Written by medieval archaeologist Dr Anne-Julie Lafaye


The twelfth century was a transitional period for ecclesiastical and monastic organisation in Ireland. Religious reform led to the establishment of a diocesan system, with medieval Ferns becoming one of the five diocesan seats of Leinster in 1111, at the Synod of Rath Breasail.

As elsewhere, the early medieval monastic landscape of the southeast was characterised by a multitude of small ecclesiastical foundations, defined by one or more circular enclosures centred around the church, as would have been the case in Ferns.

A crucial aspect of the reform was the movement towards a standardised monastic way of life, with the adoption of the Augustinian rule by many existing communities – this was associated with a reorganisation of the monastic landscape, and the transition to new physical and architectural forms, such as the claustral plan which was first introduced in Ireland by the Cistercian order, where three ranges of domestic buildings were arranged around a cloister.

In medieval Ferns, this re-organisation of the monastic landscape saw the foundation before 1162 of St Mary’s Augustinian priory by Diarmait Mac Murchada, king of Leinster, placed right on top of the early monastic enclosure.

Diarmait, along with other Irish kings, used religious patronage as part of his territorial and political strategies, and monastic foundations such as St Mary’s were as much statements about his aspirations as a ruler as they were pious endeavours.

At the same time, Ferns grew as a centre of both ecclesiastical and secular importance, not only becoming the episcopal seat of a diocese corresponding approximately to the core kingdom of the Uí Chennselaig dynasty, but also its caput, or capital.

Recent excavations at the site of the priory have uncovered evidence for walls that align with the purported position of eastern and a southern building ranges – assuming a cloister existed, determining when it was built is crucial, as a date in the twelfth century would make St Mary’s the earliest example of claustral plan in an Augustinian context in Ireland.

A West-facing aerial photo taken in 2021 shows the open cuttings 1 and 2 from archaeological excavations conducted here by the Irish Archaeology Field School in 2021, the first season of excavation here by this school. International students worked alongside professionals to uncover the Augustinian medieval abbey of St Marys on the privately owned field.

Aerial photo of Ferns at the site of excavation in 2021, cutting 1 & 2 are to the South of the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey.

Monastic patronage was also a key element in the Anglo-Normans’ broader strategy for territorial control and economic development of the land they acquired.

They became patrons of existing monastic foundations (and were frequently involved in their enlargement) but also established their own monasteries, endowed with extensive estates.

These monasteries formed part of an overall plan involving an economic reorganisation of the land into manors, and the foundation of settlements – boroughs – designed to attract settlers from England, France and elsewhere.

This reorganisation of land coincided with the arrival of new continental religious orders, known as ‘mendicants’, such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites and Augustinian friars, who went on to play a crucial part in the strategies of both Anglo-Norman and Irish lords.

Strongbow appears to have recognised the strategic importance of Ferns and founded it as a borough, while his heir William Marshal erected a masonry castle and kept it as part of his demesne land. St Mary’s continued to exist, but appears to have remained a foundation of limited size, which is particularly striking when compared to large Augustinian foundations such as Kells (Co. Kilkenny).

Change and continuity at medieval Ferns are also reflected in its fortunes as a diocesan seat.

The last Irish bishop, Ailbe Ua Máel Muaid, was appointed in 1186. He protested against the arrival of English clergy, and later was involved in a series of disputes with Marshal concerning Ferns diocesan land being encroached upon; however, he appears to have developed a rather good relationship with the Anglo-Norman colonisers.

He was bishop spanning five decades until his death in 1223, after which only Anglo-Norman bishops were appointed to Ferns.

North-facing aerial photo of Ferns archaeology with cutting 3 and 4 excavated and open to the south of St Marys extant ruins taken in 2022

Aerial photo of Ferns excavation in 2022, cutting 3 & 4 are South of the extant remains of St Mary’s Abbey.

The political and economic impact of the Anglo-Normans is of course undeniable, but with regards to the monastic landscape of Ferns and the southeast region as a whole, important changes had begun to take place well before Diarmait Mac Murchada decided to seek mercenary help overseas.

Diarmait played a crucial role in the implementation of these changes, through his widespread patronage of the ‘new’ monastic orders that established themselves in Ireland from the first half of the twelfth century onwards.

Their arrival went hand-in-hand with a reorganisation of the existing monastic landscape, through the grant of vast landed estates, and the construction of new churches and monasteries, often on the site of earlier ecclesiastical settlements – which was the case in Ferns.

The Anglo-Normans brought in political changes and a new economic organisation, but continued in the Irish kings’ footsteps when it came to religious patronage and territorial strategies, endowing existing foundations and establishing new ones.

As far as Ferns is concerned, its development and ongoing relevance after the coming of the Anglo-Normans was mostly linked to its episcopal status and the relative power of its bishops.

However, the effect of the dramatic political changes that took place in the kingdom of Leinster from the late twelfth century onwards, and the difficulties of the Mac Murchadas to hold on to power in and around Ferns were not as positive for St Mary’s Abbey, which does not seem to have thrived beyond its original status.


Acknowledgment of Support

This blog is number three of a ten-part series entitled Discovering Medieval Ferns which has been funded by the Rediscovering Ancient Connections – The Saints (Ancient Connections) Project.

Ancient Connections is an ‘inter-reg’ cross-border arts and heritage project linking Pembrokeshire and north Wexford, which strives to revive the ancient links between these communities, allowing them to rediscover their shared heritage and trade knowledge, experience, and skills.

Ancient Connections have also funded a major academic volume, also entitled Discovering Medieval Ferns, upon which this blog series is based.

This volume, which includes fifteen papers from an interdisciplinary team of twenty+ scholars, aims to highlight the remarkable history and archaeology of medieval Ferns, focusing on intriguing discoveries from recent excavations and research programmes.

The volume, which is the most complete picture to date of the origins and evolution of medieval Ferns, will be published by Four Courts Press later in 2023.