Greyabbey – “The first Gothic building in Ireland”

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Greyabbey
Greyabbey

Greyabbey Location

In the historic barony of Ards Lower, and 7 miles from Newtownards, not far from the eastern shores of Strangford Lough sits the little village of Greyabbey (also known as Grey Abbey).

As its name suggests, this townland grew up around an important monastic settlement. Even today the ruins of Greyabbey are an impressive and imposing sight at the northern edge of the village.

The abbey was founded in 1193 by Affreca, the wife of John de Courcy. It was in thanksgiving for God’s protection after a particularly stormy crossing from the Isle of Man to Ireland. Greyabbey is the only Cistercian abbey in Ireland to be established by a woman.

“Like many another warrior de Courcy was deeply religious, as was his wife Affreca, daughter of the Norse king Godred of the Isle of Man, and between them they brought over English monks and founded the Abbeys of Greyabbey, Inch, Downpatrick and Blackabbey. No fragment of Blackabbey exists, but the ruins of the other establishments, are amongst our choicest ancient remains in Ulster”

Richard Hayward, In Praise of Ulster, 5th edition 1946
Greyabbey Illustration from Visitor Information
Greyabbey Illustration from Visitor Information

Monks of the Cistercian order were established in the abbey in County Down. These were a branch of the Benedictines. They were sometimes known as the White Monks as they wore a white cowl over their robes. The brothers came from Holcultram monastery in Cumberland in England. When this abbey was founded in 1150, its territory was held by Scotland. Greyabbey continued to have strong links with its mother house, two of its abbots becoming abbots of Holcultram, Ralph in 1222 and John 1237.

“In common with other de Courcy religious establishments no Irish monks were admitted to Greyabbey, and its colony of monks were imported from Cumberland”

Richard Hayward, In Praise of Ulster, 5th edition 1946
The Grey Abbey
The Grey Abbey

John de Courcy and Affreca

Marriage

Affreca was the daughter of Godred Olafsson, King of the Isles. These were the Isle of Man, the Hebrides and the islands in the Firth of Clyde. Her mother, Finnguala was born into the MacLochlainn clan. This dynasty ruled Cenel Eoghain, the western region of the province of Ulster. They were branch or ‘kin’ of the northern Ui Neills, who had their capital at Ailech in modern County Donegal.

In 1180 Affreca wed John de Courcy, an ambitious Anglo-Norman invader knight, who had successfully established a power-base in the north of Ireland. This marriage alliance with his wife’s Crovan dynasty would have added considerably to de Courcy’s military power and his prestige. The couple had two sons Miles and Fergus.

Conflict

However, in 1205, de Courcy was ousted from Ireland by the English king John, who was concerned at just how powerful de Courcy was becoming. He was replaced by Hugh de Lacy, the 1st Earl of Ulster.

De Courcy turned for help to his brother-in-law Ragnvald Godredsson, who had succeeded his father in 1187. With 100 ships, Ragnvald and de Courcy laid siege to Dundrum Castle. It is ironic that de Courcy had actually had this castle constructed in 1203 with defence in mind. His siege was unsuccessful.

Dundrum Castle c1450
Dundrum Castle c1450

De Courcy was captured and imprisoned by king John, but later released to go as a penitent on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The fate of the former warlord is uncertain, some historians believe he returned to Ireland and died in obscurity in County Armagh around the year 1219. Others assert John fled to his ancestral family estate in Normandy while others believe he retired to a monastery in Chester to live out his final years.

We have yet to discover what happened to Affreca during this time but she supposedly died in the early 13th century and is reputedly buried at Greyabbey.

For many years, stone effigies of the noble lady Affreca and her husband John de Courcy were housed in the Abbey. However, we were unable to discover them on our recent visit.

Greyabbey Tranquillity
Greyabbey Tranquillity

The Abbey

Appearance

The abbey was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and was also originally known as Lugem Dei meaning in Latin ‘the Yoke of God’. It consisted of a number of buildings including the church, refectory and administrative buildings. It is believed to be the first church in Ireland built in the Gothic style.

