Hiking Blog


Monasteries of the River Moy

Flowing just 103km from source to sea, the modest Moy isn’t the longest river found entirely within Connacht. That title belongs to the Suck, which runs for over 130km before entering the Shannon below Ballinasloe. Along with its salmon fishery, however, it is the medieval Monasteries of the River Moy that makes this water very special.

Ireland has no remaining wooden churches. While some examples exist from as early as the 8th to 9th Centuries, the ruins of stone-built stand-alone churches and oratories we see throughout the country today generally date from the 10th and 11th Centuries onwards. The larger, more complex ruins of mendicant monasteries, such as these Monasteries of the River Moy, mostly date from the 13th – 15th Centuries.

Religious orders came to Ireland from the 12th Century, with the Cistercians founding their first house at Mellifont, County Louth, in 1142. The Dominicans arrived in 1224, the Franciscans around 1231 and the Augustinians around 1280.

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.

From its source 4km east of Lough Easkey in the southern slopes of the blanket bog capped Ox Mountains, the Moy is still young when we visit Court Abbey at Lavagh. I should admit straight away that it’s a bit of a cheat including Court as one of the Monasteries of the River Moy, given that it’s situated 4km away. But here goes anyway …

Monasteries of the Moy - Court
Court Franciscan Friary

This 15th Century Franciscan Friary was established by O’Hara for the Third Order Regular, consisting of both friars and sisters. While the building is much ruined and its remains heavily covered in ivy, nevertheless it boasts two features of notable interest.

First, like Moyne and Rosserk, there is what appears to be a secretarium (a type of anchorite cell) inside one of its walls, measuring approx 2m x 1m, with a small window to the outside. Anchorites were people who withdrew from secular life, to lead instead a life of prayer and confinement. The cell’s doorway is currently blocked by a late 19th Century tombstone.

Second, some of its still partially plastered walls show traces of medieval murals, including, again like Moyne, etchings of ships. The various colourations on the wall may be, at least in part, remaining paint from these wall murals.

Following the dissolution of monastic houses during the 16th Century, Court Friary was in a state of ruin by 1586.

View a 3min video of my ramble around Court at https://youtu.be/mpjvO1gJRqI

Among these Monasteries of the River Moy, the first genuine riverside site is at Banada. This Augustinian Friary, dedicated to Corpus Christi, was founded in 1423 by O’Hara and was the first foundation of the Observant Movement that was sweeping through the Augustinian order at that time. Banada was dissolved around 1613. Very little remains, although it too has some interesting features, most notably part of the stairs to the dormitory which, despite the almost complete collapse of the higher sections of the chancel walls, has managed to survive within them.

Monasteries of the Moy - Banada
Banada Augustinian Friary

As a side note, it was a Banada friar, Hugh O’Malley, who was tasked with establishing the well-known abbey at Murrisk, sometime around 1456.

Our third house is, once again, admittedly a few km from the river. The Priory of the Holy Cross at Straide was established by the Jordans (De Exeter) around 1240 for the Franciscans and was the first mendicant house in Mayo. Around the time of a fire in the 1250s, Straide was transferred to the Dominicans. It would be suppressed around 1578.

Indeed, the story goes that Basilia de Birmingham, wife of Jordan de Exeter, “having invited her father to a feast, refused to eat until such time as her husband replaced the Franciscan community with a Dominican one. He agreed and envoys were dispatched to Rome ‘with a great sum of money’ to confirm the arrangement.”

Its highlight is the superb sculptured tomb in the north wall of the chancel.

Monasteries of the river moy straide
The exquisite tomb at Straide

Ardnaree Abbey in Ballina town is situated just beside the modern cathedral (and the river) and was founded sometime prior to 1400, perhaps by the O’Dowds. It was the first Augustinian priory in the West of Ireland. Its remains are scant, though it does retain a very beautiful west door. One curious feature of Ardnaree is how we can see the degree to which the ground level has changed over the centuries, with the door half buried nowadays.

Ardnaree (Ardnary) was suppressed around 1580.

Ardnaree (Ardnary) Augustinian Priory
Ardnaree in Ballina Town

The superb Rosserk Abbey stands right beside the estuary of the river and is one of the finest in the country. Like Court, it was established for the Franciscan Third Order Regular. Founded around 1441 and suppressed around 1578, its very impressive and extensive ruins feature foliate decorations on pillars, the famous depiction of a round tower on its piscinae and its ‘cell’. Its east window is also still in unusually good condition, while its residential wing includes the kitchen, refectory, barrel vaulted rooms, etc.

