While I was in County Wicklow (Contae Chill Mhantáin), as I have earlier reported, I visited two very different monastic ruin sites: Glendalough, where Naomh Caoimhín (St. Kevin) established a “monastic city” in the 6th Century, and Baltinglass Abbey, a Cistercian foundation established in 1148 by Dermot McMurrough, king of Leinster. The former is now a very large national park with an impressive visitors center and a four-star hotel; the latter is tucked away in a forgotten corner of the town of Batlinglass in the churchyard of a minor Church of Ireland parish behind a national school, with no accommodation for visitors as all.
This is the second part of a two-part entry; the first part was a description of my visit to Glendalough. This is a description of Baltinglass Abbey.
Baltinglass was the second house to be colonized from the Cistercian (also known as “Trappist”) stronghold at Mellifont Abbey. The first was Bective Abbey in Co. Meath founded in 1147.
Mellifont itself was founded in 1142. Known in Irish as An Mhainistir Mhór, literally “the big abbey”, it thrived for 400 years until it was disestablished in 1556. Thereafter, it was used as a Tudor manor house until it was finally abandoned in 1727. New Mellifont Abbey was founded in 1938 and is now an active Trappist monastery. It is located in County Louth, north of Dublin.
Baltinglass was a successful abbey and, in its turn, colonized other foundations, including the more famous Jerpoint Abbey in County Kilkenny in 1180.
The construction of the permanent buildings at Baltinglass began only a few years after the initial foundation and the church was raised relatively quickly. The buildings are typical of the Irish versions of the Cistercian Romanesque style.
One of the abbots built himself a “tower house” or castle in the late middle ages, and in 1541 it was reported that Baltinglass owned castles at Graungeforth, Knocwyre, Mochegraunge, Graungerosnalvan, Grangecon, and Littlegraunge among others.
In the early 16th Century the annual income of the abbey was estimated at £76 in time of war and £126 in peace time. These may not seem like large figures until one considers the comparative value of the pound in the early 16th Century. That pound (actually a monetary unit known as the Angel at the time) would have a current value of £4,910 (or $8,105). Thus, annually the war time income of Baltinglass Abbey would have been £373,000 (about $616,000); peace time income, £620,000 (about $1,023,000). This made Baltinglass one of the richest Cistercian abbeys in Ireland at the time.
Perhaps its financial success is the reason Baltinglass was one of the first five Irish Trappist monasteries suppressed in the first round of closures during Henry VIII’s Dissolution in 1536-37.
Although none of the conventual buildings survive, the abbey church remains relatively unscathed. The church is considered one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Ireland. The church contains a rich array of carvings, including some with animals and human figures. The northeast crossing pier is decorated with a lion and foliage ornaments. The nave of the church is aisled with alternating cylindrical and square piers, which are of English origin, the bases of which are decorated with a range of unusual designs.
These were crafted by the so-called “Baltinglass Master” who subsequently worked on the abbey at Jerpoint. A series of tiles have also been discovered at the site; one design depicts a warrior thrusting forward with a circular shield.
Other features of interest are the bases of two Romanesque doorways in the nave aisle and the well-preserved sedilia in the presbytery.
An odd and very out-of-place addition to the site is a great pyramid style granite mausoleum, built in 1832 as a tomb for the Stratford family who were powerful estate owners in the area.
One wonders why, if a leading Irish architecture magazine (Archiseek) has declared that Baltinglass Abbey is “considered one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Ireland,” this site is not better preserved and presented. I have some thoughts, not all of them complimentary to the Irish people or the Irish church….
First, I would note that Baltinglass Abbey was not an indigenous Irish foundation – it was Cistercian, an order from France. Glendalough, on the other hand, was founded by a beloved indigenous, early Celtic saint. Now this alone is not a reason for it to be so ignored in its little corner of Co. Wicklow. There are plenty of well-preserved and better presented Trappist foundations; Baltinglass’s daughter house, Jerpoint Abbey, is one example.
