Inislounaght Abbey was one of the great Cistercian monasteries of Co Tipperary. Unlike other well preserved examples like Kilcooley, Holycross or Hore Abbey little survives above ground.
Inislounaght would have had the same ground plan as other contemporary Cistercian monasteries with a central open cloister surrounding by monastic building with the church located on north side of the cloister. We can only speculate as to its size or choice of windows, doors and carvings Was it as elaborately decorated as Holycross abbey?
Inislounaght once stood at or close to the site of St Patrick’s Church of Ireland church, at Marlfield village on the outskirts of Clonmel on the northern bank of the river Suir. The large stone buildings of the medieval settlement are long gone replaced by a church and historic graveyard.
St Patrick’s church, built in 1818, is an elegant building dominated by a crenellated tower. Unfortunately the church was locked when I visited this week. I have been inside before many years ago and I remember that the building incorporates fragments of the earlier monastic church, the most prominent being a Romanesque doorway rebuilt into the interior of west wall.
Inislounaght was founded as a daughter house of Mellifont in the year 1148 but shortly afterwards became affiliated with Monasteranenagh Abbey in Co Limerick . The monastery went on to have daughter houses in Fermoy, Co Cork; Corcomroe, Co Clare and Glanawydan, Co Waterford (Stalley 1987, 246). A detailed history of the monastery can be found in Ó Conbhuidhe’s The Cistercian Abbeys of Tipperary. The monks here would have also been in control of pilgrimage at near by St Patrick’s holy well.
In the year 1540 the monastery was dissolved and by 1746 the monastic church was described as being ‘in ruins’ (Smith 1746, 48).
Glimpse of what the monastery may have looked like can be seen in the surrounding historic graveyard. A very prominent example being a 16th- /early 17th-century tapering graveslab incorporated into the graveyard wall.
“The slab is decorated, in relief, with a seven-armed segmental-headed cross with fleur-de-lis terminals. There is a three-barred knop at the base of the cross-head. The cross-shaft rests on a stepped base. There is a latin inscription, in Black Letter script, on the sinister side of the slab which begins beneath the cross-head. The HIC is in relief but the rest is incised. The inscription is quite worn, it has been transcribed and translated by Maher (1997, 66-67) as: HIC IACET PIUS V(I)(R) D(U?)S L/IBA..ER…. (Here lies Pius, noble husband?)” (Farrelly 2017).
A short distance away, part of 13th/14th century sandstone cross-slab has been reused as a modern grave marker. Both graveslabs would have been originally located inside the main monastic church.
Monastic churches were the favoured burial places of the great and good of society and it seems that Inislounaght was no different. Donations of land and money were given in return for burial within the church and the recitation of masses and prayer for the deceased.
Two elaborate pieces of funerary sculpture can also be seen in the graveyard. One is a fragment of a chest-tomb – a free standing, box-like funerary monument. Chest-tombs date from the 13th century AD onwards. Many late medieval examples have finely carved images of the saints (often referred to as weepers) set in niches surrounding the sides. When complete the Marlfield tomb have looked something like the chest-tomb in the photo below found at Jerpoint Abbey Co Kilkenny.
The Inislounaght example dates to around the 16th-century and is carved from limestone(Farrely 2017). I believe it to be an example of the O’Tunney school of sculpture, whose work is also found at Kilcooley and Holycross Abbey.
The fragment is decorated with three images of saints each set in a niche. The figure on “the right (the least in tact) holds a cross-staff, of which only the cross head survives. This figure may represent St Thaddeus who is often represented carrying a cross-staff.” The central figure is St Peter who carries a large key in his right hand and a book. The figure beside him is probably St Thomas, as he appears to be holding a spear in his right hand and a book in his left. His cloak is held in place by a diamond shaped brooch (Farrelly 2017).
Close to the chest-tomb fragment, is a heavily weather carved sandstone head of a woman. The stone is carved in high relief would have formed part of the top of an effigial tomb.
According to Farrely (2017)
“It appears to be a lady, wearing a gorget under the chin and possibly a nebuly head-dress, where the hair is held in place by a crespine of fabric or fine wire. The hair appears to be gathered at the top of the head and flows down over, and to the base of, the roll-moulding. The head is reminiscent of an effigy (KK022-055—-) from Ballykeefe, Co. Kilkenny which has been dated by Hunt (1974, vol. 1, 165) to c. 1340-1360.“
Structural element of the abbey’s building are also to be found. Fragments of cut stone are scattered around the graveyard with some reused to mark later graves. Several pieces of what was once a large tracery window and parts of a carved column sit around a modern grave. I’m told other carved fragments and cut stone from the abbey can be found in the stores of Tipperary County Museum.
When taken together the funerary monuments and cut stones all suggesting a finely decorated and beautiful church. A place where the wealthy from the area wanted to be laid to rest.
Anyone interested in folk art and gravestone will enjoy the many fine examples of 18th & 19th-century gravestones. I suggest a visit early morning on a sunny day.
Farrelly, J. 2017. https://webgis.archaeology.ie/historicenvironment
Ó Conbhuidhe, C. 1999, The Cistercian Abbeys of Tipperary. Dublin. Four Courts Press.
Stalley, R. 1987 The Cistercian monasteries of Ireland. London and New Haven. Yale University Press.