The small town of Graiguenamanagh sits peacefully along the banks of the River Barrow, on the border between counties Kilkenny and Carlow. It's name in Irish (Gráig na Manach), meaning 'village of the monks' points to its ancient monastic foundations. In the sixth century a settlement was founded by St Fiacra (St Fiacre to the French), before his great missionary expedition to France. It was a later monastic foundation, however, that the town became better-known. A new monastery was founded in the wake of the twelfth century Norman Conquest of Ireland, by the earl of Pembroke, William Marshall in 1204. The monastery was to be given to the Cistercians, and the early monks came there from Stanley Abbey in Wiltshire, England. The monks planned a monastery and church of vast proportions. The abbey, which became known as Duiske, flourished and had over eighty resident monks by 1230. For three hundred years the abbey flourished. The advent of the Protestant Reformation, however, proved disastrous, with monasteries and abbeys throughout Ireland and Britain being dissolved by orders of parliament. Duiske was suppressed in 1526. Subsequently the church and monastery passed into the hands of the James, the ninth earl of Ormonde. The church then descended into dereliction for a time until 1754 when part of the nave was transformed into into the place of worship for the local Protestant population. This arrangement lasted until the early nineteenth century, when a new Church of Ireland church was erected in the town. The abbey once again became a place of Catholic worship in 1813, which it continues to be to this day.
From the outside the church could be mistaken for any large cruciform early nineteenth century chapel, with few immediate signs of its ancient heritage. The size of the church is, however, immediately apparent. The abbey church was the largest Cistercian church in Ireland, over sixty-five meters long. At the crossing (where the nave and transepts met) stood a great tower, which collapsed in 1744. It was never replaced.
The image above shows the church as it would have looked in the early twentieth century. The restoration completed throughout the nineteenth century produced a largely mock Gothic effect, with plaster statues, an elaborate high altar, and the highly decorated chancel arch. These fitting remained until the 1970s when a further restoration took place in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Duiske is one of the few churches to have truly benefited from restoration in this period, with the church being returned to its former Cistercian glory. In line with their strict interpretation of monastic aestheticism, medieval Cistercians promoted their own particular style of architecture, with their churches exuding an austerity rarely found in Catholic churches. The plaster visible above was removed to reveal the unrendered whitewashed stone, in keeping with the original design; Cistercians never favoured plastered walls and even statues and images were frowned upon, lest they distract the monks from prayer. A beautiful unseasoned oak roof was added as part of the most recent restoration, returning the church to at least some of its medieval glory.
Above is an image of an archway leading to monastic cloister.