Our Visit To Cong Abbey Ruins In Ireland
It was a glorious sunny afternoon when Bob and I set off to discover Cong Abbey Ruins, which lies close to the main street of Cong in County Mayo. The impressive ruins of the Augustinian Abbey stood proud against a bright blue sky while Bob and I immersed ourselves in the intriguing past of this important historic site.
We set off on foot from Ashford Castle wanting to take our time strolling the trails that border the famed Cong Canal. Built as a famine relief project during the 1840’s-50’s, it was funded by Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness, the landowner of Ashford Estate at the time. The canal was designed to link Loughs Mask and Corrib so steamer traffic could make its way from the port of Galway through to Lough Carra. It promised to be a scenic and colourful step back in time for Bob and me.
Our first sight of Cong Canal could be had right from our location on the Ashford Castle grounds where a lovely stone bridge with multiple arches spans what once was only a fickle river. The artificial waterway was built complete with sluice gates, substantial locks fashioned from cut stone, and bridges, such as this one.
Construction of the Cong Canal began in 1848 and continued for six years before being abandoned as a lost cause because it was unable to hold water owing to the limestone terrain. The section of the canal south of Cong was eventually sold to Lord Ardilaun, Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness’s son, and it became part of the Ashford Castle Estate.
In fact, Lord Ardilaun transformed one of the locks into a boathouse. Tours on Lough Corrib can be taken via boat from the launching point where the canal empties into the lake.
For Bob and me, it was magical ambling along the canal. It is referred to as a dry canal because the flow of water is determined by the time of year. Water levels can vary from zero inches to 12 feet. Gushing waters betrayed the brisk current of the Cong River when we were there, and swans and ducks were handily carried downstream. Some fly fishermen were strategically located next to an ancient weir over which a dilapidated wooden structure remained, once a simple footbridge spanning the river.
As we negotiated the shaded pathways adjacent to Cong Woods, we remarked on the variety of trees that included large specimens of Silver Fur, Sitka Spruce, Scots Pine, Douglas Fir, Redwoods, Sequoia and many others, all evidence of Lord Ardilaun’s prolific planting program when he owned Ashford Castle. The forest trail we followed actually connected with a section of the Cong Forest Nature Trail before we came to this ancient stone gateway that leads to a footbridge across the Cong River.
Casting a backwards glance at the stone archway, we had to agree that it made an intriguing entrance to Cong Woods, mysterious in its own right with its honeycombed furloughs and subterranean streamlets. It is reputed that the monks of Cong Abbey used one natural grotto therein, Teach Aille sink, as a larder because of its consistent cool temperature, whereas Pigeon Hole Cave was the source of their drinking water. The monks built 61 stone steps down an underground passageway in order to access the gushing waters of the underground river that flows between Lough Mask and Lough Corrib.
Only for looking back at the gate, we would have missed the handsome stone rendering of Rory O’Connor who was King of Connacht from 1156-1186, and the last High King of Ireland between 1166-1183. He is believed to have died at Cong Abbey in 1198. This was the first indication that we had arrived at Cong Abbey Ruins which lay just beyond the trees on the far side of the river.
About midway across the stone footbridge, Bob and I caught sight of this endearing little structure sitting in the calm waters at midstream. These ruins are what remain of the Monks’ Fishing House. Built with an eye to comfort and a touch of whimsy, this stone house is erected on a platform of stones over a small arch that allows the river water to flow beneath the floor.
Fish was an important part of the monks’ diet, and a trapdoor in the floor allowed a net to be cast into the river while the monks sat huddled by the small fireplace and waited for a catch. One clever monk had the idea to string a line from the fishing house to a bell in the monastery kitchen so that the cooks could be alerted when there were fresh fish to fry. The fishing house was built in the 15th or 16th century.
Bob and I found the principal ruins of Cong Abbey peaking through the trees as we climbed a low rise from the footbridge. The ruins of the former Augustinian Abbey of Cong mostly date to the 13th century, but the original monastery that occupied this site was founded in 623 A.D. by St. Feichin, a 7th-century Irish saint who founded several Irish monasteries. The original church and abbey were destroyed by fire in 1114.
