The Founding of Movilla Abbey
One of Ireland’s most important monastic settlements was that of Movilla, situated near Newtownards in County Down. This abbey was the seat of Christian faith and learning for over 1,000 years.
The abbey was founded in 540AD by St Finian. It gained its name from the Gaelic Mainistir Mhraigh Bhile – monastery on the plain of the ancient tree. It was policy for the early Church to establish Christian places of worship on the site of previous pagan holy places, such as sacred trees and wells. Pagan feast days were transformed into saints’ days and Christian festivals, and folklore incorporated into holy tales. All in an effort to wean the people off the old beliefs and into an acceptance of Christianity.
St Finian was born around 495 and is thought to be a native of the Province of Ulster. The Calendar of Cashel calls him Finnianus the White, referring to his blonde hair. As a young man he studied under Colman of Dromore and subsequently Mochaoi of Nendrum on the shores of Strangford Lough. He is believed to have sailed to Galloway in southern Scotland to attend classes at the Church of St Ninian, Candida Casa (now Whithorn). After completing 7 years study in Rome, Finian was ordained to the priesthood.
When Finian returned to his homeland, he wished to found his own abbey to promote learning and Christian values.
In this venture he enjoyed the patronage of the Dal Fiatach, the leading Gaelic clan in the area. They ruled eastern Down and the Ards peninsula, having their capital at Downpatrick – Dun Lethglaise. The chieftain at the time was Baetan MacCairill. In 572 Baetan became the king of Ulaid, a region which comprised north-eastern Ireland, including Counties Antrim and Down.
Finian desired to make Movilla a seat of learning. To establish his library, he had brought with him from Italy a copy of St Jerome’s Vulgate. This was a Latin translation of the Bible undertaken by St Jerome in the fourth century. At this time, this was the only complete copy of the Bible in the whole of the island.
The school founded in conjunction with the abbey was known as Druim Fionn and became a reputed place of scholarship. One of the aims of Movilla was to educate young men in Celtic Christianity and send them out as missionaries.
One of the most well-known Movilla students was Saint Columba.
Columba was born in Donegal near Lough Gartan on 7th December 521. He was born into the illustrious Ui Neill clan. After studying and becoming a deacon at Movilla, Columba and his fellow monks travelled the length and breadth of the country establishing churches and monasteries. In 563 he sailed to Scotland, where, most famously, he founded an abbey on the island of Iona.
The Worlds First Copyright Case
In the 550’s however, Columba returned to his ‘alma mater’ to visit his old teacher, Finian.
Whether he had an ulterior motive from the beginning, no-one will ever know, but while he was there Columba asked if he could study the sacred texts.
Books at this time were extremely rare. There were no printing-presses churning out hundreds or thousands of copies – each book had to be written by hand. And this is what Columba attempted to do!
Without permission, he began to copy out the words from a Psalter (a volume containing the Book of Psalms). According to legend, he had nearly completed his duplicitous task when he was discovered by Finian. The elderly abbot was enraged and demanded the ‘pirate’ copy. Columba refused.
Finian took his case to Tara, the court of the High King of Ireland. At the time this was Diarmait MacCerbaill. The king considered his verdict, then pronounced “To every cow belongs her calf, to every book its copy”. However, Columba refused to hand over his illicit copy. This is the world’s first recorded trial over copyright!
Battle of the Book
As a result of the verdict, some sources claim that Columba held a grudge against the High King.
He even went so far as in 561 to incite a rebellion against Diarmait MacCerbaill by the Ui Neills. The resulting ‘Battle of the Book’, Cul Dreimhe, left 3,000 dead or injured.
For taking up arms, thereby violating his monastic oaths, some sources claim Columba was exiled and this is the reason he left Ireland for Scotland. It was said that he was charged to convert to Christianity the same number of souls that had died on the battlefield.
The Tale of the Book
The incomplete manuscript of Columba, known as the Cathach, passed into the hands of the O’Donnell’s after the battle.
“This rare book became the property of the Clan O’Donnell, and was carried before them into all their battles”J Harris Rea, Belfast Telegraph 20th July 1939
In the eleventh century a special box (the Cumdach) or shrine was made to preserve the precious document. The book was taken to France in 1691, for protection from the Williamite forces, and returned to Ireland in 1813.
It was deposited for safe-keeping in the Royal Irish Academy by Sir Richard O’Donel in 1843, where it remains today.
