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As Christianity spread throughout Ireland in the decades after the mission of St. Patrick in the 5th century, churches, monasteries and places of pilgrimage began to appear in the countryside. One of the most important early monasteries in Ulster was established by Darerca, popularly known as St. Moninna, at Killeavy on the lower slopes of Slieve Gullion in either the late 5th or early 6th centuries.

Killeavy Churches with the older west church on left and the east church on right. Newry and Mourne Museum
Killeavy Churches with the older west church on left and the east church on right. Newry and Mourne Museum

Accounts of the life of St. Moinna, describe her settling in a lonely wooded area below in the mountain populated by only pigs and wolves. Known as Cell Sléibbe Cuilinn (Church of Slieve Gullion) the monastery was founded for nuns.

Interior view of the east church. Much of this building dates from the period of the Augustinian community.  Newry and Mourne Museum
Interior view of the east church. Much of this building dates from the period of the Augustinian community. Newry and Mourne Museum

The monastery is well documented and secured an important role in political and ecclesiastical affairs. It was raided by the Vikings in 852 and 923 and, in 1050, was the site of the killing of Cailleach of Cell Sléibbe ‘a pious good senior’. Medieval monasteries were places of hospitality and this led to Killeavy being the first stopping place on ‘a royal heir’s feasting visitation to Ulster’ in 1163. Killeavy was probably a popular place of rest for travellers as the monastery was close to the Slighe Midluachra (North Road) which passed through the Moyry Pass on its way to the north Antrim coast.

Probably under the influence of St. Malachy of Armagh, the monastery at Killeavy was converted into an Augustinian convent in the mid-12th century which continued to flourish during the Middle Ages. In the 15th century the O’Neills of Tír Eóghian established themselves in the Fews and various O’Neills begin to appear in the area as parish clergy. They attempted to increase their influence over the monastery and parish of Killeavy, a development indicated by their involvement in a dispute over the rectory of Killeavy in 1535. 

Doorway with a large lintel head in the west wall of the west church. This may date from either the 10th or 11th century. Newry and Mourne Museum
Doorway with a large lintel head in the west wall of the west church. This may date from either the 10th or 11th century. Newry and Mourne Museum

Like most monasteries in Ireland, the monastery at Killeavy was dissolved in the 1540s. In 1542, the monastery was surrendered by the last abbess, Alicia Negan McDonnechy O’Hanlon and its buildings and land was granted to Sir Marmaduke Whitechurch.

Surviving remains of the monastery include two churches (joined by later walling), a number of carved stones and a holy well. Documentary accounts also point to the presence of a round tower and a souterrain. Dating from the 10th to 12th centuries, the west church is the oldest. The main feature of this building is the fine lintel-headed doorway which is typical of church doorways in this period. The east church is probably 15th century in date and contains the remains of a large east window with carved human heads acting as terminals or label-stops on the window arch. These are similar in appearance and date to the carved head from Newry Cistercian Abbey on display in Newry and Mourne Museum.

Carved human head with foliage decoration acting as a label stop on the window of east church. Newry and Mourne Museum
Carved human head with foliage decoration acting as a label stop on the window of east church. Newry and Mourne Museum

St. Monnina’s original monastic foundation probably comprised a series of wooden buildings. These were later replaced by stone buildings including, perhaps, the surviving west church and the now vanished round tower. The east church indicates further building, or re-modelling of earlier structures, in the 15th century. If we marry the evidence of the buildings with the documentary history of the site, Killeavy emerges as an important and flourishing monastery in medieval south Ulster.

Newry and Mourne Museum has reopened to the public in a phased capacity. We are open Wednesday – Saturday, from 10am – 12pm and from 2pm – 4pm. Please call 0330 137 4422 for further information.

by Ken Abraham

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