go to home page go to byland abbey pages go to fountains abbey pages go to kirkstall abbey pages go to rievaulx abbey pages go to roche abbey pages
The Cistercians in Yorkshire title graphic

Text only version

About the Project






Contact Us

Cistercian Abbeys: HOLYCROSS

Name: HOLYCROSS Location: nr Thurles County: Tipperary
Foundation: 1180 Mother house: Monasteranenagh
Relocation: None Founder: Donal Mor O’Brien, king of Limerick
Dissolution: + 1600 Prominent members:
Access: Parish church - accessible to the public

It is generally accepted that Holycross was colonised from Monasteranenagh in 1180, although the foundation charter from Donal Mor O’Brien is dated 1185/6. The abbey was situated on the right bank of the River Suir, and it has been argued that there was a Benedictine abbey at the site before the arrival of the Cistercians. However, the evidence for this is inconclusive. It seems that the abbey struggled for existence and in 1227 provision was made for its union with Abington shouild the General Chapter decide that the community could not sustain itself. Stephen of Lexington visited Holycross the following year and declared that the abbey could maintain itself quite well. He sent a monk from Dunbrody to help with the administration of the abbey.

During the later Middle Ages, the monastery became famous for its sacred relic of the True Cross, from which the abbey takes its name. For over three and a half centuries the abbey was one of the most frequented pilgrimage places in Ireland. It is thought that the relic of the Holy Cross was bestowed upon the abbey by Isabella of Angouleme (widow of King John) in gratitude for the services of the abbot. Apparently her son by her second husband, Le Brun, count of La Marche, had met his death in the neighbourhood and the abbot had his remains interred in the church.

During the fifteenth century, Holycross embarked on a comprehensive programme of reconstruction. Holycross could afford such luxuries for the abbey lay within the territory of the earls of Ormond. This was one of the more prosperous and stable areas of the county. James, the fourth earl of Ormond (1402-52), commonly known as the White earl, gave financial assistance to the monks at the time of the reconstruction of the abbey. The offerings made to the relic of the Holy Cross may also have helped finance the scheme. It is thought that rebuilding was begun in 1431 but was not completed until the end of the fifteenth century. The late gothic church was thus reconstructed in a piecemeal fashion over a long period. The reconstruction produced an abundance of decorative carving; the shrine, sedilia and corbels are all covered with animal and foliage patterns. In the late fifteenth century, the annual income of the abbey was valued at £66, an income which can be compared with the smaller Cistercian monasteries of England, such as Buildwas and Croxden. At the time of the Dissolution the abbey transformed itself into a secular college to avoid closure, with the last abbot, Philip Purcell, installed as provost (or head). Following the Dissolution the abbey goods were sold off. Brother John (Malachy Hartry) lamented the loss of these precious ornaments saying that they had been taken by the profane and given, not to the poor who needed them, but to the rich, who did not.

In 1558 the abbey was granted to Thomas, earl of Ormond, who offered to rent the rooms to the surviving monks, providing that they serve the parishioners and conducted services according to the Protestant Book of Common Prayer. Holycross managed to retain some identity as a religious house, partly because the section of the True Cross remained at the abbey and continued to attract pilgrims. In the early seventeenth century Luke Archer, ‘abbot’ of Holycross, led a revival of the Cistercian Order. A number of his followers were appointed to the abbacies of dissolved Irish houses, but there is no evidence that they had communities to govern. The year 1632 was apparently the last during which the relic of the Holy Cross was displayed for public veneration and the community subsequently withdrew to Kilkenny city, where a private house was rented by Luke Archer and his followers. The revival did not last long and was crushed during the Cromwellian wars of 1649-50. In 1640 Brother John (Malachy Hartry) compiled a chronicle of the abbey (Triumphalia Chronologica ('Triumphant History of Holy Cross'). In 1740 the last abbot of Holycross died. The abbey church continued to seve as a place of worship until the eighteenth century. In 1833 Holycross was purchased by Dr. Charles Wall, a Senior fellow of Trinity College, Dublin. He took an active interest in the preservation of the ruins and repaired the east window and restored parts of the nave. The property was given over to state care in 1880 and in 1969 an act was passed enabling the abbey to be restored and used again as a parish church.

Today there are few remains of the original twelfth-century church; only the north arcade of the nave and parts of the south aisle date from this time. Otherwise, the architecture belongs to the period of reconstruction during the fifteenth century. Among the most remarkable features are the east window, the groined roofing of the chancel and side-chapels, and the ribbed vaulting beneath the tower. The sedilia is considered the finest piece of church furnishing to have originated from medieval Ireland. The great variety of carved windows may be ascribed to the lack of coordination and to the prolonged progress of the building projects. A mural painting can be seen along two of the walls of the north transept. It is of a hunting scene, which was a favourite medieval subject.
Among the tombs is one with a sculptured cross, but without an inscription. Tradition says it is that of Isabella of Angouleme, who brought the portion of the True Cross to Holycross, and it is generally referred to as the ‘tomb of the good woman’. The shrine of the relic of the True Cross has now been restored to Holycross. It is situated between two side chapels in the north transept. It consists of a silver case enclosing a double armed cross of wood. The relic itself, a thin wooden slip, was attached to the cross, but it vanished from the site some time between 1807 and 1888. Some of the east and west range survive and a section of the cloister arcade has been re-erected along the north walk, beside the church. To the east of the cloister are the remains of the infirmary and abbot’s lodgings. From 1971to 1975 the abbey was restored as the local parish church, and since then many alterations have taken place in the claustral buildings. The church can be visited at all reasonable times.