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The Irish Abbey That Would Not Die

Mass has been celebrated at Ballintubber Abbey for 800 years despite its destruction twice

Ballintubber Abbey Crossing And Vault. Andreas F. Borchert, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE via Wikimedia Commons

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I’ve visited dozens of the gray-stone Catholic monastery and abbey ruins that haunt the Irish landscape. Some were destroyed by Vikings, others during Henry VIII’s dissolution of monasteries after he founded the Anglican Church. Still others had their lands confiscated by Oliver Cromwell’s armies in an effort to promote Puritanism. However, one abbey stands out, not for its size or its beauty, though it is compelling. It resonates because its worshipers would not let it die.

Ballintubber Abbey in County Mayo, Ireland, was founded in 1216 by Cathal Crovdearg O’Conor, the King of Connacht. After O’Conor’s death, the Annals of Connacht described him as “the king who best established peace and tranquility of all the kings of Ireland.”

The story goes that O’Conor pledged the founding of an abbey because he had been shown great kindness in his youth by a man named Sheridan in the town of Ballintubber. However, the king learned years later that the church had been mistakenly built in Baile tobair Bhrighde, Rosecommon, instead of Baile tobair Phadraig, Mayo. The king then vowed to build an abbey seven times better in Ballintubber, Mayo, and it was done.

The abbey was built within walking distance of a smaller church consecrated by St. Patrick in 442 C.E. and, in its early days, was the beginning point of a pilgrimage route to Croagh Patrick.

Today, Ballintubber Abbey is distinguished by two unique characteristics:

·It is the only church still in use that was founded by an Irish king.
·It is the only church in Ireland where the Mass has been celebrated without a break for over 800 years.

Ballintubber’s history is no more peaceful than other Catholic churches and abbeys in Ireland. The abbey was suppressed in 1542 during the disillusion, then rebuilt in 1635. Cromwell’s troops in 1653 destroyed the cloisters and other monastic buildings. The abbey church, however, remained intact except for the roof which was burned. The Mass continued to be said in the roofless building for 236 years.

The monastic buildings, including dormitories, at the abbey remain in ruins. Andreas F. Borchert, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE via Wikimedia Commons

The church was rebuilt in 1889, after a petition by the Archbishop of Tuam cited the continuation of worship on the site despite its two-time partial destruction. Most of the monastic buildings, including dormitories for the monks, remain in ruins.

Why did the abbey not die? Despite damage to the physical walls and roof, and the destruction of many buildings, the physical space of the abbey church continued to be a place of worship throughout the centuries. Indeed, the strongest local tradition is that Mass has been said without a break since the abbey’s founding in 1216. A late 19th-century photo (below) of worshipers kneeling in the roofless abbey demonstrates the commitment of the tight-knit surrounding community to keep it alive.

Eight hundred years of continuous worship was celebrated in 2016.

Photo on wall in Ballintubber Abbey shows congregates kneeing on the ground during worship in the roofless abbey before restoration.



Rev. Thomas A. Egan. The Story of Ballintubber Abbey. Leistar Leader Ltd., 2001


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