Clontuskert Augustinian Priory

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Order: Augustinian, Arroasian rule
Founded some time after 1140
Founded by the O’Kellys of Hy Many
Also known as Priory of St Mary Cluain Tuaiscirt O Máine; Clontuskert-Omanny; The priory of the Virgin Mary

The Place


The Augustinian priory of the Virgin Mary in Clontuskert is located in the townland of Abbeypark, Co. Galway, four miles south of Ballinasloe. The house belonged to the Arroasians, an austere branch of the Augustinian canons, who were introduced to Ireland by St Malachy of Armagh (1094-1148) before 1137. While the exact foundation date of the priory is unknown, the Augustinians likely arrived in Clontuskert in the late twelfth century as part of the wider Church reform in Ireland. The priory is thought to have been founded on an earlier religious site which may have been in existence from the eighth century, although evidence of this early community remains uncertain. St. Boedan is associated with Cloontuskert, Co. Roscommon, often confused with Clontuskert, Co. Galway.


Clontuskert priory lies within the medieval territory of Hy Many associated with the O’Kelly family, which is reflected in its alternative name: Priory of St Mary Cluain Tuaiscirt O Máine. A fire in 1404 resulted in huge damage to the priory. The impressive architectural features visible today are the result of fifteenth-century restoration to repair the fire damage. The priory prospered under the patronage of the O’Kellys during the fifteenth century, and was transferred into the hands of the Earls of Clanricarde after the Dissolution. It was partly restored and reoccupied by the Augustinian canons during seventeenth century and finally entered the hands of the Commissioner of Public Works in the 1970s.

The People


The first reference to Clontuskert’s status as a religious house comes in an entry for 1219 in The Annals of the Four Masters that records the death of Melaghlin, the son of Conor Moinmoy, was slain by Manus, the son of Turlough O’Connor, who had taken his house (by force) at Clontuskert.


A papal letter from 1413 offered indulgences for the restoration of the priory after it was struck by lightning in 1404, which set the priory ablaze. The letter provides an insight into the community that existed there before the devastation. A prior and twelve canons are said to have resided in the priory, they had ‘books, jewels, ecclesiastical ornaments and other precious things’, pointing to the wealth of the place.


The O’Kellys were the main patrons of the priory throughout the fifteenth century and the settlement flourished under their care. However, the O’Kelly family also appropriated the right to appointing the prior, which resulted in papal disapproval. Many papal letters of the time reflect the disquiet about the O’Kellys’ behaviour; a letter dated 1473 accuses Donatus O’Kelly of keeping a concubine and committing homicide.


In the sixteenth century, following the Dissolution, the priory and all its possessions were leased to William Burke of Rahale, brother of Ulick Burke (d.1544), first earl of Clanricard and then to Redmond Burke (d.1595), son of the first Earl of Clanricarde, for twenty-one years.


The site remained in the Clanricarde hands for further generations, passing to Richard Sassanach (the Englishman) Burke (d.1582), the second earl of Clanricarde and Redmond’s brother, and following his death it was divided between Ulick and John, Redmond’s two sons, who are said to have ‘spoiled Clontuskert’ after going into rebellion in 1595.


In 1610 the land was granted to Richard Burke (d.1635), fourth earl of Clanricarde, who leased the land to Thomas O’Kelly. Thomas it would seem was a cleric from a line of O’Kelly clerics who continued to minister in the area under the protection of the Catholic Earls of Clanricarde. Thomas most likely did not reside in the monastic site which was in ruin; however his presence displays the continuity of the O’Kelly influence in the area.


The Augustinians returned to Clontuskert after 1630 refurbishing some of the damaged buildings, some may have remained there until the Cromwellian wars and possibly afterwards. The site remained in the Clonrickard hands until 1716, when it passed into the care of Rev. William Fitzpatrick, Protestant Bishop of Clonfert, who along with the subsequent owners allowed the building to fall into disrepair.


Why Visit?


The rural location provides a serene and peaceful backdrop for this medieval priory. The elegant traceried east window, a cloister arcade and the remains of tombstones make the site well worth a visit, however it is the splendid west portal which marks out the priory as one of the remarkable sites of medieval Ireland. Two sides of the doorway are beautifully decorated with carved stone panels that display a mermaid, a pelican, dragons, birds, intertwined quadrupeds, Christological symbols and floral designs. At the top of the doorway stand four figures: Michael the Archangel with the scales, John the Baptist, Catherine of Alexandria and a bishop. A water font placed inside the entrance also features the representations of Catherine of Alexandria and a bishop.


Similarities between Clontuskert’s western portal and other contemporary decorated portals are a point of interest. Dean Odo’s doorway at Clonmacnoise cathedral, Co. Offaly bears many parallels with Clontuskert’s portal with its apparent focus on vertical pinnacles, vine leaf designs, dragon and angel motifs and the panels featuring the saints, with the Clonmacnoise doorway displaying Saints Patrick, Dominic and Francis. It is likely that the two doorways may have been constructed under the same master.



What happened?


1219: Melaghlin, the son of Conor Mainmoy, was slain by Manus, the son of Turlough O’Connor, who had taken his house at Clontuskert.


1379: Nicholas O’Quinaeych, Augustinian canon of St Mary’s was granted a dispensation in order to become prior of Clontuskert. The same year, a prior of Clontuskert was given jurisdiction over the Augustinian community at Aughrim and a papal indulgence was granted to those who visit and help to repair the priory.


1404: The monastery of Cluain Tuaisgirt Ua Maine was destroyed by fire after being struck by lightning.


1444: Death in battle of Prior Breasal, son of Eoghan O’Kelly.


1471: Restoration of the priory concludes with the erection of the western portal.


1551: Donat O Kelle, chaplain, confirmed by King Edward VI.


1567: Priory with its possessions leased to Redmond Burke, son of Ulick Burke (d.1544), 1st earl of Clanricarde.


1570: Priory is granted to Richard Burke (d.1582), 2nd earl of Clanricarde.


1595/6:  Sons of Redmond Burke partake in rebellion that results in destruction of the priory.


1610: Priory is regranted to Richard Burke (d.1635), 4th earl of Clanricarde.


1637: Partial restoration of the site, the chancel is roofed and a gable wall erected by Augustinian canons.


1716: Clonrickard lands including Clontuskert are leased to the Rev. William Fitzgerald, Bishop of Clonfert.



Entry by Anne O’Mahony