‘The abbey that refused to die’


Ballintubber community comes together to celebrate remarkable story of resilience and spirit

Áine Ryan

FOR pilgrim priest, Father Frank Fahey, the octocentenary celebrations at his beloved Ballintubber Abbey are but the ongoing narrative of ‘the abbey that refused to die’ and a congregation ‘who dared to hope’.
These celebrations not only mark 800 years of continuous Mass and religious services at the abbey but also encapsulate a much broader spiritual and cultural story of evolving Irishness, set to the backdrop of a close community, both secular and religious, and its many pluralistic influences.
Significantly, the upcoming publication of plans for the restoration of the entire east wing of the abbey will mark this year’s celebrations, which include a series of events around the annual Reek Sunday pilgrimage, throughout a two week period starting on Sunday next.
RTÉ have already broadcast a specially-composed Mass by Liam Lawton on June 26 last.
“These proposed works will help facilitate the development of Ballintubber Abbey as a hub for Ireland’s pilgrim paths and that historic link with European pilgrim ways.It is important to re-establish and promote the cultural link that was between Ireland and Europe. This union should not just be economic and political, as seems to predominate these days. We now need a deeper basis for our union.
“The richest time this link was made was during the medieval times of pilgrimages – Camino de Santiago, Chartres, Rome, Montserrat, Walsingham, Cantebury, Jerusalem, Czestochowa,  Holy Well – as well as here at St Kevin’s Way, Cosán na Naomh and the Tóchar Phádraig, of course, to name but a few,” Fr Fahey tells The Mayo News.
He explains that these ancient pilgrim paths should not just be ‘considered as walks’. To illustrate his point, he quotes a lyrical paean to the deep spirituality of such walks.
“One must not consider the Tóchar/ or indeed any other sacred Pilgrim path/ to be merely a walk to be negotiated/ or a destination to be reached./ The Tóchar, as indeed any other of the medieval paths of Europe, /has a persona of its own that moulds and shapes us/ if we allow it to do so.
“Walking the Tócher or any medieval path can become a dialogue/ with the tears, the joys, the faith and culture of our past/ for every tree and hollow, every monument and ruin/ cries out with a story. It is a teacher of history /if we allow it to speak to us /with humble and open hearts.
“It is a mother that nourishes us/ if we take time to become aware of its gifts,/ both of nature and of grace. It is a sacrament of life /for those, who in faith, /walk with the risen Christ. /like the disciple on the road to Emmaus. It is a living memorial/ Linking the past and the future.”

Survival against the odds
BALLINTUBBER Abbey was founded by one of the kings of Connacht, King Cathal Croibhdhearg Ua Conchobair, or Cathal Mór of the Wine-Red Hand. While there are many references in the ‘Annals of the Four Masters’ to 1216 being the year of the abbey’s foundation, the circumstances are shrouded in legend. According to records and lore, it has survived the regal edicts of King Henry VIII, Cromwellian destruction and the Penal Laws. In 1603 James I confiscated all its lands which were then run by Augustinian friars. Their presence may have ended there  when Cromwellian soldiers attempted to burn it down in 1653 but while many ancillary buildings were destroyed, the abbey church survived.
Two centuries later the abbey was roofless and in serious disrepair as depicted in poignant black-and-white images of a famine-stricken flock kneeling and praying in long grass. From the Wynne photographic collection, they are among the images on the walls of the restored Chapter House today. The decimation caused by the Great Famine of the 1840s put paid to initial attempts to reroof the nave and transepts of the cruciform shaped abbey. However, as the country came out from the shadow of famine and embraced a broad cultural and political reawakening, help and assistance to restore it came from a broad spectrum of benefactors.

One such donor was a clergyman of the Church of Ireland, Rev E D Cleaver, who, in a letter to The Connaught Telegraph, January 19, 1889, said how impressed he was that even while roofless and ‘during all the wars and persecutions that the Holy Sacrifice had been offered without intermission on every Sunday within its walls’. Praising the ‘faith and zeal’ of those leading the restoration “in the present depressed state of the country”, he explained that he was ‘a poor man without professional income’ and could only offer £2.
Later restoration projects ensured the nave was re-roofed for the 750th anniversary in 1966, while the Chapter House and Dorter Room, which now facilitates thousands of young retreatants each year, were restored under the baton of Frank Fahey in 1997.
Now as the latest restoration and development project awaits planning permission, Fr Fahey observes that: “Praying in the long grass of a roofless abbey, these people, the constant congregation, dared to hope, through all the vicissitudes of war and famine and in that way they preserved the soul of Ireland. There may be a roof on the abbey now but the search continues up byways and boreens and in the stillness of church pews.”