“Greyabbey has a good claim to be considered the first Gothic building in Ireland… To the frontiers of European civilisation, to Brittany, Sweden, Poland, Wales and Ireland, the Cistercians brought the basic elements of Romanesque and Gothic design: clear principles of planning, well-proportioned, well-buttressed structures, along with excellent standards of construction”

Roger Stalley, The Cistercian Monasteries of Ireland, 1989
Refectory Entrance
Greyabbey Entrance

The fact that so much of this 12th century monastery remains standing is a testament to the quality of construction.

“But there is a good part of the church still standing; in particular there is an end window with three divisions in it, exceedingly Gothic, and covered with a thicker ivy than I ever saw, which adds greatly to its appearance”

James Boswell, 2nd May 1769
Greyabbey from the Graveyard
Greyabbey from the Graveyard

Construction

Like most settlements at the time, the monastery was built close to a stream to provide fresh water for drinking and washing. The size and majesty of Greyabbey was designed to advertise and reflect the wealth and power of the new ruling de Courcy’s. In the Papal taxation of 1306, the temporalities of the church were valued at £35 6s 8d.

As was the Cistercian custom, the Abbey was built from local rubble then plastered over, whitewashed and marked out with false masonry joints. That this was the work of English masons brought over for the job is suggested from the medieval marks on the cut-stone work

“Greyabbey in the County Down was built by a Company or Lodge of Freemasons, who had been previously employed on similar abbeys in the North of England”

Sir Thomas Drewn Caementaria Hibernica 1881

Greyabbey was constructed to a standard plan with various buildings positioned around a central cloister. These formed a rectangular covered walkway.

The western wall held the main entrance as well as stores and dormitories for the lay brothers.

Life in the Abbey

A large part of the monastic community would have consisted of lay brothers. These men did not follow the strict Benedictine Rule, attending only two religious services a day, as opposed to the eight ceremonies attended by the choir monks. They did however, provide manual labour in the form of agricultural duties, building maintenance and cooking.

From the eastern edge lay access to the church as well as the Chapter room and the day room. The monks who sang in the choir had their accommodation here.

Day Stair Painting
Day Room Stair Painting
Steps to Day Room
Steps to Day Room Today
Refectory in Shadow
Refectory in Shadow

The Refectory

The south walkway led to the refectory or communal dining room. This was also known as the ‘frater’. It is a large room, to accommodate the abbey occupants, with three huge windows, .

“It is the biggest and finest surviving example in Ireland”

Traditionally there would have been stone basins, ‘lavebo’ filled with water positioned at the entrance for the brothers to wash their hands before eating.

On the south wall was a raised platform with a table for senior members of the community. The others sat at long wooden tables and benches running the length of either side of the room.

Lay brothers were responsible for growing the food for the monastery from the kitchen gardens. The food was served through a hatch.

Refectory Serving Hatch
Refectory Serving Hatch

The steps beside the hatch led to a pulpit where one monk would read a sacred text while his brothers ate in silence. A kitchen garden consisting of culinary and medicinal herbs has been replanted close to the Abbey site today.

Herb Garden
Herb Garden

Also on the south wall was a room with a large fireplace. This was known as the ‘calefactory’ or ‘warming room’. This provided the monks with a cosy room during the winter months.

View Towards the Refectory
View Towards the Refectory

The north walkway was used for study and exercise. There are stone seats and niches in the walls which were used as bookcases.

North Cloister Walk - Book Cupboard and Entrance to the South Transept
North Cloister Walk – Book Cupboard and Entrance to the South Transept

The Main Church Building

The main church building lies to the north of the complex and in Cistercian fashion, was constructed in the shape of a cross. The ‘arms’, known as transepts, housed smaller altars for private prayer. These chapels boasted traditional Irish vaulted wooden ceilings.

The northern transept chapel has largely disappeared but the eastern chancel sports carved corbels inscribed with carved stone heads.

Eastern Transept Carved Stone Heads
Carved Stone Heads

These were added in the 15th century. The western doorway to the church is decorated with elaborate moulded work.

Decorative Doorway
Decorative Doorway

An eight-pointed carved slab in the southern chapel is actually not original to Greyabbey. It was brought here from Blackabbey, a Benedictine house also founded by de Courcy, two miles away. It is a 13th century coffin lid, transported to the site in the 1840’s.

