south doorway.

The west gable features an unusual triple bell-cote, which is well preserved, and towers above the tall trees. There is a three-light window in the west wall.

The east window still has its tracery in place. Next to the east window, there is an inserted carved image of a human head on a red sandstone slab. High on the north-east corner, over 3 metres above the ground and made with a similar red sandstone slab, is a much-weathered sheela-na-gig, with a big round head and a small body.

The churchyard was closed to burials in the 1870s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

In the 1870s, the then Lord Talbot of Malahide asked the Local Government Board to close the graveyard from further burials. In the midst of court battles and litigation, the churchyard closed, reopened, closed again, and opened once again in 1877, but with burials limited to eight a year.

Fingal County Council maintains the graveyard. Although a lone council worker was cutting the grass in the churchyard, the gates were locked and there were no signs telling visitors how and when the church ruins could be visited.

There is a three-light window at the west end of Malahide Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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