A large part of Ireland’s history is inextricably intertwined with religion. From early settlers to present day Ireland has a long, and sometimes not always easy, relationship with different belief systems.
No wonder then that there are so many examples of churches, abbeys, monasteries and other religious buildings throughout the country. Many of these date back hundreds of years and give us an insight into ancient Ireland.
St Patrick is synonymous with Ireland and early Christian teachings, The Trinity College in Dublin still houses the famous Book of Kells within its walls, and there are examples of old Celtic beliefs in evidence all over Ireland.
Monks came to the country throughout the centuries and made their home on the Emerald Isle, building settlements and houses of worship throughout the land.
For this article, we will take a look at some of the best historic monasteries to visit in Ireland.
1. Skellig Michael
This place is about as remote as a place can get. This island was settled around the 6th century by Augustinian monks that built the unusual looking beehive huts that are located in the area.
Skellig is an ancient word that means ‘splinter of stone’ and the entire island is accessible only by boat. The tours only operate during specific times so its best to check these before visiting.
Skellig Michael has gained much fame in recent years as it was a filming location for scenes from two of the recent Star Wars movies. It is also a UNESCO site and is of particular interest to archaeologists as the monastic huts, and several other sites have been unusually well preserved.
There is a megalithic stone row and inscribed ancient cross, and the remains of a tower house on the island. Due to the movie filmings, Skellig Michael has become much more popular with visitors in the past few years.
Here you can visit the remains of an ancient monastic town founded by St Kevin. The ‘Monastic City’ is one of the most important religious sites in Ireland. The old buildings, many dating back to the 12 century, are relatively well preserved and feature a Priests House, The Gateway with cross inscribed stones, a 30m high tower, and several churches.
Glendalough was a very important site and school of learning and has documented attacks from Vikings which its survived. The monastery was finally destroyed by Normans in the 1200s.
However, many of the remains are still visible and are a popular tourist attraction. The extensive city is a unique example of historic architecture.
3. Devenish Island
Located in Northern Ireland on one of the many islands of Lough Erne, this location is only accessible by boat. This ancient monastic site has a long history and has been repeatedly raided by Vikings.
It was founded in the 6th century by St Molaise and was finally burned in the 12th century. It flourished in the middle ages as an Augustinian Priory and parish church.
The ruins that can be seen in the area span across several centuries and provide good examples of ancient church buildings, houses, and towers. There are also monuments with ancient inscriptions carved upon them.
4. Mellifont Abbey
Situated in Drogheda this 12th-century monastic site housed over 100 monks. Mellifont Abbey was the first Cistercian site in the country and one of Ireland’s most important up until the 14th century.
While much of the site is now in ruins there is still an old chapter house and an ancient octagonal lavabo where the monks would wash their hands.
In the 1500s this Abbey was used as a private manor house and then became the headquarters for William of Orange during the Battle of the Boyne in the late 1600s.
The name ‘Mellifont’ comes from the old Latin ‘melli-fons’ meaning Font of Honey.
5. Scattery Island
This ancient monastic settlement was founded by St Senan in the 6th century. It has been the site of many battles and invasions over the years including raids by the Vikings.
The old ruins contain the remains of 6 churches but the round tower has remained quite well preserved and still stands 120 feet high.
The name Scattery is thought to be derived from the ancient Norse word for treasure ‘scatty’ and the area is accessible by boat. There is a holy well on the island next to the round tower and the area, in general, is associated with St Senens feast Day on the 8th March each year.
Nendrum Monastic site is one of the oldest monastic sites in Ireland dating all the way back to the 5th century and is thought to be one of the best examples of a Christian Monastic site in Northern Ireland. The location houses several ancient ruins including a round tower, church, and sundial.
Though to have been founded by St Machaoi and with links to the famous St Patrick this site is located in an area of natural beauty and is visited by tourists regularly.
3 walled enclosures house examples of huts and workshops and there is evidence of some industrial works in the outer enclosure.
7. Dunbrody Abbey
Founded in the late 1100s and completed in the early 1200’s Dunbrody Abbey was built for Cistercian Monks of the White Order on the understanding that it would provide a sanctuary for criminals and wrongdoers.
Maybe it was because of this heritage that there is evidence that one of the Abbot and his Monks used highway robbery to bring in money to the Abbey. There is some documented evidence of horse thefts with Monks being accused of the crimes but then acquitted.
8. Quin Abbey
This Franciscan Abbey was built in the 14th century and is located in County Clare. Its original structure is mostly roofless but despite the unique design and exposure to the elements most of the Abbey is still well preserved.
It is regarded as having significant historical value due to the ancient cloisters and other remaining architectural features.
Quin Abbey has been passed through several hands, renames as a Friary and even operated as a college in the mid-1600s and provided education to 800 students. Oliver Cromwell destroyed the Abbey in the late 1600s and though it was rebuilt it never attained its former glory.
