Episode 6 and 7 – Abbeydorney and Abbeyfeale

Note: This week I have changed from linking to the references from the text. Setting this up was taking me a lot of time, and without it I can get more written. You can still find a list of references at the end of the post. Please enjoy!

Today we visit two Irish locations that share some similarities to Abbey Dore, whom we covered last week. Both towns are former homes of Cistercian monasteries that were left to ruin after the dissolution, though unlike Abbey Dore they were never restored.

Abbeydorney is located in the Irish county of Kerry, close to the west coast and just north of Tralee. The village also goes by the names Abbey O’Dorney and Montnagee. Abbeyfeale is a short distance east of Abbeydorney, and just falls into county Limerick; it is the largest settlement covered so far in this blog, with a population of around 2000.

Abbeydorney’s Foundation (1154)

The abbey at Abbeydorney was founded in the year 1154, following an invitation by O Torna, the chieftain of the Torna clan. Over time, the word ‘Torna’ has been anglicised into ‘dorney’. As we previously mentioned with Abbey Dore, the Cistercian monks maintained links between the founder and colony monasteries, and here the founder monastery was the abbey of Monasteranenagh (mon-ass-ter-a-ne-ney), also called Nenay and de Magio, in Limerick.

The abbey was called Kyrie Eleison, which is because the Cistercians had a habit of naming their monasteries to be similar to the location they were in – ‘Kyrie’ is close to ‘Ciarrai’ which is anglicised to ‘Kerry’. I’m going to be using the English names here.

One of the primary early residents of Kyrie Eleison abbey was Christian O’Conarchy, an important figure in Irish Catholic history. He was born in the Kingdom of Ulster, six counties of which make up modern Northern Ireland, and also studied there at St Malachy’s, Armagh.

Christian went from Armagh to Rome, and on the way stayed at Clairvaux Abbey, a Cistercian monastery founded by St Bernard. St Bernard was a key reformer of the early Cistercian order, and would still have been alive at the time. So, while Christian was staying at Clairvaux, he received the habit from Bernard (that is, he was inducted into the order). This was around the year 1137.

When the monk returned to Ireland, he began work on building the first ever Cistercian monastery there – Mellifont Abbey, at Drogheda (dro-hed-a) a little way north of Dublin. Bernard sent several French monks along too, to get the place started. Christian later became Bishop of Lismore in 1150, before retiring to Abbey Dorney in 1180. It was here that he was buried in 1186.

Ireland becomes English (1166)

What follows is a summary of how Ireland became an English province.

Up to the 12th Century, Ireland had been made up of several kingdoms. There was Ulster in the north-east, Connacht in the north-west, Leinster in the south-east, and Munster in the south-west. This is oversimplifying, but we don’t need to go deeper in this episode. The population were primarily Celtic, though Vikings had also settled on the island particularly on the east coast.

The king of Leinster – Mac Murchada – had been defeated in battle and expelled from Ireland, so in 1166 he fled to England and King Henry II. He wanted Henry to help him get his kingdom back. Henry wasn’t really happy about this as his grip on England was quite weak at the time, although he had permission from the Pope to take over Ireland. Instead he said the Irish king could get help from any English nobles he could recruit.

Mac Murchada managed to recruit several Norman lords, including Richard FitzGilbert de Clare whom he promised his daughter’s hand in marriage, plus the kingdom of Leinster when he died. A mighty promise. The king was clearly desperate. De Clare, also called ‘Strongbow’ was not on good terms with Henry II, and he accepted. Eventually, the support Mac Murchada received got him back his kingdom.

It was not to last. In 1171, Mac Murchada died in battle, and Strongbow became the first Norman king in Ireland – King Richard of Leinster. Henry was furious. He came chasing after Strongbow, who was smart enough to realise he was going to lose. Instead, King Richard of Leinster became Lord of Leinster. He and most of the other kings of Ireland submitted to Henry.

Abbeyfeale’s Foundation (1188)

A few years later, in 1188, the Cistercian house at Abbeyfeale was founded. The name ‘feale’ is from the river Feale that flows through the town, and the river’s name comes from Irish folklore. A man called Lughaidh (pronounced ‘Loo-ga’ or ‘Loo-ee’) Mac Lotha settled in Limerick at the location of Abbeyfeale. His wife was Fial. One day as she was washing in the river, she saw what she thought was a stranger approaching. When she tried to flee, she got caught in the river and drowned. That stranger turned out to be her own husband. The river was named ‘Feale’ in her memory.

The lord who founded the abbey was Brian O Brien of Thomand. The O Briens were the ruling family in the area, and they had not submitted to the Normans – and would not until around 1543. There are questions over whether this was actually a full abbey, or if it was actually just a small house, with a few monks living above the church and a small garden. Evidence for the required abbey buildings (grange, farm and mill) has never been found, and it has never been referred to officially as a child-house of Monasternenagh, unlike Abbeydorney.

The conspiracy of Mellifont (1228)

As the 13th Century arrived, the Irish Cistercian abbeys began to distance themselves from their connection to their French parent abbeys. This was led by Mellifont, which as mentioned earlier was founded by Christian O Conarchy as a child abbey of Clairvaux. With Abbey Dore, we saw how Cistercians emphasized the connection between parent and child abbeys, and this distancing was therefore unacceptable.

