Urlaur Priory near Kilmovee, East County Mayo
Dedicated to St. Thomas Aquinas, Urlaur Priory (Urlaur Abbey) was founded in the early 1430s during the last years of the pontificate of Martin V. This foundation was ‘irregular’, as no permission had been obtained from the Holy See. The new pope, Eugene IV, then instructed Murchard O’Hara, Bishop of Achonry, to legalise the house in 1434 and it was established for “novitatae” (novices) of the Order. It would, however, also attract others from around Connacht.
The friary’s founders, the Nangles, were descended from the Anglo-Norman family of de Angulo who had arrived in Ireland during the late 12th Century. This branch of the family came west from county Meath during the 1220s and would later become the MacCostellos, after whom the Barony of Costello in east Mayo is named. They also founded St. Mary’s in Ballyhaunis around the same time.
Monastic houses across Ireland and Britain were dissolved during the 16th and 17th Centuries, as a result of the Suppression of the Monasteries, a series of decrees enacted by Henry VIII from 1536 to 1541 and followed up upon by Elizabeth I and through to Cromwell’s time. However, while Urlaur would be dissolved in the early 17th Century and its grounds granted first to Sir Edward Fisher and later to Lord Dillon, it was re-established and friars remained throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries.
“Under the Cromwellian regime, the abbey was one of the last to be deserted, if it ever was so, for we find that in 1654 eleven fathers were able to meet here and hold the provincial chapter. After the Restoration, a large community was formed here again and a noviciate was established. The general exile in 1698 drove the fathers away for only a short time, for, when Father Ambrose O’Connor, the Provincial, made his visitation in 1703, he found five fathers here. In 1756, there were six fathers here and seven in 1767, of whom one was parish priest.” [Coleman, 1902]
The last friar, Patrick Sharkey, said to have lived in a nearby cottage, passed away during the 1840s and is buried inside the Priory.
Structure of the Buildings at Urlaur Priory
Urlaur was built in the Gothic style of the 15th Century, with its characteristic pointed arches, doorways and windows. These are mixed, however, with flat-lintelled windows, both plain and ogee. The buildings are constructed of rubble masonry, coursed at corners and rough elsewhere, with rubble infill. Lower down the walls, some very large boulders were used. Ashlar masonry (cut stone) is employed around some doorways, window frames and on arcade columns.
Today’s roofless ruin includes much of the chancel, nave and the domestic ranges, including four partly repaired barrel vaulted cells and what was presumably the upstairs dormitory. There are no remains of the cloister or bell tower.
The main church, aligned slightly off east-west, measured 30m x 10m externally, with a northern aisle section (like at Straide) measuring 15m x 4m. There is no trace of transepts at Urlaur Priory and the church was not ‘divided’ between nave and chancel.
To the south of the eastern end of the south wall, there is a 20m x 9m domestic range, which in turn has a 3m x 4m tower abutting its southeast end.
While all of the above appear contemporary, at the southwest end of the main church (western end of the south wall), there are the remains of another, later building, with what partially stands today measuring up to 6m long and 5m wide. This was a two-storey range, as remains of the staircase can be seen within one of the walls. Apparently, it was typical that the west wing was built to house lay members of the community and that this wing tends to have been more poorly constructed than the rest and, subsequently, the first to collapse.
All walls on the site are between approx 1.0 and 1.5m thick.
Entry into the church is by the west door, which has a gothic style pointed arch, at the top of which was a carved face, now missing. The doorway is decorated with several orders of sculptured pointed arches, but without decoration. Above the doorway is a twin-light window, with intact mullion and tracery in good condition and giving a clue as to what the triple-light east window must have looked like.
In the eastern of these two integrated columns, we can still see some foliate decoration in relief. Both ivy and vines were useful decorative features found wound around pillars and curling around stonework in medieval religious houses like Urlaur.
Within the main church, there is no trace of the bell tower. The large east window was triple-light, but neither of the mullions remains and only parts of the tracery. To the right, in the south wall, are two piscinae, each with a four-leaf shape making up the sunken bowl.
Based on the two that are extant, each of the cells presumably had a simple rectangular narrow single-light window looking east, each with a plain lintel. The cell located furthest from the church, presumably the refectory, has a fireplace and chimney in the southeast corner. The cell closest to the chancel was presumably the sacristy.
Abutting the southeast corner of the domestic range is a tower, with a wide round arched opening to the south at today’s ground level. This is presumed to have been a boat house, as it faces the lake just a few metres beyond. The tower also housed the garderobe.
There are no traces of the cloister, which can be reached through a second pointed arch door in the south wall of the main church. Unlike the doorway into the vaulted cell, this one has a keystone. To the west of the cloister and the south of the west façade of the church, however, are the remains of a later addition to the priory. This now roofless barrel vaulted cell measured at least 6m x 5m.
Nor is there any sign of further buildings to the south of the cloister, which might have enclosed it on that side. Some piles of rubble in this area are evident in a second late 18th Century sketch, however.
One of the more interesting features at Urlaur Priory is a small stone-carved winged monk, or angel, on the underside of the keystone above the south door leading to the cloister. While the ‘monk’ holds his left hand open across his abdomen, his right hand is held up, with two fingers pointing upwards and the other three folded in over his palm, perhaps indicating God’s blessing.
A second interesting feature is the early 18th Century commemorative plaque to the Duffys, evidently a family of blacksmiths, which stands on the same south wall. Note the anvil, tongs and hammer (l to r) in the detail below.
“Whilst the friars were living in that house, there was happiness in Ireland”
Douglas Hyde’s wonderful collection of folktales, “Legends of Saints and Sinners” (Every Irishman’s Library, 1915), includes a story entitled “The Friars of Urlaur”, which may be accessed freely online. Grab yourself a coffee and enjoy the read.
Around Urlaur Priory (Abbey)
Urlaur Priory is located on the northern side of Urlaur Lough, immediately by the water. It is 8km SW of Kilmovee, 9km SE of Kilkelly and 15km N of Ballyhaunis. If you’ve decided to discover the abbey for yourself, then be sure to check out some other local sights while you’re at it, especially Kilcashel caiseal at Kilmovee. Please note that you must request permission from the landowner to access this magnificent stone ‘fort’, located in a private field.
For upcoming guided walks of mine in the Mayo and Connemara area, please check events (scroll down below images).