The County Longford village of Abbeyshrule famously takes its name from the abbey that existed there for centuries on the banks of the Inny, a tributary of the Shannon. The Annals of the Four Masters refers to it as ‘Mainister Shruthra’ (‘Monastery of the Stream’) in 1476, and the Irish word ‘Sruthair’ is sometimes translated as ‘a stream abounding in fish’. Raymond Hickey’s The Dialects of Irish: Study of a Changing Landscape, among other sources, examined the evolution of the word, with the final letter gradually changing from ‘r’ to ‘l’. Thus, in Irish, the placename is recorded early on as Mainistir Shruthair (Foras Feasa ar Eirinn by Geoffrey Keating), but nineteenth-century Irish scholar Dr. John O’Donovan’s research noted that “Sruthair is now corruptly called in Irish Mainistir Sruille”, and today the official Irish name is Mainistir Shruthla. Similarly, in the Anglo-Irish administration ‘Fiant’ decrees it is referred to (in English) in 1542 as Srure, in 1565 as the Monastery of Shrowl (Place Names of the County of Longford by Rev. Joseph MacGivney), in 1567 as the Church of Shrule, in 1569 as the Monastery of Strowell [sic], in 1612 as the Abbay of Shrowle, in 1620 as the Abby Shroill alias Shroyr, in 1659 as Abbeyshroole and in 1682 as Abby Shrewell. Since that time it has been known as Abbeyshrule or occasionally Abbeyshruel.
The precise history of the abbey is unclear and research is contradictory. On-site information, credited to Fr. Colmcille, Cathal McGoey and Deirdre Murphy, suggests there may have been an abbey hereabouts in very ancient times, the death of whose abbot was recorded in 904 in the Annals of the Four Masters, and an inscribed early Christian cross surviving here may date to the eighth or ninth century. According to Rev. MacGivney, writing in 1908, a monastery was “erected here about the end of the 9th century, but it was destroyed by the Danes. About the middle of the 12th century O’Fearghail [O’Farrell], Prince of Anghaile [Annaly], erected a Cistertian institution here and enriched it with 20 cartrons of land, or about 1600 acres. In the founding of Mainistir Leathratha (Abbeylara), Richard Tuite proved himself a munificent benefactor, but O’Fearghail surpassed him in the erection and enriching of the great monastery of Shrule.” In 1891 the historian James P. Farrell (History of the County Longford) stated that the Danes who destroyed the old abbey came up the Shannon from Limerick, and that the O’Farrell Prince of Annaly raised the new monastery for the Cistercians in 1340, its first abbot Maceatalius dying in 1365. In his 1942 Album and Memorandum of the Parish of the Two Abbeys – Abbeyshrule (Mainistir Sruthair) and Abbeyderg (Mainistir Dearg) – and of the Two Sineachs – Taghshinny and Taghshinod – and of Carrickedmond’s Glean na hAltora, 1142-1942, Rev. Edward O’Reilly clears up this contradiction by pointing out that O’Donovan had reported the foundation date as 1340 in error; that while the exact date of its foundation is uncertain it was most likely founded in 1150 and was the fifth ‘filiation’ (daughter) of Mellifont Abbey, the first Cistercian monastery in Ireland founded by St. Malachy and St. Bernard in 1142, that it was known as ‘De Benedictione Dei’ [Blessed by God], and that the abbot Mac Catalius or Mac Cahal died in 1355. Although Lewis Topographical Dictionary (1837) states that “Abbeyshrule belonged to the Canons Regular” (Augustinians), The Traveller’s New Guide Through Ireland (1815) reaffirms the general view that it was “founded by the family of O’Farrel for monks of the Cistercian order, under the invocation of the Virgin Mary”. The 1848 research of Rev. James Lyster indicated either that “the Abbey of Shroule was founded in 1150 for monks of the order of St. Bernard [Cistercians], by O’Ferral of Analy” (Ware, de Antiq. Hib. c. xxvi) or that “it was not founded till 1200, and a branch of Mellifont” (Allemand, Hist. Monast. d’Irlande p. 180. Ingelinus), and that the abbey “had the Rectorial Tithes and large possessions in the Parish”. The information plaques at the site state that the abbey of Abbeyshrule, known as ‘Flumen Dei’ (‘River of God’), was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary around 1150 but that the current abbey ruins date to about 1200, the affiliation having switched from Mellifont to Bective Abbey after Stephen of Lexington’s visitation in 1228.