A group from Clairvaux travelled to Ireland to try and resolve this, but they were shut out from the Irish monasteries, and there were even riots against the visitors! This was called the ‘conspiracy of Mellifont’. Several abbots were replaced, but the trouble continued, with the Irish monks resenting the new French abbots.

This changed with the arrival of Stephen of Lexington in the year 1228. He was abbot of Stanley, in Wiltshire, England, which is near Chippenham. Stephen enacted a full turnaround, putting English abbots in charge, and sending rebellious monks to France. This included a visit to Abbeydorney and Abbeyfeale’s parent Monasteranenagh, where he apparently met with armed resistance!

Stephen broke the connection to Mellifont, instead splitting the parentage of the Irish monasteries. Monasteranenagh – and therefore Abbeydorney and Abbeyfeale – was allocated to Margam, an abbey in modern day West Glamorgan, South Wales.

The Earls of Desmond (15th Century)

There is a castle at Abbeyfeale, constructed some time before 1572, called Purt Castle. It was one of the many manors of the Earls of Desmond, who are often called Geraldines because of their surname Fitzgerald. There is a story about one of the Geraldine Earls, Thomas, who was at Abbeyfeale before 1418.

Thomas was out hunting boar in the woods, and it grew dark. Losing his way, he found a cottage and called at it, desperate for a drink. The door was answered by a beautiful young girl called Catherine. Catherine provided food and drink to Thomas, and he fell in love with her.

He began to visit her regularly, and they were married. But Thomas was a noble, and she a peasant, so this greatly displeased his family. He was disinherited from his Earldom by his Uncle James, who succeeded him in this position. Thomas and Catherine fled Ireland in 1418, and went to live in France where he died just two years later, in 1420.

An Irish poet, Thomas Moore, wrote an ode to this romance:

“By the Feal’s wave benighted,
Not a star in the skies,
To thy door by love lighted,
I first saw those eyes;
Some voice whisper’d o’er me
As thy threshold I cross’d,
There was ruin before me,
If I loved, I was lost.

Love came and brought sorrow
Too soon in its train;
Yet so sweet that tomorrow
‘Twere welcome again;
Tho’ misery’s full measure
My portion should be,
I would drain it with pleasure
If poured out by thee.

You who call it dishonour
To bow to this flame
If you’ve eyes look but on her,
And blush while you blame;
Hath the pearl less whiteness
Because of its birth?
Hath the violet less brightness
For growing near earth?

No man for his glory
To ancestry flies;
But woman’s bright story
Is told in her eyes;
While the monarch but traces
Thro’ mortals his line,
Beauty, born of the Graces
Ranks next to divine!”

Dissolution (1537)

Being under English rule, Ireland was subject to the dissolution of the monasteries. But unlike in England, Henry VIII’s attempt to eradicate Catholicism in Ireland failed. Areas where the English control was strong were more successful.

As a result of the dissolution, Abbeydorney was granted in 1537 to Edmund Lord Kerry, but he died in 1541 with a female heir, Catherine. I’m not clear why she didn’t inherit the land, but it reverted back to the Crown and was later given to Trinity College, Dublin. The abbey itself seems to have been abandoned, and today is a ruin.

As for Abbeyfeale, the place seems to have been left alone under the protection of the Earls of Desmond, but by the late 1570s the situation had changed. Sir William Pelham – who had spent his life in the English army both in Scotland and France – was sent to Ireland in 1579. When the Chief Justice of Ireland died unexpectedly, Pelham was appointed in his place.

The Earl of Desmond was causing a revolt in Munster, so Pelham went after him. On March 16th 1580, he arrived at Abbeyfeale and stayed at Purt Castle. At this time, he destroyed the Cistercian house, to prevent the Earl from finding a place to rest. The Earl was now a fugitive, and was eventually caught and beheaded. The abbey reverted to the Crown. A few years later it was granted to the undertaker at Hungerford. The building may well have been converted to a fortified house, which was a fairly common practice at the time.

In 1591, Purt Castle was granted to Sir William Courtenay. The Courtenays seem to have held the lands around the area until 1804.

Irish Rebellion (1641)

Now the majority of the Irish had never relinquished their Catholicism, meeting in secret after the dissolution. But by 1641 they had had enough, and in Ulster they rose up in rebellion against the Protestant regime. It’s estimated around 12,000 people died in the uprising.

The rebellion lasted nearly ten years, and the Irish had a lot of success. But then came 1649. By this point, Oliver Cromwell was the man in charge of England, when the monarchy had been overthrown. He sent his army across the Irish Sea, and slaughtered many thousands at Drogheda and Wexford, and claimed the country back as an English province.

After the Irish had been subdued, a survey of the land was taken by the English army, under the supervision of William Petty. Petty was a scientist primarily concerned with “Political arithmetic” – a method of economic analysis relating to government. It dealt with using only observable evidence, rather than subjective reasoning, to come to its conclusions. In particular, Petty was using his Political arithmetic to examine the stabilization of English power in Ireland.