Greyabbey Sunshine
Greyabbey Sunshine

The Chapter House

The Chapter House was where the brothers met to study and learn. Usually the abbot would read a ‘chapter’ from the Benedictine Rule and explain the concepts and aims it contained. There would follow prayers and spiritual advice. The monks sat on wooden benches around the walls. The session ended with public confession.

The Chapter House
The Chapter House

Although very little remains of the Chapter House, the surviving column bases indicate that this was an imposing building, originally divided into twelve vaulted bays, a technique introduced into Ireland by the Cistercians.

The Chancel

The Chancel was the most important and sacred part of the church. This was where the high altar was positioned, illuminated by the tall pointed Gothic windows in the east, south and north walls. The church itself would have been quite austere. The Cistercian’s believed elaboration and decoration only served as a distraction from prayer.

In the south wall is a ‘sedile’, that is, a seat reserved for the priest celebrating Mass. There is also a ‘piscina‘. A stone basin filled with water for cleansing the holy vessels.

Greyabbey Piscina
Greyabbey Piscina

The monks in the choir sat in the eastern part of the church and were shielded by a tall wooden screen. The western side was known as the Nave. The lay brothers would have worshipped here, entering from a separate entrance.

At the junction of the Chancel, transepts and nave are stone corbels which once supported a tower. It is thought this is the original bell-tower.

“The ruins of Greyabbey are remarkable alike for their beauty and their size, and the surroundings are especially peaceful. To stand here on a warm summer day with no sound in your ears but the buzz of an occasional bee, or the lazy cries from a colony of rooks which is nearby, is an unforgettable experience, and the mind will of its own accord go back through the centuries and repeople this place with those cowled and girdled and besandalled figures who devoted their lives to sanctity”

Richard Hayward, In Praise of Ulster, 5th edition 1946
Greyabbey and Graveyard
Greyabbey Graveyard

The Greyabbey Graveyard

Beside the Abbey is an ancient and very peaceful walled graveyard, full of beautiful headstones and wildflowers. One important monument here is to the executed Presbyterian minister of Greyabbey, the Rev James Porter (see link to the story of James Porter in Related Posts below).

James Porter Headstone
James Porter Headstone

The Fate of the Abbey

Greyabbey was attacked during the invasion of Edward Bruce. The brother of Robert Bruce, he invaded Ireland and in the subsequent wars 1315-1318, attempted to establish himself as King of Ireland. The Abbey was greatly damaged.

In the 15th century the Abbey came under the patronage of the O’Neills of Clandeboye. It is thought they undertook the renovations at the eastern end of the church.

In 1541 the Abbey was destroyed under the Dissolution of Monasteries Act. By this act of parliament, Henry VIII of England, had all Catholic churches, abbeys, convents and monasteries attacked and stripped of their lands and valuables. The last abbot of Greyabbey was John Cassells.

The confiscated land was ‘granted’ to Gerald, Earl of Kildare. In 1572, during the Elizabethan Wars, the derelict abbey was set on fire by the forces of Sir Brian O’ Neill. This was to prevent the remaining buildings being used as garrisons for English soldiers or as habitation for Scottish or English ‘planters’.

Greyabbey Drawing
Greyabbey Ruins Drawing

The Montgomerys

By the early 17th century however, this area of eastern Down, including the Ards peninsula was in the hands of Scotsman, Hugh Montgomery.

Montgomery was born at Broadstone Castle, the son of Adam Montgomery, 5th Laird of Braidstone. He attended the University of Glasgow and spent some time at the royal court in France. After serving time as the captain of a Scottish foot regiment in the Eighty Years War, he returned home to Ayrshire.

Hugh’s brother George, was the chaplain for James VI of Scotland, who later reigned as James I of England. Through this relationship, Hugh became friendly with the monarch.

Con O’Neill Pact

Hugh was an ambitious man and was keen to acquire both wealth and power. After a meeting with Alice O’ Neill, wife of the imprisoned Con O’Neill, a deal was hatched. Con had been arrested on false charges of high treason (probably instigated by Arthur Chichester), and was being held in the securest prison in the land, Carrickfergus Castle. Montgomery promised to rescue the O’Neill lord and secure him a royal pardon in return for half of Con’s territory. The price was high but Con had no choice but to accept.

