Written by Barry Lally (Originally Published in Feb/March 2014 issue of Ballinasloe Life Magazine)
If you stand on Poolboy Bridge and look towards the town, you’ll see the ivy-covered remains of a medieval church a few hundred yards away, near the right bank of the Grand Canal. Known locally as “The Teampaillin” (little temple), it was used as a burial place for unbaptised children up until the 1950s. One of four such sites in the parish, it is only one associated with an ecclesiastical ruin.
The Teampaillin’s former use as an infants’ interment location is not, however, its main point of interest. Writing in 1960, Fr. P.K. Egan identified the ruins as those of an early thirteenth century building with features linking it to Clontuskert Priory some three miles distant to the south. A gable window of sixteenth century date suggested that the church had been in use for divine worship over several centuries, very likely up to Penal time.
Priests are said to have traversed the bog by means of a ‘togher’ or causeway to this church from Clontuskert to conduct religious services. Credence was apparently lent to this particular piece of folklore by a discovery made at Kellysgrove during Land Commission drainage operations in 1946 when a portion of the ‘togher’ was uncovered and recorded by the National Museum.
If clergymen served the Teampaillin from Clontuskert they would undoubtedly have been members of the Order of Canons Regular St. Augustine founded on the Continent about the middle of the eleventh century and introduced into Ireland by St. Malachy a hundred years later. Here the earlier Celtic monasteries eventually submitted to their rule, so that at one stage over two hundred Irish Augustinian foundations were listed and they became the numerically dominant religious order in the country. In this diocese, in addition to Clontuskert, they had three other houses: Abbeygormican in Mullagh parish, Aughrim and Clonfert.
Augustinian Canons were not monks but secular clergy who had come together to live a communal life and to serve the churches of the parishes adjacent to their houses. Unlike the other religious congregations, they had no central governing body and were answerable to local bishops. The order went into decline in the sixteenth century and had become extinct in Ireland by the dawn of the following century. The Canons, however, though greatly reduced in numbers, remained active on the Continent where some of their houses are still be found, particularly in Austria and Switzerland.
Sometime in the latter half of the twelfth century St. Mary’s Priory of the Canons Regular was established in Clontuskert by the O’Kelly family, Lords of Hy Many, probably on or near the site on an earlier monastic foundation. Situated as it was within the territory directly occupied by the O’Kellys, it was natural that it should have received its initial endowment from them and that through their patronage it should have attained in time a position of great wealth. Indeed, it was ruled almost exclusively by O’Kelly priors up to its official dissolution in 1551. The importance they accorded the Priory is evident from the fact that the inauguration mound of the Lords of Hy Many was located just outside the monastic precincts.
The community of Canons Regular may have contrived to remain on in Clontuskert for some decades following the Dissolution of all the Monasteries by King Henry VIII. However, they were eventually dispersed and the Priory fell into ruin. The 1630s saw its reoccupation and partial restoration by Augustinian Friars, who seemingly did continue to reside there up to the end of the Williamite Wars, when St. Mary’s was finally abandoned.