ANNAGHDOWN ABBEY OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST
The ruins of Annaghdown Abbey of St. John The Baptist were once a thriving community of Premonstratensian Canons, who followed a strict rule of prayer, work and charity. Today, only a few fragments of the abbey remain, but they still evoke a sense of history and spirituality.
The abbey was founded in 1223 by Murtagh O’Flaherty, the bishop of Annaghdown, who invited the Premonstratensian Canons from Tuam to establish a house in his diocese. The Canons were also known as the White Canons, because of their white habits. They followed the rule of St. Augustine, which emphasized communal life, poverty and obedience.
The abbey was dedicated to St. John The Baptist, and was also called Cella Parva, meaning “the small cell”. It was located in Annaghdown, a historic monastic settlement near the east shore of Lough Corrib. The name Annaghdown comes from the Irish Eanach Dhúin, meaning “the marsh of the fort”.
The first abbot of the abbey was Thomas O’Malley, who was said to be the son of a bishop and a nun. He later became the bishop of Annaghdown himself, from 1242 to 1250. The abbey prospered under his leadership, and received many grants and privileges from the local lords and kings.
The abbey survived until 1542, when it was dissolved by King Henry VIII as part of the Reformation. The lands and possessions of the abbey were confiscated and given to Sir Richard de Burgo, the Earl of Clanricarde. The Canons were dispersed or killed, and the abbey fell into decay.
Today, only a few sections of walls and foundations are left of the abbey. They are located in a field near a cemetery, surrounded by trees and bushes. The site is not well signposted, but it can be reached by following a narrow road from Castlequarter.
The most visible part of the abbey is the west part of the north wall of the nave, which has a pointed arch doorway and two windows. The doorway is decorated with mouldings and has a carved head on each side. The windows are lancet-shaped and have hood mouldings.
The northeast corner of the chancel is also still standing, with a window on the east wall and another on the north wall. The window on the east wall is larger and has three lights, while the one on the north wall has two lights. Both windows have tracery and hood mouldings.
A short segment of the south wall of the nave can also be seen, with a window opening on it. In the centre of the nave, there is a rectangular cairn of loose stones that were probably taken from the structure.
The church was aligned to the east-northeast (75°), following the tradition of orienting churches towards Jerusalem. The church measured about 25 meters in length and 8 meters in width. It had a simple rectangular plan, with a nave and a chancel separated by an arch.
The abbey of St. John The Baptist de Cella Parva was one of the few houses of Premonstratensian Canons in Ireland. It was part of a larger monastic complex that included four other buildings: a church, a nunnery, a cathedral and a priory.
The abbey and its associated buildings were important centres of learning and culture in medieval Ireland. They produced many manuscripts, such as the Annaghdown Missal and the Annaghdown Breviary, which are now preserved in the National Library of Ireland.
The abbey was also a place of pilgrimage and devotion, especially for the feast of St. John The Baptist on June 24th. The Canons celebrated the liturgy with solemnity and beauty, and welcomed visitors and pilgrims with hospitality and charity.
The site is currently under the care of the Office of Public Works, but it is not open to the public. There are no signs or information boards to explain the history and significance of the abbey. The ruins are also exposed to the elements and vandalism, and are in need of conservation and protection. If you are interested in visiting the abbey, you can contact the local heritage group, Annaghdown Heritage Society, who organise guided tours and events. You can also support their efforts to raise awareness and funds for the preservation of the abbey and its surroundings.
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