A Brief History of Kilnalahan

Talk given by Frank Burke, Author of book - 'The Abbey of Kilnalahan'

Frank Burke


Kilnalahan Abbey

Firstly, I wish to express my delight to have the opportunity to make a contribution to your seminar here in Abbey today. I have very fond memories of my time here as the local school principal between 1974 and 1979. During that period I got involved with a local group under the auspices of Abbey Muintir na Tíre with a view to ensuring the preservation and in so far as was reasonable the restoration of the ruins in the village’s monastic site. I wish to record the kind assistance of Vera Larkin and the invaluable support of Teresa Donnelly and Paddy Moloney in working towards these goals. Thankfully, after a considerable campaign, the monument known as Kilnalahan Friary was the subject of a Guardianship Order by the Commissioners of Public Works on 27 June 1979 and shortly afterwards under the leadership of Michael Lyons, Quansboro, work began treating the ivy, restoring the window features, repairing and strengthening areas of the ruins deemed to be at risk. I am pleased that the intervention almost forty years ago was crucial in preserving the remaining ruins in this unique monastic site.

Kilnalahan is generally accepted as the name of the site particularly over the last century. However, there are many spelling variations in manuscripts and documents referencing the site as follows: Kilnalekin, Kenaloyn, Kineleckin and Kinaleghin. These are all variants of the original Irish name Cinéal F(h)eichín — the Tribe of Feichin and Kilnalahan became the accepted English corrupted version over time.

Kilnalahan is unique in terms of Irish Monastic history because it was the site of Ireland’s only foundation for the Carthusian Order. The Carthusians were founded by St Bruno who was born in Cologne in 1038. At an early age he was sent to France and he became a Canon of Rheims in 1070. Ten years later in 1080, he decided to adopt a life of solitude and silence, far from the turmoil of the world and in 1083 with six disciples, he went to Greenoble where they were given a foundation by St Hugh in the desert of Chartreuse. So began the monastery of Chartreuse; a name which has been corruptly anglicized to Charterhouse. St Bruno founded a second monastery in the desert of Calabria and there he died on 6 October 1101.

The Carthusian rule was akin to the old Irish monastic rule of St Carthach of Lismore. The Order is strictly contemplative – prayer, study, spiritual reading and manual labour filling up the intervals of the canonical hours. The Carthusian Day begins with singing Divine Office at midnight, one of the longest in the church, a chant both severe and slow, private office in cells and each monk retires to rest at 2.30 am. Up again at 5.30 am for Mass, meditation, spiritual reading and portion of office up to 10.00 am. From 10.00 am to 2.30 pm is given to intellectual and manual work except for 30 minutes for dinner. Vespers are sung at 2.45 pm and the monks retire to their cells at 6.30 pm. They generally live in their cells except for thrice daily Matins, Mass and Vespers when they go to the monastic church, otherwise a life of solitude. However, on special occasions, there is mitigation when canonical hours are sung together in the choir and when dinner and supper are served in the refectory. In 1265, a weekly walk outside enclosure was introduced. The first Carthusian priory in England was established at Witham by King Henry II in 1178, a second charterhouse was at Hinton, Somerset in 1227 and then another at Beauvale, Nottinghamshire in 1243. Kilnalahan was founded by John de Cogan with the patronage of Richard de Burgo in the second half of the 13th century which was after Hinton and the dissolution of Ireland’s solitary Carthusian foundation took place some years before the establishment of Beauvale. There is a direct line of patronage for the Carthusians involving the de Burgos and ancestral/marital connections right back to Ella de Longespee, Countess of Salisbury, who endowed Hinton Priory in 1248. Given the patronage connections, it would be no surprise that the first Carthusian brethren to set foot in Kilnalahan came from Hinton Priory. Proof of the Carthusian establishment in Kilnalahan is to be found in letters issued by Kind Edward I on 27 July 1282 which guaranteed English protection “for the prior, monks and lay brothers of the Carthusian Order de Domo Dei Kinalehin”.