Movilla Abbey – Internationally Renowned
Finian dedicated his entire life to the growth and success of Movilla Abbey. He established a great educational institution as well as a religious monastery. He composed a rule and penitential code, listing 53 different sins and their punishments, for the brothers.
Finian is praised for his holiness in the ninth century illuminated manuscript, The Book of Armagh.
“vir vitae qui jacet in miraculis multis in sua civitate Maghbile” – A man of venerable life who reposes in many miracles in his city of Moville.
Even before Finian’s death in 589 (some sources say 579), Movilla had acquired an enviable reputation for learning. He himself was so revered that at one time he was considered the patron saint of this part of Ireland. He was buried at the Abbey. St Finian’s feast day is 10th September.
“The period between the death of Finnian and the arrival of the Vikings has long been regarded as a Golden Age. Ireland became the intellectual and cultural centre of western Europe –‘the land of saints and scholars’. The monastic schools became centres of great scholarship. Many came from England and France to study in them. Movilla would have attracted its share, and we may perhaps think of the settlement at this time as a sort of ‘university town’ of international importance”Trevor McCavery, Newtown: A History of Newtownards 1994
In the seventh century Movilla continued to flourish. However, in 823, Movilla was pillaged by Vikings. Its position just 1 mile inland from Strangford Lough left it vulnerable to attacks from the Danes in search of plunder and slaves. The Abbot, Flannabhra was killed and the wooden settlement set on fire.
“Far below may be seen Strangford Lough, peacefully glistening in the sunshine, and on its smooth waters, the Danes in their longboats were able to approach Movilla Abbey, which suffered great loss and destruction”J Harris Rea, Belfast Telegraph 20th July 1939
The Decline of Movilla Abbey
In 1135 St Malachy settled a group of Augustinian monks at Movilla in an attempt to revive the ancient abbey. However, Movilla never recaptured its former glory.
The monastery survived until the Dissolution of the Monasteries Act of 1542. By this act of parliament, passed in the reign of the English king Henry VIII, churches, chapels, monasteries and convents were destroyed and the property and associated church treasures passed to the crown. Henry had set himself up as head of the Church of England after a disagreement with the Pope. Religious establishments throughout England, Ireland and Wales were attacked and confiscated, the money was used to finance Henry’s policies at home and his foreign military campaigns.
During the English Wars in the time of Elizabeth I, the derelict Movilla Abbey and similar constructions in the Ards were burnt down by Brian O’Neill, native leader of the O’Neill’s of Clandeboye. This was to prevent them being used as garrisons by the invading soldiers.
Today this famous ancient site is no more than a couple of walls standing in the midst of the graveyard. These date from the fifteenth century Church. From these we can tell the building measured 107ft long by 21ft wide. It is aligned in an east-southeast direction.
“In the townland of Movilla about a mile from Newtownards are the ruins of a monastery of Augustine canons. Little more than a portion of 2 gables are now remaining. There are evidences of a large building having at one time been in this place. It is surrounded by a wall…..The never sparing hand of time is making rapid strides towards the ruin of the fragments of the building that now exists”G Scott, Ordnance Survey Memoirs 1837
The east window of the church building was originally a semi-circular headed window but was later altered to make a larger three-light opening. The third window is Romanesque in style.
In the late nineteenth century, a collection of 7 thirteenth century coffin lids were inlaid in the interior north wall. These are decorated with foliate crosses. One coffin lid is believed to be pre-Norman. It is inscribed ‘or do dertrend’ meaning ‘a prayer for Dertrend’. These have now been removed for restoration and preservation.
The Old Graveyard
‘Ancient Movilla upon thy green sward
Many are the mortals who found thy reward’
“On a verdant eminence about one mile east of Newtownards lies the ancient necropolis of Movilla, hallowed by the fleeting centuries of time and in history dimmed in the mists of receding chronology”Colin Johnston Robb, Irish News 7th May 1952
Surrounding the ruins is the old Movilla Graveyard. Here were several flat Anglo-Norman grave-markers. Some of the sandstone slabs are inscribed with crosses and swords for male graves and shears for a female occupant.
“The other crosses, all of which are horizontal slabs, are curious, several, with swords and daggers, forming the tokens of the warrior, and others, with shears or scissors by the side, presumably the token of some lady of high degree”Belfast Naturalist Field Club 1889-90
The cemetery also boasts memorials typical of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries including small mausoleums and temple-like structures. One of the most unusual is a replica of a Doric temple, complete with 16 columns, constructed for the Corry family in 1860.