The monastery itself was relatively large, containing a cloister arcade along with a chapel, sacristy, pantry refectory and kitchen. The river was the principal mode of transportation and communication, and the monks built water-driven mills, starting an industry that lasted for centuries along this part of the Inny. The Cistercians also taught more advanced agricultural methods and operated free schools for the local population. In 1682 Nicholas Dowdall described its legacy thus: “at a place called Abby Shrewell, here is the ruines of a great Abby and is not built altogether after the forme of other Abbeyes but like a Colledge where tis said the Famousest College in this Kingdome was once. It is situate close on the river, and was called Monaster Fluminis Dei. It was of St Bernard’s Order governed by an Abbot. It is planted in the most fertile land of this county.” (TCD Ms 883). The abbey later came under the complete control of the O’Farrell chieftains; when Abbot Gilbert died in 1430, Kenan O’Ferrall unlawfully replaced him and took possession of the abbey, and he was still abbot when a monk of St. Anastasius accused him of misrule in 1455. In 1445 the O’Farrells split Annaly into two rival states, the O’Farrell Bui of Upper Annaly having an important settlement at Pallas, very close to Abbeyshrule. In 1476 the abbey was burned and Pallas occupied by an Anglo-Norman army from Meath en route to Roscommon, but it was subsequently restored. Local information adds that “Momhnall O’Fearghaill (appointed 1485) may have been the last abbot as monastic life suffered a sharp deterioration at this point in history”. Although there are few traces of the outlying monastic buildings, the abbey church structure itself survives relatively intact, particularly its slightly later modifications. During the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries the central dividing arch of the original church interior was completely blocked up, halving its size, and three small barrel-vaulted chambers were built on to the western side of this new wall. Above this wall, a double bellcote was added over the roof, providing the modern ruins with their most recognisable feature. By order of Henry VIII all monasteries were dissolved after the 1530s, their properties inherited by the newly-established Church of Ireland and sold or awarded to loyal nobles, this change happening only gradually outside the areas under direct English control. At its dissolution, the Abbey of Shrule possessed a vast estate of between 4,000 and 6,000 acres stretching beyond Colehill and to the eighth-century chapel of Agharra, close to where the Inny forms the Longford-Westmeath boundary. However, it is also reported that the monastery had been plundered by the O’Farrell lords ‘long before the dissolution’ of 1540-41, and that if monastic life had even survived until then it is unlikely to have continued beyond dissolution. In 1848 Rev. Lyster claimed that “the seal of the Benedictines [sic] who possessed the Abbey is in possession of the Very Rev. Dean Butler of Trim”.
