Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Athassel Abbey, County Tipperary

Athassel Abbey is located close to the village of Golden in Co. Tipperary and is a fantastic example of an Augustianian Priory. Indeed Athassel Abbey was once an important urban centre in medieval Ireland. It is said that there were over two thousand people living in a settlement around the Abbey, but today the ruins of the abbey slumber beside the meandering River Suir, with no visible traces of the vibrant settlement that once surrounded it.

This Abbey site was founded in around 1200AD by a prominent Anglo Norman named William Fitz Aldhelm de Burgo. He was granted extensive land in Tipperary and decided to give some of that land to the church to create a bastion of Anglo Norman worship in the Irish Landscape. It is likely that William de Burgo himself lived quite close to the site where the abbey was to be built, the remains of a motte stand across the river from the abbey. Mottes were built by Norman lords in the years after their arrival in Ireland as defensive sites to gain control of strategic areas. Today the motte at Athassel is very overgrown but it is an interesting indication of strong Anglo Norman presence in the area.
In 1205 it was noted that William died and was buried at the abbey he founded. This set an important precedent, from that point on Athassel was regarded as the final resting place of the powerful de Burgo [also known as Burke] family who continued to thrive in Ireland and went on to become Lords of Connacht and the Earls of Ulster in the thirteenth century. Indeed an impressive tomb was discovered at Athassel dating to the early fourteenth century. This work featured carvings of knights and was of such quality only someone of great wealth could afford to have commissioned it. It is unclear which member of the De Burgo family commissioned this work, but the beautiful example of a medieval tomb is one of the few Irish examples that still has traces of its original paint. The tomb was moved to the museum in the Rock of Cashel and can be seen there today.

Augustinian Canons came to Athassel on de Burgos request and initially built half a church, followed by a cloister area, then a chapter house and dormitories with a refectory or eating area before turning their attention back to the church to complete the nave or congregation area. The priory was dedicated to St. Edmund.  The support from a wealthy family like the de Burgos and the location of the Abbey on the banks of the navigable River Suir insured that it would become a prominent economic hub and settlement quickly grew around it. The burgeoning town was granted the valuable privilege of the right to hold an annual fair for seven days that attracted people from surrounding towns and villages from miles around. To put this in context, at this time Dublin was granted an annual fair of fifteen days. 

By the 1480s, the abbey was in decline. It had suffered during the fourteenth century from raids, burnings and plague, and by the fifteenth century Ireland was becoming more lawless as the power of the Anglo Norman lords was dwindling. In 1512, the strong connection with the de Burgo family was broken, and another family took precedence, the Butlers of Ormond. The Butler family had landholdings in south Tipperary and Kilkenny. The break with the Burkes was the beginning of the end for Athassel as shortly after King Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Athassel was spared until 1552, when King Edward VI ordered the abandonment of Athassel. It was burned one final time in 1581 by a member of the Fitzgerald family who destroyed the monastery in Athassel in a search of ‘spoils and booty’.
Athassel stands today as a testament to the different fortunes of the Anglo Norman families who came to Ireland in search of opportunities and land. One of the largest medieval priories to be found in Ireland, Athassel is incredibly well preserved and highlights the strong connections between the Norman Lords and the church and the value of strong patronage. The complex stretches across four acres of land and features one of Ireland’s only medieval gate and bridge complexes, a truly wonderful site to explore.

To get to Athassel, make your way to the village of Golden, Co. Tipperary via the N74. Drive through the village, over the bridge, directly after the bridge turn left (the site is signposted) and continue down this small lane. The site will be located on your left. There is limited parking. The site is located both close to the historical towns of Cashel and Cahir so why not combine a visit to Athassel with a visit to the wonderful Rock of Cashel or the magnificently well preserved Cahir Castle. If you are planning on visiting one of those superb sites try out our audioguides available from, packed with original music and sound effects they are a fun and immersive way to discover the history and stories of Ireland’s heritage.