Tapestry linking the past to the present
ARCHBISHOP of Tuam, Dr Michael Neary observes that while ‘today there is perhaps little awareness of continuity between the present and the past, as a result the present is all that matters’.
“We tend to absolutise it so everything depends on the here and now. History and memory are neglected, while hope and the future are downplayed. To overlook the past is to be oblivious to the fact that there were people who came before us, who cared and dared and were imbued with the vision for the future.”
He continues: “In the ancient world people wondered how to create something that would endure. The Egyptians built pyramids, the Greeks built Temples, the Romans built amphitheatres. These great monuments of stone will outlast the winds and sands of time, however the civilisations that gave them life have not survived.
“As Christians however we focus on the memory of Jesus, on making him present in our world today. By that I mean we engrave His values, His teaching and example on the next generation. Ballintubber is a challenge to all of us to acknowledge our roots, to take the best of the past, forge it with the present in order to create a hopeful future. This is what the Augustinian monks did here in Ballintubber 800 years ago and what parents, teachers and priests have been doing since then.”

Cromwellian times at the Abbey
WHILE there is much local lore about the burning down of Ballintubber Abbey during Cromwellian Times, Dr John Cunningham revealed at his octocentenary lecture on ‘The Abbey in the Time of Cromwell’ that, due to the relative isolation from the centre’s of power during this period, there is no written records in the archives. His fascinating talk contextualised, the Cromwellian era in Mayo and Connacht through the impact of the Reformation and its outlawing of the Catholic religion and the waves of land settlements.
Here are two excerpts: “One relevant survey from 1569 has survived, in which a man called Michael Fitzwilliam set out details of the lands belonging to religious houses in Connacht. This provides a brief glimpse of the condition of Ballintubber at that point: ‘The abbaye of Ballentober: The site thereof containeth halfe an acre in wch therebe one ruinose church covered with s[h]ingles. The walls of the late house of Chanons of the sayd abbaye & gardens conteyning iii acres now wast’.”
A century later, Dr Cunningham notes: “Castleburke is of course just down the road from here, so the presence of 85 soldiers at that location must have had implications for religious activities here at Ballintubber. The officer in command there, Solomon Camby, was a veteran of the English civil wars who later settled in Co. Tipperary…..
. …..In the midst of all this change and upheaval, what was going on at Ballintubber? It is not possible to answer this question with any certainty. We can assume that with Captain Camby stationed a short distance away at Castleburke and with his men able to claim large rewards from the state for capturing priests, any clergy in this area would have been living a precarious existence. After all, the archbishop of Tuam reported in 1658 that the clergy in his diocese were forced to hide during daylight hours in woods, mountains and caves. At the same time, we can be sure that local Catholics such as Richard Burke at Partry continued to provide what support they could.
Despite the trial, the religious community here survived in some form, and Burke was able to  make a bequest to Ballintubber in his will in 1687. Ballintubber also remained an important place of burial, for some Protestants as well as Catholics. When the old countess of Mayo sat down to make her will in 1664, she expressed a desire to be buried at Ballintubber, beside her husband Theobald, the second viscount, who was buried here in 1649. His father Tibbott-ne-Long (the youngest son of pirate queen,  Granuaile)  had been buried here twenty years before that. The dowager countess mentioned Ballintubber a few times in her will.
‘…My body to the earth from whence it came to be buried att Balentubber by my deare Lord and husband if I dye in the County of Mayo…. I give unto the poore of Ballentubber the sume of tenn shillings… And thirty shilling to Cover the Chapell’.”

– Dr John Cunningham is a Research Fellow in the Department of History at TCD.

Buried at Ballintubber: Tibbott-ne-Long
Mayo-born author, Anne Chambers’ lecture will be delivered at the abbey at 8pm on Monday next, July 25. She will will tell the fascinating story of the life and legacy of “Lord Mayo, Tibbott-ne-long Bourke 1567-1629, the youngest son of Granuaile”. Ms Chambers, who is the biographer of Granuaile, has also researched and written a book on Tibbot-ne-Long, entitled, “Shadow Lord Theobald Bourke (1567-1629) - Son of the Pirate Queen.”
The First Lord Viscount Mayo lies buried, together with many members of his family within the Abbey.
Born on the high seas on his mother’s galley, which, as well as inheriting her maritime skills, gave rise to his name, Tiboid-ne-Long, it is worth noting that it was to save the life, of  her most loved son, that Granuaile sailed bravely up the Thames to London in 1593 to intercede with Queen Elizabeth 1.
Saved at birth from Barbary Coast pirates, Tibbott became a chieftain in the fragmented world of late 16th century Gaelic Ireland and the brutal battle for its control.  
With a Machiavellian mind that out manoeuvres his opponents, both Irish and English, he stands his ground, as many other Irish chieftains fled after the Battle of Kinsale.  
That he passes the test with flying colours is evidenced that at his death in 1629, against all the odds, he is one of the few Gaelic chieftains not merely to survive but to become one of the largest land proprietors in Ireland, while retaining the loyalty of his clan and the suspicion of the English kings.
After Kinsale, Tibbot took possession of Kinturk and Kilboynell (later Castlebourke) castles in the barony of Carra. Once the property of his foster-father, the chieftain Myles MacEvilly and situated close to Ballintubber Abbey, Tibbott lived there with his family until his death in 1629.

– Anne Chambers has written a biography of Tibbot-ne-Long, entitled, “Shadow Lord Theobald Bourke (1567-1629) - Son of the Pirate Queen.

See www.ballintubberabbey.ie for details of all the celebrations.