Quoted by Rev. O’Reilly (1942), Father Paul Walsh stated that “the earliest lease of Abbeyshrule Monastery after the suppression was made to Thomas Nugent of Dublin in 1541. In the reign of Edward VI it was made over to the baron of Delvin [presumably Richard Nugent, 5th Baron Delvin].” Rev. MacGivney cited a “Lease under commission at Westminster, 8 Oct, VII of Elizabeth , to Thos Bryam, gent, the site of the monastery of Shrowl in O’Ferral’s country, in the Annale, lands of Urre in the great moor of Monedonoghue, four eel weirs on the water of Eyne [the river Inny], the lands of Cranaghe, Ballemanagh, Knockaghe, the Rectory of Shrowl alias Urre, three coples of corn and the Altarages due to the vicar excepted… To hold for 21 years, at a rent of 12 pounds 18 shillings 8 pence for Shrowl” (Fiants of Elizabeth). Rev. Lyster noted that “By lease dated 7th March 1567 (9 of Elizabeth), there were demised to R. Byam Esq., for twenty one years, the site, etc., of the Monastery of the B.V.M. [Blessed Virgin Mary] and the Rectory of the Church of Shrule, alias Urre, saving the Vicarage” and also “2nd May 1569 – granted to Sir R. Dillon, Knt., the temporal possession of the Monastery of Strowell at the yearly rent of £8 0s 9p, late Irish currency”, the latter date confirmed a century later by Father Walsh. Sir Robert Dillon was an Anglo-Norman Tudor loyalist from Meath who served as Chief Justice of the Common Pleas and Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, and who had a bitter and poisonous rivalry with the Nugent family of the Barons Delvin, and this may or may not have had something to do with these lands changing hands. James P. Farrell dated the suppression of the Abbey of Shrewle and its conveyance to Dillon to the later date of 1578 but, writing in the Ardagh & Clonmacnoise Antiquarian Society Journal (‘Abbeyshrule, Co. Longford’ – Vol.2 No.8), Right Rev. Mgr. Langan quoted Archdall’s Monasticon Hibernicum in full: “Abbeyshrule, May 2nd, 11th of Queen Elizabeth , the site of the monastery, with its appurtenances, 24 cottages in the town of Vore, 180 acres of land in the vicinity of same, 80 acres of pasture and underwood adjoining the same, one messuage, 4 cottages in the town of Ballnemanaghe, and 64 acres near the same, 2 messuages, 3 cottages in the town of Knockaghe, and 64 acres adjoining the same, were granted to Robert Dillon and his heirs in capite, at the annual rent of £10 12s, and 4d”. Sir Robert’s grandson, James Dillon, was created ‘Baron Dillon of Kilkenny-West’ (which is actually in County Westmeath) in 1619 and ‘Earl of Roscommon’ in 1622. A later Earl took the side of James II in 1689 and may have sold the abbey lands in support of the Jacobite cause at that time. Whatever the sequence of events, much of the former monastic property eventually became part of the Newcastle Estate based farther along the Inny near Ballymahon.
For comparison, the interior of Agharra Church as sketched by Du Noyer and today
Some sources state that, notwithstanding the earlier grants, the Abbey of Shrule was only officially suppressed by Elizabeth I in 1592. Mgr. Langan states that an inquisition of 26th January 32nd of Queen Elizabeth (1590) found that land in Moyltenny and Clanawly (near Abbeyderg) to the annual value of 3s., and in Killenboy, Rathsallagh and Tullenan to the value of 27s., were parts of the abbey property and, he continues, “An inquisition taken Jan. 22nd, 1592, found that at the time of the surrender of this Abbey, the abbot was seized (that is, possessed) of the Church of Agharye [Agharra], and the tithes of two quarters or eight small cartrons, of land, belonging to the said church in the village and lands of Agharye, in this country, the said church, with its rights, etc., being of the yearly value of 4s. Irish money, besides reprises, till then concealed from the queen”. The Traveller’s New Guide confirms, “At an inquisition held in 1592, it was discovered that on the surrender of this abbey, the abbot was seized of some possessions then concealed from the visitors, which were now forfeited on a more accurate scrutiny”. Father Walsh reported that in 1593 part of the abbey property came into the hands of John Lye, an Englishman who was interpreter for the Dublin Government. The abbey itself was attacked a second time and partially destroyed when the army of Red Hugh O’Donnell and Hugh Maguire invaded Annaly shortly after Easter of 1595, during the Nine Years’ War (1594-1603). As they marched they destroyed Longford Castle and any properties held by the English, reputedly leaving the entire area shrouded under a dense cloud of smoke. About 100 feet south of the abbey ruins is a four-storey tower with the remnants of a stone spiral staircase, probably built at around this period, which may have been a private residence. Rev. Lyster further noted, “19th June 1611 – Rectory granted to Robert Nangle [of County Kildare] for eighty years, saving the Vicarage, subject to £1 13s 3p Crown Rent”.
Part of the surviving abbey structure was turned into a chapel at some point, with two new walls (still standing today) built inside the former chancel to create a more compact space of less than one quarter of the original church, though still retaining the original East Window. This was likely a Church of Ireland parish chapel, given the proscribed status of the Catholic faith at that time, and as the townlands of Rathsallagh and Ratharney fell within this parish, the Moxhams who first lived there as far back as the 1680s may well have worshipped at this chapel initially. Among the testimony collected for the 1641 Depositions is that of a Robert Colden, dated 26 August 1642, who is described as “late viccar of Abiscruell and Curate of Archra & Rathreagh in the County of Longford”. Colden swore that in the 1641 Rebellion he was expelled by the rebels and deprived of clothes, books, ‘household stuff’ and two horses belonging to himself, his wife and his four children, and also of (so far) one year’s worth of church income and tithes, for which he sought government compensation. Colden was among 220 people who took refuge in the besieged Castle Forbes until starvation forced them out. Also of note among the Depositions is John Coles of the “Parrish of Abbey Shrowell” who, on 1 December 1641, had his hay, newly-built house, turf, clothes, linen and credit notes, totalling £265, destroyed by the Daltons of Dungalmow, County Westmeath; while John Cropley, late of “Abby Shrewle”, on 1 November 1641 similarly lost his corn, cattle, clothes, hay, turf, butter, cheese and other household provisions, and a valuable lease, totalling £560, to rebels from neighbouring Kilglass, Tenelick and Cornamuckla who claimed to act on behalf of a newly-Catholic King Charles I. There are also historical references from the 1640s and 1650s to abbots of Abbeyshrule, but it seems very unlikely that the holders of these titles had actual possession of the abbey by that period.
The smaller chapel seems to have fallen into disuse by the 1700s, after which the Church of Ireland parish of Abbeyshrule was merged with those of Tashinny and Taghshinod. The exact date of this union is not recorded; Rev. Lyster, who became rector of the united Church of Ireland parishes in 1848, noted, “Lease dropped in 1691 to Crown, and, under the Act of Settlement, became vested in the Bishop of the Diocese, subject to £1 10s 8½p Crown Rent” … “I cannot exactly ascertain when it was episcopally united [with Tashinny], but most probably at that time. The Church of the B.V.M. [Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as St. Mary’s Chapel] has fallen to ruins”. Lewis (1837) pointed out that in Tashinny there was “a rectory and vicarage… united by episcopal authority to the rectory and vicarage of Abbeyshrule”. The resulting united Church of Ireland parish was generally referred to as ‘Tashinny & Abbeyshrule’ until 1932 when it was, in turn, united with Shrule (Ballymahon) parish, and these were further united with Ardagh & Moydow in 1965 and Kilcommick (Kenagh) in 1971 to become the ‘Ardagh Group of Parishes’. (The name of the parish of ‘Shrule’, though nearby and along the course of the Inny, does not appear to be directly connected to ‘Abbeyshrule’.) In the parallel Roman Catholic system the parishes of Tashinney, Taghshinod and Abbeyshrule were similarly amalgamated to form the present ‘United Parish of Carrickedmond & Abbeyshrule’, with chapels at Carrickedmond and Abbeyshrule. The Church of the Sacred Heart at Carrickedmond is actually in the townland of Killeendowd, but retains the name of a previous church at neighbouring Carrickedmond, which itself replaced the disused original church in adjoining Taghshinod. The Church of Our Lady of Lourdes at Abbeyshrule was dedicated in 1980, replacing the earlier St. Mary’s Church which stood by the canal bridge in the village and was possibly built with the assistance of the Royal Canal Company in the early nineteenth century.
