Rathfran Abbey Ruins

Rathfran Abbey Illustration

The Dominican Abbey or Friary ruins of Rathfran are located on the left bank of the Avonmore river, near to its mouth as it flows into Killala Bay in north Mayo.  According to the The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquarians of Ireland vol XXV11, 1998 ‘the Friary of Rathfran occupies a pleasant & picturesque position, being sheltered towards the north and west by low grassy hills, and, stands above a tidal creek, occupying a place, which, in early times, must have been an important settlement, judging by the earthen forts and great stone ‘giant graves’ lying around the Friary.’   Rathfran Abbey was founded during 1274 then dedicated to the Holy Cross by Norman couple William (Gray) de Burgh with his wife Finola D’Exeter. The site was once the principal seat of the fifth century King Amghalaigh with also his Hy Fiachrach descendants.  A strong tradition remains that the first Dominicans arrived at Rathfran during 1274 with possibly the first prior as Stephen D’Exeter.  In the Book of Laecan that great topographical poem by Irish scholar Giolla Iosa Mór Mac Firbhisigh a reference to the abbey was ‘Rath Branduibh as Bind Cluig.’   According to the antiquarian John O ’ Donovan ‘the rath or earthen fort of ‘Brandubh’  was possibly ‘Bran’s Fort.’  This fort was recorded in the ordnance survey letters 1838 as ‘Rath Frannaigh’  later was Anglicized as Ra(t )h-Franny, Rathfran.   Rathfran complex consisted of a church with a lateral chapel to the south also two small ranges of domestic buildings towards the north.  The latter buildings were composed of a vaulted room attached to the church.  A building from circa 1480-1520 was two stories in height with some small lights of two double ogee heads with a third just a small slit in the eastern wall.  This abbey that included lands was leased to Thomas D’Exter / Exeter during 1577.  In 1605 the land was leased to Donat Earl of Thomond & later to William Knight.  On Saturday the 5th January 1839, the elaborate ornate frame of the east window was shattered during Oíche na Gaoithe Móire.  Just the side piers with their well moulded angle shafts now remain of the east window.  South windows of the abbey were of considerable height: they had double lights with plain pointed heads.  In the first: a lower two- light window was inserted that had two circular heads.  The second one was built up whilst in the third the original heads had been removed from their position then utilized for the lower right.  On that all a trefoil-headed piscine  had two shelves with two basins. Close by was a semi – circular sedile with similar mouldings beneath a projected cornice with trusts under the second window-sill.  A strange little piscine that consisted of a sill & cinqfoil head plainly chamfered also a shelf may be seen close by the plain door that led to the side chapel. west window with two round lights was from a later date.  Above the window was a carving of the crucifixion.  The side chapel has a decorated Gothic east window.  During the 1970’s the Board of Works carried out restoration work with two grave-slabs moved to their present position either side of the high-altar from their original sites in the alcoves at the gospel side of the altar; to possibly preserve the Inscriptions that would have deteriorated further in their prone or more exposed former positions.  The height of gravestone was six feet four inches with a width of two feet wide at the top also it narrowed to one foot six inches at the base.  Gravestone on the left of the altar featured a large cross:  Several figures were carved on its face along with a Latin inscription down its length.  A possible Inscription may have been: ‘Joannes O’Munilay (or O’Maille) me fiery fecit 1018.’   The other gravestone stands at a height of six feet nine inches: it is narrower at the top than at the bottom, one foot ten inches at the top with two feet four inches at the bottom.  This stone is elaborately carved with an interlaced Celtic-style design.  Another beautifully decorated tombstone with six lions passant was located within the centre of the church. Folk tradition recalls that the building stones for Summerhill House (in ruins nearby) were removed from the Rathfran cloisters ruins.  Several sketches & Images feature on this site including the artefact believed to be the royal seal discovered during the late nineteenth century that is housed within the National Museum in Dublin. [i]

This Priory of the Holy Cross was founded for the Dominicans during 1274.  The thirteenth century church was a long rectangular structure with a small crucifixion panel over the west door.  The remains of a fine triple lancet east window may still be viewed at the site.  Perhaps as late as the fifteenth century several of the lancet windows in the south wall were covered up.  During that same time an additional aisle with a fine window also the nave was partially reconstructed.  Originally two cloisters towards the church’s north were constructed but now just the foundations remain.  Church’s living quarters on the north side may date from the sixteenth century: they had been incorporated into part of the original sacristy.  Richard Bingham burned the friary during 1590.  Friars remained in the neighbourhood up to the eighteenth century.  On the Ordnance Survey Map Rathfran Abbey is recorded as G189328.  Images of Rathfran Abbey may be viewed at this link. [ii]

