Some Early Church Sites of County Louth

A Bessbrook Heritage Group Summer Event

A dozen worthy souls gathered at the Carrickdale Hotel on Saturday 21 August 2010. The object of the outing was to look at some of the early church sites in Co Louth, including the buildings and memorials. We travelled, in convoy, to the first site in the small village of Louth. (Grid Ref: H956014) This village stands in the townland of Priorstate, a name which suggests ecclesiastical connections. St Mochta, who died in 534, founded a monastery here. The oldest building on the site is known as St Mochta’s House. It is a single-celled church or oratory with a chamber in the roof. It has been extensively restored by the Board of Works and no dressed stone from the windows or doorway survives. This makes dating of the building very difficult. However the style of construction of the high-pitched roof suggests that it may be as late as the 12th century.

St Mochta's House, Louth

However, on this occasion, we were unable to explore the building closely. This was due mainly to the presence of animals in the field and a notice on the gate saying ‘Beware of the Bull’. Observation form the roadside revealed that the small window in the lower east wall now has a grid. This suggests that the doorway may now be blocked. A short distance to the east of St Mochta’s House is the ruin of a church associated with an Augustinian priory. It may have been founded in the late 1130s by Edan O’Kelly and adopted the Augustinian rule in the early 1140s. However the monastery was completely destroyed by fire in 1148. It was quickly re-founded by Donough O’Carroll, King of Oriel, and Edan O’Kelly, as St Mary’s Priory. The ruins, which stand at the edge of the graveyard, probably date from the 13th century. The church is possibly the longest priory church in Ireland, being about 46m long.

LouthAugustinian Priory

The north wall is of relatively modern construction but the rest of the building is original. There is evidence of large traceried windows in both east and west gables, and the four windows in the south wall of the chancel also show evidence of tracery. In the south wall of the chancel there is the scar of a triple sedilia. There is no sign of a division between the nave and chancel but a reference in 1690 indicates that a central bell-tower may have existed at that time. There is a small south doorway near the west end. There are many putlog holes in both interior and exterior walls. The graveyard is, unfortunately, greatly overgrown. It is known to contain many interesting 19th century stones but on this occasion most of them were not visible. We did find a stone with a circular perforation but the stone with the high-relief Crucifixion and skull-and-crossbones, noted on previous visits, was not located. The last prior of Louth was John Wylley. He surrendered the monastery on November 20 1539 and was granted a pension of over £16. It was recorded that the possessions included over 1700 acres with a dozen farms, many messuages, cottages etc., a water-mill and an interest in about 36 churches. Two castles were also recorded. The priory and some of its property were granted to Oliver Plunkett, Baron of Louth, in 1541.

From Louth Village it is a simple cross-county journey to the village of Dromiskin. (Grid Ref: O054982) It is said that a monastery was founded here at the time of St Patrick by Do-Lue and Lugaid, two members of St Patrick’s household. It was later under the patronage of St Ronan, who died in 664. His relics were placed in a costly shrine in 801. Muiredhach mac Cormac, the abbot, and Gairbith, royal heir of the Conailli, were killed by fire in the refectory in 912 and the following year Congalach, son of Gairbith, was killed by his own people after he had destroyed the abbot’s house. The monastery was plundered several times later in that century. Abbot Tigernach died in 980. The site contains a fragment of a Round Tower and a High Cross.

The tower is about 15m high. It has a conical top and six large rectangular windows near the top. There is also a small angle-headed window facing WNW. The doorway, which is placed about 4m above ground level, faces ESE. It has a round arch of two orders. The inner order is plain. The outer order had jambs with decorated capitals. The jambs are now missing but the heads and bases remain. There is some speculation as to the date of this Round Tower. There are suggestions that it may be as early as the 7th century, making it possibly the earliest Round Tower in Ireland. However the cap, top windows and doorway were probably added in the 12th century. There are no records after 1065 so the later dates cannot be stated with certainty. At the other side of the graveyard is the head and arms of a High cross, mounted on a modern shaft. On the east face is a central square panel with four coiling dragons emanating from a central boss. The panels on the arms show a headless figure on a horse following another horse and a figure carrying a decapitated head. It is thought to represent David carrying the head of Goliath to King Saul. The central boss on the west face is also decorated but less well preserved.