Back view of Kilnalahan Monastery, Abbey, Loughrea

Back view of Kilnalahan Monastery, Abbey, Loughrea

John de Cogan had been established as one of the de Burgo’s principal tenants and this is evidenced by Calender Roll entries 28 October 1245: “Grant John de Cogan and his heirs free warren (games rights) in his lands at Kilnalahan” and on 10 December 1252: “Grant John de Cogan … a weekly market on Tuesdays at his manor of Maysketh in Kinnaleghin and yearly fair there”. In his charter of 1252 John de Cogan grants to the Order of Carthusia the following lands: the village of Tyrloderan and Tullachmacrustin together with le Deres with fishing rights in Lough Derg and elsewhere in his demesne. A further grant of three quarters of land in Tomany and he confirms the right to bring water from Maysceth to their house. Essentially they were granted lands in Tomanymore, Tomanybeg, Tomanynamrahar, Lisdurra, Eaglehill and Doorus (with fishing rights). Regarding the Carthusian settlement itself we must presume it was very modest as we learn from correspondence from the Archbishop of Tuam 1371 that the Carthusians “had formerly a small oratory and a few cells in Kinelectin in the Diocese of Clonfert”. Another important reference to Kilnalahan is to be found in the Calendar returns for Ecclesiastical Taxation (1302-1307) where the value of £6.13.4 is inserted for the Vicarage, Carthusian Priory and Convent at Kenaloyn in the Deanery of Dondery. There are further references to the priory in lawsuits by Joan de Burgo where she was suing the prior John de Blohely “as custos of his lands for her dower theirout”.

So we can assume that the Carthusians enjoyed a relatively peaceful period at the beginning but with the continuance of a static, contemplative solitary group with no renewal or expansion led to the inevitable problem of dwindling numbers. Further, their big supporter the Red Earl was war weary and retired to the Abbey of Athassel leaving his title to his grandson William. Soon the Carthusians felt insecure and by decree of the General Chapter 1321, the English priors were ordered “to get what they could in rents and money from the Irish house since it was useless to the Order and further that no more monks be sent there”. Together with the shock of the Bruce invasion, then declining Norman power in the region, the old monks were pitiable. As Kilnalahan was suppressed, the younger, more able-bodied men were transferred across the Irish sea to the Order’s other houses while the older lived out their lives in Kilnalahan.

Points of interest on the Carthusians

1 The Carthusians had only one priory in Scotland at Perth, founded by James 1 in the early 15th century. The priory was sacked in 1559 – no remains today.

2 Carthusian motto : “The Cross is steady while the world is turning”.

3 The Carthusian monks in the French Alps have been producing the alcoholic Chartreuse Liqueur since 1737 (“Elixir of Long Life”).

4 There are currently 25 charterhouses around the world, five are for nuns. In all there are 370 monks and 75 nuns: France (6), Spain (5), Italy (4),South Korea (2), Argentina (1), Brazil (1), Switzerland (1), Germany (1), Portugal (1), Slovenia (1), UK (1), USA (1).

The Knight Hospitallers of St John Of Jerusalem became the new owners of Kilnalahan and negotiations about the sale had commenced as early as 1306. The sale may have been concluded then but the Carthusians remained on. The new owners were a semi-military monastic order and were brought to Ireland under Strongbow’s protection in 1174. Their main house was Kilmainham, they were all Norman personnel and were very powerful within the Pale. They had little interest in Kilnalahan other than collecting various taxes and rents for themselves. It was indeed an “absentee” property as is evidenced by reference in Blake Family records Power of Attorney given by the prior of the Hospital Kilmainham to Stephen Fitzjames Lynch, Galway, to grant leases of all lands belonging to the Hospital in Connacht, the Tithes of Kilnalahan, 22 July 1529. The property was surrendered to the Crown in 1540 with the Suppression of the Abbeys by Sir John Rowson, Prior of the Hospital. While they may never have set foot in Kilnalahan, yet as rectors they were legally obliged to the Bishop of Clonfert to provide for the spiritual ministrations of the district ecclesiastically connected to the rectory and given subsequent history, they seem to have discharged this by employing the Franciscan friars.

A five hundred year association with the Friars Minor Franciscans with Kilnalahan began on 29 July 1371. Pope Gregory issued a papal bull addressed to Archbishop of Tuam granting permission to the Friars Minor to establish “a Guardian and community of Friars” at Kilnalahan. It was issued from Avignon and was a reply to a petition requesting his assent to establish a community of twelve friars at the poor oratory and simple cells now derelict and deserted by Carthusians thirty years previously. Pope Gregory also assented to the construction of “a bell tower, oratory, dormitory and other necessary structures”. The Franciscan order responded with immediate preparations to establish the new foundation and by 1390 they had taken possession.

