Three awe-inspiring abbeys in north Mayo
To enjoy some serenity and appreciate the monastic heritage of our county in bucolic and maritime situations, the three abbeys of Rathfran, Moyne and Rosserk are hard to beat.
All three are on the west side of the Moy estuary. The approach roads are extremely narrow in all cases and far more suitable for cyclists or pedestrians. They are located very close to the Western Way way-marked route, or ‘Humbert Way’, and are very easy to find.
Rathfran Abbey’s name is from Ráth Bhrannaibh or ‘Brannabh’s fort’, where Brandubh was a man’s name meaning ‘black raven’. It is located on Rathfran Bay, in the parish of Templemary, about 6km north of Killala and 2.5km east of Carrowmore Lackan.
This is an area steeped in history and abounding in megalithic tombs. In the adjacent townland of Breastagh, Bréisteach, ‘a rocky place’ or ‘broken land’, is a famous Breastagh Ogham Stone, a national monumant. It bears the inscription ‘The son of Corbri the son of Amolgaid’. On the approach road to the abbey, you will also see the ruins of Summerhill House, the former stately home of the Palmer family.
The abbey, also known as The Priory of the Holy Cross, was built by the Dominicans in 1274, either by a member of the de Exeter family or by William de Burgo. Though much of the priory was rebuilt in the 15th and 16th centuries, the church is largely 13th century. It is a long rectangular building with a triple-lancet east window and a small crucifixion plaque over the west doorway.
Unusually, there are two cloister courtyards to the north of the church. One was probably a simple domestic yard built towards the end of the life of the monastery.
In 1438, the priory had no refectory, bell-tower or bell, and the other buildings were in poor repair. In 1577, after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, Rathfran was granted to Thomas Dexter. In 1590, the army of Sir Richard Bingham, the English Governor of Connacht, burned the abbey, together with Moyne and Rosserk.
Of the thraee abbeys, Moyne is the most impressive and the best preserved. It is also the most elaborate and extensive of the three buildings. Its name is from ‘maighin’, meaning ‘religious precincts’ or a ‘small plain’.
Only 3km southeast of Killala, in the appropriately named townland of Abbeylands, Moyne Friary was founded in either 1455 or 1460 for Franciscans of the Strict Observance, by McWilliam Bourke on the advice of Nehemiah O’Donachan. The latter was the first provincial vicar of the Franciscans after the reformation.
There is a remarkable square tower, 27 metres high, on one side of the two gable ends. The beautiful stonework about the church, convent and cloisters are among the finest in Ireland.
Much has been written about Moyne Abbey. It was the title of the first chapter in Rev James Greer’s book, ‘The Windings of the Moy’ (1919). He composed a 96-line poem to the abbey ‘written in middle life’. For me, his opening description conveys everything I experienced late one evening recently, on my first visit to the abbey:
“It is barely [500m] from the public road, yet on entering its precincts its loneliness, its solitary air and surrounding, is the first impression produced … the stillness of the luxurious fields around, where the silent cattle graze, but where man is not seen.”
I’m happy to report has not changed in 100 years.
“The second impression is that of grandness and majesty,” writes the Reverend. This also holds true, and the whole complex is remarkably well preserved. It would be wonderful to see it re-roofed, restored and in use like Ballintubber Abbey.
Barely 5km south of Moyne and 6-7km from Ballina stands the last of our three abbeys, Rosserk Abbey. It is located in the townland of Rosserk Ros Eirc – Erc’s or Earc’s Headland (possibly Searc’s Headland). I can vouch for having met one Erc, a name used in the McBride family in Westport for generations. However, there is some controversy over the precise origin of the name. The Rev Greer quotes the famous place-name researcher John O’Donovan, who claimed it is derived from ‘a saintly woman named Searka’ or Searc.
Much smaller than Moyne, albeit equally charming, Rosserk Abbey was also founded about 1460 by a family called Joy, or Joyce, for a community of the third order of St Francis. (However, it is now more widely accepted that it is unlikely there were any Joyces in this area in the 15th century and it may be a confusion with Roserrily Abbey, near Headford.)
A day trip to these three abbeys is a journey back in time and a truly special experience. These days, when so many of our other amenities are overrun with tourists, why not go off the beaten path and treat yourself to some quiet serenity in north Mayo, where the walls have so many stories to tell.
John O’Callaghan MA MBA PhD is a mountain walk leader and has organised and led expeditions both at home and abroad. He has served on the board of Mountaineering Ireland and is currently on the Irish Uplands Forum board. In 2012, he wrote the winning article that secured Westport’s accolade as the Irish Times’ ‘Best Place to Live in Ireland’.