15 June 2021

The Carmelite churches in
Loughrea: a continuous
presence for 700 years

The Carmelite Church, monastery and abbey ruins in Loughrea … a continuous presence since 1300 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Mary’s Carmelite Church and Abbey on Abbey Street, Loughrea, sit on the northern edges of the town in Co Galway, close to the shores of Lough Rea, and date from 1300.

The Carmelites first came to Ireland in 1270, and they were invited to Loughrea at the end of the 13th century by the local Anglo-Norman leader, Richard de Burgh, who founded a monastery for them. The church and abbey are just outside the mediaeval town moat.

With a few interruptions, the Carmelites have continued to live in the town, providing a continuity of over 700 years.

The square tower was added and the abbey and church were enlarged ca 1437.

The mediaeval Carmelite abbey church ruins in Loughrea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

In the wake of the Reformations, the Carmelites left the abbey in 1618. The abandoned buildings soon fell into disrepair and ruin, although some of the friars continued to live in Loughrea.

A new order arrived in 1643, and Loughrea abbey was formally designated a Carmelite priory and novitiate in 1672.

General Charles Chalmot de Saint-Ruhe, Marquis de St Ruth, the French commander of some of the Jacobite forces at the Battle of Aughrim on 12 July 1691, is said to have been buried here secretly at night. This defeat led to the collapse of the Jacobite cause.

The east end of the mediaeval abbey church ruins in Loughrea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The architecture of the surviving abbey buildings reflect the simple style favoured by the mendicant orders, but there are some elegant tracery windows.

Inside, there are tombs decorated with elegant carvings, and in the surrounding churchyard there are graves and tombs representing many old Loughrea families.

The Carmelites began working on new buildings beside the mediaeval monastic site in 1785. A new church was completed in 1820 under the supervision of Father Gannon, the superior at the time, who also supervised the construction of the monastery and the convent.

The Carmelite nuns continued to live in Barrack Street, Loughrea, until Mount Carmel Monastery was built in 1831. As they were engaged in teaching, the nuns did not become an enclosed order until 1859.

General St Ruth was buried at night in the abbey church after the Battle of Aughrim in 1691 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The new abbey church was almost completely rebuilt in the Romanesque style in 1897, to designs by William Henry Byrne, who also designed Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea, at the same time.

The intricate foliate detailing on this church in the Italian Romanesque style illustrates the artistic skills of stone carvers of the late 19th century. This delicate carving can be seen throughout the church, from the ornate façade to the tracery windows, making it a natural focal point for the monastic complex as well as one of the finest buildings in Loughrea.

The marble altar is by Edmund Sharp.

Inside the abbey church, rebuilt in 1897 by William Byrne (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The gable-front presents a highly decorative appearance, emphasised by its elaborate arcaded entrance, and the decorative tower knits it to the other monastic buildings. The buildings are enhanced by the lawns and gardens to the front, and the older church and graveyard to the south.

Around the same time, a national school was built close to the entrance gate.

Successive alterations and additions have taken place since then, with the addition of a new residence in 1991.

Today, the Teresian Carmelite nuns who live in the monastery are dedicated to a life of prayer.

The existence of the ‘new’ abbey beside the mediaeval ruin bears testimony to an almost continued presence of Carmelites in Loughrea since the 1300s.

The Carmelite buildings on Abbey Street are enhanced by the lawns and gardens to the front, and the older church and graveyard to the south (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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