Rathfran Abbey Ruins

Rathfran Abbey Illustration

The ruins of the Dominican Abbey or Friary of Rathfran are situated 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, it was 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’ the 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’ which later was Anglicized as Ra(t)h-Franny, Rathfran.  The 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 are composed of a vaulted room that is attached to the church.  There is a building from circa 1480 to 1520 that is 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 with its lands was leased to Thomas D’Exter / Exeter during 1577.  In 1605 the land was leased to Donat Earl of Thomond & then later to William Knight.  On Saturday the 5th of 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.  The 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.  Other features of that wall were a trefoil – headed piscine that had two shelves plus two basins.  Close by was a semi – circular sedile with similar mouldings that was beneath a projecting 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 side chapel.  The west window with two round lights is from a later date.  Above the window is 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.  The gravestone on the left of the altar has a large cross plus other figures carved on its face along with a Latin inscription down its length.  A possible inscription may be: ‘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.  There is another beautifully decorated tombstone with six lions passant in the centre of the church.  A local folk tradition recalls that the building stones for Summerhill House (now in ruins nearby) were removed from the ruins of the Rathfran cloisters.  There are several sketches & images 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 in 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 seen.  Perhaps as late as the fifteenth century some of the lancet windows in the south wall were built up.  During that same time a separate aisle was added with another fine window also the Nave was partially rebuilt.  There were originally two cloisters to the north of the church but now only the foundations remain.  The living quarters north of the church may date from the sixteenth century, they were incorporated into part of the original Sacristy.  Richard Bingham burned the Friary in 1590.  The friars remained in the neighbourhood up to the 18th Century.  On the Ordnance Survey Map the Abbey is recorded as G189328.  This site has several links to images of Rathfran Abbey.[ii]

The 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 good condition.  Several friars remained in the area until the eighteenth century.  There are excellent images of Abbey ruins on this site.[iii]

Officially named Holy Cross, Rathfran Abbey was one of the earliest religious foundations in Connacht.  The Abbey was located in Templemurray Parish in 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 the entry ‘Loca Rathbranna ei Derria capiuntur’ appeared.  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 died 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 mentions the humble dwelling with an acre of land attached to it, known as the ‘Friar’s Garden’.  Several images may be viewed on this site.[iv]

The ruins of this Dominican Friary that was 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.  There was a panel that depicted the crucifixion over the west door.  During the fifteenth century several of the south windows were built up.  At that same time, an aisle with part of the nave was rebuilt.  Few remains of the two cloisters or the sixteenth century conventual buildings are now visible.  A few of the Friars remained in the local area until the eighteenth century.  (Carmel Murphy)[v]

This Rathfran Abbey is now in ruins located near Killala in northern Mayo.  It was founded during 1274 by the Burgh or Mac Jordan families.  There were two religious centres with two separate Cloisters, now 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 plus a pediment.  GPS is 54.2308057 – 9244321.[vi]

The name of this Rathfran Abbey was the Priory of the Holy Cross.  It was founded for the Dominicans in 1274 by either the Exeter family or by William de Burgo.  A large part of the priory was rebuilt during the fifteenth & sixteenth centuries.  According to the records there was a three-light window in the east wall.  A plaque carved with a crucifixion is set into the wall above the west doorway that has the two-light window.  An indulgence was granted to those who donated money during 1438 to erect the refectory also 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.  The priory had two cloisters.  On the south wall were four double lancet windows.  The west gable and the south wall have massive buttresses.  Inside the chancel two wonderful grave slabs have been clamped against the east wall with several other carvings visible.  Grid reference 18863 32841.  Coordinates are 54.14 16.74 N, 009 14 40.8 W.  There are several images of Friary 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.  The Rathfran Friary was founded as a Dominican Building during 1274.  Possibly Stephen de Exeter or Richard de Exeter or William de Burgo were founders.  During the fifteenth century several of the lancet windows in the south wall were built up whilst at the same time the Nave was partially rebuilt plus a separate aisle was added.   In the ‘Yellow Book of Lecan’ (c. 1391–1401), Giolla Íosa Mór Mac Fir Bhisigh referred to the Priory as ‘Raith Branduibh as Bind Cluig’ that meant ‘Brandubh’s Fort of the Sweet Bells.’ During 1438 indulgences were granted to those who donated money to build a refectory plus a belltower.  It was reported in 1458 that the Friary was impoverished by wars or other disasters.  Donatus Ó Conchobhair, Bishop of Killala (1461–67) 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.  It was 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.  There are remains of a fine triple lancet east window.  To the north of the church were originally two cloisters but now just foundations remain. The sixteenth century living quarter ruins may be seen north of the church.  They incorporated part of the original Sacristy.  Friars lived in the area into the eighteenth century.  Several images feature on this page.[viii]

This 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 plus the remains of a triple lancet east window.  During 1428 it was recorded that there were no belltower, bell or refectory. Amazing images by Brian Mc Ellerron may be viewed on this site.[ix]

On the bank of the Avonmore river a few miles north of Killala stand the ruins of the Dominican Abbey of Rathfran.  The Rathfran Abbey was founded during 1274 by the de Exeter family.   Indulgences were granted during 1428 to those who donated money for the building of a belltower also a refectory.  During 1458 it was reported that the Friary was impoverished also reduced by wars or other disasters.  The Abbey was dissolved during 1577 then granted to Thomas de Exeter.  It was 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 only the side piers & their well moulded angle shafts remain.  There is a large image 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 that were dated to 1274 AD: https://www.paradisepossible.ie/Mayo/Resources/Rathfran-Abbey

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

Several Historical buildings are dotted in the Killala bay area including that of the Dominican Priory ‘Rathfran Abbey’ that was dated as being established in 1274 AD.[xi]


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

This page has images of Rathfran Graveyard plus ruins of a church with the Abbey in the distance: http://goldenlangan.com/graves-rfn.html

There are several images 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:

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

‘Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings: Medieval Gothic to AD 1400’ 1955 Leask Harold Graham Dundalgan Press pages 141 – 144.

‘Abbeys and Friaries of Ireland’ 2009 Salter Mike 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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