An Outline History of the Parish of St. Marys Abbey, Ardee. – Joan S. Kieran12 min read

In 1207, Roger de Pippard founded the monastery and hospital of St. John the Baptist in Ardee for the Crutched Friars, under the rule of St. Augustine.  We read that Roger founded the monastery for the health of himself, his wife Alicia, his father William, his mother Joan and his brothers Gilbert and Peter.  It is interesting to note that the monastery was under the rule of St. Augustine. At the Lateran Council of 1139, Pope Innocent requested that several monasteries in Ireland, founded while the Irish church functioned independently of the Roman See, be brought under the rule of St. Augustine.  Thus, it is possible that Roger’s monastery was founded on an older Celtic monastic site which was then brought under the rule of St. Augustine.


This monastery of St. John the Baptist became well established and was granted land, the right to bring water, fisheries and an “efficient cartway” (it seems that even in the thirteenth century there was a road problem!) and also the tithes, etc. of the churches of Stickillen and Donaghmoyne.


The above charter was confirmed by Eugene, Archbishop of Armagh, who died in 1215.  He also gave the monastery the right to elect its own Prior provided he was in Holy Orders.  The Prior was to have unlimited power in all matters spiritual and temporal. He could receive both brothers and sisters and he was not to be deposed except for “reasonable and sufficient cause”.  The hospital was to be free and enjoy free right of sepulchre “saving to the church from whence the corpse is brought “its full power and rights.” The Archbishop also granted the monastery the very special privilege of the right to celebrate Mass during the time of public interdict. Mass was to be celebrated in “a low voice with the door shut and no bells were to be rung.”  It was to be celebrated “before the brethren and sisters and all who came for charity but excommunicated persons were to be excluded”. Thus this monastery of St. John the Baptist appears to have been very important and to have become very prosperous. We learn that it possessed the tithes and advowsons of St. Mary’s Ardee, St. John’s Ardee, St. Mary Magdalen Maphastown, St. Magdalene Mosstown and of the churches of Stickillen, Charlestown, Kildemock, Tallanstown, the White Church and it also possessed houses and lands in or near Ardee.


This information concerning the monastery of St. John the Baptist at Ardee is taken from the writings of Archdall. He and other writers believe that the present church of St. Mary’s Abbey and the ruins beside it are the remains of the monastery of St. John.


Between 1272 and 1307, Ralph St. Nicholas who had married into the de Pippard family, founded a Carmelite Monastery at Ardee dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  It does not seem to have been of any great importance and all traces of it are lost, unless as some believe, the present St. Mary’s Abbey is the remains of this monastery.  A Papal Bull of 1314/15 ordered that 6 pounds be paid by the Sheriff of Ardee at the order of the king to the Friars of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mt. Carmel at Ardee as alms.  Some years later the Primate commanded William Smith, Vicar of St. Mary’s Ardee, to receive and shelter all clerics from civil law. Two Priors of this monastery are authenticated: Henry, Prior in 1366, and Patrick, who was Prior at the time of surrender in 1540, when the monastery was valued at 278 shillings and 2 pence.


From the annals, we learn that in 1318 “Edward Bruce burned the Church of St. Mary Atherdee filled with women and children.” (Though I have been using the modern name of Ardee, the form Atherdee was used until well into the nineteenth century.)  Was it the Carmelite Monastery into which the women and children of Ardee had fled to seek protection from the army of Edward Bruce and was it this monastery that Bruce burned? This could account for the disappearance of all records of the Carmelite Monastery.  On the other hand, we have evidence of a Prior Patrick of this monastery in 1540, and a valuation figure for the monastery in that year.


The Monastery of St. John the Baptist appears to continue to be of greater importance.  In 1340, Edward III confirmed its charter at Westminster. When the monastery was surrendered to Henry VIII, the then Prior George Dowdall, was granted a pension by the King of 20 pounds a year till he got preferment.  Some years later, Dowdall was appointed Primate of Armagh.

