05 Jul 2022

Serene Abbey full of drama that takes its name from the Duiske River

AT the height of its influence, before the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, Duiske Abbey, Graignamanagh was like a mini Vatican set by the River Barrow.

AT the height of its influence, before the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, Duiske Abbey, Graignamanagh was like a mini Vatican set by the River Barrow.

Even today, the main building, saved from ruin by the local people, is magnificent and after you enter through the main door on the north side of the abbey to the right, a wooden scale of the monastic settlement in its heyday greets you. The exterior does not prepare you for the beauty of the interior. You an see the ancient stone and high clerestory windows of the nave and there is serenity here that induces a kind of peacefulness and if one wanted to go to place where calm exudes, then the abbey and its various little alcoves is the place. It always reminds me of a scene from an Inspector Morse episode and the grounds also have many secrets.

But to get to the heart of Duiske abbey we must think of the generosity of the Normans who gave the land and rents to the abbots, who were more politicians than holy men. Having gained ownership of some of the most arable land in the country; with salmon and eel weirs, a mill and a complex social structure, with dozens of unvowed monks doing the donkey work while the 60 Cistercians oversaw everything and did the praying and collecting the money, it was a hugely successful feudal system that did not require any outside help and the model reflects the enormity of the enterprise.

By the time the middle of the 18th century came, it was a ruin and houses had sprung up on all sides using the once proud abbey defences as their back walls and so the town which was fed by the abbey, for centuries, devoured what was the largest abbey of its kind in Ireland.

But in its day it was magnificent and we know this from a number of commentators, and had an enchantment that still hangs in the air today and when you enter Duiske Abbey for the first time and if it doesn’t illicit a gasp of amazement from you, then you are not easily impressed.

There was the main house, the chancel, dormitory, monks individual cells for the hermits and those on special prayer duty for a particularly generous benefactor, an infirmary, lay brothers domicile, two refectories, reading gallery, abbot’s chamber, cellars, kitchen and the various parts of the abbey like the nave, , north and south transepts, the octagonal tower. Today, there are various little alleyways and streets which block the abbey’s path to the Barrow but in the 13th century to the 18th century it was all part of the complex while to the right as you come out the main entrance is the way over the Duiske river to the mill and to the left, what were the bee hives, vegetable gardens and pasture lands for the livestock.

It had a gate house on the river and next to that the guest house. And part of their mission was to look after the poor and needy and they did that for many generations. It is similar in style and scale to the Strata Florida Abbey in Cardiganshire, England and that was completed a few years before Graig started thanks to the arrival of the White Monks who wore undyed, woollen habits.

It was built by the Normans to increase their influence and power. It took 40 years to complete and become an integral part of the community and remains so with a huge drawing power and its very own hermit (no more of that). The mill built by the Cistercian in the 13th century is still in use today by Philip Cushen of Cushendale Woollen Mills. A descendant of Huguenot artisans he runs a flourishing business thanks to the Manaigh Ban who first diverted the water from the Duiske River, which rises on Brandon Hill.

William Marshall who built Kilkenny castle was the man responsible and he was the son-in-law of Strongbow. The leader of the Norman conquest of Ireland. Marshall, the Earl of Pembroke invited the Cistercians in Stanley, England to come to Kilkenny. A dozen started, the minimum allowed under ecclesiastical law, and what was built, even though it has changed down through the ages, really because there was not enough money to maintain the place as it had been created by those first Cistercians in 1220 but what we are left with is a remarkable piece of history.

The traveller Bernard Trotter was hugely impressed when he visited the abbey in 1812. He said: “I cannot describe how nobly venerable it looked.....nothing could be found venerable and more beautifully interesting in the empire than Graignamanagh Abbey.”

The monks called it The Valley Of The Holy Savour and spent some months going around the Diocese of Ossory before coming to the conclusion that this valley next to the barrow was the best place to build. It was an inspired choice and it le to the founding of the town, the construction of roads, the clearing of marsh and woodland for planting and brought in

Matt Doyle, from Graignamanagh once called Graig the Riviera of the South East and while it maybe a little farfetched it certainly had a special place in the heart of internationally acclaimed short story writer, Sean O’Faolain who penned the definitive autobiography of Hugh O’Neill, He said of Graig where he holidayed on a regular basis: “the whole valley swoons in an air so delicately moist tat it seems too heavy to move, so that on still, wet days even the clouds lie asleep across the distant mountains and one gets the overpowering sensation of steamy growth, of success over nature, of peace as unbroken as the buzzing of the bees.

The monks at Graig were very industrious. They managed huge flocks of sheep and had their own woollen mill from where they exported wool to Italy as early as the 13th century and had huge contacts in Italy. They also built fish traps on the river Barrow and harvested salmon and eels.