Clonmacnoise is derived from the ancient Irish ‘Cluain Mhic Nóis’ meaning Meadow of the Sons of Nos. It is situated on the River Shannon in County Offaly. Founded by St Ciaran in the early 6th century this site has remains of many ancient buildings.
There are the ruins of 7 different churches, 2 round towers, and a cathedral. It also contains the largest collection of early Christian gravestones in all of Western Europe.
Due to its fine examples of early architecture, Clonmacnoise attracts well over a hundred thousand visitors a year that come to see the old ruins and carvings throughout the area.
This is a monastic site in County Offaly founded by St Ciaran the Elder – not to be confused with the St Ciaran of Clonmacnoise. St Ciaran the Elder was born in Ireland but had been in Italy studying the scriptures.
It is said that he met St Patrick there and was given a clapperless bell with instructions from the Saint to find a church where the bell would sound.
Ciaran returned to Ireland and when passing over the Slieve Bloom Mountains the bell sounded and Saighir was formed. Most of the site is completely in ruins today but there are the remnants of a cross, around towers and some of the foundations.
11. Dysert O’ Dea
This church stands on the ruins of an ancient monastic site and dates back to the 8th century. It was founded by St Tola and remains in the area include a church, a well, and a cross.
Most of the sites visible buildings are from the 12th century and the main site is a large and long roman style structure.
The site is part of a historic trail featuring the Dyset O’Dea church, O’Dea castle, 2 ring forts and an old Victorian house from 1861. The St Tola’s well is part of an annual pilgrimage to the area.
12. Mount Mellaray
Mount Mellaray Abbey was home to Trappist Monks and dates back to 1833. This Abbey is somewhat famous due to its literary references. It was mentioned in a poem by Sean O’Riordain and was even featured in James Joyce’s The Dubliners where the final story ‘The Dead’ referenced the Monks of Mellaray as being pious and hospitable.
The Abbey was founded by Sir Richard Keane who laid the cornerstone on the building and construction works continued from the late 1800s into the 1920s.
The area has gained a reputation for the ‘moving statues’ phenomenon of 1985 in the Melleray Grotto set in the mountains about a mile below the main Abbey.
13. Black Abbey
Located in the town of Kilkenny the Black Abbey was the first buildings of the Dominican Order in Ireland. It was built in 1225 and the name comes from the Black Friars, the name given to the monks of the order that wore black cloaks over their habits.
The Priory’s community was affected by the Bubonic Plague or The Black Death in 1349 and at some point after the structure became used as a courthouse at which point the monks were forced to leave and find elsewhere to stay.
In the late 1700s, the monks returned to the Abbey and restored it as a Dominican Priory. It was reopened as a house of prayer in 1864.
Most of the remaining ruins at this site are from the 15th century, though the Abbey was originally founded in 1147. This was Ireland’s 2nd Cistercian Abbey, and it was one of the areas most important monastic settlements.
The Order was founded to reflect simple living and this is apparent in the design of the buildings.
After King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of Monasteries in 1543 Bective Abbey was closed down then reopened as a manor house. The structure of the Abbey is reminiscent of that of a castle and due to these qualities was used as a filming location for the movie ‘Braveheart’.
Remains include the church, chapter house, and cloister featuring examples of pointed Gothic arches typical of Cistercian design.
15. Aghalurcher Monastery
Located in Northern Ireland in County Fermanagh, this monastery was founded in the 6th century by St Ronan according to legend. Aghalurcher means ‘field of the cast’ and this historic pre-Norman site still houses several remains.
There is the remainder of a medieval church and gateway along with a gated vault. The church underwent some construction in the mid-1400s but it seems that a murder took place on the church’s altar and desecrated the site. The location was abandoned soon after.
16. Claregalway Franciscan Friary
Founded around 1250 Claregalway was one of the first Franciscan houses to be constructed in Connacht. The building was constructed in stages over a long period of time which can be seen in the varying architectural elements.
The friars in the house enjoyed the protection of the Earl of Clanicard but after his death, they were forced to leave, and the friary was then used as a military barracks.
The entire site attracts a good number of yearly visitors that come to view the relatively well-preserved complex. The remains of the church, 3 story tower, and other elements may be viewed.
17. Muckross Abbey
Situated in Killarney National Park and located just a mile from the famous Muckross House this Abbey is an old Irish Monastery and modern-day graveyard. Its history can be traced back to the very beginning of Christianity in the country of Ireland.
Much of the site’s buildings and cloister are in their original state and have been very well preserved. The monks that resided at Muckross Abbey survived the dissolution of the monasteries but were finally driven out in 1650 by Cromwell’s forces.
The graveyard at the historic location os still active and performs several burials a year. On the grounds, there are remains of 3 Irish poets along with famous ancient Chieftains of well-known clans.
If touring ancient monastic ruins and cities is your thing then Ireland has plenty to offer with locations and sites dating back several centuries. Make sure to check information before visiting as some of these sites are in remote locations or situated on islands that may only be open to visitors at certain times of the year.