In 1406, we hear of an ordination being held in St. John the Baptist Ardee.  “William Saye, a Friar, the son of a priest” was ordained in St. John’s. In 1402, a convocation was held in Ardee.  In 1450, a Brother William Coke, who was a witness in a court case, said in his evidence that he remembered courts being held in the Church of St. Mary which was opposite the cemetery of St. John the Baptist and that it consisted of “a big aisle with a huge wooden cross with feet of stone at which women used to sell butter and eggs.”  This seems certainly to suggest that the church of St. Mary was in ruins.


In 1496, a convocation was held in Ardee at which it was ordered that 5 shillings be paid to the Primate on account of his extreme poverty.


Synods were held in Ardee in 1489 and 1492.  The latter was moved to Ardee from Drogheda on account of the plague then raging in Drogheda, but the plague followed it to Ardee.


In 1539, the town of Ardee was pillaged by Con O’Neill.  In 1612, the Priory of St. John was granted to Garrett Moore by James I.


In 1622, we learn that the church was in ruins.  In 1690, the chancel and body of the church were in ruinous condition.  The chancel would cost 90 pounds to repair and the body of the church 200 pounds.  There was a discernible gap in the building between the body and the chancel – however it was sufficiently intact to be used for services, as we are told that there was no bell and the people had to be called to worship by the Sexton ringing a hand bell.  In 1692, the church is described as being large with an ached wall. (This arch maybe the same still extant in the Church.). The walls and aisle are described as good but the chancel as ruinous. It had been promised to be repaired since 1641 but there were so few people and the church was so large that it was not possible to raise the money. Almost 300 years later, these difficulties are still facing the parish.  Fortunately in 1693, Lord Brabazon Moore, a descendent of Garrett Moore, rebuilt the church.


In 1745, Isaac Butler, the writer, described the church as having 3 aisles supported by 2 rows of pillars.  In 1768, a report to the Lord Justice stated: “The rectory of St. Mary’s Ardee belonging to St. John the Baptist was granted to Lord Moore descendent of Garrett Moore, who built the church by order of the court”.


In 1792, the writer and traveller Grose says that nothing remains of the monastery of St. John the Baptist except one of the cells.  The principal chapel is converted into a church and in use; the belfry standing, but in decay. All is surrounded by a high wall. Grose’s woodcut of 1794 of the church shows the north aisle battlemented.


The rest of my observations are taken from the extant records of the church.  They give an interesting insight into the life and times of the parish in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as well as giving us information about the church.


The oldest records are in a vestry book dated 1732 – 61.  In 1730, a Primatial Commission studies the church with a view to reducing its size.  It is now one-third of its original size. In 1736, 20 shillings were paid for repairing cornice.  In 1737, 30 shillings were paid for pointing the big aisle. In 1742, pointing and slating the church cost 5 pounds and 4 shillings, this included 3 new rafters and a new door for the north side.  A hinge and staple for same cost 12 shillings. In 1743, whitewashing the church cost 18 shillings. In 1748 – 49, paving was put in the church. In 1751, the roof had to be repaired again. Eighteen pounds was the price agreed.  Three men, Messrs. Banks, Barren and Hatch were appointed to see “that the money was justly laid out”. In 1752, 20 pounds were spent for new ceiling (lath and plaster).


The money was to be raised by allotment of so much per acre.  The acreage is given as follows;

Stickillen               669 acres

Smarmore             805 acres

Atherdee               2009 acres

Kildemock             1649 acres

Shandlis                990 acres

Undistinguished     75 acres

A wheelbarrow cost 8 shillings.

In 1760, 1 pound was allotted for the making of forms for the poor and strangers to use in the church.  Were they not allowed to use the pews or was there not sufficient room in them? We do know that some years later controversy arose among the parishioners over the seatings in the church and it seems that there was barely sufficient seating.  This is now difficult to envision and contrasts greatly with the description given in 1692 and with the present day.


In 1759, the building of the churchyard wall was begun and 5 pounds were set aside to finance the building.  Five pounds were again allotted in 1761, 1764, 1766, 1767, 1769, 1770 and 1772. Finally, in 1774, the wall was finished.  It prevented “people and animals from trespassing.” If the latter were found by the sexton, they were to be impounded.


