OBJECTID: 65743 Monument Identifier: KK02732 Classification: RHAC Irish Grid Easting: 0 Irish Grid Northing: 0 RMP_PROP: 1 County ID: 14 WebNotes: In low-lying terrain on what was formerly an island, with the Kings River flowing along the N side and a channel forming the S side. The later walled and turreted extension lies S of the channel. The foundation lies immediately N of an early medieval church (KK027-009----) dedicated to St Kieran of Sighir with the possible remains of an ecclesiastical enclosure (Clyne 2007, 19). The medieval town of Kells (KK027-029----) is located c. 400m to the E. According to Gwynn and Hadcock (1988, 181), in 1183 Geoffry fitz Robert founded a small collegiate establishment in the church of St. Keran of Kenlis, in honour of St. Mary, for four secular priests before bringing over four Augustinian canons from Bodmin Priory, Cornwall at a later date. However, Empey (2007, 1-3) argues that a foundation date of 1193 seems more likely as the land was granted to Geoffrey fitz Robert by William Marshal, who had only gained possession of Leinster in 1192. One of the four canons from Bodmin, Hugh de Rous, became the prior and also became the first Anglo-Norman bishop of Ossory in 1202 (ibid. 4). Over the next three centuries the priory’s fortunes where entwined with those of the neighbouring town. Kells was burnt by William de Bermingham in 1252, the area was devastated by the Bruce invasion in 1317 and Kells sacked by the Fitzgeralds of Desmond ten years later in 1327 (Gwynn and Hadcock 1988, 181; Empey 2007, 5). It would appear that local families were heavily invested in the fortunes of the priory, particularly the Lahys, Tobins and Whites. Empey (ibid. 6-7) relates how two members of the Lahy, or Lacy, family from the Ballytobin area, John and Thomas respectively, occupied the priorship from 1427 for nineteen years and from 1492 to 1508. Nicholas White, who was unlawful prior from c. 1446 to 1469, fought off an episcopal challenge for the priory from the bishop of Emly, despite the latter having papal support (ibid.). Following White’s death another local man, Nicholas Jon, was elected prior by the canons who were ‘not in ignorance’ of the bishop’s right (ibid.). Jon was succeeded by Edmund Stapleton who in 1471 informed the pope that ‘divine worship in the said priory is neglected’, and then by John Karne who was elected in 1474 and eventually legalised his position (ibid.). The walled enclosure at Kells priory dates to the later 15th century, between 1450 and 1475 (ibid. 7-8). Two documents dated to the later 15th century explicitly mention the prior’s ‘vill’, the term ‘villa prioris’ being used at this period to indicated the incastellated enclosure adjoining the S side of the priory (ibid.). The ‘vill’ is described as being separate from the adjacent town and also reference is made to the towers which appear to have served a residential function (ibid. 8). The enclosed area itself appears to have functioned as a bawn, chiefly designed to protect tenants and cattle of the adjoining demesne and grange in time of disturbance (ibid.).
Following the dissolution of the priory in 1540, it was found that the ‘the priory church had been parochial from time immemorial and that all other buildings were necessary for the farmer’ (Gwynn and Hadcock 1988, 181). The last prior, Nicholas Tobin, retained the rectory of Kells and two canons were granted pensions (Empey 2007, 6; Gwynn and Hadcock 1988, 181). The lands and possessions of the priory were granted to James, Earl of Ormond (ibid.). In 1603 an estate, included the monastic remains, was granted to Margaret Fitzgerald, the countess of Ormond and it is her name which appears on the Down Survey (1655-6) barony map of Kells as proprietor in 1640 (Empey 2007, 8). The Down Survey (1655-6) barony map of Kells shows the walled priory divided into two precincts (Hibernia Regnum, courtesy of Trinity College Dublin). A detailed survey of the complex was carried out by Tietzsch-Tyler (1993) and archaeological excavations were carried out over several seasons by Thomas Fanning (1972-5, 1980) and Miriam Clyne (1996) (Clyne 2007).
The upstanding remains consist of the church with the claustral range to the S and the precinct walls, built of roughly coursed limestone rubble with some sandstone, though the latter was used primarily for architectural details in the 13th century. The chancel was completed before 1218 as Hugh de Rous was buried there (Clyne 2007, 491). Clyne (ibid.) suggests that in fact the entire original church may have been constructed by this date as, ‘the nave was extended and an aisle built before the cloister arcade was erected, probably c. 1225-50 (ibid.). The original church was cruciform in plan, with a chancel and aisleless nave and transepts extending from the crossing, each with a chapel extending eastward. Upstanding remains from this first phase are visible within the surviving fabric, as described by Clyne (ibid.), ‘the original openings, in early Gothic style, are in dressed sandstone and mouldings are limited to chamfers. The best-preserved feature is the archway to the south transept. A matching archway leading to the north transept stood opposite. The nave had three doorways – this number of entrances was required to cater for the canons and the laity who attended the church. There were opposing doorways at the western end and the base for the north doorway was revealed on excavation…The doorway at the eastern end of the cloister was the main entrance for the canons’. Only one window survives, a lancet window in the S wall of the nave, though none of its architectural details survive (ibid.). The church roof was timber covered with slates and decorative green-glazed ceramic ridge tiles (ibid.).