Cong Abbey was refounded for the Augustinians in the early 12th century, 1134 to be exact, by Turlough O’Connor, King of Connacht and High King of Ireland. Again, raiders set fire to the abbey in 1137, and again King Turlough rebuilt. Subsequent to his death, Rory O’Connor, Turlough’s son, improved the site with new buildings, and as the final High King of Ireland, Rory went on to live the last 15 years of his life at the Abbey. That is where he died and was buried although his remains were later moved to Clonmacnoise. The greatest relic of the High King’s court, the Cross of Cong, came from this Abbey, and it is now in the National Museum of Ireland.
The next 400 years saw the Abbey destroyed, rebuilt, reconstructed, fall into ruins, and finally fall into disuse in 1829 after the death of Father Patrick Prendergast, the last abbot and parish priest of Cong to reside there. It wasn’t until Benjamin Lee Guinness showed up on the scene in 1852 as owner of Ashford Castle that thought was given to restoring the Abbey. He started that philanthropic venture in 1855.
The de Burgo family preceded the Guinness family and built Ashford Castle in 1228 after having defeated the O’Connor’s, Royal House of Connacht, during Anglo-Norman invasions that ended with the Treaty of Windsor in 1175, but the Abbey still stands today at the gates of Ashford Estate as the principal legacy of the native O’Connor’s.
As Bob and I approached the Gothic Chapter House, what stood out for us were the beautifully carved arches that once marked doorways. These elaborate arches open onto the cloisters at the side of the monastery and are believed to pre-date the attack on the O’Connor’s by William de Burgo.
The Royal Abbey of Cong showcases some of the finest examples of Ireland’s medieval ecclesiastical architecture. These splendid cloisters feature wonderful detailed carvings of either abstract or foliate design although occasionally a human face was inserted into the pattern. I wondered if they represent portraits of the sculptors themselves.
The Chapter House and Cloisters are where the monks resided, worked and prayed, many of whom were scholars in history and the arts but also skilled craftsmen in precious metals and woodcarving. Perhaps they had an influence on the masterful renditions of Gothic architecture and masonry incorporated into the cloisters, which were built in the 13th century.
Bob and I went on to explore what little remains of the church itself, but of those ruins, three lancet east windows and the tombstone-paved floor are the most striking features. The 42.6-metre long Great Church was rebuilt in the early 13th century as well. When we exited through a doorway in the south wall, we found an intriguing stairway that led upwards into a 3-storey tower from which we had an excellent overview of the ruins.
Cong Abbey served multiple purposes over the centuries, some clandestine such as a hiding place for the O’Connor family, others humanitarian such as a hospital for the sick and a shelter for the poor and starving, or simply as a place of learning for thousands of scholars.
Bob and I walked the grounds of Cong Abbey Ruins for a good hour, absorbing the history and atmosphere of the place, before we cut across the yew grove on the property where 100-year old trees shaded us as we strolled back to the riverbank.
That is where we discovered several fly fishermen waist deep at midstream. The area around Lough Corrib is known for its quality salmon and brown trout making it a major tourist destination for anglers.
It was mesmerizing to watch the fishermen deftly wield the long, slender rods and manipulate the lengthy fine filaments to expertly clip the still surface of the water with the feathery flies. We didn’t see anyone catch a fish, but I’m sure it was only a matter of time.
I guess the fly fishermen recognized that the monks knew a thing or two about catching a few fish as here they were only steps away from the ancient Monks’ Fishing House.
Even as we prepared to retrace our steps through the woods to Ashford Castle, these fishermen were positioned on the stone footbridge where they contemplated what bait to use and where the best fishing hole would be.
The slow walk back to the Ashford Estate gave our minds ample opportunity to consider what we had seen and heard. Strolling within footsteps of the Cong Canal, the 3-mile long dry canal, allowed us time to reflect on the Great Irish Famine and the days of monastic life at Cong Abbey before the long, lonely river bridge conveyed us back to the present day at Ashford Castle. It had been an enlightening experience.