Great Connell Priory

Desktop Survey of

The Priory of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine

Great Connell Newbridge Co Kildare (KD 023/16)

for the Newbridge Slighe Dhála Group
Conducted by Thomas A. Loughlin May-June 2004

This study is published with the kind permission of the Author – if quoting from this research please acknowledge the author Mr. Thomas A. Loughlin.

The entrance to the Ruins of Great Connell Priory, Newbridge

The entrance to the Ruins of Great Connell Priory, Newbridge

General Introduction:
This Desktop Survey has been commissioned by the Newbridge Slighe Dhála Group to examine the documented records: written, printed, cartographic, artefactual, traditional and oral sources relating to the Priory at Great Connell, Newbridge, County Kildare. The purpose of this is to see if the documentary evidence can give an indication as to the extent of the physical remains of the abbey before any development can take place within its vicinity.

As it stands Priory at Great Connell is listed on the SMR (KD 023/16) and is, therefore, protected by the Heritage Acts (1934-2004) and the Planning and Development Act (2000), which make it unlawful to; demolish or remove wholly or in part or to disfigure, deface, alter or in any manner injure or interfere with any such monument without out the permission of the relevant authority  i.e. the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

Permission is also required to excavate, dig, plough or otherwise disturb the ground within or around the proximity of any such monument. While this affords a great deal of protection to the priory, it does not set down the specific area protected. It was decided that a desktop survey would be a good place to begin a search to find the perimeter of the area that should be protected.

Permission is also required to excavate, dig, plough or otherwise disturb the ground within or around the proximity of any such monument. While this affords a great deal of protection to the priory, it does not set down the specific area protected. It was decided that a desktop survey would be a good place to begin a search to find the perimeter of the area that should be protected.

The information was gathered from three main sources; documentary, cartographic and photographic. To do this the Register of Monuments and Places was consulted on Monday 24th May 2004, as was the National Museum of Ireland to examine St. Josephs Cambridge Collection Photographic Archive and the Artefact Register. Finally, on Tuesday 25th May 2005 the County Library in Newbridge was visited to examine local sources and the existing archive. The site was also visited on the same day.

This research has proved very valuable to the survey; I wish to acknowledge the help of Geraldine Crowley (Department of the Environment), Mario Corrigan (Kildare County Council Local History Studies Librarian), Noel Dunne (Kildare County Council NRDO Office) and Bridget Loughlin (Kildare County Council Heritage Officer) each of whom aided my research in differing ways.

Historic Outline

  • 1202 Great Connell Abbey was founded as a Priory of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine, a cell of the Llanathony Prima in Wales by Myler Fitzhenry twice Viceroy in Ireland, he also founded Abbeys in Laois, Clonfert and Killaloe. The Abbey was situated in the Barony of Connell, two kilometres east of what is now known as the town of Newbridge, north of a ford across the river Liffey.
  • 1220 Fitzhenry died and his remains were interred in the Chapter house at Great Connell.
  • 1252 Thomas Prior of Great Connell was chosen as bishop of the diocese of Leighlan.
  • 1380 An Act by Richard II listed Great Connell as an Abbey which was forbidden to admit any Irishman
  • 1395 Richard II took the submission of Murladh O’Connor – Daly in ‘the Great Hall at Great Connell in the presence of the great King notary and others’.
  • 1455 The abbey was allowed by the King to acquire land
  • 1458 The abbey was destroyed by the Irish
  • 1461 Nicholas Prior of Great Connell named on the Privy Council and had the right to sit in Parliament as Spiritual Peer
  • 1476 The abbey was listed as one of the Principal Keys in South Kildare.
  • 1486 Prior Nicholas implicated in the rebellion of Lambert – Simnell. He was pardoned in 1488.
  • 1537 Bishop Wellesley Prior, managed to prevent the suppression of the abbey by Henry VIII until his death in 1539.
  • 1540 The Abbey was suppressed on the 24th November 1540. A jury of true and local men of the neighbourhood visited the abbey to assess the value of the buildings and lands.
  • 1541 The Abbey was surrendered on 23 April 1541 by Robert Wellesley, who voluntarily and with the consent of the community was pensioned off. At the time of the suppression, it owned 1260 acres, a mill, five castles, a priory on five acres and several gardens and orchards. The property was granted to Edward Randolfe.
  • 1654 Recorded by the Downs Survey as being held by two people Nicholas White of Leixlip and Robert Meredith Knt.
  • 1780 A Church of Ireland Church was built north of the site.
  • 1780’s Visited by Antiquarians Austin Cooper and Mervyn Archdall.