Monasteries of the Moy - Rosserk
Rosserk Franciscan Friary

Challenging the claim of Rosserk is the remarkable Moyne Friary, a mere 5km further west. Built by MacWilliam de Burgo around 1455 for the Franciscans, this exceptional ruin boasts an intact cloister and ship murals on its walls, along with a superb secretarium. Moyne was suppressed around 1590. While there is no carpark and the abbey is not the most easily accessed, a stroll through fields with cows will get you there.

Moyne Franciscan Friary
Moyne Franciscan Friary, with its ‘cell’ to the right of the central column

Finally, nothing but the impressive round tower remains of the earlier monastic settlement that must have once stood in Killala town.

As a footnote, while not really on the Moy, or even its estuary, the remains of nearby Rathfran Dominican Priory, dedicated to the Holy Cross, are also well worth a visit. This house was established in 1274 by de Burgo and appears to have been suppressed around 1577.

Piscinae at Rathfran

Distances to visit the Monasteries of the River Moy

Court Franciscan Friary is 9km north of Tubbercurry and 41km east of Ballina, just outside the village of Lavagh.

Banada Augustinian Friary is 16km southwest of Court Friary.

Straide Dominican Friary is 31km southwest of Banada.

Ardnaree Augustinian Priory is in Ballina town centre, 25km north of Straide.

Rosserk Franciscan Friary is 11km north of Ballina.

Moyne Franciscan Friary is 6km north of Rosserk.

Killala town, with its round tower, is 4km north of Moyne.

Rathfran Dominican Priory is 8km northwest of Killala and 21km from Ballina town centre.

You can learn more in-depth information on some of these sites and other fascinating places in north Mayo on the excellent resource of Sacred Landscapes.

Of course, the Monasteries of the River Moy are not the only ones that Mayo can boast. Others include Aughagower, Murrisk, Cong, Burrishoole and the lovely lakeside one at Urlaur, near Kilmovee in the east of the county.

The sun sets beneath the tower at Court

For all tourism-related news and information, visit the North Mayo tourism website.

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9 Great Beaches of County Mayo

A wild, windy and often wet coastal county, boasting particularly spectacular sea cliff landscapes, Mayo is also home to some of the finest beaches in Ireland.

Caressed (more often, pounded) by the North Atlantic, 8 of these 9 great beaches of county Mayo offer fabulous sea views. As for the ninth, read on.

They may not all be particularly long stretches of strand, but wonderful they most certainly are. So, in alphabetical order, here are 9 great beaches of county Mayo, plus a bonus each from 2 of our neighbouring counties.

Back Strand at Lacken/Kilcummin

A beautiful, north-facing beach in north Mayo, beyond Killala. Feel the full brunt of any north winds at this strand. Shake the cobwebs away! Then continue around the dunes to the protected side. Both wonderful.

Back Strand, Kilcummin

Cross to Caisleán, The Mullet Peninsula

SW of Belmullet, this beautiful series of interconnected beaches boasts stupendous views out towards the uninhabited islands of Iniskea and Inishglora. With a neolithic stone circle at its southern end and offering fab views of diving Gannets, this is a great place to walk for hours on sand. Choose low tide for this walk, then go ahead – take the North Atlantic’s winds straight in the face. Invigorating.

great beaches of county mayo

The beach at Cross

Doo Lough, between Louisburgh and Leenane

It’s small and not on the sea, but it’s still jaw-droppingly beautiful. At the southern end of this most poignant of lakes, get out of your car and stand on the tiny stony beach. Admire the magnificent mountainous terrain all around. Spine-tingling.

great beaches of county mayo

Doo Lough beach


Strictly speaking not in Mayo, this gigantic West Sligo strand seems to go on forever. Not counted among the nine, for tribal reasons. Ditto for Lough Nafooey, below.

Enniscrone Beach

Keel, Achill Island

The stand-out feature here is the epic backdrop of the Minaun cliffs beyond. Fix your eyes on them and off you go down the 3km beach, letting your gaze drift off across the sea and towards Clare Island as you go. This is the only one of these nine great beaches of county Mayo that is a short skip and hop from accommodation, restaurants and pubs.

great beaches of county mayo

Keel Beach, Achill Island

Keem Bay, Achill Island

A very small beach, Keem is unrivalled for its awesome location. Wedged between the high cliffs to its south and the pull towards Croaghaun to its northwest, the drive or cycle down to this very remote beach is worth the trip alone. This place is the most enchanting beach in Mayo and certainly one of the most magical places in Ireland. If it’s a long beach walk you’re looking for, then this is not the one. But if it’s a spiritual experience by the sea you’re after, come here.

