Isle of Albion
Photographed: Thursday 6th September 2007
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Sitting on the banks of the river Suir, Athassel Abbey - dedicated to St. Edmund - is the largest monastic ruin in Ireland. It was founded asan Augustinian priory in 1192AD by William fitz-Adelm de Burgh. William had raised a castle at Athassel and made his chief residence there, after receiving immense land grants from Henry II in Munster, Connaught and Leinster.

Henry was concerned at the rise of Richard fitzGilbert de Clare ('Strongbow') and other Norman lords, who were establishing extremely strong political, economic and military power bases in Ireland through their extensive campaigning. Accordingly, Henry sought to undermine their influence by sailing to Ireland with his own army, and presenting himself as a more gentle ruler, protecting the Irish from the abuses of Strongbow and his ilk. When he invited William fitz-Adelm de Burgh to govern Ireland in his name, the diplomacy of the sword was replaced with the diplomacy of the cloth, and the Normans sought to spread their influence through the church rather than through force of arms.

This was the context within which Athassel was founded. With the support of Ireland's most powerful noble, it soon became a major centre of religious and political importance.

Athassel continued to grow throughout the next few hundred years, and a flourishing town sprung up outside its walls. The town was torched twice during its life, first in 1319AD by Lord Maurice Fitzthomas and again in 1329AD by Bryan O'Brien. In 1447AD, the church itself was devastated by fire.

Most of the building work on the abbey appears to have taken place between 1200-1500AD. The choir is believed to date to around 1230AD and the nave to 1280AD. The central tower is probably an early feature, but it appears to have been rebuilt following the fire of 1447AD.

Edmund Butler was the last prior of Athassel, holding office until the abbey was dissolved in 1537AD. Following that time, the property was granted to Thomas, earl of Ormond, and the buildings subsequently fell into disuse and ruin.

Today, Athassel lies neglected and forgotten, sprawled across four acres of marshy farmland. I stumbled across the ruins by pure chance, when noticing the abbey referenced on a tiny sign post, journeying between Cashel and Grange. Heading down a minor road, I parked up against a wall (no provision for cars here), not expecting much. What greeted me was the most complete monastic precinct I have ever seen. The entirety of the abbey boundary survives, with its forecourt entered across a medieval bridge and through the remains of the gatehouse that would once have separated the monks from the surrounding town.

The buildings of the abbey are remarkably complete (if ruinous). The refectory, parlour, sacristy, chapter house and infirmary all survive (in varying states of repair). The church and the cloister are still in evidence, although much of the central tower has now collapsed. Athassel is a remarkable site. I can think of no other monastic settlement that offers such a complete set of ruins. I regard this abbey as unparalleled by anything on either side of the Irish sea.

Athassel was an encounter that I'll long remember. Exploring the abbey evoked an excited sense of discovery that stayed with me long after I'd driven away. Historic gems like this are rare enough, but never before have I found one abandoned and forgotten. This may not say much for the state of Irish heritage, but it does allow Athassel to retain an amazingly magical atmosphere that makes it a truly unique and inspiring site.