Abbeylara is located on the shores of Lough Kinale and Derragh Lough in North Longford, three miles from Granard and approximately eighteen miles from Longford town. It is an historical rural village with meandering streets leading to the surrounding fields and forest walks. Lough Kinale and the River Inny are well known as prime angling spots with trout, tench, bream and pike in plentiful supply. Annual competitions are held here by the local angling club and a good day’s fishing is practically guaranteed. The river and lakes are also navigable for small boats.
Approaching the village of Abbeylara, the first thing to be seen is the ruin of a Cistercian monastery from which Abbeylara gets its name, “Mainister Leathratha”, which translates as ‘Abbey of the half rath or little rath’.
History & Info
The monastery of Lerha at this place is said to have been founded by St Patrick circa 460AD, who appointed St. Gluasacht its first Abbot. It was later refounded for monks of the cistercian order and dedicted to the Blessed virgin in 1205 by Sir Richard Tuite. The Cistercian tableau gives the year of its foundation as 1214, which probably refers to the year in which the monastic buildings were completed. Sir Richard, who was killed accidentally by a falling tower in Athlone in 1211, is buried in Abbeylara. In 1315, Edward, brother of Robert Bruce, King of Scotland, seized the monastery of Abbeylara and wintered there. The monks returned in 1316 and Abbeylara thereafter became the burial place of the O’Farrells, the local ruling family of County Longford. The last abbot, Richard O’Farrell, surrendered the abbey with its land and possessions to Henry VIII when he decreed the dissolution of all monasteries and the confiscation of all monastic property. At the time of the dissolution, the monastery buildings were in ruins, but the monastery property still consisted of 5,000 acres of land. Today, very little remains of the site. There is however a fine arch supporting one side of what was once the church and several smaller arches, all of which are now enclosed. The winding staircase is also still intact.
What is particularly interesting about Abbeylara Cistercian Monastery is that it is the location of a very ancient ‘Sheela na Gig’, symbol of the Divine Hag of the Celts, the source of life, death and regeneration. This symbol of the Goddess was initially worshiped by the indigenous people of Ireland and thereafter adopted by the Celts and incorporated into their ceremonies and rituals. It is only in Ireland that the Sheelas survived during medieval times, when very other symbol of God in feminine form was eliminated from Europe and the western world. It was the Irish Missionaries, most especially Colm Cille, who brought the image of the Sheela back to Europe and Britain during the 5th and 6th centuries. His fusion of Brigids nature religion and Patricks Roman Christianity blended the symbolism of the Devine Hag into his Columban Christianity. The Abbeylara symbol is the only known surviving Sheela na Gig in Ireland that displays a baby at its womb and as such is a hugely important relic of our ancient past. Research indicates the possibility that it originally came from nearby Kilbride (the cell or church of Brigid). St Marys Abbey as it is known was most likely named so in order to replace the much more ancient cult of Brigid which was prevelant in the area. Brigid was known as ‘Mary of the Gael’ and ‘Midwife of the Blessed Mother’. What is interesting to note is that in the area of Kilbride and Granard are several holy wells and stone circles, which according to Irish folklore were sacred places designated for giving birth. These are the only remains of stone circles in the Midlands of Ireland. These circles are to be found at Cloghchurnel and Cartronbore and together with the standing stones at Clough, Creevey, Dalystown Lower, Cloghchurnel and Tromra are all most likely dated from the Bronze Age.
Things to See & Do
Lough Kinale is the discovery site of the Lough Kinale Shrine found by locals in 1986. The shrine, a stunning piece of early Irish metalwork is dated to the 8th century AD. It was reconstructed and restored by The National Museum in Dublin where it is now on permanent display. The Mesolithic site at Lough Kinale is one of the oldest man made structures in Co Longford, and is dated between 5000 -4000BC. Derragh Lough is the site of a Crannóg dated to approx. 1000AD. Both sites, as well as nearby Ballywillan Crannóg have given up treasures now housed in the National Museum of Ireland. The Lough Kinale Shrine, chalice and other ecclesiastical objects date to the 6th,7th, 8th and early 9th and indicate that these sites were of an important ecclesiastical nature.
Another interesting feature in Abbeylara is the linear earthwork referred to as ‘The Black Pig’s Dyke’ which runs for 10km from Lough Kinale to Lough Gowna. This earthwork most likely originally consisted of a deep steep-sided ditch with a high bank or rampart along the side and possibly acted as a boundary during the Iron Age between the Celtic Kingdoms of Midh and Ulster.
Buildings and places of interest to see in the area include Bullys Acre, St Marys Church, Mc Nichols Shop which served as the old RIC barracks, as well as the holy wells of ‘Tobar Riogh an Domhnagh’, Well of the King of Sunday, and ‘Tobar na mBan Naomh’, Well of the Holy Women. Lough Kinale, Derragh Lough and Abbeylara monastery all provide places of interest to visit in the parish.
Information on the heritage sites of Abbeylara can be found on the Explore Longford App available to download here: