The Abbey that Isn’t

Abbey OwneyThe first thing you notice when you visit the abbey at Abington is that it isn’t there. What’s worse, nobody’s really sure where “there” is. It may have been beside the cemetery, but then again it may not. The two small ruins just outside the graveyard wall may have been part of it, but that’s by no means certain. In fact, the first thing you realize when you go to see the Cistercian abbey at Abington is that you can’t.

And is it Abington Abbey? Or is it Abbey Owney; Abbey Woney; Abbey Wothney; Mainister Uaithne? You take your pick. Presumably the English name is a corruption of Abbey Town, but what of the others?

The Civic Parish of Abington, in the days when such administrative units meant something, lay partly in Tipperary and partly in Limerick, with the abbey in the Limerick half, by the banks of the Mulcair. In Tipperary, it was part of the barony of Owney-Arra (Big Owney?), and in Limerick, part of the barony of Owney-Beg (Little Owney). It seems clear enough that these barony names and the Irish versions of the abbey name are related; that they derive from a common source. And it also seems we have some idea what this source is.

Around 150 AD, the Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus, known in English as Ptolemy, made a map of Ireland that showed, amongst other things, a tribe called the Auteini resident roughly in the Tipperary/Limerick area. This name has been equated with the Gaelic Uaithne. However, this identification is, in its own way, just as problematic as everything else in the story so far. Ptolemy never actually visited Ireland; he depended on hearsay and sailors’ stories for his information, and these had been filtered through who knows how many different languages on their journey from Gaelic to Greek. If that’s not enough to cast doubt on his reliability, the oldest surviving copy of Ptolemy’s map dates from 1490, nearly thirteen and a half centuries after he made it. And this version’s printed in Latin.

At the very beginning, the abbey at Abington wasn’t actually at Abington. It was originally established around 1196 in a place called Wyresdale in Lancashire by monks from Furness in Cumbria. The mother house of both these abbeys was Savigny, in Normandy. This had been the home of the Savigniac Order, who adopted the Benedictine Rule. By 1147, Savigny was insolvent and applied, with some opposition from the English houses, to become Cistercian. In 1204, the by now presumably reconciled Cistercians of Wyresdale moved to a new site at Arklow. Here, the monks found the exposed location somewhat less than welcoming. The following year, they moved to Limerick, where they were augmented by the arrival by more of their fellows from Savigny. The abbey of Abington was finally at Abington, where it stayed down to the end of the 17th century, when it was demolished to make way for a new manor house. If you go to Abington to see the manor house, you’ll notice that it isn’t there either.

So, if you want to see the abbey at Abington, you need to go to Dublin, to the manuscript department of the National Library, and find the Journal of Thomas Dineley. Dineley was an Englishman who visited Ireland in 1680 and 1681 and kept a record of his travels. He was especially keen on English castles and abbeys and made sketches of many of the places he saw, including one of Abington Abbey. And there it is, the abbey that isn’t; a paper place. But be advised, Dineley’s drawings are persuasive, but not always accurate.