Dominican Rathfran Abbey ruins lie close to the shore where the Avonmore river flows into Killala Bay.  This friary was founded in 1274.  It was suppressed by the British also burned by Bingham during 1590.  Little remains of the two cloisters or of the sixteenth century conventual buildings.  The main long rectangular church is in fairly good condition. Several friars remained in the area until the eighteenth century.  Images of the ruins feature on this site. [iii]

Officially named Holy Cross: Rathfran Abbey was one of the earliest religious foundations in Connacht.  Located in Templemurray parish within the barony of Tirawley. The ruins are approximately four miles north of Killala.  It was founded during 1274.  A record in the ‘Chronicon Ordnance Freed ‘ 1274 with an entry ‘Loca Rathbranna ei Derria capiuntur’ referenced the abbey.  Dr. Burke believed that it was founded by Sir William De Burgh & yet Ware believed that the foundation was established by the Dexter family who later changed their name to Mac Jordan.  According to the Annals of Ulster  during 1513 Edmond (son of Richard de Burgh) was slain in the monastery of rath-branduibh.’  On 5th September 1577 a Lease to Thomas Exeter of Rathbran . . . of the site of the late dissolved howse of Fryers Preachers of Rathbranne, by the sea, in the county of … one small house adjoining to the said site, one ruinous mill.’   The abbey was burned by Bingham during 1590 as recorded in The Annals of Loch Ce.  The last of the priors connected with Rathfran Father Denis Meagher’s demise occurred there between 1785-1789.  The Lords’ Committee Returns of 1731 reported that two friars lived not far from the abbey.  There were still friars in the locality during the eighteenth century.  Tradition locally referenced the humble dwelling with an acre of land attached to it as the ‘friar’s garden’.  Several images feature on this site. [iv]

This Dominican Friary ruins founded during 1274 are situated close to the shore in north Mayo.  Rathfran Abbey was suppressed then burned by Richard Bingham during 1590.  The church was a long rectangular building with lancet windows.  A panel depicted the crucifixion over the west door.  During the fifteenth century several of the south windows were covered up.  At that same time, an aisle with part of the nave was reconstructed.  Few remains of the two cloisters or the sixteenth century conventual buildings are now visible. Several of the friars remained in the local area until the eighteenth century.  (Carmel Murphy) [v]

Rathfran Abbey ruins are located near Killala in Northern Mayo.  Founded during 1274 by the Burgh or Mac Jordan families. Two religious centres with two separate cloisters were in situ but just the foundations remain.  It was recorded that it was burnt down during 1590 by Richard Bingham.  The church was a long rectangular shape with a single simple design. Partial refurbishment occurred during the fifteenth century of the nave, old warhead windows & a pediment.  GPS is 54.2308057 – 9244321. [vi]

Rathfran Abbey was known as the ‘Priory of the Holy Cross‘.   Founded for the Dominicans in 1274 by either the Exeter family or by William de Burgo.  A large portion of the priory was reconstructed during the fifteenth & sixteenth centuries.  According to the records a three – light window existed in the east wall.  A plaque carved with a crucifixion was set into the wall above the west doorway that had the two-light window.  An indulgence was granted to those who donated money during 1438 to erect the refectory & its belltower.  Under King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries the priory was granted to Thomas Dexter.  During 1590 it was burned by Sir Richard Bingham’s army.  Priory included two cloisters.  On the south wall four double lancet windows were incorporated.  The west gable & the south wall have massive buttresses.  Inside the chancel two grave slabs have been clamped against the east wall with several carvings visible.  Grid reference is 18863 32841.  Coordinates are 54.14 16.74 N, 009 14 40.8 W.  Several images feature on this site.  (Antonio D’Imperio 25th June 2015) [vii]

The Priory of the Holy Cross or Rathfran Friary also Rathfran Priory is a national monument located on the north bank of the tidal Cloonaghmore river where it flows into Killala Bay in north Mayo.  Rathfran Friary was founded as a Dominican building during 1274 possibly by Stephen de Exeter or Richard de Exeter or William de Burgo.  During the fifteenth century several of the lancet windows in the south wall were blocked up whilst at the same time the nave was partially rebuilt with an additional aisle.  In the Yellow Book of Lecan (c. 1391-1401) Giolla Íosa Mór Mac Fir Bhisigh referenced the priory as ‘Raith Branduibh as Bind Cluig’  i.e.‘Brandubh’s Fort of the Sweet Bells.’   During 1438 indulgences were granted to those who donated money to construct a refectory with a belltower.  It was reported in 1458 that the friary was impoverished by wars or other disasters.  Donatus Ó Conchobhair, Bishop of Killala (1461-1467) was formerly a friar at Rathfran.  During February 1513 Edmond Burke then ruler of Conmhaícne Cuile was murdered at Rathfran.  The monastery was dissolved in 1577 then granted to Thomas de Exeter.  Burned by Richard Bingham’s army in 1590.  During 1596 the land was granted to William Taaffe.  The thirteenth century church was a long & rectangular with a small crucifixion panel over the west door.  Remains of a fine triple lancet east window are visible.  To the north of the church were originally two cloisters but just the Foundations remain. The sixteenth century living quarter ruins may be seen north of this church.  They incorporated a portion of the original sacristy.  Friars lived in the area up to the eighteenth century.  Several Images feature on this page. [viii]