The Abbey Stone
In 1886, while a new grave was being excavated an unusual stone ‘trough’ was discovered. It was nearly 4ft wide by 2ft 8inches. In depth it reached 1ft 10inches with a shallow lip. There was evidence of decoration on the exterior sides. Various views have been put forward as to the reason behind the Abbey Stone. Some feel it may have been an early baptismal font, while others believe it was a stone coffer (missing its lid) to hide valuables from Viking marauders.
One notable grave that is often overlooked, is that of Archibald Warwick.
The Warwick family came from Loughriescouse townland in County Down. Archibald trained as a Presbyterian minister. While he was waiting to be assigned a church, he served in the parish of Kircubbin as a licenciate (preacher). Kircubbin is a small coastal village on the Ards peninsula.
“Young Warwick” as he was referred to, was arrested in 1798 and court martialed for being a member of the United Irishmen, (a proscribed organisation since 1793), and for writing ‘seditious’ documents in support of Catholic emancipation and political reform in Ireland.
On 29th October 1798, the 29-year-old minister was brought to his place of execution. He was attended by Rev Brydone. Portable wooden gallows had been placed in front of the Presbyterian Church and the manse (todays public carpark). Here he was hung before a crowd of his loyal parishioners, many of whom were visibly distressed.
He stood on a cart while the noose was placed around this neck and then the cart was pulled out from beneath him. This particular method of hanging is known as the ‘slow drop’. It is very painful and takes a long time to actually kill the victim as the body fights for air. Warwick’s horrific death in the midst of his congregation was planned to act as an example and a warning.
“They had ordered a strong guard to prevent commotion, for as a Christian leader he was much beloved by his flock, while those who held the same political faith regarded him as a martyr, and thousands had assembled from all parts of the country to take farewell of so extraordinary a man. Mothers held up their children, hoping that his eyes might rest upon them. And strong men, who would have been ashamed of tears, hung down their heads and wept…..”Hall’s Ireland: Mr and Mrs Hall’s Tour of 1840 Vol 3
When the body finally stopped the ‘death dance’ it was reverentially cut down by his friends and placed on a wooden table in the manse. It was then collected by his relatives and taken to the family plot at Movilla. Archibald Warwick was laid to rest alongside his grandparents David and Margaret. (Old Grounds, Section 2 Plot 340)
The monastery at Movilla covered an extensive area. It included the church and school, workshops, scriptorium, kitchen, refractory, dormitories and huts as well as sheds and enclosures for animals. These all would have been wooden structures. A relatively small number of the inhabitants would have been full-time monks.
The Abbey acted as a small commercial and trading centre.
In 1980-81 archaeologists led by R J Ivens and M J Yates examined the site.
“The density of this early occupation is shown by the pieces of coarse, hand-made pottery that were found scattered about in their thousands, as well as other everyday objects…Traces of timber structures, built and rebuilt many times, were also uncovered”R J Irvens and M J Yates 1980-81
Another interesting item found at the monastery site, is a gaming board. It consists of a large block of dressed sandstone, marked with incised lines for a game known today as Nine Men’s Morris. This is a game of strategy for two players, which dates back to Roman times. The name Morris is said to come from the Latin ‘marellus’ meaning a game piece.
Movilla was also an important centre for arts and crafts. The monks were trained in decorative bronze work as well as glass production. Also found here are beads, jewellery, a lignite bracelet and some gold filigree work. Several very detailed pieces have been uncovered near the ancient site.
“For example, a trial-piece, on which the bronze-smith rehearsed his designs of triangles, scrolls and arcs, and a rare glass-headed pin, decorated with discs and trails of different coloured glass….The excavation of a very small part of what was once an extensive monastic settlement has thus given…an insight into the skills of early Christian craftsmen”R J Irvens and M J Yates 1980-81
The Abbey at Movilla has a varied, interesting and almost forgotten story.
The scant remains, today hemmed in by modern housing, give no impression of the fame and importance once attached to this ancient site.
It is hard to believe that this was a place of great prestige, with students travelling from different countries to study at this renowned seat of learning. Perhaps here in Ireland, we have so many places of interest, that we have become blasé and careless of our past.
Hopefully we can now start to appreciate the wonders of our history.
39 Old Movilla Road, Newtownards, County Down
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