Petty’s mapping of Ireland was “the first full field survey and mapping of any European country”, and he used the opportunity to obtain around 10,000 acres of cheap Irish land for himself. This geographical feat allowed the English to secure much firmer control over Ireland.

For Abbeyfeale, this means that today we have a detailed survey of the ruins of the Cistercian abbey.

Harsh English rule and more rebellion (1819)

But what followed from this was a long period of Catholic persecution in Ireland. Catholics were second-rate citizens, not allowed the same rights as the Irish Protestants such as in owning land, running schools or holding certain positions. The Penal Laws proscribed the practice of Catholicism. In the eighteenth century, many of these terrible laws were repealed or relaxed, and in 1829 the Penal Laws were finally repealed. Now the Irish Catholics – prevalent in the majority of the island – were free to practice their own faith and live as they wanted.

Throughout this time, several groups rose up to try and free Ireland from British rule, and one of those was started in 1819 by Sean Fitzmaurice, a blacksmith of Abbeyfeale. He gave himself the name ‘Captain Rock’ and formed a society called the ‘Rockites’. This might seem like a very odd name, but there seem to have been many such figures at the time. He may not even have been the only ‘Captain Rock’ with ‘Rockite’ followers, and there is evidence that other such people existed around the south-west of Ireland.

Captain Rock’s ‘secretary of war’ was a schoolmaster called Morgan, and his name became ‘Captain Starlight’. They saw themselves as Robin Hoods, stealing from the rich landowners and giving to the oppressed poor. English soldiers were sent to the area, caught the Rockite leaders, and hung them in 1822.

Captain Rock had received such support that a few days later a band of Rockite supporters met in the square at Abbeyfeale and declared Ireland a Republic. They marched on Newcastle West, where a parish priest tried to stop them. Their determination was so great, however, that one of them shot the priest. This seems to have caused the group to wake up to their actions, and they soon dispersed.

All these ongoing issues, coupled with the great famine where the Irish potato crop was destroyed by blight, caused a greater rebellion in 1848. This spread to Abbeyfeale, where a large gang of locals held up the Limerick coach on the way to Tralee. They held the coaches at gunpoint while they robbed the mail. The leader of the rebels was called Richard O’Gorman. When the British came after him, he fled to America and later became a High Court Judge.

Priests and poverty (1829)

As Catholicism was now permitted new churches were built across Ireland, including at Abbeydorney and Abbeyfeale. At Abbeyfeale, Rev Daniel Lyddy was appointed as Parish Priest in 1828, having previously been a priest in St John’s Parish, Limerick City. The village life was very different to the city, but Lyddy embraced his new position and worked hard to achieve the building of a new church – St Mary’s. Despite the great poverty, he received support from the residents of the area to help in his work.

The church built, Father Lyddy organised a school to be constructed next door. He went on to provide support to the farming community in obtaining new seed crops to replace the blighted potatoes. This priest was so well respected that he was called before the House of Commons at Westminster to give testimony about the conditions in Ireland.

Following his success, he was promoted to look after a larger parish, Ballingary, in 1849. But the work he put in was beyond his physical abilities, and he had to retire from active ministry, then died in 1851. In respect for his final wishes, he was buried in front of the main altar at St Mary’s Church, Abbeyfeale.

Abbeydorney also had a well-respected priest. Rev. Thomas Hugh Brosnan was a tall, well-built and active man, who was appointed as priest of Abbeydorney and Kilflynn in 1869. He improved Abbeydorney’s church and built a parochial house there. Like Father Lyddy, he was given incredible financial support from his impoverished parishioners. But Father Tom – as he was known – gave them even more support back, mediating between the landlords and their struggling tenants.

When he died, he was buried in the chapel as requested by his relatives, but against the will of the new parish priest due to a church edict. A few months later, the Bishop for the area ordered that the body be exhumed, and interred in a vault in the chapel yard. A few days after that, the body was re-exhumed, and finally buried for good at his family’s burial place in Killeentierna, Castleisland.


The potato famine caused a lot of emigration from Ireland to the USA. One Michael Sullivan, a man from Abbeydorney, emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts in the mid 1800s. His son, John L Sullivan, was known as the “Boston Strong Boy”, and became the first boxing heavyweight champion. Though he was clearly an incredible boxer, he had a couple of Achilles Heels: refusing to fight any black boxer, and drinking heavily. In 1892, his lifestyle caught up with him and he was beaten by a younger boxer with a few tricks up his gloves. Coming to his senses, he gave up the drink for good and became a temperance lecturer, before dying in 1918. It was so cold when he died they had to open the burial spot for his grave with dynamite! In 1990, he became a member of the first class of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

More recently, the Bishop of La Cieba, Honduras, Michael Lenihan, came from Abbeyfeale. He is the first Bishop of La Cieba, and you can see pictures of his consecration here.

Next week, we return to England and set our feet for the first time in the county of Staffordshire, and the village of Abbey Green, then hop back over the Irish Sea to County Laois, and Abbeyleix. Those Abbeys? It will be small surprise that they’re Cistercian.



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