Friday, April 26, 2013

Clontuskert Priory, County Galway

The Augustinian Priory of St. Mary at Clontuskert is thought to have been founded in the later part of the twelfth century by Turlough O'Connor, King of Connacht, on the site of an eighth century monastery dedicated to St. Boedán, although no archaeological evidence has been found as yet of the earlier monastery.
Originally Clontuskert would have been a considerably sized Priory that was regularly expanded, with a large undivided church dating to the late twelfth century that later became the chancel when the church was expanded in the early fifeenth century, it was enlarged again when a north transept was added to the building in the late fifteenth century. Though the Church still survives well today, many of the other structures only survive as foundations, although a small part of the cloister has been reconstructed from the remains found on site.
The Priory was under the patronage of the powerful O'Kelly family who held sway in this region during the medieval period, and the head of the Priory traditionally had the honour of inaugurating the new head of the O'Kelly's.
An O'Kelly Tomb dating to 1646

It is recorded in 1413 that an indulgence was granted to raise funds for the repair of the Priory Church that had recently been 'totally destroyed' by fire, and much of the visible architectural remains on site date to after this point.

It appears that the original Augustinian Canons were replaced by Augustinian Friars in the early seventeenth century, and a doorway in the Church between the chancel and nave has the date 1637 carved above it.

For me the most spectacular feature on the site is the amazing west doorway into the nave. It is beautifully carved and bears the figures of St. Michael brandishing a sword and scales for weighing souls on Judgement Day, St. John the Baptist, St. Catherine and a Bishop. It also depicts a pelican, a star, a pair of griffins, a dog, a deer, a rose and strangely, a mermaid (see bottom picture) who has a mirror in her left hand and a star in her right hand. Similar mermaids can be found at Clonfert and St.Nicholas's Cathedral in Galway (thanks to Finn Delaney for the great reference there!).  The inscription above the doorway reads:
Mathev Dei gra eps Clonfertens et Patre oneacdavayn canonie esti domine fi fecert Ano do MCCCCLXXI
Which can be translated to:
Mathew by the Grace of God, Bishop of Clonfert, and Patrick O’Naughton, canon of this house, caused me to be made in 1471.
Close up of the top of the western doorway with (from left-right) St. Michael, John the Baptist, St.Catherine and a Bishop
 This doorway alone is worth the trip to Ballinasloe, as it has some of the finest fifteenth century medieval carvings in Ireland.
Contuskert Priory is very easy to find. Simply head from Ballinasloe towards Portumna on the R355, go past the Ballinasloe Golf Club and keep going straight down the road, after about 5-6km on the R355 you'll see the site on your left hand side. There is a small carpark then the site is a short 100m walk down a lane.

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All photographs © Neil Jackman /
The Mermaid at Clontuskert, she's no Darryl Hannah