Note that back around 2016 there was a dreadful idea to build some type of hideous tourism structure above Keem Bay, as part of the Wild Atlantic Way (to have been plopped in the top right of my pic). I haven’t heard anything of it since and let’s hope that it never materialises.

Keem Bay, Achill

Lough Nafooey, near Finny

Like Enniscrone, above, this beach isn’t actually in Mayo, but we won’t squabble over a few hundred metres. This gorgeous little sandy beach is at the western end of this north Connemara lake, in a stunning location.

Lough Nafooey in Connemara

Mulranny Golf Course

At low tide, this is one of the best beaches in Mayo for you, your buddy, two hurls and a sliotar. Drive the ball as far as you can, on flat, hard sand. This is my favourite Clew Bay beach. Magic place.

great beaches of county mayo

Mulranny (golf course) Beach

Rinroe, beyond An Ceathrú Thaidhg

This lovely spot looks out across Broadhaven Bay towards the Mullet peninsula beyond and boasts a beach on either side of a small peninsula. Extensive dunes make for a spectacular backdrop to this wild spot.

great beaches of county mayo

The twin beaches at Rinroe, near An Ceathrú Thaidhg

Surgeview, The Mullet Peninsula

Another couple of km south of Caisleán and around the corner brings a small beach of no more than a few 100 metres in length. This little strand, however, affords extraordinary views of the rugged coastline of Achill Island to the south, with its majestic finger of Saddle Head jutting out into the foam. Not to mention the Duvillaun Islands and their rocky outcrops. Sublime.

Achill, from Surgeview on the Mullet

White & Silver Strands, south of Louisburgh

Two very remote strands, of which the first goes on and on, incorporates the quickly disappearing remains of an ancient graveyard and is surrounded by sand dunes. The second is small and bordered by rocky outcrops on both sides. Look out towards Caher, Inisturk and Inishbofin islands, south to the Connemara coastline and behind you to Mweelrea, Connacht’s highest mountain. If you’re lucky, the wind will be up when you visit and you’ll know afterwards that you had been walking one of these 9 great Mayo beaches along the Wild Atlantic Way.

White (r) and Silver (l) Strands

Great Beaches of County Mayo – Location Map

These great beaches of County Mayo are scattered around our wonderful land. Why not make it a goal for the coming year to visit and walk as many as you can manage? And let us know if your favourite hasn’t been included. By the way, here’s an article on the varied coastline of county Mayo.

And, to amuse you, here’s an article from the Irish Examiner listing the world’s supposedly finest beaches.

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Day Out in North Mayo

A Grand Day Out in North Mayo (in the car!)

When I plan a day out in North Mayo, my mind usually pictures a great long hike along its spectacular ocean cliffs.

But it’s sometimes fabulous to simply jump in the car and take in more of this little-visited but wonderful part of the country. So, the other day, that’s just what we did.

Our first stop was to hike the beautiful and more-or-less flat trail at Erris Head, 10km beyond Belmullet, in the very NW of the county. This loop is 5km long, takes 2hr and boasts great cliff scenery at its climax, looking out over Pigeon Rock and Oileán Dhabhaic. Be sure to visit the little World War II Look Out Post (LOP) and its associated EIRE 62 stone marker while you’re there.

day out in north mayo erris head

Back in the car and moving eastwards, we popped in to the Talbot Hotel for a welcome bit of lunch. On this occasion, we resisted McDonnell’s, one of the great West of Ireland pubs …

Taking a detour off the road towards Ballycastle, we visited the small but beautifully located Dooncarton Stone Circle. There are many more impressive in the country, but few can match the stunning setting of this one, perched above Srahwaddacon Bay.

day out in north mayo

Then onwards to An Ceathrú Thaidhg and our second hike of the day. With occasional short climbs, this 13km trail will take you 4 to 4.5 hours. One stretch of cliffs, heading northwards from Rinroe Bay towards Kid Island, is perhaps the most photogenic in Ireland.