Early to Mid-19th Century
Stone removed to build British Army Barracks at Newbridge, and Connellmore house.

1971 The relief sculpture of Bishop Wellesley restored and moved to Kildare Cathedral by the Kildare Archaeological Society.

Evidence from Written Sources:
An account of the suppression jury who visited the abbey on 24th November 1541 to evaluate the worth of its buildings provides a detailed account of the abbey:

All the buildings are still standing as at the time of the dissolution. The body of the priory church has, from time immemorial, been the parish church. The chancel and the chapel of the B. M north of it can be thrown down and sold, the value of the timber, stones glass and iron is not known. The belfry is very necessary for the farmer, for constructing a castle or fortilage for the defence of the town and vicinity. All the other buildings are very necessary for the farmer. In the precinct are 2 gardens, 6 small orchard, and a close; these cont. 4 acr, are necessary for the farmer and are worth 6.s 8.d. There is a dovecot on the town walls worth 5s. (White 1943: 157)

This accounts for the buildings as the abbey stood at the time of suppression in 1541. It gives some idea of the extent of the abbey. It mentions a priory church, a belfry, two gardens, six orchards, a close (possibly a yard) a dovecot and a town wall. Although it does not give dimensions it demonstrates that there was a considerable amount of buildings attached to the abbey. The presence of a town wall indicates that there was a settlement of some degree at the abbey but its nature either monastic or secular is not stated. It also mentions other buildings necessary for the farmer but unfortunately; it does not list their functions or size.

Valkenburg (1964-70: 518-543) wrote that there was also a cloister, a chapel, a refectory that could seat up to three hundred and stables. I have not as yet been able to confirm his source for this information.

In 1395 Richard II accepted the submission of a local chieftain Murladh O’Connor – Daly in ‘the great Hall at Great Connell in the presence of the great King notary and others’. If the quote itself is to be taken literally, it indicates the presence of a rather substantial building at the site but it does not indicate the location or size of the hall at Great Connell. The Downs Civil Survey of 1654 does mention one church and one abbey on the site, a little more than one hundred years after the suppression but it does not give any indication as to the buildings associated with the abbey.

Archdall, an antiquarian, visited the site in the 1780’s and gave a description of the site almost two hundred years after its dissolution. He (1786: 317) mentions a village on the banks of the Liffey, indicating that there must have been a settlement still in existence a long time after the suppression of the abbey. Archdall (1786: 317-8) describes the abbey as gone to decay, the remnants he considers to be the nave and the choir of the church, measuring two hundred feet by twenty-five feet. It is largely the remains of the east wall with two gothic windows, an unnumbered amount of pillars and the vestiges of some stalls. He also wrote that there were the ruins of a house on a low hill with a ‘turret’ from the priory (1786: 321).

Austin Cooper visited in 1781 what he found tallies closely with Archdall. He noticed the tomb of a bishop supposing it to be Wellesley (Price 1943: 11); he also mentions the house on the hill with a turret from the abbey. He drew a sketch of the abbey, which will be dealt under Photographic and Pictographic evidence.

Lewis (1837: 03) wrote that all that remains were the eastern gable and ruins and a tomb with a relief sculpture of a bishop, which he assumes to be Wellesley. He also records the local tradition that there was a ‘Round Tower’ seventy-five feet high, which was demolished during the owner’s father’s childhood. The ordnance survey letters of 1837 (Herity 2002: 76, Nos. 212-4) mention the ruins of a small house and portions of a priory wall.

These sources have given a great deal of information about the extent of the abbey. It was a complex of considerable political importance. The descriptions given imply several buildings covering an area guessed at as being five acres by the suppression jury. It was also of considerable interest to attract two antiquarians. The ‘turret’ of Connell More House mentioned by Archdall and Cooper as being possibly part of the abbey is, I think, more than likely the belfry from the abbey, which was not ordered for demolition in 1541. Lewis’s mention of a Round Tower is interesting; there is no tradition of one ever being in existence. The foundation of the abbey postdates Round Towers in Ireland by about four hundred years. I would suggest therefore, that he too, was referring to the belfry.