A good understanding and appreciation of the Franciscan Order and their form of life is greatly assisted by looking at the life of their founder. St. Francis was born in Assisi on the slopes of Mount Subiaco (Italy) in 1181. Francesco lived rather extravagantly as a boy but by the age of 20, he had developed a sincere compassion for the poor. To the despair of his parents he spent his money and energy repairing neglected churches. He also worked with inmates of leper hospitals and spent long periods in solitary prayer. His preaching and warm personality drew men around him. In 1209, he had eleven followers and by 1220 he had five thousand and he was spending most of his time in remote hermitages until he finally passed away at the small chapel of Portiuncula on 3 October 1226. The first Franciscans in Ireland arrived in Youghal in 1229 and in 1390 they established a community of twelve Friars and Guardian at Kilnalahan. Earlier, the order had established communities in Claregalway 1290 and Kilconnell much later. Whereas the Carthusians lived in cells, a solitary enclosed contemplative austere lifestyle, deriving their sustenance from the land, the Franciscans were very different. They had little lands and once they repaired their new abode, they went about their pastoral duties travelling among the people questing. They were well received. They also wanted to expand. Another Papal Bull was issued in 1400 by Pope Boniface IX granting relaxation of penance to those who visit and give alms for the repair of the church of St. Patrick of Kilnalahan.

The Franciscans did not as yet receive the same cushion of support/patronage as the Carthusians had. However, they were responded to generously locally and for the next two centuries they remained in undisturbed peace at Kilnalahan. Indeed it is also believed that they were working priests of the extensive and densely wooded parish of Ballinakill throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Their abode was secluded, they had little wealth and would not have been considered worth the trouble of confiscation. In fact, they largely escaped notice of Crown agents who were actively suppressing religious houses. However, in a report from 1603 it is recorded that the poor friars were still at Kilnalahan but that the buildings had been largely destroyed as Bingham’s troops “freebooter style” pillaged it and left it in a charred ruin. King James I granted Kilnalahan to John King of Dublin the “esteemed trafficker”. He also received the farm of local man Hugh McNevin Crannagh arising from a recent rebellion. This meant eviction for the poor friars while King sold on his interest in the property to Richard the 4th Earl of Clanricarde in 1611.photo F Burke Arches

Even though the friars were dispossessed, the Provincial Chapters of the Franciscan Order were held in a nearby wood in both 1609 and 1612. The friars were living locally and were determined to re-establish Kilnalahan for themselves and were greatly encouraged with the Earl assuming ownership. So they cautiously proceeded with the work of restoration. The Red Earl paid for the construction of a dormitory and other domestic buildings while his mother paid for re-roofing the church. Fr Donatius Mooney, a Franciscan historian in a translation states “This convent in the Diocese of Clonfert and on the slope of Sliabh Aughty … very solitary and remote … however it is a desirable place of abode for our brethren”. He describes the rich and cheerful gardens, beautiful orchards, the buildings were burned and walls of the convent are deprived of a roof. The priory was fully restored by 1615 and was occupied in intervals as persecutions allowed. The ruins we see today at Kilnalahan are what remains of the buildings discussed above.

Brother Michael O’Cleary, the celebrated Four Master visited Kilnalahan to study manuscripts and in particular the Leabhar Breac or Leabhar Mór Dúna Dhoighre. These manuscripts were compiled by the MacEgans around 1411. He certifies his visit in a footnote in his life of St. Ceallach. “In the monastery of Cinéil Feichín the poor friar wrote this compilation … having compiled it from The Book of Duniry 3 October 1629”. Furthermore, this visit is depicted in a moulding on the top right-hand pillar in St. Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea. The Leabhar Breac is now a special exhibit in the Royal Irish Academy.

In 1642 John de Burgo was consecrated Bishop of Clonfert in the church of the Kilnalahan friars. The church and cloister were all perfect and the assemblage included Ulick the Fifth Earl of Clanricarde, Malachy O’Queely, Archbishop of Tuam, Bishop Egan of Elphin and Bishop O’ Molloney of Killaloe. This consecration is also depicted in another moulding in St. Brendan’s Cathedral.