In 1778, the wall is ordered to be raised to 7 feet and 2 feet thick at a cost of 4 shillings and 3 pence per perch.  There must have been objections to the wall being raised as reward is offered for information leading to persons pulling down the wall.


In 1761, the roof was giving trouble and a contract was entered into with George Bellew “who is to guarantee his work will stand 3 years and he is not to receive any money till the parishioners appear and are satisfied with his work.” A large prayer book cost 8 1/2 pence.


In 1765, the church is described as being  “in ruinous condition” and an appeal is made to the gentlemen of the parish and country for assistance as the inhabitants cannot raise enough money.  In 1781, it cost 9 pounds, 17 shillings and 3 pence to complete the pound at Kildemock. The following year, there in an entry of 1 pound, 7 shilllings and 8 pence for repairing the pound at Milloxtown. It is referred to as the united parish pound and so we may take it as being the same pound as Kildemock as the two places are adjacent.  There is a reward of 5 pounds offered for information as to who broke open this pound and stole a cow from it.


In 1782, relatives of those buried in the old chancel outside the east end of the church complained of the state of the graves there.  There were told to repair same at their own expense.


In 1787, we read “things are going from bad to worse” and James Hunter was contracted for 290 pounds to do major repairs, provide new pews and gothic tops to the windows.


In 1789, the east and west windows of the south aisle were repaired – note this was prior to the present front being built.


In 1790, Sarah Grey is paid 11 shillings to clean the windows and seats.  The same year, W. Ruxton, Parkinson Ruxton and the Rev. Woodward are to wait on the Hon. John Foster to see if he will repair the chancel, as he promised to do when the church was repaired.


In 1793, Mr. Hume alters the entrance from the south side to its present position on the west end.


In 1794, the clergy, priest and sheriff agree to have 50 beggars’ badges made and distributed so as to prevent strangers receiving charity.


In 1795, 1797 and 1802, militia men are raised.  In 1795, lamps are to be provided for the town. It is to cost 34 pounds, 2 shillings and 6 pence to provide such lamps and proper oil for them.  The money is to be raised by levy. The value of the town is put at 1,000 pounds and 8 1/2 pence in the pound will suffice. A salary of 6 pounds a year is to be paid to somebody to attend to the lamps.  In 1867, the church was repaired again and completely plastered inside.


In 1899, extensive restoration work was carried out on the church.  The ceiling was removed in the chancel and the roof timbered. The marble floor was laid in the sanctuary.  The east window in memory of Chichester Fortescue installed. The stone mullions of this window were designed by the Rector, Mr. Ford.  During this work, the piscine in the pillar on the south side of the sanctuary was revealed and examination of the ground showed traces for 2 feet into the ground where the water from the piscine drained away.  When putting in the furnace for the central heating, Mr. Ford writes that 4 1/2 to 6 feet underground was found an early burial place. The bodies were laid on top of each other, there were no traces of wood or iron, so it may be these people were monks buried in their habits.  In a bed of mortar surrounded by rough stones on a sort of couch was the body of a man 7 feet or more in length. Across the forehead from ear to ear, he measured 14 inches. The foundation of the 1207 church was built in such a way as to leave an opening for the head of this man.  Unfortunately, there is no further information, presumably these graves were covered in again.


In 1907 – 8, the roof loft was discovered; it had been plastered up during the repairs in 1867.  The present organ was installed at this time. It is in fact comprised of parts of two organs and was purchased secondhand in London.  Particulars of the purchase exist. It is a very fine instrument. The church plate is valuable. The chalice dates from 1689 but the oldest object in the church and older than any of the building is the very fine early Celtic font.  This was originally found in Mansfieldstown.


Outside the church, a portion of an early cross thought to have been a market cross which once stood in the market square of Ardee, was erected on a modern shaft at the instigation of the Reverend Ford in 1925.


I have given just an outline history of this ancient building.  When we consider that it covers five and a half centuries, we realize how much has yet to be researched and written about the church and Ardee.