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Graiguenamanagh’s 800 years of faith

30 November, 1999

Colmán Etchingham looks at the history of Graiguenamanagh Abbey and the 12th century reform movement which brought the Cistercians from Wiltshire to the valley of the River Barrow

2004  marked the eighth centenary of the Cistercian monastery of Graiguenamanagh, Co Kilkenny, founded circa 1204. Among the achievements of Archbishop Malachy of Armagh, leader of the 12th century Church reform movement, was the introduction of Cistercian monasticism. This resulted from St Malachy’s friendship with St Bernard of Clairvaux, the leading mid-12th century Cistercian.

Malachy sought to re-ignite stricter Christian observance in an Irish Church that had grown complacent and lax. This is the way of Church reformers down the centuries: in Ireland itself, as early as the eighth century, the Céli Dé (Culdees or ‘clients of God’) had also returned to first principles. They advocated strict observance of the monastic code, in diet, general moral standards and the precedence of prayer and liturgy in the monks’ daily routine. The monastic stream within the early Irish church respected the Culdees, but continued to tolerate less rigorous forms of monasticism’. Many of those termed manaig ‘monks’ were more like a confraternity or third order, comprising married, property owning laymen, owing an especial religious and legal allegiance to their church and farming its lands.

Cistercianism was the most prestigious, austere, and strictly regulated form of monasticism in 12th century Western Europe. In Ireland, too, Cistercianism struck a chord with those who again craved reform. The annual assembly of the Order, the Cistercian General Chapter, regulated the affairs of each individual house, down to the minutest detail of the monks’ daily routine. Even the layout of the buildings in each monastery conformed to a standardised plan. The monks lived communal lives, sleeping in a dormitory, eating in a refectory and devoting much time to the office, or monastic liturgy. On Malachy’s initiative, the first Irish Cistercian monastery was established at Mellifont, Co. Louth, in about 1142, and there were about ten further foundations before the Norman invasion of Ireland in the 1160s.

From the 1170s onwards, Ireland was divided between the ‘land of peace’, under Norman colonial control and in which Anglo-French culture prevailed, and the ‘land of war and the ‘marches’, in which the Gaelic Irish still prevailed or resisted. Against this background, the Cistercian Order became divided along ethnic and cultural lines. This division appeared in the way the Order was organised in filiations (from Latin filia ‘daughter), that is, groups of houses owing immediate allegiance to the ‘mother-house’ from which they were founded. Gaelic Irish houses belonged to the filiation of Mellifont, while those founded by the Norman settlers did not, but owed allegiance to English, French or Welsh houses, from which their communities of monks originated. Graiguenamanagh, also known as Duiske, belonged in the second category. It was founded around 1204 by William Marshall, the leading figure in the second generation of Norman settlement in Leinster. Marshall brought in monks from the Cistercian house of Stanley, in Wiltshire, which was, therefore, Graiguenamanagh’s mother-house.

From the first foundation of Mellifont, there had been conflict between the ethos of the French monks and their Irish counterparts. So much so, indeed, that the French returned home, provoking St Bernard of Clairvaux to complain to St Malachy. Mutual misunderstanding grew within the Order after the Norman invasion, coloured by all the tensions of the broader political, social and cultural confrontation between the ascendant settlers and the retreating Gaelic Irish. It came to a head in the second and third decades of the 13th century, in what is known as the ‘Mellifont Conspiracy’. The Mellifont filiation resisted efforts of the general Chapter to subject it to regulation, but was eventually compelled to submit, chiefly by Stephen of Lexington.  He was abbot of Stanley, Graiguenamanagh’s mother-house and undertook a visitation of the Irish Cistercian houses in 1228 on behalf of the General chapter, to reform them radically, even compelling rebellious monks.  The Mellifont filiation was broken up and its member houses were re-assigned to the oversight of English, French and Welsh houses.

The specific causes of dispute are hard to discover. It seems, however, that at least some of what was in Anglo-Norman eyes abuse, and infringement of Cistercian rule, was to the Irish simply the accommodation of traditional monastic practice. Thus, for example, Irish monks preferred to dwell in individual cells, rather than communionally.  Equally, a nun’s monastery, adjacent to that of the male religious, though unacceptable to Lexington, was perfectly respectable in Gaelic Ireland. Lexington’s condemnation of sins of the flesh may indicate not mere abuse , but a ‘monasticism’ that encompassed a ‘para-monastic’ married Christian laity, in the older Irish manner. Indicative of the cultural conflict is the fact that Lexington obliged Cistercian monks to know Latin and French and dismissed Irish as a barbarous language, unsuitable for communication within the order. As might be expected, given the circumstances of it’s foundation, Graiguenamanagh took the part of the Norman establishment in this conflict, and its abbot was deputed to act for Lexington in completing the reform during 1229.

In the later Middle Ages, Graiguenamanagh experienced the later medieval decline of the Anglo-Norman colony and the Gaelic revival. The notorious Statutes of Kilkenny of 1366 attempted to stop settlers adopting Irish speech, culture and social habits, and there were enactments prohibiting ‘mere Irish’ from being professed as Cistercian monks in colonial monasteries. This measure was enforced at Graiguenamanagh in 1380. Moreover, the monastery was touched by the widespread decline in monastic standards. An illustration of the degeneracy creeping into the lives of some community members is the killing, in 1460, of a four year-old boy, by one of the monks, who had been practising archery in the monastic precinct.

Like other religious houses, Graiguenamanagh fell victim to the Protestant Reformation and was dissolved in.1536. In the 19th century, after centuries of ruin, the church was partly re-edified to serve as parish church. The surviving remains are well worth a visit (perhaps in conjunction with one to nearby Jerpoint), and includes much of the medieval fabric of what was the largest Irish Cistercian church. Such a visit serves to remind us of the sometimes turbulent but, nonetheless, fascinating history of Christianity in Ireland.

The Martyrdom of the Cistercians of Graiguenamanagh (1584) according to Philip O’Sullivan Beare.

This noble monastery is situated on the river Barrow.  The robbers went to seize on it.  When they were approaching, 12 of the religious went in ecclesiastical procession to meet them.  When they were ordered by those wicked men to take off their sacred vestments and to yield obedience to Queen Elizabeth, their superior replied (this was the Prior, for the Abbot Charles Cavenagh, who is buried in the old monastery, had died a few days before): That could not be done if they would keep intact the faith which they had pledged to God, his Virgin Mother, and St Bernard, and the Christian piety of which they had made profession; they would not violate their promise or their duty as Christians.  The others gave their assent to his resolution, and they were all slain.

Decas Patriciana. Madrid 1624. (Maynooth college Library).

Article Credits
This article first appeared in Word ( August 2004), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.