By the mid-13th century the nave had been lengthened and a tower and aisle constructed on the N side when the nave was enlarged (ibid. 496). The original N wall of the church was replaced by a four-bay arcade (ibid.). It is likely that the S doorway was rebuilt at this time with roll and hollow mouldings replacing the chamfered mouldings of the original doorway (ibid.). Clyne (ibid.) suggests that the NW tower may have been a two-storey belfry originally before being rebuilt in the 15th century. Excavation showed that before the end of the 14th-century the tower roof and interior were destroyed by fire as well as the W end of the nave (ibid. 497).
In the second half of the 13th century the chancel was extended eastward (ibid. 501). It was lit by an E window, now broken out, consisted of five graded lights, with the roll-mouldings and chamfers of the edge of the embrasure surviving, and a three tall lancets with edge roll-mouldings in the S wall (ibid. 502). Two of these lancets were blocked up in the 15th century and only the jamb of the third survives (ibid. 49). There are four segmental-headed tomb niches in the chancel, two in the N and S walls respectively. The limestone engaged columns on either side have bases with half-round mouldings and capitals carved with botanical motifs on rounded abaci similar to those found at the medieval parish church at Gowran (KK020-060006-) which has been dated to from c. 1260 to 1275 (Stalley 1971, 75-80; Barry 1985, 42-3; Clyne 2007, 49). The interior had a smooth plaster finish and was decorated with a false ashlar masonry pattern in red paint (ibid.). Plaster in the S transept and in the reveal of one of the blocked 13th-century lancets in the S wall of the chancel had traces of deep red and black paint while two of the tomb niches in the chancel were painted orange, with the suggestion of painted figures found of fragments of plaster (ibid. 502).
Probably contemporary with the chancel extension was the building of a Lady Chapel immediately N of the chancel (ibid. 50). To facilitate this the original E wall of the side chapel of the N transept was demolished and the chapel extended (ibid.). A doorway provides access between the chancel to the Lady Chapel and its surround is shared with a poorly preserved conjoined sedillia and piscina in the S wall. Part of the round-headed, limestone and sandstone cusped trefoil arch of the sedillia survives (ibid.). The piscina contains a shallow, quatrefoil-shaped basin (ibid.). A continuous hood-moulding, with a roll and fillet above a plain roll, linked the openings and joined a restored stringcourse that extends to the eastern end of the wall (ibid.). The Lady Chapel was lit by an E window and four N windows, none of which survive. The embrasure at the western end of the N wall has part of the sandstone rear arch and jamb extant, with a defaced triple roll-moulding (ibid.). This is surmounted by a sandstone hood-moulding, carved with a different triple roll, which connects it to the adjoining window and originally linked all four windows (ibid.). Also contemporary with this later 13th-century phase, or shortly after in the early 14th century, the N transept was extended northward and an E aisle, with a two-bay arcade, was built (ibid. 50-51). At a later date the transept was reduced in size and the arcade blocked up by placing a masonry altar in each bay (ibid.). In the 15th century a tower, known as the ‘Prior’s Tower’ was built onto the S wall of the chancel and a tower was built over the crossing of the church (ibid. 53).
The E range extends from the original S transept with five rooms, including the chapter house and calefactory with remains of the fireplace, at ground level and would have housed the dormitory at first-floor level. The rere-dorter (the main latrine block) extends eastward from the S end of this range. The S range was originally one space at ground level, though the eastern end formed a slype with two moulded sandstone doorways, linking the cloister with the lower courtyard (ibid. 42). Before entering the refectory, which occupied the entire first-floor level, the canons washed in the lavabo, a shallow, oblong limestone basin with a central drainage hole, which is set into a recess in the S cloister walk (ibid. 44). There were two entrances to the refectory at the western end, one in the S wall from the kitchens and one in the W, probably a later addition accessed from outside the precinct, both reached by a covered stone stair (ibid.). The refectory was lit by a tall window in the W gable, only the S jamb and S embrasure of which survives with a continuous filleted edge roll-moulding, and four twin lancets in the S wall, only one of which survives completely intact (ibid.). The frater pulpit, close to the E end of the S wall and reached by a stone steps, was also lit by at least one window (ibid.). Only the foundations of the W range survive, with two rooms at ground level and a narrow slype at the N end. None of the cloister arcading survives in situ, but many fragments were found during the excavation which show that it consisted of an arcade of cusped trefoil-headed arches, decorated with a double roll and fillet moulded soffit and chamfer moulding to the rear, which rested on double columns with moulded capitals with dogtooth design (Montague 2007, 194-5). This has been dated to c. 1225-50 (ibid. 204-5).
