BALTINGLASS Location: Baltinglass town County:
Wicklow Foundation: 1148 Mother house:
Mellifont Relocation: None Founder: Dermot
McMurrough Dissolution: 1536 Prominent members: Access: Accessible to the public
Baltinglass was founded in 1148 by Dermot McMurrough, king of Leinster.
It was the second house to be colonized from Mellifont. The construction
of the permanent buildings had begun only a few years after the
initial foundation and the church was raised relatively quickly.
In 1228 it was recorded that there were thirty-six monks and fifty
lay brothers living in the abbey. In 1185 the abbot of Baltinglass,
Albin O’Mulloy, spoke out against the clergy coming from England
and Wales, criticising their evil ways and bad example for the innocent
Irish clergy. In 1186 O’Mulloy was made bishop of Ferns. After
the Anglo-Norman conquest of Leinster, Baltinglass retained a strong
Irish identity and the abbey played a big part in the ‘conspiracy
of Mellifont’. In 1227 abbot Malachy was deposed and Baltinglass
was made subject to Furness. A new, Anglo-Norman, abbot was installed;
the community opposed him, drove him out of the abbey, knocked him
off his horse and took the monastic seal. It took an armed force
to get the abbot reinstalled. Following the incident the cellarer,
being held responsible, was expelled to Fountains where, for a year,
he was to take the ‘lowest place among the priests’.
The new abbot resigned nevertheless. 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, Littlegraunge
amongst others. In the early sixteenth century the annual income
of the abbey was estimated at £76 (£126 in peacetime)
making it one of the richest Cistercian abbeys in Ireland at that
time. The Dissolution came quickly to Baltinglass: it was one of
only five Irish Cistercian monasteries suppressed in the first round
of closures, 1536-7.
Following the Dissolution the old Cistercian presbytery was adapted
as a Protestant church and the tower house became the home of the
FitzEustace family. The tower house was broken down, along with
parts of the monastery, when James FitzEustace rebelled in 1580.
In 1587 a house was erected on the site, possibly a rebuilding of
the former tower house. This survived until 1882 when it was knocked
down to provide building materials for the glebe house and new church.
The new church was completed in 1883 and the abbey church was then
abandoned. Although none of the conventual buildings survive, the
abbey church remains relatively unscathed. The church is now 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 north-east crossing pier is decorated
with a lion and foliage ornaments, while a bronze crucifix in the
Romanesque style also survives. The nave of the church is aisled
with alternating cylindrical and square piers, 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. Adjoining the abbey 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. Other features
of interest are the bases of two Romanesque doorways in the nave
aisle and the well-preserved sedilia in the presbytery. The abbey
ruins are situated on the east bank of the river Slaney, north of
Baltinglass town and are accessible to the public.