Montgomery sent his agents to Antrim and the mission was successfully completed. However, all did not quite go to plan. Another Scotsman at the English court, James Hamilton, suggested to the king that the territory he was ‘granting’ to the two men was rather large, implying a threat to the crown. Hence the lands of the O’Neill’s were divided in three, with Con, Hamilton and Montgomery each getting a third.

“Hugh Montgomery, who was of a roving disposition, eventually acquired large grants of land in County Down. Seeing that Ulster was in an unsettled state and many lands forfeited through the rebellion of the Irish chieftains Hugh Montgomery determined to push his fortune there”

Canon Forde, Northern Whig, 4th November 1926

Montgomery’s Lands & Greyabbey House

Montgomery was ‘granted’ the lands to the east and he established the town of Newtownards. In order to secure his power-base, the native Irish were forced from their farms and Protestant Scots settlers were encouraged to emigrate with the promise of cheap rents. The future success of these immigrants was therefore inextricably linked with the fortunes of the Montgomery’s, and this would ensure their loyalty.

Hugh also enticed Scottish and English merchants and tradesmen to cross the Irish Sea with the promise of “freehold tenements” and new business opportunities. He redeveloped the town of Donaghadee and promoted its trading links with Portpatrick in Scotland.

When some of Montgomery’s family and friends, such as his brother-in-law John Shaw of Greenock and Patrick Shaw of Kelseland, also grabbed the opportunity, a new social hierarchy was established.

After the death of his first wife, Elizabeth Shaw, Hugh married Sarah Maxwell. She was the daughter of the Scottish Sir John Maxwell, 4th Lord of Herries of Terregles. They had at least two sons Hugh and James and two daughters Isabel and Katherine.

In 1638, Hugh’s son James had a large house built for his family. It was called Rosemount and was situated close to Greyabbey overlooking Strangford Lough. This first building was destroyed in 1648. A new house was constructed on the same site, it was described as

“A double roofed house and a baron and fower flankers, with bakeing and brewing houses, stables and other needful office houses; they are built after the forraigne and English manner; with outer and inner courts walled about, and surrounded wh pleasant gardens, orchards, meadows and pasture inclosures under view of ye said house called Rosemount, from wh ye mannor taketh name”

William Montgomery, Montgomery Manuscripts, 1683

This property was destroyed by an accidental fire.

The present residence is built in the classical Georgian style. The central 3-storied block was designed by William Montgomery. However, the building has been much altered over the years and is now an amalgam of designs. The square wings on either end were added in the late 18th century.

“The main block is of three storeys on basement, six bays wide on the entrance front, rendered in Roman cement, with hipped roof, massive chimney- stacks, and balustrade above modillioned cornice. Externally, everything is quite classically severe, with Georgian-glazed windows in lugged architraves: except for the ground-floor windows in the canted bay at the centre of the garden front, and the charming octangular room within, which are, unexpectedly, Gothick”

C E B Brett, Buildings of North County Down 2002

The interior of the mansion, now known as Greyabbey House, is very grand with at least 5 drawing rooms designed by James Sands in 1846. On entering the front door is a magnificent cantilevered staircase added in 1790. The house has many interesting features added by various Montgomery’s over the generations.

The gardens and estate of Greyabbey House are renowned for their mature planting, which features species of plants and trees from all over the world.

Greyabbey House is still the home of the descendants of the Scottish “adventurer” Hugh Montgomery!

Within the Abbey itself are several memorials to deceased members of the Montgomery family, including one for Sir James Montgomery who was shot by pirates in 1652.

Montgomery Memorial
Montgomery Memorial
Montgomery Coat of Arms
Montgomery Coat of Arms
William Montgomery Remembered
William Montgomery Remembered
Greyabbey in Shadow
Greyabbey in Shadow

The Village of Greyabbey

Cottages

The little settlement that grew up around the monastic enclave of Greyabbey was originally just a collection of small cottages. It was not until the time of the Montgomery’s that the houses became a distinct village.

