Muckross Abbey  

By Frank Doherty

Search County Kerry



MUCKROSS ABBEY ruins is situated on the shoulder of the shore of Lough Lane, which is the lower of the three great Lakes of Killarney.

The word Muckcross means Pig-wood, and that is exactly what the area was in 1448 when the Abbey was founded. It was then the home of a particular strain of a great breed of a Black Pig.

Its breathtaking beauty has at all times been one of natures’ gifts to Ireland and its tourist trade. And even in 1705 the Muckross Abbey district was mentioned in the London News Newspaper as a place worthy of a visit. 

The Abbey Ruins today can only be described as awesome, even if only to witness the girth of the walls alone. The remarkable cloisters have 22 graceful arches, on two sides Gothic, and two sides Norman, which encloses an open court. On the opposite side is the refectory with a storeroom beneath. 

On the East side are the Church ruins with the sacristy attached. The original Friars were no great lovers of Towers, lofty or otherwise. So the vaulted bell-tower of this Abbey was inserted after the Church was already built and is unique in that it spans the full width of the Church.

There is a noon-dial carved under the north central arch, which was the Friars principle and only timepiece. The very first Franciscans came to Ireland in the summer of 1226, landing at Youghal in Co Cork

In circa 1300, a small group of those Observantine Franciscans Friars reached Killarney. They found a heaven on the shore of Lough Lane, and founded the Great Abbey of Muckcross with a very small Church. 

Over the next two hundred years they acquired many foundations, but Muckross, although not the largest, was their Gem.

The Irish Lord Donal MacCarthy Mor built Muckross Abbey, to the Observantine Franciscan Plan, and presented it to them in 1448. As history tells us Donal Mor was a great visionary and even in his lifetime saw the fruits of his investment, in the Franciscans Friars, materialize. 

Especially through the employment they gave and the education they imparted. The Observafltine Friars were considered the most dedicated and hard working Friars of the time. They were so called because of their rigid observance of the orders rule on matters such as diet, clothing and the possession of private property.

Workers fished the lakes and reclaimed the land. They sowed, harvested, collected the wild fruits and instructed the people in the preservation of the crops. 

It is also thought that they were the first to introduce the Great Kerry Blacks breed of cattle to Ireland. They were fine herds of shiny back cattle, and their possible descendants, still graze around the Abbey Ruins. They supply the milk for the butter, bread making and the mugs of fresh milk offered, free of charge, to visitors at the nearby Muckross Farm Museum to this day. 

The Franciscans witnessed some interruptions under Elizabeth 1, and again under Cromwell in 1652. But it was the Penal Laws of 1698 that eventually ended their stay at the Abbey. The final destruction befell the Abbey when the Cromwellian Army, under the instructions of General Ludlow had it burned.  

The Friars were sad but not broken; they took to the hills and got shelter from the local people in their log cabins.

An account from the daily diary of Dorothea Herbert written in August 1786 paints a good picture for us of the Abbey in the eighteenth century Dorothea went with her parents and siblings from Carraig-on-suir for a summer holiday to Muckross House, which was her fathers’ birthplace.

Her uncle and his English wife now occupied it. It was whispered locally that the Abbey was the clandestine meeting place of her glamorous aunt-in-law. She was supposed to be having an affair with a very dashing local Army Officer. Dorothea with her brother in tow, sneaked out at nightfall in the hope of getting a glimpse of the lovers.  

With the help of the August moon they reached the Abbey but returned disappointed in their mission. However they were both overjoyed to have escaped undetected in their rule breaking adventure: 

And she, as follows describes in her own words what they did actually encounter at the Abbey. 

When traversing the rocky windings of the immense Garden we frequently lost our way in the Wild Labyrinth - We at length groped our way to a tall Melancholy Avenue of Elms’ that leads from the garden to the Green Enclosure where stands the Gloomy Pile - The Ruins of an Old Abbey and A Monument of Ancient Magnificence - We entered the Enclosure by a wicket and drew back with Horror whilst the Bats and Owls clapped their wings around us. 

The Abbey is surrounded by Trees and consists of a variety of Squares above and below which are environed by long Ranges of Cells and Cloisters gloomy as Death – In the Grand Square stood a famous old Yew Tree of immense Height and Circumference - It was long the Admiration of all travelers but I forgot its Dimensions. 

The outside of the Abbey is adorned with Battlements of human Sculls and Bones piled as high as the Building, which though they show its former Celebrity are a most terrifying spectacle. We did not return till twelve at Night to Muckross and were in the deepest perplexity how to account for our peregrination or rather Pilgrimage to this Forbidden Spot.

Dorothea`s foreword to her diaries gives us an unintentional insight to the lay of the land at Muckross Abbey in the mid eighteenth century It opens with an account of her grandparent`s marriage around 1739-1740. 

It states that in Muckross House, which was her Grandparent`s new home: That the Brandy froze in the Bowl while held in the Gentleman’s hand in front of the fire, and there was a Fair held on the River Thames in London. 

In fact it is now seen to be the last serious cold period of the Little Ice Age that ended in 1740. 

The Battlements of human Sculls and Bones that Dorothea referred to was from The Forgotten Famine of 1740-1741. It was caused by the severe cold that she had also made reference to, which had swept across Europe for two successive years.



The death rate in Ireland, from this Famine, varies between five and eight hundred thousand. And Abbey Gables, such as Muskcross were generally used for safety to pile up the unburied human corpses. 

While visiting the Abbey recently there is a meter or so high of a grass covered mound at the South-facing gable there. The Yew Tree that she mentions is also still there, but it is understood that it has lost at least half of its original height. 

The Friars never deserted the area and continued their work and recruitment undercover for the Following two hundred years. Even in this New Millennium the Friars still maintain the old traditions of Muckross Abbey, in their beautifull modern Friary in Killarney town, which dates back to its foundation in 1860. 

Thankfully as with many other Abbeys the OPW is working steadfast and ongoing, on Muckross to preserve and restore our great Irish Heritage.


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