Kilnalahan 1641 consecration

In 1649, the era of Cromwell in Ireland dawned and of immediate interest to the Kilnalahan friars was that Portumna Castle (the Clanricarde home) with its 6,000 acres was reserved for Cromwell’s second son Henry. And so, having lost their protector, they fled the monastery hiding locally until 1662 when the de Burgo estate was restored to Richard the Sixth Earl. With the help of their neighbours, they evaded the brunt of the vicious religious persecution of the time.

There is mention of the Kilnalahan friars in 1670 when they were in dispute with Galway friars about the right to quest in Kilmacduagh. The matter was resolved with the Kilnalahan friars ceding some of their traditional questing grounds. They enjoyed a period of peace and safety again until the introduction of the Penal Laws. From 1 May 1698 “bishops, priests, monks and friars were obliged to leave the kingdom …. and anyone remaining will be apprehended”. The poor friars at Kilnalahan had no option but to disappear. Prior to their departure, they placed their valuable objects with local friends for safekeeping from 6 April 1698. Examples include:

Simon Madden : one silver chalice, patena, white vestment

Lord Riverston : one silver chaliceChalice F Burke's094

Redmond Burke : one silver chalice, patena, an entire vestment and mass book. (See page 37 of History for entire list)

They bade farewell to their monastery. The older friars remained concealed locally and ministered to loyal friends. By 1710, the Penal Laws were relaxed somewhat and in March 1715, the Grand Jury of Co. Galway reported that friars had settled themselves again in areas including Tomany near Kilnalahan and in Meelick.

In 1730, they tried to return to a house and eight acres adjoining the abbey but they found a Matthew Aylward following a soap boiling trade in it. Then by 1744, they seem to be back in Tomany as Richard Croasdale reported the existence of a friary there and names four friars Nicholas Walsh, Anthony Burke, Dominick Hickey and Fr Madden. From here on, Kilnalahan does not feature in ecclesiastical records other than the appointment of Guardians which continued up to 1872. The house was vacant many years earlier so they were merely paper appointments towards the end. The final years saw a dwindling community of a few friars residing in their place of refuge Tomanynamrahar travelling, preaching and celebrating Mass. Ballinakill parish which included Abbey at the time had a population of 14,000. The friars received gifts of butter, corn, wool and food as they strolled the countryside.

In about 1790, the friars finally abandoned their monastery and gardens forever. As already stated the older friars remained locally in their home of refuge while the more able and younger friars transferred to Meelick. At the General Chapter of the Order in 1853 the monastery is recorded as vacant. In any case over time it became a ruin with internal walls and roofs collapsing. Just as the friars served a vast area of countryside the entire monastic site including the floor of the church became the treasured eternal resting place for the dead of families from as many as seven surrounding parishes.

Kilnalahan Abbey taken by photographer Robert French between 1865-1914

Kilnalahan Abbey taken by photographer Robert French between 1865-1914

Mar deireadh a chur leis, seo léiriú ón t-Ath.S O Siadhail : ¨Is ciúin an áit faoi láthair, ach na fothracha atá le feiceáil, agus an roilig thart timcheall cuireann siad i gcuimhne do mhuinntir na háite gur áit bheannuighthe í, agus gur bhreá an obair a bhí ar siubhal innte, nuair a bhí na Bráithre Bochta ag friotáil ar na seacht bpobal ó Dhoire Bhriain soir go Sruthall agus ó Inis Cealltra ó thuaidh go Gort Uí Mhadáin”. The remaining ruins of Kilnalahan are in the heart of Abbey village. Thankfully, no longer negligently adrift, these ruins are appropriately preserved and restored. They will serve as a reminder for future generations of a rich and unique monastic history that spanned seven centuries.Beannachtaí Dé ar phobal na Mainistreach go deo!

Frank Burke.


This page was added on 06/09/2014.

Comments about this page

  • My grand uncle Michael O’Connell published a book back in 1932 about Kilnalahan Abbey. Information very similar to this. Written in Irish. I hold a copy of same.

    By Kitty Gohery (nee Dillon) (29/11/2015)
  • Thank you so much for the wonderful and detailed history of the Abbey. My name is Becky Montelaro and I live in New Orleans. My grandmother’s maiden name is Fallon or O’Fallon. It is my understanding that the Fallon’s also came from that area and had a lot of interaction with the Abbey. Have no idea if this is the same Fallon family that came to New Orleans but would love to check it out. Both families seem to have a lot of the same traits. Please let me know if you have any information on the Fallon’s.


    By Becky Montelaro (29/04/2015)

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