Grey Abbey was founded in 1193, by Affreca daughter of Godfred, King of Man and wife of John de Courcy, as a thanksgiving for having survived a rough sea crossing to Ireland. It was a daughter-house of the Dominican Holm Cultram Abbey in Cumberland. It was also known as Jugum Dei (Latin for the yoke of God) and Mainistirliath (Gaelic for the Grey Monastery). In many ways its construction is similar to Inch Abbey, both being fine examples of Irish transitional building of directly English origin. It is reputed to be the first truly Gothic structure in Ireland. Additional work was done in the fine-grained laminated sandstone quarried from the Triassic at Scrabo, outside Newtownards.
Grey Abbey was dissolved in c.1541-3. In 1572 the abbey buildings were burned by Sir Brian O'Neill of Clanaboy (Clandeboye) to stop the English using them to house a garrison.
The abbey passed to Sir Hugh Montgomery in the early 17th century. The nave was re-roofed and refurbished for use as a parish church till the late 18th century. The abbey has remained the family burying-place of the Montgomery family. The ruins consist of the church with cloister and surrounding buildings to the south. Around the cloister are the ruined chapter house and refectory with reader's pulpit. There are a number of sandstone effigies, the earliest mutilated, of a man in armour possibly dating from the late 13th/early 14th centuries. Another is of a lady, gowned with hands folded in prayer, probably late 13th century.
The ruined but still very impressive abbey is set amid the beautiful 18th century of the adjacent Rosemount demesne on the east edge of the pretty village of Greyabbey.
Access: The village is seven miles from Newtownards southwards along the Portaferry road (A20), a beautiful drive along the shores of Strangford Lough. At the entrance to the abbey there is a car-park. A no. 10 Ulsterbus runs from Belfast to Portaferry via Greyabbey. The site is in the charge of Environment and Heritage Service of DOENI. There is a DOENI guide card at 20p. A medieval physick/herb garden, such as would have been used by the Cistercians, is maintained at the entrance. Opening hours: 1st April-30th September Tuesday-Saturday 10am-7pm. Sunday 2-7pm. Admission: adults ?, children and senior citizens 50p. Phone 01247 88585 April-September. The rest of the year it is accessible by appointment, phone 01232 543001.
On a raised site with associations with St Cummain, stand two small ruined churches. There is written evidence of ecclesiastical activity on the site before the coming of the Normans and there was a chapel here in 1306. The south church is smaller and earlier with antae to east and west, a west door and east and south windows. The stone was originally bound with clay, rather than mortar. Some medieval alterations to the door and east window are marked by contrasting mortar. The churches may date from the 10th/11th centuries, though they may be as late as the 12th century.
The north church is larger, originally also built with clay, not mortar. It had a south door, an east window and perhaps a tower at the west end. A small early cross-carved stone is set in the north church. Excavation in 1962 showed early Christian occupation and a cemetery of stone-built graves and an earlier building of timber and stone, perhaps a church under the south church.
Access: Derry churches are one and a half miles north east of Portaferry, east of the A2 to Cloughey, approached by a fenced path.
NENDRUM MONASTIC SITE.
The island monastery of Nendrum was sited on Mahee Island which takes its name from its founder St Mochaoi (died c.497/9). It is said that Patrick met the young swine-herd Mochaoi and converted him at Bright. Eventually at Nendrum, Mochaoi was given his crosier by Patrick. It is the best example in N Ireland of a pre-Norman monastic enclosure and its buildings. The six acre site on a low hill was chosen for its remoteness. There are references in the annals to the early monastery from the 7th century to 976 when the abbot was burned in his house, probably during a Viking raid. The site consists of three concentric enclosures. In the inner enclosure are remains of the church and a 10th century Round Tower [maximum height 5 metres]. There, stands also the reconstructed 8th century monksĄŻ sundial on which the three rays indicate the times of the three main services, terce, sext and nones. Archeologists have found evidence of timber huts, houses, school and workshops, in the middle enclosure. The outer enclosure probably contained gardens, orchards and fields.
Nendrum was colonised in 1178 by a small cell of monks from St Bees, Cumberland, itself part of the Benedictine Abbey of York. In 1288 with only two monks left the cell was closed down. By 1306 there was a parish church at Nendrum. This transferred to Tullynakill on the mainland in the 15th century.
