History from the Abbey


Foundation of Ballintubber Abbey

Ballintubber Abbey was founded by King Cathal Crovdearg O’Conor – Cathal Mór of the wine-red hand. He belonged to the royal lineage of the O’Connors, reigning as King of Connacht and known as a notable patron of the arts. The Cross of Cong, one of our national treasures, was commissioned for his father, Turlach O’Connor.

Although historical records often cite 1216 as the year of its foundation, the circumstances surrounding its establishment are steeped in legend. Cathal, the natural son of King Turloch, found himself fleeing the retribution of Turloch’s queen before assuming his father’s throne.

Local folklore recounts that during this period, Cathal had worked in Ballintubber under a man named Sheridan, who treated him with great kindness. Upon leaving Ballintubber, Cathal vowed never to forget the generosity shown to him there. Years later, when Cathal ascended to his father’s throne, he paid a visit to his old friend. The king inquired if there were any favors he could grant in return for the kindness extended during his exile. Sheridan, now elderly, expressed contentment with his life but mentioned that the old church, which was in a state of collapse, could use restoration. Cathal promised not only to repair the old church but to construct a new one in its place.

Time passed, and on his subsequent visit, the king asked Sheridan about his thoughts on the new church. Sheridan lamented Cathal’s failure to uphold his royal promise, but the king insisted that orders had been given for the construction of the church. Upon investigation, it was discovered that a church had indeed been erected, but in Baile tobair Bhrighde, Roscommon, instead of Baile tobair Phádraig, Mayo. Legend has it that the king then vowed to build another church, seven times more magnificent, in Ballintubber, Mayo, thus laying the foundation for Ballintubber Abbey.

The Abbey Flourishes

Known as Tobar Padraic in the Annals of the Four Masters, Ballintubber Abbey was founded for Canons Regular and devoted to the Holy Trinity. The Canons Regular, while not strictly monks, were secular priests who lived in a communal setting, adhering to the rule attributed to St. Augustine. Their principal duty was the spiritual care of the community. According to tradition, only men of noble birth were accepted into the abbey, a detail that might explain the extensive estates that the abbey came to possess in later years.

Over time, the abbey experienced a period of flourishing growth. It established a dependency, or cell, known as the Priory of Cross of Holy Cross, located in the parish of Kilmore-Erris in North Mayo. Holy Cross Priory was built upon the grounds of an earlier monastery dedicated to St. Brendan. A red sandstone, inserted in the south transept wall of Ballintubber Abbey, bears the inscription “GILLABAR – the servant of Brendan,” serving as a poignant reminder of this connection to the past. 

Continuous Worship at Ballintubber Abbey

The strongest tradition is that the Mass has been said in the Abbey without a break since the year of it’s foundation in 1216. We have often heard of the heroic struggle of the Irish people to keep the faith in spite of dungeons, fire and sword. Nothing emphasises this fact more for us than the story of Ballintubber Abbey. For 236 years the people were attending Mass in the unroofed Abbey exposed to the cold and the wind and the rain. This is not mere conjecture; the photographs of 1865 show the congregation kneeling on the grass covered ground. The priest has finished Mass; the vestments may be seen on the altar while the priest continues the instruction of the children. Though the Mass is over the people still continue to kneel, drinking in the word of God. In this modern age of heated air-conditioned churches it is good for us to meditate on what our forefathers endured to practice the faith which Patrick planted so deeply in Baile tobair Phádraig- the townland of the well of Patrick.