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Mayo has an abundance of abbeys and monasteries, dating back as far as the 5th century when Christianity was introduced after St. Patrick’s sojourn in Ireland. With organised religion came the beginning of recorded history, with monks and scribes keeping written records of events.
For a time these new Christian communities coexisted alongside their tribal counterparts. Tribes or ‘tuatha' held pagan beliefs and rituals, and behaved much as pilgrims after them, such as climbing Croagh Patrick. Over time monuments and rituals were incorporated into the Christian story. As Christianity took a foothold, monastic settlements became abundant around the county, including Ballintubber Abbey, Ballina, Rosserk Friary, Moyne Abbey, Killala Round Tower, Mayo Abbey, Aughagower, Errew, Turlough, and Cong.
Ballintubber Abbey has the unique distinction of being in almost continuous use for 800 years, having been founded in 1216. Beside the beautiful stone-built church its ruins and cloisters are good examples of Romanesque architecture. Ballintubber Abbey is the starting point of the ancient pilgrim’s route, known as ‘Tóchar Phádraig’ which passes through Aghagower en route to Croagh Patrick.
Along the banks of the River Moy, between Ballina and Killala, there are four significant monastic settlements: Ballina, Rosserk Friary, Moyne Abbey and Killala Round Tower.
In the grounds of St. Muredach’s Cathedral in Ballina are the remains of an Augustinian Abbey, built in 1427. The facade with its beautiful doorway is intact. Rosserk Franciscan Abbey, a 4 km from Killala, was founded in 1400 and is the best preserved of its kind in the country. Some 3.5 km from Killala, overlooking Bartra Island stands the ruins of Moyne Abbey with it’s cruciform church with a bell tower and domestic buildings arranged around a central cloister. Built in the mid-1400s, it’s lifespan was less than 150 years as it fell to the army of Sir Richard Bingham, Queen Elizabeth’s appointed Governor of Connacht before the turn of the 17th century. The Franciscans are believed to have remained there in a nearby Friary until the 1800s. The round tower in Killala is well-preserved, dating from the 12th century, although the site became an ecclesiastical centre in the 5th century under St. Muredach, first Bishop of Killala as appointed by St, Patrick.
Mayo Abbey, between Claremorris and Castlebar was considered an important monastery and centre of learning. For most of its history it was known as 'Mayo of the Saxons' as it was home to Anglo-saxon monks. Founded around 671 by St. Colman of Lindisfarne, by 1152, Mayo Abbey became the seat of the whole Mayo Diocese and by the 16th century was responsible for the county’s Irish name Mayo, (Mhaigh Eo, Plain of the Yew Tree.) During Penal Times, when practising Catholic religion was outlawed, secret masses were held here.
Other abbeys include Aughagower, founded in the 5th century. Today a Catholic church has been built adjacent to the ruins and the fairly well-preserved 10th century round tower, restored in part in 1969. Errew Abbey, near Crossmolina was founded in the early 15th century and its fate sealed by the end of the 16th.
Turlough Abbey with its round tower just outside Castlebar is an early site, dating from the 5th century and believed to have been founded by St. Patrick. A round tower was added in the 9th century, substantially shorter and somewhat wider than others in the county.
Unmissable is Cong’s Augustinian Abbey, founded in 624 and all-but destroyed more than once, then built and rebuilt by Turlough O’Connor, High King of Ireland and later by his son Aedh in the 12th century. Largely a ruin today, a walk amongst its columns and pillars transports you back in time to the other side of its Romanesque doors and Gothic windows where 3,000 monks lived and prayed, studying history, music and poetry as well as illuminating manuscripts. It was here the famous Cross of Cong was designed for Turlough O’Connor and kept. It is now on display in the National Museum in Dublin.
The Abbeys of Mayo contribute much in the telling of the county’s Christian history. From the foundation of monastic sites, through the Gothic and Romanesque buildings of the Middle Ages to the scars of the suppression of religious beliefs with their attendant pillaging and destruction of buildings, today we value and treasure the buildings as reminders of the sometimes brave and visionary people who kept faith, learning and literature alive for centuries.