The site was re-discovered in 1844 and excavated in the 1920s by H C Lawlor. His finds, which include the Bell of Nendrum, are on view at the Ulster Museum in Belfast and Down Museum.
Access: A twisting causeway linking several islands runs from the A22 road south of Comber. There is a small car-park. The site, which is in the charge of the Environment and Heritage Service of DOENI, is open all year and admission is free. There is a small visitorsĄŻ centre next to the site, which is open April-September, Tuesday-Saturday 10am-7pm, Sunday 2-7pm; October-March closes 4pm. Price ?, children/senior citizens 50p. It has a child-friendly presentation and an excellent video which compares Nendrum with Grey Abbey. As a bonus there are a number of tower-houses in the vicinity.
Inch Abbey was founded by John de Courcy in 1187, in atonement for his destruction of the Celtic monastery of Erenagh, 3 miles (4.8km) to the south. Inch was a daughter-house of the Cistercian (White Monks) foundation at Furness in Lancashire. It was built on the site of a Celtic monastery Inis Cumhscraigh, which had been sacked by the Vikings in 1002. Its outer earthwork enclosure is still visible but there are no surviving buildings. St MoBiu of Inis Cumhscraigh was listed in a calendar of c.800. Inch was a fine example of Irish transitional building. It had an aisled nave, transepts with pairs of chapels and the chancel was lighted with grouped lancet windows. There were medieval alterations for ornament, for which the main source was evidently the fine-grained laminated sandstone quarried from the Triassic at Scrabo, outside Newtownards.
This was definitely a centre of English influence and the monks of Inch were accused of hunting Irishmen with spears in 1318. In 1380, Irish monks were ostracises from the community as with other foundations. The abbey was burned in 1404 and this, along with the reduction of the size of the community, probably led to the creation of a much smaller church through the judicious walling-in of areas and the abandonment of many of the buildings. At the Dissolution in 1542, Inch was granted to Gerald, Earl of Kildare. It eventually passed into the hands of the Perceval-Maxwell family who gave it into state care in 1910. Unusually, Inch has almost all its medieval boundary intact. Also within the precinct is the present Inch parish graveyard, where the parish church once stood. The medieval monastic atmosphere still hangs over Inch making it a very peaceful place to visit.
Access: The site, originally an island, is surrounded by the Quoile marshes and can only be approached from the north along an ancient causeway. This turns off westwards at the Abbey Lodge Hotel on the main Belfast road (A7), less than a mile (1.2km) north west from Downpatrick. Medieval visitors mostly came by boat along the Quoile river. Inch Abbey can easily be reached from the town on foot. The abbey is now in the care of the Environment and Heritage Service of DOENI. Opening times are Tuesday-Saturday 10am-7pm. Sunday 2-7pm. Bank holidays 10am-7pm. Admission: adults ?, children/senior citizens 50p. There is a car-park. A good guide-card is available for 20p and there are excellent information boards at strategic points on the site.
This is a group of three churches, remarkable for their beautiful siting on a little island in a lake (accessible now by a causeway). The lake is popular with anglers who seem to add to the atmosphere of peace and beauty. Excavations have shown that the churches were built over an extensive early Christian cemetery with long cist graves. Also uncovered was a bronze buckle, with enamel and millefiori glass inlay, which suggest initial occupancy of the site not later than the 8th century. The middle church which is the oldest probably dates from the 13th century. There are records of a parish church here in 1306. This was a principal seat and burial ground of the MacCartans and the smallest and latest church bears the date 1636 and letters PMC (for Phelim MacCartan) on its carved door which is no taller than four or five foot high. This church was used by both Catholics and Protestants until 1720 when they quarrelled. This was because, on one wet day, the Catholics, who had their service first, refused to come out when they were finished and the Protestants got soaked. After that, the landlord Mr Forde took the roof off the Loughinisland church and built another for the Church of Ireland at nearby Seaforde.
Access: Roughly four miles west from Inch Abbey take the B2 to Annacloy and then the first turning on the left. The site, situated in Tievenadarragh townland, is one mile east of the Belfast to Newcastle road (A24). It is on an island in a lake which can now be reached by a causeway.
SOURCE: Christian Heritage Promotions Ltd.