Templemoyle / Tysaxon – Summer 2002

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The monastic foundation at Templemoyle was at least 560 years in existence when the Norman town of Athenry was founded in the 13th. Century.

The annals record the existence of a monastery at a place called “Ti Sacsain” which is today the name of an adjoining townland to the west and north of Templemoyle. The assigning of “Tysaxon” as a name to an adjoining townland would have been a mapping decision made in relatively recent times. Research carried out by Professor Rynne, Athenry, has established that Tysaxon of the annals and present day Templemoyle are one and the same place. This is to say that the present day Templemoyle is the monastery founded by a disciple of St. Coleman called St. Balan.

Coleman, Abbot of Lindisfarne, returned to Ireland via Iona with a group of loyal Saxon monks following the defeat of the Celtic Tradition at the synod of Whitby in 664 A.D. Coleman and his followers founded monastic houses on Inisbofin, Mayo of the Saxons, Tysaxon and Tullylease, Co. Cork.

The original 7th. Century foundation would have been enclosed by one or more earthen ramparts and would have consisted of simple buildings of wood or stone offering few creature comforts in line with the asceticism of the period. To date no trace of the original structures have been found but traces of a least two concentric enclosing ramparts can be seen surrounding the site. A portion of the southern graveyard wall appears to be co-linear with the inner ring. The name “Teampuil Maol” is locally taken to mean “roofless church” which in turn may mean an abandoned church or an unfinished project.

Tobar Collumbaun

The remains of a Holy Well (Tobar Collumbaun) lie 100 metres to the south of the graveyard on lands owned Jim Kelly, Athenry. There is evidence of a traditional ritual associated with the well. Mrs. Eileen Hynes of Castle Ellen, (nee Donnellan of Templemoyle), recalls her grandmother mentioning the last pilgrim (a woman) to visit Tobar Collumbaun at one time in her childhood. This suggests that the holy well at Templemoyle was a place of visitation up to 150 years ago much as St. Dominic’s Well near Esker Monastery, St. Kerrill’s Well, Gurteen and Our Lady’s Well, Athenry, are today. The well was a source of clear water up to the 1970s but it is now dry probably because of the artificial lowering of the water table in the locality.

Medieval Church

A fragment of the south wall of an early 13th Century church featuring two single-light windows with round heads together with the footings of a portion of the north and west wall are still extant within the graveyard. The church thus indicated was a rectangular structure aligned in an east/west direction. A large portion of the north wall and east gable are recorded as still surviving in the 1927 Ordnance Survey Letters. There is anecdotal evidence that stone from the site was used in the building of Gurteen church.

Templemoyle Bell

The Templemoyle Bell, now on display in the National Museum, was found in a sand pit close to the graveyard in 1979 by Gerry Rabbitte, Tysaxon, then a pupil of Newcastle School. He recognised the bell from a drawing the author had done of St. Patrick’s Bell on the blackboard. Gerry promptly declared to the class –“We’ve a bell like that at home ourselves.”

True to his word Gerry arrived in next day with what turned out to be a significant find; a riveted iron hand bell coated in bronze and belonging to period between 600 A.D. and 900 A.D.

The Rabbitte family presented the bell to the National Museum where it is now on public display.

Templemoyle Grave Slab

The bell found by Gerard Rabbitte was probably buried with an Abbot of the monastery as a symbol of his temporal authority. A grave slab, bearing the inscription “Oroit ar Mael Poil” and an incised cross was found nearby. The carving of a cross following the name indicates a prelate of high standing so it is quite possible that both the slab and bell belonged to the interment of an abbot called Mael Poil.

These finds were found in an extensive burial ground stretching eastwards from Templemoyle on top of a low esker which was excavated for sand and gravel during the 1960s and 70s. The shallow graves were mistakenly interpreted as ”famine graves” and the human remains were reburied at different times locally. lt was planned that the inscribed slab found close to the bell be removed to the safety of Newcastle Church but unfortunately it was taken from the site before this could be done. Efforts are been made to have the grave slab returned to Newcastle.

Templemoyle Carved Figure

About twenty years ago, local historian Sam Quinn of Mountpelier, was shown a carved figure found within the graveyard of Templemoyle. Sam carefully hid the object within the site thus saving it for posterity. Two years ago he revealed the location of the figure to Peadar Monaghan, then chairman of the Community Council who in turn kept it in safe keeping until it was viewed by Professor Rynne. It is a female figure with limbs splayed in an exhibitionist pose, carved on one end of a of a limestone cuboid measuring 62cm.x25cm.x2Ocm. It may have been originally set over a church doorway and bears some resemblance to a classical Sheela na Gig. It is now on display in the front porch of Newcastle Church together with an explanatory note, written by Professor Rynne.

“Cailín Féachach” Tradition

Prior to the figure being found by Sam Quinn there had been a reference to a “Cailín Féachach” (staring woman) within the graveyard in local folklore. This is testified to by John Willie Conan, Newcastle, who points out a hillock called “An Cnoc Féachana” which lies in Joe Corbett’s land, close to the Athenry – Newcastle road and approximately 500m south-east of the monastery. According to John Willie local lore tells of a staring woman who stood on this hillock and watched the monks in the monastery to the north-west thus intimidating them to the degree that they abandoned the place, leaving their church unroofed. This early embodiment of radical feminism may have to give way to her more abiding counterpart in stone as the real origin of the “Cailín Féachach” legend.

This carving may have ornamented the church at Templemoyle before the destruction of the building. Most Sheela-na-Gigs* have bulging or bossed eyes and this figure is certainly within the Sheela family.

A selection of dressed and carved stone from various periods has been found within the site. Templemoyle also contains a number of ornate 19th Century funerary monuments as well as grave slabs with trademarks and diverse motifs dating back to the 18th Century and earlier.

Subterranean Chamber

A stone built underground chamber with an arched entrance facing east lies a few metres south of the existing church wall. Local tradition holds that coffins were left in this chamber overnight prior to burial but there is no evidence as to when, if ever, this practice prevailed.

Templevalley/Teampuil an Bhaile

A few hundred metres north of Templemoyle, in the townland of Tysaxon and on lands owned by the

Cooke family of Monivea, lies an ivy covered church ruin. A mid 15th Century date is suggested for this church and it is said that it was founded by the Burkes for the Franciscan Tertiaries. The name

“Templevalley/Teampuil an Bhaile” may derive from the meaning “Church of the town land” as opposed to “Teampuil Maol”- “Church of the monastery”.

Restoration Scheme

A scheme of restoration of this nationally and internationally important site will shortly be started through a subcommittee of Newcastle Community Council. The scheme will be in three phases:

1.      The preservation of the stone and mortar church wall. (Approved by DÚCHA$)

2.      A professional survey of the built, natural and cultural heritage of the graveyard and its associated       features. (This is an addition to a detailed Archaeological Survey already carried by Martin Fitzpatrick, Arch. Consutancy Ltd, Athenry).

3.     The preservation of the graveyard in its three aspects and of associated features.

*Sheela-na-Gigs, Origins and Functions‘, Eamonn P. Kelly, N.M I. 1996.

Martin T. KelIy, B. Ed., Dip. ArchaeoIogy, is Principal of Newcastle School.

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About this record

Written by Martin T Kelly

Published here 15 Jul 2023

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