First let me say that although there was a slight disappointment with one aspect of these ruins which I will cover later, they were still one of the most remarkable places we have visited.
The Abbey was founded for the Cistercians in 1182AD when the lands were granted to them by Donal Mor O'Brien. It became one of the three great Abbeys in the area, the other two being Jerpoint and Holy Cross. It would have been in use at least until the dissolution of Abbeys in the 1500's and it now sits hidden away on the lands of the Kilcooley estate.
We were really looking forward to seeing these ruins although we were a little apprehensive about them being located on a private estate but as we approached we found the great gates of the estate open and a sign pointing toward a more modern Church also on these lands situated a short way down the driveway.
We drove down taking a sharp right bend to avoid another set of gates leading directly to the actual estate house. The lane way narrows after the new Church and then you pass through another set of open gates. This is when you get your first view of Kilcooley Abbey. I have to say I was taken aback by how defined it looked against the backdrop of the trees.
On the route across the meadow to the ruins you pass by a curious beehive shaped structure which may or not have been a dovecote or pigeon house used by the former monks. Also more mysteriously on the land adjacent to the estate house and opposite the new Church is a strange pyramid shaped structure set against what looks to be a gable end of an ancient Church.What significance it has is a mystery, a memorial perhaps?
On reaching the Abbey we walked around the entire exterior which seemed to have a wire fence preventing entry but eventually we found an entrance gate which although closed over was unlocked with an open padlock dangling from it (We later discovered that the OPW leave this gate unlocked for likely visitors during as they say reasonable daylight hours.) From the moment we walked in we knew this was going to be something special.
The Abbey consists of a large entrance hall, a church, a tower and a sacristy along with some residential buildings and an adjacent infirmary. In the entrance hall there is a nicely carved baptismal font and some amazing decorative ceiling design. As you look in from the gate the archways diminish into the distance giving great depth to the Abbey.
Strolling around these ruins gives you a great sense of how it was in the daily lives of those stationed here
The abbey being off the beaten path lay silent and we found ourselves wandering around alone. I found it to exude a very calm ambiance and even though we split up and I often found myself alone I never got any bad vibes such as those experienced in say Athassel Abbey (see post here) where there was always a feeling of being observed. Parts of Kilcooley Abbey are still stone roofed, such as the nave most of the remainder are open to the elements. The Church has two great arched windows on either end and a remarkable tomb bearing the remains of the Knight, Piers Oge Butler (d. 1526AD). The image of the Knight with a faithful hound lying at his feet is marred only by the worn away features of his face. The carved design on the side of the tomb depicting ten of the twelve apostles are carved by the then well known Rory O'Tunney who is also recognised for his fine work on Jerpoint Abbey
Between the sacristy and the south transept stands a wall with numerous interesting carvings including a depiction of the crucifixion. It is just amazing how much decoration is on display within these walls.
The ambulatory outside is missing almost all of the fine pillars that surrounded it but there is a nice walkway around a grassy area overlooked by the tower which on a fine day is a suntrap. Here there are also two huge buttresses supporting one of the Church walls which are positioned in such a way that you can comfortably lean back against them and bask a little in the sunshine.
Adjacent to the Abbey are the ruins of what was once the infirmary. This is a dim and shadowy building and here unlike the Abbey the atmosphere felt a little uncomfortable.
Of course with all this fine stonework and amazing ruins there has to be some downside and this comes in the form of some restricted access. Parts of the ground floor rooms and the upper rooms and tower have been sadly locked by the OPW and are inaccessible due to insurance issues. You can climb up the steps but only peer into one of the upper rooms. Nevertheless don't be put off by these restrictions as these are exceptional ruins for a visit and there is still so much to see. The Abbey, in its secluded spot is the lesser visited and least advertised but is a must if in the area. Not surprisingly parts have been utilised by the film industry in the past for such films as "Catholics" (1973) and "Excalibur" (1981).
To find Kilcooly Abbey, from the M8 take the junction 4 exit for the R693 and drive for approx 400m then taking a right hand turn at the roundabout onto the R639 for Urlingford. Drive through the main street and take a left turn onto the R689 (Togher Rd). About 2.5KM later you will reach a crossroads. Go straight through and drive again for approx 1.5KM where you will reach a sharp bend to the right. Continue on for 500m and you will see the large gates for Kilcooley estate on your left. Once through the gates just follow the driveway down until you have passed the new Church on your right. Continue on down the lane and you will spot the Abbey on your left.You can park at the edge of the meadow.