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Cistercian Abbeys: BALTINGLASS

Name: 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.