Dromiskin Monastic Site

Close to the cross is a carved fragment depicting a Crucifixion. There is the ruin of an early church, mainly the east gable, and a disused Church of Ireland building dating from the early 19th century. The memorials in the graveyard and mainly 19th century and modern. One stone may be of interest to the people of Bessbrook and Newry. It was erected by Sir John MacNeill to his land steward, Peter MacFarlane. MacNeill designed the Craigmore Viaduct and Egyptian Arch. He lived at Mount Pleasant, just outside Dundalk. The house was later named Mount Oliver and still exists, near the Ballymacscanlon Hotel.

From Dromiskin it is an easy drive southwards to the next site at Monasterboice. The route is well signposted from Exit 11 on the motorway. Our departure from Dromiskin was somewhat hastened by the arrival of a sudden shower. On arrival at Monasterboice we decided that it was time for lunch. A picnic lunch (unfortunately in car) allowed time for the weather to improve and we had dry weather and sunshine for the rest of the day. The monastery at Monasterboice (Grid Ref: O043821) was reputedly founded by St Buite who died in 521.

The remains include two churches, a Round Tower, three High Crosses and a sundial. The best preserved structure is the South Cross. This is also known as Muiredach's Cross because of an inscription on the base. A date of 922 has been accepted for this cross because of the death of the abbot Muiredach Mac Domhnail at that date. The cross is 5.5m high and is richly decorated with Biblical scenes including the Fall of Man and Cain & Abel. On the opposite face of the cross is a panel depicting the Mocking of Christ. The central figure of Christ is dressed in a richly embroidered robe which is held by a penannular brooch. He holds a staff in his right hand and an armed man grips his left wrist. There is another armed man on his right side. The style of decoration and some of the subjects, particularly the non-biblical motifs, suggests that the designer of this cross may have been responsible for the Market Cross, Kells, the Durrow Abbey cross and the Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnois.

Monasterboice Monastic Site

A short distance to the NW is the South Church, a simple rectangular 15th century building. The North Church is a similar building and lies a further short distance to the NW. Just outside the S wall of this church is the West Cross. This is about 7m high. This has similar carving to the South Cross but is less well preserved. Just below the central panel, on the east face, is a depiction of the Three Hebrew Children in the Fiery Furnace. Near the bottom of this face of the cross is a panel showing the Sacrifice of Isaac. The lower part of the shaft, particularly on the north and south faces, has been badly damaged. Close to the W gable of the North Church is the Round Tower. The top is damaged but the tower stands to about 30.5m. It has a Romanesque doorway on the E side about 2m above the present ground level. The doorway is framed by two slightly raised parallel bands. It was burned in 1097 with its library and treasures. Near the eastern boundary of the graveyard, within a railed enclosure, is the North Cross. This is the upper portion of a ring-headed cross with a Crucifixion on the W side and an interlaced roundel on the E side. Beside it is a pillar stone with a medieval sundial. There are several good 18th and 19th century memorials in the graveyard and a thorough examination of the site would take several hours.

Not far from Monasterboice is the ruin of Mellifont Cistercian Abbey (Grid Ref: O013780). In the early 1140s St Malachy of Armagh, on a journey to visit the Pope in Rome, stayed with St Bernard in the Cistercian monastery at Clairvaux. He was so impressed by the Cistercian Rule, that, on his return journey, he invited several of the monks from Clairvaux to come to Ireland to establish a monastery at Mellifont on the banks of the River Mattock in Co Louth. The official date of the foundation is 1142 although building was not commenced until 1157. It was completed by 1225.