The abbey was in trouble as early as the late 14th century when the Black Death swept through it,. In the first year, the monks cared for the sick of the ear who died in the abbey and then the monks themselves fell ill. . In 1349, a visitor to the abbey write of the black Death; “it is filled with woeful looking men some covered in sores, other spitting up blood. Few recover that have their infection. In 1536, the monks were scattered after the dissolution of the monasteries and the 9th earl of Ormonde, James Butler took over the land. He was a cousin of the abbot at Duiske, Charles O’Kavanagh who sold some of the land off to his cousin before the closure, looking out for his own welfare. He received a pension £0 a year and possession of nearby Kilkenny abbey and 38 acres there. Some of the other monks went to Regensberg in Germany.

In 1774, the great octagonal tower of the abbey fell down and it was blamed on two goats feeding on the roof. There was a prophecy that the tower would fall the day the devil passed through Graignamanagh.

Writing in 1774, an English soldier wrote: “ When we heard the news we shook our heads. That the devil was loose again in Ireland was ill news. It was said that he had not been sighted for certain in our country since the apparition to Saint Moling, near a thousand yeas before.” Let’s hope he doesn’t come back a third time.

Mr John Joyce in his wonderful work, Graiguenamangah - A town And Its People, said that when the tower crashed to the floor, it brought with it, the groined roof of the chancel which it had been claimed by Stewart in Topographica Hibernica to be the finest in the Kingdom.

Mr Joyce said that the ruination was completed a few years later when the marble tree, the central column which supported the vaulted roof of the Chapter House was removed during the night to decorate a County Carlow garden.

Almost 200 years after the “theft” Graig’s own poet laureate, William O’Leary wrote the following lines:

A dirge for Duiske, once so great and grand

No white Cistercian in its abbey dwells

Now money loving men possess the land

And house their cattle in its ruined cells

Later in the dirge he speaks of ghostly monks in the abbey at night and there are many stories of haunted happenings in the abbey, many late at night, after the pubs closed.

Anyway, we learn from the late Fr Sean Swayne’s excellent history of the abbey that in 1820, Ralf Mordant, later to become leader of the Graignamanagh Band was in the abbey with his father. He had been holding candle wile his father was decorating the high altar canopy for Christmas The candle went out and while his father went to find a piece of lighted turf, young Ralph, sitting up on the canopy, heard the singing coming from the south transept and passing below him Ralph was stunned by the grandeur of the melody and said that it was “all semi-braves. His father told him it was definitely the monks and that they had been heard many times before.

Another period which is not talked about is 1754 when Duiske Abbey was part renovated by the Established Church as a place of worship but it was never used for that purpose and when the local rectos had the work carried out the windows were broken not by Catholics but by jackdaws who had been flying through the broken panes of glass until they were filled in and forced them to crack them with their beaks (at least that’s the story I was told. That part of the roof was removed in 1805 and used at their own church in nearby Whitehall.

Since 1973, a huge amount of authentic renovation has been carried out in contrast to some of the stuff that went on in the early 1800s and beyond, despite the forgiving ofthe great hero of the 1798 rebellion, General Thomas Clooney who lived 50 yards from the Abbey. People like the late Joe Murphy, from Graignamanagh and later of Littleton, Co Tipperary ( father of Fintan Murphy, Kilkenny) and others who recognised the importance of Duiske and made substantial contributions to it.

And we are indebted to Geraldine Carville in her book, Norman Splendour, in which she nails down the identity of the Knight of Duiske Abbey thought by man to be the finest effigy of its kind in Ireland.

The figure of the knight in armour, cross-legged in the manner of a Crusader, armed in transverse banded mail, seizing a sword and which was carved in the 13th century. He is Alan Beg, who gave half of the tithes (taxes) accruing to his huge estate in nearby Ullard in exchange for a burial place in Duiske Abbey.

It should also be mentioned that the churchyard is home to the Aughtiltan and Ballyogen Crosses, dating from the 8th and 9th centuries, respectively which were moved to the abbey in the 119th century for protection.

Duiske Abbey concerts will begin shortly but I can’t help thinking that the real benefit of this place remains untapped.

A tour of the abbey and its connections to the river and to the mill now called Cushendale woollen Mills would bring a bit of tourism. Is there anyone out there who could do it. Working with the Abbey Centre,

I think it would give the town a boost and feck what the EU bureaucrats say, bring back the eel trap to show what was a thriving industry and show they were smoked for the Continent market. Just a thought and at a tine when they are throwing seed money at all sorts of bunker ideas, wouldn’t it be good to see money invested ion what people love - their heritage.

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