Cistercian Archaeology Web Site


The Cistercian Abbey of Abbeyknockmoy, County Galway, Ireland, was founded in 1190 by Cathal Crobderg Conchobair [O’Connor], king of Connacht. The first monks arrived from Boyle Abbey and two or three decades passed before the community commenced construction of the permanent buildings. The abbey was situated on a particularly desolate terrain, lying in an open valley exposed to the winds sweeping eastwards from the Connemara Mountains. Much of the surrounding land was little more than heath or bog.

Cathal Crobderg Conchobair spent his last days as a monk at Abbeyknockmoy and died in the abbey in 1224. He was buried in the grounds of the monastery, as was his wife seven years before. The abbey thereafter became a mausoleum for several generations of the Conchobair family. In 1240 the abbot was disgraced for allowing a woman to wash his head. The house was never a rich one. In the taxation of 1302-06 the income of the house was valued at 42 and in 1411 the abbot complained to the pope that his house was so poor that he could not maintain his community properly and one of his monks was granted licence to serve a parish church. By the end of the 16th century the house was fairing little better: the inquisition of 1584 put the income of the house at 78 which for Ireland, was relatively high.

In the later Middle Ages the house fell under the control of the O’Kelly family. Elaborate mural paintings can be found on the arch which covers the tomb of Malachy O’Kelly, lord of Ui Maine (d. 1401) and his wife Fionnuola (d. 1403). The mural portrays the crucifixion with four attendant figures; this was characteristic of Gothic religious art and was a common way of decorating such recesses in England. On the wall to the east of the O’Kelly tomb was another mural divided into two registers. The first shows three living subjects encountering three dead, a reminder of impending judgment; the other shows Sebastian, a saint frequently invoked against the plague. These wall decorations provide the best illustration of what must have been a fairly typical scheme of late gothic painting.

In 1542 Hugh O’Kelly, abbot in commendam, surrendered the abbey to the king’s officials but successfully defended his possessions by acknowledging the supremacy of King Henry VIII. In return he was granted the abbey and his lands for life. Following the Dissolution, a form of secularised monasticism seems to have continued at the abbey. Today a substantial portion of the church and claustral buildings survive and there are many recent burials within the cloister and church. Abbeyknockmoy, although remote, is one of the most impressive Cistercian monuments in Ireland.

Plan of Abbeyknockmoy:

    Cochrane, R. 1904. Abbey Knockmoy, County Galway: Notes on the Building and "Frescoes", The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 34 (3), 244-253.
    Stalley, R. 1987. The Cistercian Monasteries of Ireland, London: Yale University Press.
    Sweetman, P. 1987. Archaeological Excavations at Abbeyknockmoy, Co. Galway, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol. 87C, 1-12.
    University of Sheffield,The Cistercians in Yorkshire Project.



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