“The finest sustained coastal walk in western Ireland, with a profusion of precipitous cliffs,

crags, caves, chasms and islands along the remote North Mayo coast”

[Lonely Planet, 1999].

day out in north mayo

Driving further eastwards along the coast road, we made a quick stop at the impressive cross-inscribed stone pillar at Doonfeeney. It’s well worth the short detour – don’t miss it. Short of time, we skipped past the Céide Fields, the world’s most extensive Neolithic stone field system, just allowing ourselves a quick photo stop at the magnificent stratified cliffs across the road.

day out in north mayo doonfeeney

Our target instead was the singular Dún Briste sea-stack at Downpatrick Head, beyond Ballycastle. On this autumn day, we had the place virtually to ourselves. Here is quintessential Mayo, an icon of the Wild Atlantic Way and the pride of the North Mayo tourism offering. One minor complaint, however. I don’t like at all the modern glass and steel structures put in place a few short years ago. They do nothing but detract from this otherwise glorious natural site.

day out in north mayo dun briste downpatrick head

We were short of time and out of light. On a longer day, we’d have continued onwards to enjoy Killala’s round tower, the ruined monasteries at Moyne and Rosserk and the red squirrels at Belleek Wood in Ballina.

But not today. Instead, we headed southwards from Ballycastle, through extensive blanket bogs towards Lahardane and Castlebar, leaving lovely, wild North Mayo behind. Until next time.

Day Out in North Mayo – what to do and see

To learn more about what to do and see in North Mayo, visit the region’s tourism portal at www.northmayo.ie.

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An Afternoon Walking in the South of France

Having exited our gorgeous forest track, a lovely quiet car-free road led us the last 500m into Varaire. As we dawdled by its cute little houses and their wonderful gardens of fig trees and flowers, we were ready for a café and Perrier.

We had walked 7 km on this lovely lazy day and would have another easy-going 6 to do later. An afternoon walking in the south of France is a beautiful thing.

Jean-Claude, in his 70s, was pottering about outside his house, when he saw this gaggle of women approach (I was somewhat behind, taking pictures of doorways). They were chatting away as I arrived on the scene, the ladies full of praise for his beautiful garden, pretty old house and the trees offering shade from the midday sun. I joined in, helping with the translation, and enjoyed the friendliness of this lovely man. This is what the south of France is all about, I reminded us all.

To receive the brochure for our May 2021 edition, please drop me an email to info@tourismpurewalking.com.

Suddenly, this smiling lady appeared from nowhere, joking that she had seen all these women hovering around her Jean-Claude. “Il fallait bien que je vienne, au cas où vous me le piqueriez” … “I had to come, in case you were stealing him from me”…

An afternoon walking in the south of France

We moved on to the village square for refreshments and joined a big group of cyclists at the one and only bar. Looking out to the impressive medieval square tower and the old public washing pool, the setting was ideal for our break. The cyclists were one of many groups of friends out on the vélo that day, clad in bright yellow, blue, white and orange tops, so typical of that sport.

Around the Monument aux Morts, we nibbled half our packed lunches before moving on, back into the fabulous oak-dominated forests. A few km further along, we stopped for the remainder of our lunches on a fallen tree trunk by a little crossroads of forest tracks, truly in the middle of nowhere. The silence and calm here is beautiful.

An afternoon walking in the south of France

This gentle day of walking brought us 13 km along mostly forest tracks and took us 6 hours, including various stops.

If you would like to enquire about joining our small group from 22 – 29 May 2021, please drop me a line to info [at] tourismpurewalking.com.

You may also enjoy reading these little anecdotes from walking in France.

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Coastline of County Mayo

The Spectacular Coastline of County Mayo

From the Killary fjord in the south to the estuary of the River Moy in the north, the coastline of County Mayo is a magnificent mix of awesome cliffs, dry-stone walled fields, blanket bog, mid-sized mountains and stupendous sandy beaches.

Rising to 814m, Mweelrea is Connacht’s highest mountain and stands guard over the southwest of the county. The wonderful views from atop this sandstone and conglomerate mountain include beautiful sandy beaches to its west and the fjord, forming part of the Mayo Galway border, to its south.

Mostly comprised of gorgeous beaches, the low-lying coastline below continues all the way north and around Clew Bay to the Corraun peninsula and Achill Island beyond. This stretch boasts two of the prettiest towns in the county, in bustling Westport and cute little Mulranny with its lovely beaches.

Along the way, catch a ferry at Roonagh (west of Louisburgh) to either Clare Island or Inisturk.

From the top of Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s holy mountain, enjoy views of the nearly 100 islands in the bay below. Clew Bay is among Ireland’s most impressive post-glacial landscapes. Along with countless other drumlins on land, the islands here, often referred to as ‘drowned eggs’, were formed as the dying glaciers entered the open ocean to the west. These glaciers came across Scotland, then Ulster and Connacht, heading in a southwest direction until meeting the Atlantic.