Cartographic Evidence
Several maps though lacking in detail proved useful to the survey; they are studied consecutively because any diminishment in the abbeys remains would be traceable. The Downs Survey in 1654 produced a map of the Barony of Connell (Fig 1.) It shows four structures divided into two groups of two. Each has a different symbol. One appears to be a house, and another is named as a mill. The scale is not accurate enough to provide a proper perspective on the size of the buildings or the distances between them and the surrounding landscape, the Liffey for example. The 1683-5 map by  Petty (Fig. 2) indicates three structures, one appears to have a cross on its summit, which is safe to assume is a church, and the other two are unidentifiable.

In 1752-3, Noble and Keenan produced another map (Fig 3.) with greater detail than the two before it. It also identifies three structures, one of which has two towers, which might indicate a church; another is almost certainly a house and a third, which is unidentifiable. 1777 saw Taylor and Skinner produce a map of the main routes out of Dublin (Fig. 4), for the Kildare map on the routes to Limerick and Cork. It mentions the abbey but it is in far lesser scale and detail than Noble and Keenan. In 1783 Alexander Taylor (Fig. 5) mapped to county in great detail. On his map the newly built (1780) Church of Ireland church at the north of the abbey crossroads is shown, as is the mill and mill race extending from Rosetown east of the abbey. He also indicates the abbey. The Ordnance Survey maps of 1837-1909 (Fig. 6) indicate the abbey, the mill and race, the Church of Ireland church and Connell More House.

The Cartographic evidence supplements the written evidence very well. It reaffirms the existence of the abbey and its general location, while also indicating the possibilities of other buildings: a mill and possibly Connell More House. They make no mention of the village mentioned by Archdall. Unfortunately, none of them are detailed enough to allow us to ascertain the true extent of the abbey. They also postdate the dissolution of the abbey in 1541 and its subsequent demolition, which does not allow us to see the abbey when it was intact.

Photographic and Pictographic Evidence
The St. Josephs Cambridge Collection Photographic Archive did not contain any photographs of the site. An Ordnance Survey aerial photograph taken in 1995 (Fig. 7) does help to broaden the picture a little. The remaining east wall is visible though heavily overgrown. Modern buildings encroach on the cemetery (immediately west of the east wall). The ground north and east of the wall does not appear to indicate the presence of any other structure in the vicinity but the area has been cultivated.

Curiously the road running west and north of the abbey does bend quite significantly in the general area of the abbey. Its natural (direct) course would have been to pass east of the remaining wall. This not only suggests that the road is respecting the wall but possibly some other buildings no longer extant above the ground or even the edge of a property. The road continues south of the abbey to the ford at Walshestown / Kilbelin and north to Naas, which local tradition holds to be a possible route of the Slighe Dhála.

Austin Cooper provided a very useful sketch of the abbey drawn on 14th May 1781 (Fig. 8). It is view of the remaining east wall of the church, while it demonstrates the highly ruinous nature of the abbey centering on its gothic windows there also appears to be a large enclosing wall on the left of the picture. Cooper does not confirm if the view is facing west or is from the west, which leaves us at a loss as to whether the enclosing wall is to the north or south of the existing church wall. On the right of the remaining church wall is another low wall. It is unclear if this is ruined or just a low wall.

There is another short, tall, wall facing the remaining church wall, it appears to be highly ruined, possibly the remains of the west wall of the church. Behind the structures is a low hill perhaps the hill to the north east of the abbey today. This sketch, although showing the abbey highly ruined, shows considerable remains at the site in 1781 and is a strong indicator of the ‘town wall’ mentioned in 1541.

Other Evidence
Two floor tiles were recovered from the site in 1937 and 1941:

NMI Reg. No. 1937:2778. – Fragment of a tile “found in the abbey of Connell More of Great Connell, Co. Kildare on 1st March 1936. It was lying amidst dead leaves and other rubbish”. (NMI habitat: C14: 7)

NMI Reg. 1943:5. “Medieval flooring tile from Great Connell Abbey, Co. Kildare. The tile was found in the summer of 1942, during digging operations for a drain immediately south of the graveyard at Great Connell Abbey”. (NMI habitat: B3: 1). It is of pale red brick; glazed measuring 3 3/4 inches square and is 1 1/8 inches thick, it has a lion with an elaborate tail framed within a border. It is similar to a type found in western England near Chester from the Fourteenth Century.

