Monasteranenagh was founded in 1148 by Turlough O’Brien,
King of Thomond. Donal Mor O’Brien became patron of the abbey
after Turlogh’s death. It was a daughter house of Mellifont
and subsequently established three daughter houses of its own: Abbeydorney
(1154); Midleton (1180); Holycross (1181). Its name derived from
‘Manister an Aonaigh’, the monastery of the fair, after
a fair that was held at the site in ancient times. Its Latin name
represents the latinisation of the local river: ‘Magium’,
from the river Mague. It seems the monks were aware of the problem
of flooding and they built their monastery a little way from the
river, on a section of slightly raised ground. The abbey was heavily
involved in the ‘conspiracy of Mellifont’ and in 1227
affiliation of the abbey was transferred to Margam in Wales. In
the following year the Irish monks forced the abbot and the non-Irish
monks, who were mainly of Norman descent, to leave the abbey. The
remaining monks attempted to prevent Stephen of Lexington from visiting
the abbey by fortifying the precinct; they prepared the abbey for
siege, turning it into a castle and building a tower above the altar.
The ring leader was the King of Thomond, who resented the presence
of the Anglo-Normans in Ireland. Stephen of Lexington is known to
have said that the monks of Monasteranenagh had ‘drunk from
the chalice of Babylon’. The community was excommunicated
for revolting against their ecclesiastical superiors. Herbert de
Burgo, the bishop of Limerick, eventually recaptured the abbey and
reinstalled the monks who had been driven out. The rebellious monks
who returned and asked for mercy were absolved. By the end of the
thirteenth century the abbey had fallen heavily into debt, owing
£209 to the Ricardi de Lucca in 1302.
Monasteranenagh is thought to have been one of the richer Cistercian
monasteries although no reliable financial figures survive. The
abbey was suppressed in 1539-40, and the property was granted to
Sir Osborne Echingham in 1543. However, the monks were left in possession
of the abbey which they retained until 1580. Some of the monks who
were expelled from affiliated abbeys in 1540-2 are said to have
joined the community at Monasteranenagh.
Monasteranenagh was the
scene of a major battle during the Geraldine rebellion of 1579-1580.
In 1579 Sir William Malby led the English into battle against the
Irish and the Spanish. The Irish army was led by Sir John of Desmond.
After being defeated, the Spanish and Irish soldiers took refuge
in the abbey. The English army turned its guns on the abbey and
captured it. It is said that the abbot was beheaded on the altar
steps and that forty monks were slain within the precinct; the
tale, however, lacks reliable evidence. Malby then burned
the abbey causing
much damage: the Cistercian community at Monasteranenagh was no
more. The buildings were further damaged in 1585 when it became
the property of Sir Henry Wallop. He plundered and robbed the abbey
of all its valuables and left the ruins to decay.
Today, the ruins
include the church (which dates from 1170 to 1220) and an early
Gothic chapter house. The walls, gables and the main window frame
of the church are all extant. The tower fell in 1806-7; it was
to have been either the crossing tower of the church or part of
a sixteenth-century house that was constructed over the south transept.
The interior of the abbey was used as a burial ground until the
1970s. A short distance from the abbey is another set of ruins
which appears to be the remains of the old guesthouse.
on a flat plain, ten miles south of Limerick, and can be accessed
by the public at all times.