St. Patrick founded a church in Ballintubber after he brought Christianity to Ireland c.440CE on the return of his long journey of 40 days and nights on the summit of Croagh Patrick. Ballintubber gets its name from the Irish Baile an Tobair or the Town of the Well. Pilgrims used the well to wash their feet after the journey to Croagh Patrick. Stones were heated and placed in the water to keep it warm. The patron saint of Ireland is said to have baptised converts here over 1500 years ago. It can be said a church has occupied this site for this length of time.
Ballintubber Abbey Cloister
A conjectural date for the foundation of the present Ballintubber Abbey is 1216, at which time King of Connaught Cathal Crovdeargh O’Conor (Big Cathal of the Wine-red hand) fulfilled his promise to build a church at the behest of an old friend. The king gave the order for the church to be built, and built it was, though entirely in the wrong place. In the Irish language Ballintubber is Baile Tobair, the Townland of the Well. Unfortunately, there is another Baile Tobair in the province of Connaught, this one in County Roscommon, and it was at Baile Tobair Brighde (Townland of the Well of Bridget) that Cathal’s church was mistakenly erected.
Ballintubber Abbey Cloister
As a way of making amends, King Cathal determined than a new church seven times more grand be constructed in the original location, thus the present Ballintubber Abbey. The abbey appears to have been Augustinian by nature, and the inhabitants were mostly landowners happy to contribute their worldly possessions, as well as their souls, to the church. By the middle of the 15th century accusations were being made against resident canons, that corruption was rife and that these men were living lives of evil.
Ballintubber Abbey De Burgo Chapel
In the year 1505, following years of feuding, John de Burgo was murdered within the abbey walls by the sons of Ulick de Burgo. The de Burgo influence continued, with the chapel that bears the family name being built following the 1629 death of Tioboid na Long, the son of ‘Iron Dick’ Richard de Burgo and Grainne Mhaol (Grace O’Malley, Ireland’s own pirate queen). In English, Tioboid became Tibbot; na Long means ‘of ships’, alluding to his birth aboard one of his mother’s fleet of ships shortly before she engaged with, and defeated, another group of pirates that were operating out of North Africa.
Prior to that, the 1542 Suppression of the Monastries by Henry VIII’s Reformation movement seems to have made little impression on life in Ballintubber Abbey, where the friars remained active until 1585, at which time they were temporarily cleared out. In the early part of the 17th century the abbey was operating as a religious house once more, but in 1683 troops of William Cromwell burned the building and brought activity to a standstill.Even then, the ruins continued to be used for clandestine masses by the Catholic faithful. Indeed, it is often said that mass has been offered continuously since the establishment of the abbey, even through the more than 200 years that it stood as a ruin. An attempt was made at restoration in 1846. This was brought to a halt by the arrival of Black ’47, the worst year of the Great Irish Famine. In 1966 the abbey was finally given a new roof, in time for 750th anniversary celebrations. In 1972 new stained glass was added, and restorative works have continued down to this day. A good deal more history can be learned at the nearby Celtic Furrow visitor centre. Enquire locally for more information.