Rathfran Abbey was founded by either de Burgh’s or Mac Jordan’s or Sir Richard or Stephen Dexter during 1274.  It was known as the Priory of the Holy Cross.  The thirteenth century church was a long rectangular structure with a small crucifixion panel over the west door.  Remains of a triple lancet east window may be viewed.  During 1428 it was recorded that no belltower, bell or refectory existed.  Images by Brian Mc Ellerron may be viewed on this site.[ix]

On the bank of the Avonmore river several miles north of Killala stand the Dominican Abbey of Rathfran ruins.  Founded during 1274 by the de Exeter family.  Indulgences were granted during 1428 to those who donated money for the construction of a belltower also a refectory. During 1458 it was reported that the friary was impoverished also reduced by wars or other disasters.  Rathfran Abbey was dissolved during 1577 then granted to Thomas de Exeter.  Burned by Sir Richard Bingham’s army in 1590.  A few friars lived locally into the eighteenth century.  Rathfran Abbey once had an east window but just the side piers & their well moulded angle shafts remain.  An image features on this page. [x]

According to this site several historical buildings are located along Killala Bay including that of the Dominican Priory ruins of Rathfran Abbey dated to 1274 AD: https://www.paradisepossible.ie/Mayo/Resources/Rathfran-Abbey

Schools Collection includes the tale of The Hidden Treasure at Rathfran Abbey  recorded by Joseph Clarke. (page 155)  This may be viewed at this link: https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4428031/4369975/4475111

Several historical buildings are dotted within the Killala Bay area that included the Dominican Priory ‘Rathfran Abbey‘ dated as established during 1274 AD. [xi]

Additional Information

Images of Rathfran Abbey featured on this site: https://www.inspirock.com/ireland/killala/rathfran-abbey-a8127292287

Images of Rathfran graveyard with ruins of a church & the abbey in the distance feature on this site: http://goldenlangan.com/graves-rfn.html

Several images feature on this site: https://www.destimap.com/index.php?act=attraction&a=Rathfran-Abbey%2C-Killala%2C-Ireland

Images of  the foundations of the cloisters may be viewed on this page: https://www.tripadvisor.ie/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g212984-d3349761-i191587154-Rathfran_Abbey-Killala_County_Mayo_Western_Ireland.html

Publications that refer to Rathfran Abbey include the following from Wikipedia:

O’Hara Bernard Mayo: Aspects of its Heritage: Archaeology, History and Folklore Society 1982 (Regional Technical College )

Leask Harold Graham  Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings: Medieval Gothic to AD 1400  1955 (Dundalgan Press ) (pages 141-44)

Salter Mike  Abbeys and Friaries of Ireland  2009  (Folly Publications ) [xii]


[i] Rathfran Abbey (http://www.sacredlandscapes.ie/rathfran-abbey.html) [Assessed 19th March 2021]

[ii] Rathfran Abbey (http://www.saintsandstones.net/saints-rathfranpriory-journey.htm) [Assessed 19th March 2021]

[iii] Rathfran Abbey (http://www.northmayotours.ie/rathfranabbey.html) [Assessed 19th March 2021]

[iv] Rathfran Abbey (https://www.flickr.com/photos/feargal/5034678594) [Assessed 19th March 2021]

[v] Local Abbeys (https://www.mayo-ireland.ie/en/towns-villages/ballina/ballina-history-local-abbeys.html) [Assessed 19th March 2021]

[vi] Rathfran Abbey (https://www.guide-ireland.com/tourist-attractions/rathfran-abbey/) [Assessed 19th March 2021]

[vii] Rathfran Abbey (http://www.irishstones.org/place.aspx?p=907) [Assessed 19th March 2021]

[viii] Rathfran Friary (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rathfran_Friary) [Assessed 19th March 2021]

[ix] Rathfran Dominican Friary (http://irishantiquities.bravehost.com/mayo/rathfran/rathfran_friary.html) [Assessed 19th March 2021]

[x] North Mayo (https://www.northmayo.ie/visit-the-abbeys-of-north-mayo/) [Assessed 19th March 2021]

[xi] Western Ireland (https://www.paradisepossible.ie/Mayo/Resources/Rathfran-Abbey) [Assessed 19th March 2021]

[xii] Rathfran Friary (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rathfran_Friary) [Assessed 19th March 2021]


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