Rev. Lyster was not just an amateur historian but also an amateur artist, as his vestry minute-book from 1848 contains sketches of the abbey ruins looking much as they do today. The abbey was also the subject of a series of detailed paintings by the nineteenth century antiquarian George Victor Du Noyer during the same era, and James P. Farrell’s 1891 History of the County Longford featured a number of photographs of the then quite overgrown ruins. The most noticeable difference on viewing Lyster’s and Du Noyer’s sketches is that the level of the ground outside reached up to the base of the east windows, meaning the ruins were partially buried. Indeed, writing in 1943 in the Ardagh & Clonmacnoise Antiquarian Society Journal (‘Monuments – Abbeyshrule’ – Vol.2 No.9), V. Rev. M.J. Canon Masterson says that “under John Farrell of Corn Mills, Ballymore, … a great deal of loose debris was removed, uncovering a large number of human bones and skulls under the end window”. This discovery led to local speculation about the monks having been massacred, though there is no evidence to support this. Adding to the legend were stories of ghostly hauntings at the ruins, including a published account of an 1875 night-time encounter between G.H. Miller and an otherworldly ‘Monk’ at the graveyard. John Farrell is also credited with securing the base of the adjacent tower and preventing it from complete collapse, presumably during years recent to Masterson’s article. Rev. Edward O’Reilly’s 1942 history of the parish congratulates the County Longford Board of Health – the authority then responsible for the upkeep – for “their good, religious and patriotic work in preserving what remains of a famous monastery”, by way of repairing and cementing the still standing gable end with its three lancet windows and the eastern side wall with two windows in 1939. The cemetery and abbey were enclosed within the current boundary walls during the nineteenth century by, according to Canon Masterson, “King-Harman, father of the former member for County Dublin” (meaning Lawrence Harman King-Harman, father of Home Ruler-turned-Unionist MP Edward King-Harman, and the major local landlord at the time). These walls do not represent the extent of the original monastery, which covered a much larger area incorporating surrounding fields. Today the ruins at Abbeyshrule are well maintained and accessible, although the precarious-looking tower is fenced-off for public safety and remains as completely obscured by ivy now as it was in 1891. By way of comparison, Du Noyer also made paintings of the ruins of the associated churches at Agharra and Taghshinod in the nineteenth century, preserving details of their very ancient architectural features. As of 2014, the grounds at Agharra are well-kept, but the building itself is almost entirely covered by ivy. Taghshinod, which O’Reilly states was the subject of some preservation work by the Longford Board of Health before 1942, is now completely overgrown to the extent that it is no longer recognisable as a building, and only a few square-feet of the stone work admired by Du Noyer is visible even on close inspection.
Rev. Lyster also noted that the burial ground at Abbeyshrule contained several tombstones of a great age, including one to an abbot, and one extremely old highly decorated coffin-shaped stone (outside the south wall of the abbey) inscribed, “Pray for the soul of Father Farrall, Parish Priest of Abbeyshrule, descended of the family of Bacon, who caused this monument to be erected in memory of his father and grandfather, being both Lewis, and also his mother Marg. Ferrell, alias Fox”. Rev. O’Reilly stated that some Roman Catholic lay people have been buried within the walls of the ruined abbey, though the burial plot immediately outside the abbey walls has been used by both Protestants and Catholics. A fifteen feet high memorial crucifix was erected in the cemetery opposite the entrance gate in 1940, sculptured by James Plunkett of Lisnadarragh and supporting a bronze figure made in France. Abbeyshrule Cemetery proper is on a slight hill close to the road, very near, but separate from, the abbey ruins. Rev. O’Reilly dated the oldest headstone in Abbeyshrule to 1640, with some of the inscriptions dating back to the first part of the eighteenth century. In particular, he noted a tombstone dedicated to the very Rev. Dr. James Brady of Knockagh House or Hermitage, Roman Catholic Bishop of Ardagh & Clonmacnoise from 1758 until his death in 1788. His successor Dr. John Cruise was buried at Abbeyshrule in 1812. Other Catholic clerics interred here are parish priests Father Rhatigan who died in 1686 and Father Patrick Dillon who died in 1817, Father Matthias Kilchrist of Carrickedmond who died in 1810, Father Brady, a nephew of the bishop, and Father Thomas Kearney, a native of Abbeyshrule who died in 1814.
The central wall and bellcote circa 1891 and 2014