“Sir James Montgomery made the old town of Gray Abbey a new one and entirely regular”

In 1834 the village is described as consisting of one principal street about 550 yards long leading from the shore. It then branched off, 190 yards to the north and 80 yards to the south. This was lined with single storey stone-built cottages. There was only one double storey house. This was probably at 1 North Street, the home of a linen merchant constructed at the turn of the 19th century.

'The Top of the Town' from Greyabbey Information Poster
‘The Top of the Town’ from Greyabbey Information Poster

“The new houses or cottages have back doors to them, yet, so strong is habit, that slops and dirt of the houses are flung on the road”

Ordnance Survey Memoirs 1834

The narrow streets of the village were not paved or lit and must have been quite smelly!

Although Greyabbey was granted port rights by James I, the water depth was not great enough to allow larger vessels to anchor. Consequently, only coal sloops were known to frequent the harbour. At low tide these ships were able to unload their cargo at the quay on Strangford Lough.

Trade within Greyabbey

The majority of the inhabitants of Greyabbey were weavers, with looms in their own homes. There was also at this time 7 grocers, 1 bootmaker, 1 doctor, 2 woollen drapers and 25 spirit shops in the village.

Public buildings in the village included one Protestant Church and two Presbyterian Meeting Houses. There was a schoolhouse for boys and girls. The teacher’s salary was paid by the Montgomery’s of Rosemount.

There were two fairs held every year, one on 28th March and one on October 29th.

“Greyabbey occupies a pleasant and salubrious situation on the shores of Strangford Lough, 6 miles from Newtownards, on the road from Belfast to Portaferry. It is prosperous and increasing, and the inhabitants, many of whom are engaged in the muslin and linen manufacture, shew unquestionable indications of comfort”

McComb’s Guide to Belfast, 1861
Greyabbey from the Abbey Gate
Greyabbey from the Abbey Gate

By 1881 the population was 679. The village now boasted a blacksmith, a Dispensary, a Glass and China shop and a hotel (formerly an old coaching inn). That times were still hard for the poor is indicated by the informal name of North Street – ‘Hard Breid Raa’ from the Ulster Scots dialect. This refers to the residents’ reliance on ‘hard bread’ or oatcakes as a staple in their diet.

One interesting feature, are the indentations on some of the sandstone door surrounds. It is said the occupants would sharpen their knives here before having a beef dinner. It is noted that sometimes this was carried out to impress the neighbours, even if they weren’t having meat!

Greyabbey Village Houses
Greyabbey Village Houses

The land surrounding the village was rich and fertile, the main crops being oats, potatoes and flax for the linen trade. It is described as “good butter-making country

Church Street Sign
Church Street Sign

The old building on Church Street (formerly Water Lane) was, in the 1930’s the elegant Orange Tree Tea Rooms. It was advertised to tourists as “…daintily served meals in pleasant and spotlessly clean surroundings”. Such a shame to see it derelict.

Greyabbey Village, just 15 miles from Belfast, today is known mainly for the Abbey of course, but also its quaint antiques shops. It still retains an old-fashioned, rural feel. There are delightful picturesque cottages and it would be lovely to see some of the old buildings renovated and brought back to life!

“The village… is capable of being made a pretty place, but little or no attention is paid to it”

Lieutenant H Tucker Ordnance Survey Memoirs 1834
The Grey Abbey
The Grey Abbey

Related Posts

The Execution of Rev James Porter

James Porter - from Sean Mac Loinsigh, Donegal Annual Vol 8 No 1, 1969

If James Porter had ignored the injustices around him, he would have lived a long comfortable life. Instead he stood by his principles

Dundrum Castle, the village and the beaching of a famous ship

SS Great Britain stranded at Dundrum
SS Great Britain stranded at Dundrum

Epilogue

In researching this Greyabbey post we discovered this wonderful Youtube drone footage of the Abbey which does so much more to illustrate the scale and beauty of the ruins than ground-level photos ever could. Why not take a few minutes to watch Johnny’s excellent video below. (See links below the video to Johnny’s Youtube Channels containing other drone videos).

Youtube Video: Grey Abbey from above – Drone Footage by JohnnyBareToes2 (Youtube Channels https://www.youtube.com/c/JohnnyBareToes1 and https://www.youtube.com/@JohnnyBareToes2)

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