Second, I think it more important in this regard to not that Baltinglass is not held and administered by the Office of Public Works, Heritage Ireland, or another state agency as the better presented sites are. Rather, it is (as noted) on the grounds of a parish of the Church of Ireland. All of the historic church properties of Ireland after the reformation (especially after the dissolution of the monasteries) became the property of the established church – although this country was a part of the English Crown’s domain at the time, this was not the Church of England. Rather the Church of Ireland came into existence as a reformed church independent of the Roman Catholic Church in 1536 when the Irish Parliament declared Henry VIII to be the Supreme Head of the Church on earth (i.e. Head of the Church of Ireland); Henry actually became head of the Irish church before becoming king of the Irish nation! He was not declared King of Ireland until 1541. (Previously, his title, one granted English kings by the Pope, was Lord of Ireland. The declaration that he was King of Ireland was, therefore, part of the Anglo-Irish ecclesio-political reform.)
The Church of Ireland was disestablished by The Irish Church Act of 1896, which empowered the commissioners of the Church of Ireland to transfer all important churches and ecclesiastical buildings into the care of the Irish State, to be preserved as national monuments and not to be used as places of public worship. One hundred thirty-seven ancient buildings, apparently not including Baltinglass Abbey, were listed for transfer to the Commissioners of Public Works. The paramount consideration was the saving of the nation’s architectural heritage. Had Baltinglass Abbey been transferred to the Public Works department, there would be a better chance of it having a better presentation.
Why do I think this would be the case? Two reasons. First, the Church of Ireland is not a wealthy church by any stretch of the imagination. I believe it is incapable of properly funding the support of its aging buildings, especially those which are not in regular use. In my travels around this country, I have been distressed to see the poor state of repair of many Anglican churches. If I were asked (and I haven’t been, admittedly) I would recommend to the Church of Ireland that it undertake a program of building renewal and refurbishment, and in some cases of building divestment – including divesting itself of antiquities it cannot properly maintain.
Second, the Church of Ireland is a minority church; in 2006 (latest year for which I can find statistics) less than 3% of the people of the Irish Republic declared themselves members of the Anglican church here. Nearly 87% declared themselves Roman Catholic. The other ten percent are shared among other Christian traditions and other religious faiths, as well as a large group (more than half the size of the Church of Ireland) who state they are non-religious. Despite being a modern, secular state (although one with heavy involvement from the majority religious body, especially in the area of education), Ireland is a very divided culture.
I remember being in Donegal and asking about the whereabouts of members of the Funston family there or in neighboring counties. The very lovely and gracious lady with whom we were talking was from the village of Pettigo and recalled that there were Funstons living there, “but they weren’t our people,” by which she clearly meant they weren’t Roman Catholic. (As it turned out, the Funstons we did eventually meet were Anglicans.)
I believe this divide deprives Church of Ireland antiquity sites like Baltinglass Abbey of the broader publicity and support they might otherwise get. I was surprised to find that, although there is public signage to other places in the village of Blatinglass (including Roman Catholic churches), there is none indicating where one can find the Abbey! (Remember, this is a place “considered one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Ireland”!) I had to stop at a petrol station to ask how to find it….
I may be wrong … but the difference in the treatment of these two monastic sites in the same county suggests to me that the Republic of Ireland still has a long way to come in the dealing with the divide between “Catholic” and “Protestant” (which Anglicans are here considered to be … and for now I won’t get into that debate).
Nonetheless, having visited both Glendalough and Baltinglass Abbey during my stay in County Wicklow, I give thanks to God for the witness of the men and women who lived and worked in such foundations. I offer in celebration of their faith the closing doxology of the Dánta Dé hymnal, first in Irish and then in translation:
Dennacht ocus étrochta,
Ecna, altugud buide,
A mórnert is comachta
‘Con Ríg comic na huile.
Glóir is cáta is caendúthracht,
Molad, airfitiud adbal,
Rográth ón uile chride
Do Ríg nime ocus talman.
Forsin Trínóid togaide
Ré cách, iar cách, do ellacht
Bennacht ocus bithbennacht,
Bithbennacht ocus bennacht.
And the English translation:
Blessing and radiance,
Wisdom and thanksgiving,
Great power and might,
Be to the King who rules over all.
Glory and honor and sweet-devotion,
Praise and wondrous music
Ardent love from every heart
To the King of heaven and earth.
To the exalted Trinity
Before all, after all, hath pertained
Blessing and eternal blessing,
Blessing-eternal and blessing.