The layout is typical of Cistercian abbeys with a large cruciform church to the north of the cloister. There were three E chapels in the transepts. The most notable feature of the cloister is the octagonal lavabo which projects into the cloister garth from the S range. This has an arcade of round-headed arches, some of which have decorated capitals. It would have had a central fountain and basin where the monks could have washed after working in the fields. They would then have gone to the refectory which was a short distance away in the south range. The lavabo is a unique feature for an Irish monastery. It was probably built by the French architects who Malachy invited from Clairvaux. There are several, more complete, examples in continental monasteries.

Mellifont Cistercian Abbey

The abbey was burned early in the 14th century and parts of the nave were then rebuilt. A tower was built in the 15th century. The foundations of the pillars of this tower intrude into the east chapels of the church. The ruins today are mostly reduced to foundation level. The vaulted chapter house is the only roofed building remaining. It dates from the early 13th century. To the NE of the abbey is a four-storey building which functioned as a gate-tower. Only the NE portion rises to full height. There are projecting towers at the north and south angles with evidence of a spiral stairway within the latter. The ground floor is covered by a barrel vault but the gable walls are now missing. It is possible that this was built as a small tower house and that the gable walls were later removed to allow it to function as a gate-house. It was probably built in the middle of the 16th century. Overlooking the abbey, on the hill to the east, is a small L-shaped church. It is known as St Bernard's Chapel, and may date from the 15th or 16th century. The last abbot of Mellifont was Richard Contour who surrendered the abbey in July 1539. He was granted a pension of £40. The possessions in Co Louth and Co Meath included 5000 acres, a castle several granges, about 300 messuages and cottages, five water-mills, many fisheries and boats, and ten rectories. The dissolved monastery was occupied by Edward Moore in 1566.

This was as far south as we intended to go on our tour. We turned north again for our last two sites. The first site was at Kildemock (Grid Ref: N975884), a short distance south-east of Ardee. ‘The Jumping Church’ is a narrow nave and chancel church which was built in the 14th century. Its main point of interest is that part of the west gable now stands inside the line of the original wall foundation. Tradition says that the wall moved during a violent storm of 1715 or 1716 so that the grave of an excommunicated person would be placed outside the building.

The Jumping Church, Kildemock

There are some gravestones within the church. One of these commemorates members of the Orson family who lived at Millockstown, a short distance south of the church. It has a skull-and crossbones and is dated 1682. The inscription is not deeply carved and is difficult to read. There are several simple cross-inscribed slabs in the graveyard and some carved stones from 13th century windows have been found. A scalloped piscina basin has been fixed to the top of the ruined south wall of the chancel. There is a small bullaun stone near the north doorway. Partial excavation of the site revealed fragments of stained glass and window lead, and a silver penny of Edward II. During our visit we were welcomed by Paddy O’Reilly, the local guide and expert on the Jumping Church. His family have been caretakers at the site for the past 60 years.

On our journey from Kildemock to the motorway we arrived at Dromin Church (Grid Ref: O030894). Behind the present Catholic church is a very good motte. In the graveyard in front of the church are the remains of a nave and chancel church with the chancel arch now blocked. The nave measures about 10m by 5.5m. The south wall is buttressed, the west wall is totally destroyed and the north wall partially destroyed. The chancel has an east window and two in the south wall. The original doorway is in the north wall. The east window has remains of moulded sandstone jambs and roughly cut sandstones in its embrasure. There are no mullions but the width suggests that there were at least two lights.

The window at the west end of the south wall has a cusped ogee-headed arch. This design, along with the pointed north doorway, indicates a 15th- or 16th-century date. There are two windows in the south wall of the nave. There is a good mixture of memorials in the graveyard. One stone worthy of note depicts 'The Nativity'. It is an unusual subject for a gravestone but there is at least one other example at Termonfeckin, probably by the same artist. It was erected by Anthony Hand of Launderstown in memory of his daughter Ann Hand who departed this life April 2nd 1805 aged 17 years.

Dromin Church & Graveyard