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
Suir, and it has been argued that there was a Benedictine abbey
at the site before the arrival of the Cistercians. However, the
for this is inconclusive. It seems that the abbey struggled for
existence and in 1227 provision was made for its union with Abington shouild
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
During the later Middle Ages, the monastery became famous
for its sacred relic of the True Cross, from which the abbey
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
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.
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
England, such as Buildwas and Croxden.
At the time of the Dissolution the abbey transformed itself into
a secular college to avoid
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
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
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
apparently the last during which the relic of the Holy Cross was
displayed for public veneration and the community subsequently
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.
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
Today there are few remains of the original twelfth-century church;
only the north arcade of the nave and parts of the south aisle
from this time. Otherwise, the architecture belongs to the period
of reconstruction during the fifteenth century. Among the most
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
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,
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
The relic itself, a thin wooden slip, was attached to the cross,
but it vanished from the site some time between 1807 and 1888.
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
in the claustral buildings. The church can be visited at all reasonable