Achill, Ireland’s largest island, is a wonderful walking destination, with Slievemore (671m) and Croaghaun (688m), both schist, the highlights. The latter has lost its western half, long since collapsed into the North Atlantic below, resulting in Ireland’s highest cliffs. If you fancy a hike, go visit Lough Annagh, Ireland’s lowest lake, perched just metres above the sea level on Achill’s unroaded north coast.

North of Achill and Corraun, we enter the little visited but beautiful barony of Erris. Take some time at Ballycroy National Park visitor centre and discover the flora and fauna of our Atlantic blanket bog landscapes.

The finest beaches in the county are waiting to be discovered along The Mullet peninsula, beyond Béal an Mhuirthead (Belmullet) in the far northwest of Mayo. Walking on sand from Cross beach to Eachléam, look out to St. Brendan’s Inishglora, where the Children of Lir lie, and the twin islands of Iniskea to its south.

coastlinbe of county mayo iniskea north

Iniskea North Island, with thanks to Damian McDonagh, a guest on one of my guided trips

From Belmullet, head yet further north, to find the finest sustained sea cliff scenery in Ireland. Placenames like An Ceathrú Thaidhg, Porturlin, Portacloy, Belderg and Céide call you to this extraordinary landscape of blanket bog that runs right to the cliff tops, before falling vertiginously to the foam below. At Benwee Head (sandstone), the cliffs are 255m high and offer wonderful views over the ocean to the remote Stags of Broadhaven (schist) beyond.

Straight across the road from the Céide Fields, the oldest field system in the world, a nice viewing platform gives great views of the stratified rock in the vertical cliff faces. These layers of sandstones, limestones and shale are also wonderfully evident at nearby Dún Briste.

coastline of county mayo downpatrick head

Dún Briste sea stack at Downpatrick Head

Further eastwards, the cliffs give way to beaches and fertile fields, where the ruined Moyne and Rosserk Abbeys may be visited. Beyond lies the lovely town of Ballina, built on the famous salmon fishery that is the River Moy. With its pleasant Belleek Forest on the bank of the estuary, this fine town brings to an end our quickfire tour of the beautiful coastline of our County Mayo.

Coastline of County Mayo – Highlights

Ireland’s third largest county, Mayo boasts the longest coastline of any in the country. There are endless things to see and visit, but here are some I’ve picked out for you.

1 National Park : Ballycroy

2 Mountains : Mweelrea and Croaghaun

2 Woodlands : Old Head, Belleek Forest

2 Castles : Those of Gráinne Uí Mháille at Carrickahowley and Kildavnet

3 Towns : Westport, Belmullet and Ballina

3 Islands : Inisturk, Iniskea North, Inishglora

3 Pubs : Matt Molloy’s (Westport), McDonnell’s (Belmullet), Úna’s (Blacksod)

5 Beaches : Mulranny, Keel, Keem, Cross, Lacken

coastline of county mayo benwee head

Benwee Head, with the Stags of Broadhaven in the background

5 Cliffs, accessible without a long hike : Far side of Inisturk, above Keem Bay, Benwee Head, Céide, Downpatrick Head

5 Abbeys : Murrisk, Burrishoole, Rathfran, Moyne, Rosserk

Get in your car or, even better, on your bike and enjoy this wonderful coastline of County Mayo at your leisure.

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Urlaur Priory in East Mayo

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.

Urlaur Priory (Urlaur Abbey)

In 1577, the ‘frierie’ is listed as being still in the tenure of the ‘friers’, namely Teig Og O Mara and others.

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.

Urlaur Priory west gable

On entering the church, to the left there was an aisle with arcade of pointed arches separating it from the main nave, but all arches and columns have disappeared. From a late 18th Century sketch, however, we know that there were three pointed arches supported by two stand-alone columns and two further columns integrated into the walls of the church, parts of which remain. These were constructed of ashlar masonry.

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.

Urlaur Priory piscinae

Jutting southwards from this southeast corner of the chancel is the domestic range, entered through a pointed arch doorway to the right of the piscinae. Four barrel vaulted cells remain (repaired), each measuring between 3.5m x 5.5m and 4.0m x 6.0m. The slightly smaller ones are so because they have space given over to stairways leading to the upstairs dormitory (one each in the SW and NW corners). This measures 20m x 8m. Upstairs, the roof and much of the walls are no longer extant.

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.

Urlaur Priory Duffy Plaque

“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).

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