Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Greyabbey, Co. Down | The Abbey

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On a recent trip down the Ards peninsula, the Chapple family stopped at the beautifully preserved site of Greyabbey. The site is believed to date from 1193, when this Cistercian abbey-monastery was founded by Affreca, wife of John de Courcy, the Anglo-Norman conqueror of Ulster. The surviving tradition is that Affreca founded the abbey in gratitude for a particularly difficult sea voyage – making it the only Cistercian monastery on the island to have been founded by a woman. The foundation was set up as a daughter house of the Cistercian monastery at Holmcultram, in Cumberland, and the two maintained close ties for many years. Construction in stone began soon after the initial foundation, though the site appears to have been largely destroyed during the invasion of Edward Bruce (1315-18) and was later dissolved in 1541. At various times it suffered further damage and depredation, but was reroofed during the 17th century and continued in use as the local parish church until the end of the 18th century when a replacement was built nearby. Repairs in the late 19th century notoriously made use of far too much concrete, which visually detracts from the site and will, in the longer term, have to be removed and rectified. Nonetheless, this is a remarkably important building as it is the earliest completely Gothic style building in Ulster.

I don’t intend to provide a step-by-step guide to the site, but there a few magnificent portions that deserve to be highlighted.

The Church
The main church building dates to the early 13th century and would have been the central focus of the monk’s lives. The west doorway is remarkably elaborate, and one of the finest in Ireland. It is of ‘Early English’ style and dates to the period from 1220-1230. The pointed window above the doorway is a 15th century insert, and the bell cote at the very top was added in the 17th century when the site was used as a parish church. In the south wall of the chancel there is a piscine for washing altar vessels, and a sedile, a stone seat for high-ranking clerics. Along the external face of the north wall there are large beam holes that supported the roof of the pentice buildings on this side. On the exterior face of the southern wall there are the remains of a Collation seat, where the abbot would have sat during the evening service. The surviving remains are two projecting corbels that would have held the wooden seat, and a portion of an arch to define and demarcate the area. The inside of the church retains a number of post-Medieval grave monuments, chiefly associated with the Montgomery family.

Overview of the West doorway

Panoramic overview of the west gable

Detail of the carved capitals on the left hand side of the West doorway

Detail of the carved capitals on the right hand side of the West doorway

View along the Nave towards the East Windows

The East Windows

View of east gable from the graveyard

View down the Nave to the West Doorway from the Crossing

The piscina (left) and sedile (right)

North doorway with beam holes for pentice buildings above


Panoramic overview of external north wall of the church

View through the crossing arch towards the East Windows

Chapple Minor taking his ease in the shade underneath the collation seat

Graveslab with stepped cross decoration

Large Montgomery monument, dated 1641, on modern concrete base

Monument to Hugh Montgomery, d. 1707

View of the church from the Refectory

View of the church from the southern end of the eastern range

The Refectory
The refectory, or ‘frater’ was the monk’s communal dining space, located in the south range of the monastery, on the opposite side of the cloister garth from the church. Apart from the church, it is the best preserved of the monastic buildings.

Panoramic overview of the Refectory from the south-west.
The hole in the wall to the far left is interpreted as a serving hatch that connected this building to the original kitchen.

Panoramic overview of the Refectory from the north

Panoramic overview of the site

The Chapter House
This room, where the monks would have come to daily meetings, was once aisled and vaulted, with a decorated west door, and three windows in the east wall. Today only the bases, and one reconstructed column, survive internally. Traces of the windows and parts of the door mouldings can also be seen.

Interior of the Chapter Room

Detail of surviving portion of the Chapter House’s decorated west doorway

The hut
In our rush of enthusiasm to get into the site, we hurried past the rather unassuming interpretive centre building. We had two small boys with an excess of energy to burn off, and stopping off for some historical education and general context would not have been a wise move. To all intents and purposes it didn’t look like we were missing all that much … it was not a particularly inviting building. On the other hand, had I returned home without taking a look inside, I would have really been missing out! The place has a rather TARDISy feel of being bigger on the inside. In amongst the rather good informational boards there are a whole host of original items from the site. These include various pieces of masonry, displayed in innovative an interesting ways to give a feeling of how they would originally have functioned in the completed building, along with a selection of stones bearing mason’s marks. The centre also holds an effigy of a 'sword seizing' knight, dating to around 1300 AD. The remains of a second effigial tomb of a woman in thickly cut robes is traditionally believed to be that of Affreca, the founder of the monastery. Although she is thought to have been buried here, the tomb belongs to the 14th century - long after her time. I want to say one final word about the ‘children’s toys’ provided here. There are two exquisite ‘build-your-own’ models, one of the abbey itself and the other of how a vaulted arch would have been constructed. First, let’s please not pretend these are for children! I loved them and would have happily worked at building an arched vault and designing my own Cistercian monastery for quite a bit longer than I managed. Unfortunately, the Chapples Minor, having extensively run, climbed, and generally caused mayhem eventually exhausted themselves. They required parental assistance to shepherd them back into the car and home. Thus, my opportunity to imagine myself as a Medieval Cistercian architect, builder, and friendly giant was at an end. For now …

Inside The TARDIS Hut

Effigy of a 'sword seizing' knight, c.1300 AD

Display of vaulting and stonework

Examples of cut and dressed stones with mason’s marks

Effigial tomb of a woman (not Affreca), 14th century

Build your own monastery!

I do hope you enjoy these images, and (perhaps) be inspired to get up, get out, and come see Northern Ireland for yourself!

See also:
The Northern Ireland Sites & Monuments Record for Greyabbey.

The site also boasts a reconstruction of a Medieval ‘Physic Garden’. I am given to understand that it is quite lovely and interesting, but I just didn’t get a chance to investigate further. All the more reason to come back …

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