Conclusions and Recommendations
While this survey has not provided a clear and definitive plan of the complete size of the abbey it does, however, outline from the varied sources that there was a considerable complex here, the report of the suppression jury outlines the extent of the buildings in 1541 and hints at their future destruction The writings of the Downs Survey 1654 and the subsequent mapping show that although dissolved the abbey was still a prominent complex within the local vicinity.

The writings of Archdall and Cooper provide a detailed account of the state of disrepair into which it had fallen within two hundred and fifty years of its dissolution. The evidence of the suppression jury regarding a town wall, Archdall mentioning a village and Coopers illustration of what appears to be a large enclosing wall further indicates that there was a more considerable site at the area than is extant at the moment. This has prompted Conleth Manning to put a note on the RMP file recommending that the current marker is too small and the site should be considered larger than is currently represented (RMP File. KD 023/16)

The Abbey is Augustinian; therefore, an examination of general Augustinian architecture from that time could help fill in some of the details regarding possible extent of the abbey. Leask (1960 Vol. II 1960: 19-23) noted that; the church plan was not invariable some are quite large, like Glendalough, although there are only eight large abbeys in the country, He also noted that their thinking differed from that of the Cistercians, their abbeys were often educational centres, hospitals or Inns with no set plan partly due to the diversity and flexibility allowed by the rule of St. Augustine (O’Keefe 2000: 123)

I believe that there is much still to be done on the abbey to establish its extent and would recommend that a full field survey and aerial survey with the permission of the owner be conducted.

It would also be beneficial to examine the other abbeys established by Myler Fitzhenry as it might show a common architectural and spatial theme running through his foundations.

A more detailed examination of Augustine architecture would be another useful exercise.

These varied background strands of research would be of great benefit as a prelude to more intrusive methods of archaeological investigation such as geophysical surveying or testing as they would indicate where best to prospect for the hopefully extant physical remains of the abbey and the surrounding settlement.


  • Archdall, M. (1786) – Monasticon Hibernicum or A history of the Abbies Priories and Other Religious Houses in Ireland, Luke White Press Dublin;
  • Bradshaw B. (1974)  – The Dissolution of Religious Orders in Ireland under Henry VIII, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1974;
  • Gwynn, A & Haddock, R. N. (1970) – Mediaeval Religious Houses of Ireland, Longman Press London;
  • Healy, P. (1976) – Buildings of Architectural Interest in County Kildare, An Foras Forbartha, Dublin;
  • Herity, M. (ed.) (2002) – Ordnance Survey letters, Kildare. Four Masters Press, Dublin;
  • O’Keeffe, T. (2000) – Medieval Ireland – Archaeology. Tempus Publishing Ltd, Stroud.;
  • Leask, H. G. (1960) – Irish church and Monastic Buildings Vols. I-IV, Dundalgan Press Dundalk;
  • Lewis, S. (1837) – A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland Vol. I, S. Lewis & Co. London;
  • Price, L. (ed) (1942) – An Eighteenth Century Antiquary, The Sketches and Diaries of Austin Cooper, Falconer Press, Dublin;
  • Summington, R. (1952) – A Civil Survey of County Kildare AD 1654-56 Vol. III, Dublin Stationary Office ;
  • Taylor G. & Skinner, A. (1969) – Maps of the Roads of Ireland, Irish University Press, Dublin;
  • Valkenburg, A. (1964) – Walter Wellesley; Bishop of Kildare Journal of the Kildare Archaeological Society VIV (p. 518-543);
  • White, N. D. (1943) – The Extents of Irish Monastic Possessions 1540-41 Govt. Publications, Dublin;

Photos below show the relief sculpture of Bishop Wellesley which was restored and moved to Kildare Cathedral by the Kildare Archaeological Society.

Bishop Wellesley Tomb Kildare Cathederal CKAS 2010 KILDARE (7)

Bishop Wellesley's Tomb Kildare Cathederal

Bishop Wellesley’s Tomb Kildare Cathederal

Bishop Wellesley Tomb Relocated to Kildare Cathederal

Bishop Wellesley Tomb Relocated to Kildare Cathederal


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