Immediately S of the claustral range is a lower range of buildings, irregularly arranged around a courtyard due to space constrictions (ibid. 48-9). A date of the mid- to late 13th century has been suggested for these buildings which include the kitchens to the SW, the infirmary to the S with its latrines utilizing the S moat and other domestic building which are an extension southward of the E claustral range (ibid.; (Tietzsch-Tyler 1993, 24). The original precinct (1.5 ha/3.7 acres) appears to have largely followed the outline of the island on which it was located, following the townland boundary to the N and W (Clyne 2007, 45). By the 18th century the NW area was being used as a graveyard and the W boundary of the monastic precinct had moved eastward (ibid.). There is evidence of the original precinct wall at the present NW angle continuing westward to form what is currently the graveyard wall (ibid.). There is a lintelled doorway towards in the wall near the NW angle, with the footings of a rectangular building immediately W of it internally (ibid.). There are two loops in the N wall and a watergate towards the E end incorporated in an internal tower. Evidence of an external stair on the E wall of the tower indicates a first-floor entrance (ibid.). Roughly mid-way along the E wall, which has an external moat (Wth 3-4m) and before it kinks south-westward, there is a gateway with an internal three-storey postern tower immediately to the S (ibid., 47). The original doorway in the S wall at first-floor level was blocked up and a later window inserted (ibid.). The SW length of wall has a base-batter rather than an external moat. The S channel forming the island acted as a moat outside the S precinct wall (H c. 4.5m; T 0.95m) and is partly original with some late medieval rebuilding (ibid). Near the W end of this wall, and running northward into the precinct, is a building interpreted as a bakehouse, as it has a large projecting oven (int. diam. c. 3.5m) at its NE angle (ibid. 47-8). The original main gatehouse appears to have been the bridge tower, spanning the S channel. It has part of the W jamb, a hanging-eye and arch springer in situ in the internal S wall (Tietzsch-Tyler 1993, 21). Probably when the outer precinct, known as the Prior’s Vill or Burgess Court was built in the 15th century the gateway was moved immediately W of the bridge tower, the latter being converted into a five-storey residential tower.
The Prior’s Vill (1.08 ha/2.7 acres) is roughly rectangular in plan and has a gateway mid-way along the E wall and towards the N end of the W wall. The round-headed E gateway, which projects outward from the wall, is protected by an overhanging machicolation and the gateway passage (D 2m) is protected on either side by a loop (Clyne 2007, 57). It had double gates, with the hanging-eyes at springing level still in situ (ibid.). Only the S jamb and foundation of the N jamb of the W gateway survive (ibid.). There are also four projecting towers, at the SE and SW angles, mid-way along the S wall and immediately S of the W gateway, with the W tower being the largest and the S tower the smallest (ibid. 58). The towers are rectangular in plan and five-storeys high with an attic, all carried on timber floors, except for the W tower which as a pointed barrel vault over the first floor (ibid. 58-9). There is a projecting machicolation at parapet level defending the entrance doorway of the SE and SW towers and all the towers have a murder-hole protecting the entrance lobby (ibid. 59). The ground floor chambers are poorly lit, the other floors have most single-light flat, round or ogee-headed windows with the addition of some two-light windows in the more commodious SE and W towers (ibid.). There are also simple lintelled fireplaces in the upper storeys (ibid.).
Following the dissolution of the monastery the property was leased periodically to sub-tenants. Two of the towers were rented out for secular occupation and probably continued to be into the late 17th century (ibid. 513). The buildings around the claustral range were repurposed for agricultural use and the crossing tower converted into a residential tower, as evidenced by the insertion of a fireplace at lower floor level (ibid. 514). The prior’s tower was also occupied as there is evidence that some of its windows were re-glazed in the late 16th/17th century (ibid.). It is likely that the nave continued to function as a parish church until it was superseded by the church, now ruinous, c. 270m to the S (ibid. 512). However, the insertion of a flat elliptical-headed three-light window in the gable of the N transept, with an oculus above but within the embrasure, may suggest that the N transept rather than the nave, was selected for post-dissolution services (ibid. 71, 516). As this style of window has a broad date range, from the mid-16th to the mid-17th century, it is also possible that the N transept was targeted for re-fitting during the short-lived Catholic Revival of the mid-17th century (ibid. 72).
National Monument No. 180
Compiled by: Jean Farrelly
Date of upload: 28 May 2020 Zone Code: R187973 ITM Easting: 649749 ITM Northing: 643320 SHAPE: Point Att.: 4 Class: Religious house - Augustinian canons SMR No.: KK027-029004- Townland: RATHDUFF (Madden) Point: X: 649749.0 Y: 643320.0 Spatial Reference: 2157