The village of Ballintubber is located just south of Castlebar in County Mayo, on the famed pilgrimage route to Croagh Patrick, also known as Ireland’s Holy Mountain. St. Patrick himself is said to have established the church at Ballintubber.
The area’s attractions include the restored remains of Ballintubber Abbey, built by King Cathal O’Conor in 1216. The abbey church is still used for worship, and is the only church in the country, still operating, that was founded by an Irish King. The abbey is located on the shores of Lough Carra.
King Cathal Crovdearg O’Conor, also known as ‘Catha Mor of the wine red hand’, was the son of Turlach O’Conor, who commissioned the creation of the Cross of Cong, an Irish treasure. The members of the O’Conor family were widely known as distinguished patrons of the arts. Local folklore recounts the story of Ballintubber Abbey as follows:
King Cathal’s father, Turloch, was King of Connemara. Due to a dispute after Turloch’s death, Cathal was driven into exile by the Queen, and prevented from taking the throne immediately. He spent a good deal of this time at Ballintubber, and was made comfortable by a kindly man named Mr. Sheridan.
Some time later, after Cathal finally became king, he paid a visit to Mr. Sheridan, now elderly. King Cathal, in an effort to repay the old man’s past generosity, offered to grant him whatever he wished. Sheridan’s response was to request that the village church, which was in disrepair, be renovated.
The King promised a completely new church for the village, but a miscommunication resulted in the church being built at a site in Roscommon, instead of in County Mayo. Mr. Sheridan mistakenly assumed that the King had not kept his word. The error was discovered years later, and King Cathal commissioned an even finer church for the village of Ballintubber.
Finally built in 1216 at the order of King Cathal, the church at the abbey is located next to St.Patrick’s Well, in the village named Baile an Tobair, from which comes the name Ballintubber. St. Patrick was said to have baptized converts to Christianity at the well, and a stone there is marked with the impression of his knee.
In the years that followed its construction, Ballintubber Abbey endured through fire, persecution, and attack.
The Annals of the Four Masters mention the burning of the abbey in 1265. According to the text, only a small portion of the church itself burned, and was soon rebuilt.
In 1603, after King James I confiscated all religious properties, the Canon Regulars, or the order that occupied the abbey, were dissolved. They were a group made up of secular priests, mostly nobles by birth, who lived a religious life according to the teachings of St. Augustine.
History says that a few Augustinian friars may have inhabited Ballintubber Abbey for a while, but Cromwell’s soldiers burned the structures again in 1653. This time, all of the living quarters and other buildings were completely destroyed. Still, somehow a portion of the church survived.
The abbey lay in ruins until 1846, when large-scale restoration of the church began. The reconstruction plan included replacing the roof along with the nave and transepts. The arrival of the famine in 1847 halted the project, and work was suspended for a period of about four years.
During all these years, despite obstacles, Mass was said at Ballintubber every day. After the famine passed, restoration work continued. The abbey’s reputation for nearly 700 years of uninterrupted offering of Masses attracted the interest of Irish people and Christians everywhere, and help poured in from around the world.
The church was completely restored when the Mass celebrating Ballintubber’s 750th anniversary was celebrated in 1966.
The Dorter area and Chapter House restoration work was completed in 1997, and these buildings now serve as centres for religious education and retreats. The restoration work continues, looking forward to the abbey’s 800th anniversary in 2016.