As a child growing up in Cheekpoint, Dunbrody Abbey loomed large in our lives. It might have been in a different county, might have been separated by a fast lowing expanse of water, but it was a landmark that everyone knew, and I think, were proud of. We learned about it in school of course, and our parents had stories of visiting it by boat, and it even found its way into newspapers and local poetry. One that I still recall to this day was often recited by my grandmother. The words were contained on a yellowed newspaper clipping that was folded into a decorative teapot that sat inside her glass case (the spot where all the treasures were kept, including her best china, our first curls and tatty ornaments we brought her back from school tours!) The poet was a local woman Kathy Leech and the poem went at follows:
The Abbey was founded after the required land was granted to a religious order by Herve de Montmorency (uncle of Strongbow), after the Norman invasion of Ireland. The first grant was to the monks of Bildewas in Shropshire, England. However a monk (Alan) sent to scout the site found the area inhospitable and hurried home. Actually he didn’t really put a tooth in it; “…the waste of the place, the sterility of the lands, and the wildness and ferocity of the neighbouring barbarians…We might incur no small damage or loss, if we should attempt to send any to those parts in order to inhabit and dwell.” Needless to say they decided against a move to the area, but eventually a sister abbey in Dublin, St Mary’s, accepted the ground and work got under way around 1182. It would become known as the Abbey of St. Mary le Portu (St Mary of refuge), although I have read that this refuge concerned Hervey’s wish of the establishment – to provide a sanctuary /refuge for travellers. However Hore says that it refers to an earlier incident where ships in Strongows invasion fleet found shelter in the Pill
The name Dunbrody is speculated by Hore to connect to a fort (dun) of a man named Brody and he speculates that the spot was an ideal location for an abbey. In contrast to Monk Alan’s report, he described it as sorrounded by fine Oak forest to the North and West, rich pastureland to the east and south (in Alan’s defence perhaps it was only potentially rich pastureland when he visited), fresh water flowing by, an abundant river of fish and a ready supply of wine through the port of New Ross.
One theory about such grants is that it was part of a settlement pattern of the English rulers, a way of managing the land and securing the strategically important harbour area. The lands stretched from Dunbrody and Campile, along the river front to Duncannon and inland as far as Battlestown (Where the Deise and Ostmen of Waterford battled Raymond le Gros) and Sheilbaggen. In all it totalled 40 caructaes or ploughlands the equivalent of 13,000 acres today.
According to Billy Colfers judgement, and I certainly respect that, when completed it was one of the finest Cistercian abbeys in Ireland. Not alone was all this land put to productive use, but so too was the rivers with weirs for catching fish, the castle at Buttermilk, possibly for governing shipping, and St Catherines fortified church in the grange of Nuke. But like everything the winds of change must blow and eventually the abbey was dissolved. According to the website of the abbey visitor centre the demise started when its last abbot, Alexander Devereux, granted to the King, his heirs and successors, the Abbey and all its possessions circa 1542. The lands and Abbey subsequently became the property of the Etchingham family, and later through marriage it passed to the Chichester family, who own the lands to this day, although the site of the Abbey was handed over to the State in 1911 (not the Irish State at the time obviously)
In my childhood and into my earlier days of fishing a trip to Dunbrody by boat was an annual occurrence. Landing as we did in those days from the Pill, the abbey was naturally the first facination, but over time I became less interested in it and more drawn to a small, ruined church, adjacent to the Pill. Lost beneath ivy and adjacent to a tiny but well kept graveyard I would explore and try to imagine what life was like at the time this building was in use. It always reminded me somewhat of the old church at Faithlegg, perhaps because of its size but also the carved dressed stone of its entrance door, contrasting nicely with the rougher cut stone of the walls.
In later years I would discover that this is probably in fact the first church built be the monks that came to the area. It was customary to have a place of worship as the work progressed, and generally located beside an entrance gate, hence Cappella ad Portum – the chapel by the gate. The monks would forsake this early church leaving it to commoners who worked the surrounding lands, or weary travellers seeking an intervention from on high to protect them on their journey. The monks of course had their own place of worship, which was exclusively for their own use. It’s also interesting to me that when I was part of the four person voluntary committee led by Kevin Ryan (and included Pat Murphy and Damien McLellan) who worked to preserve old Faithlegg Church that some evidence of the construction at Faithlegg suggested that our church had possibly been constructed by monks from Dunbrody.
Whether you are interested in history or not, a visit to Dunbrody is a marvel. Its open for the summer season at present and its certainly worth dropping by. I’ll leave the last words to a young Waterford lad returning from school in England named Thomas Francis Meagher who in a few brief words captured the essence of the site for me :”… the ruins of Dunbrody Abbey – an old servant, with torn livery, at the gateway of the noble avenue.”
To mark the fifth year of the blog I’ve organised an evening in the Reading Room Cheekpoint on Saturday 8th June form 7.30-9.30. I’ve invited a few friends, neighbours and colleagues to share a specific blog, a memory prompted by a blog or something that has emerged from a blog. I’m calling it Tide Line as it marks some changes to the future direction of the blog. Its open to all, free of charge and it promises to be a lively night, hopefully with plenty of laughter.
 Colfer. B. The Hook Peninsula. 2004. Cork University Press. Page 43
 Hore.P.H History of the Town & County of Wexford. Dunbrody Abbey, The Great Island, Ballyhack etc. 1901 London. Page 40 (I’m indebted to John Flynn for the loan of his copy)
 Colfer. B. The Hook Peninsula. 2004. Cork University Press p44
 Ibid p 66