Although commonly known as Sligo Abbey, the correct title for Sligo‘s only surviving megalithic structure is The Convent of the Holy Cross and was in fact a Dominican Friary.
The difference between an Abbey and a Friary being that where Friar preachers live in a Friary and invited the general public to worship in their church, Monks would have lived in an Abbey and would have generally confined their vocation to worship through prayer and meditation.
Sligo Abbey (as it is most commonly referred) was built around 1252-1253 by the Norman Baron and leading Geraldine of that era Maurice Fitzgerald who is also credited with being the “real founder of Sligo“.
Maurice Fitzgerald introduced into Ireland the two great religious orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, though it is undoubtedly as the conqueror of Connaught in 1235 that he is best remembered.
The Friars were in residence at The Convent of the Holy Cross for five very turbulent centuries, until they left in 1760, moving their Order to the nearby Holy Cross Friary in High Street which survives to this day.
Admission to Sligo Abbey costs only €2 per adult, and half that for children, which is excellent value for money and well worth the visit, letting you gain a valuable insight into how our predecessors lived some 8 centuries ago.
On first entering The Sligo Abbey you will see the remains of a townhouse dating from the year 1700, you will clearly be able to make out the cobbled yard, the walls and the open fireplace. It is believed to have been a private residence unconnected to the Friary.
After viewing the townhouse, we walk a few paces into the Nave area of the Church itself. The congregation would have stood in the nave whilst the mass was being celebrated, as seats were not generally provided except perhaps occasionally when wooden seats may have been provided for the elderly and infirm.
Dividing the Nave from the Choir is the partially reconstructed Rood Screen (Rood being the Saxon word for Cross) which is a rare survivor in an Irish Church, its purpose was to separate the parishioners from the Friars.
To the left of the Rood Screen is the O’Crean Altar Tomb which dates back to 1506 and is decorated in traditional medieval style, to commemorate the prominent Sligo merchant family.
The Belfry Tower is tall and slender, as are Friary towers generally, however the parapet is missing and the North facing entrance door is no longer accessible.
Just beyond the tower is The Choir where the celebration of Mass took place.
On the East wall of the Choir is a 15th century window and on the South wall are the remaining six 13th century lancet windows, there were originally eight lancet windows, however one was obscured by the building of the tower in the 15th century and the second lancet window is obscured by the O’Connor Sligo monument, which was built in 1624 to commemorate Sir Donagh O’Connor, Lord of Sligo and his wife Lady Elinor Butler, for it was O’Connors influence with Queen Elizabeth that saved Sligo Friary from dissolution, a fate suffered by a majority of the Irish catholic religious houses of the 16th Century.
Also in the choir is a very fine 15th century sculptured stone high altar, the only example to survive in any monastic church. As you can see from the photograph, its finely chiselled panelling depicts ornate foliage, grapes and a rose.
As the altar is positioned against the East wall of the choir, it is safe to assume the priest would have performed the daily church services facing east, away from the congregation.
Throughout the Abbey you will notice large numbers of headstones literally everywhere. This is because Sligo Abbey used to be the official catholic burial ground for Sligo Town, possibly dating back as far as the 14th century.
Closure of the burial ground finally took place in February 1895, as the graveyard had become grossly overcrowded and a danger to public health, with tiers of coffins being buried on top of each other, those fortunate enough to have a grave frequently found the need to get earth from elsewhere to cover their graves.
An editorial in The Independent newspaper in 1894 stated that “the graves are overgrown with tall weeds and those that are visible are heaped up like ridges, they are so full“.
The report continued “On the side nearest the river stands an old ruined round tower in which, exposed to public gaze are heaps of decaying skulls and human bones, whilst there are pieces of coffins lying about also“.
A new burial ground was sought and opened early in the 20th century, so bringing to an end, the everyday usage of Sligo Abbey.
Leave Sligo Abbey by turning right outside the exit, walking in a Westerly direction, towards Sligo Town centre, at the junction turn left onto Teeling Street and keep to the left hand side of the road, until you almost reach the impressive looking building on the opposite side of the road, BUT, on you’re left first, look for a red door with a plaque which reads “Argue & Phibbs”.
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