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Cistercian Abbeys: INISLOUNAGHT (Suir)

Name: INISLOUNAGHT Location: Marlfield County: Tipperary
Foundation: 1147-8 Mother house: Mellifont (Maigue)
Relocation: None Founder: Malachy O’Phelan/Donal Mor O’Brien
Dissolution: 1540 Prominent members:
Access: No remains

Inislounaght was, it seems, colonised with monks from Mellifont some time between 1147 and 1148, althugh there remains some confusion as to whether or not it was a daughter-house of Maigue. The monastery was situated about 300 yards from the river Suir, and the natural beauty of the area is reflected in the abbey’s Irish name: ‘Inis Leamhnachta’ (island of the fresh milk). Its Latin name is simply a translation of the name of the river, ‘Surium’, and the abbey was often known as ‘Suir’.
The Suir was a major traffic artery and the monastery was not therefore immune from the commercial world outside its walls. During the 1220s Inislounaght became heavily involved in the ‘conspiracy of Mellifont’ (1216-1228) and the abbey became a centre of rebellion against the Cistercian General Chapter. In 1227 affiliation of the abbey was transferred from Monasteranenagh to Furness and a monk of Furness was appointed abbot. This sparked off a rumpus for the monks of Inislounaght refused to admit their new abbot. A represnetative of the Order was sent to investigate matters but upon his arrival was ambushed by the prior; he was severely wounded and the boy accompanying him was beaten. Stephen of Lexington was shocked by the wickedness of these actions and decided to visit the abbey himself. The monks finally admitted him and he remained at the abbey for three days to restore discipline. In 1249 a colony of monks was sent from Furness to Inislounaght so that authority could be strengthened. At that time the number of monks in the community probably matched Jerpoint, thirty-six monks and fifty lay-brothers.

A fourteenth-century poem, entitled Land of Cokaygne, written in old English in the Franciscan friary of Kildare, satirises life in an Irish Cistercian monastery. The poem depicts the Cistercian way of life as one of comfort and delight, of delicious food and of sensual pleasure. It is thought that this poem was a critique of life at Inislounaght abbey for it refers to its Irish name ‘river of sweet milk’. However, this luxury did not last for long. By the end of the fourteenth century the abbey was heavily in debt and in 1467 it was reported that the church was badly in need repair.
By the time of the Dissolution the house was on the verge of extinction, with a community of just five. In 1541 the annual income of the house was valued at meager £39. The last abbot, James Butler, surrendered the abbey in April 1540. In 1541 the royal commissioners reported that the church could be demolished; the other monastic buildings were deemed necessary for the use of the local farmer, Thomas Butler. In 1542 Thomas was created Baron of Caher with grants of this abbey and Caher priory. In 1577 the property was transferred to Cormac M’Teige M’Carthy.
The ruins were still visible in the mid-eighteenth century but today there is no sign of the abbey. However, the Protestant church at Marfield incorporates some fragments of the old abbey; the east window may have been taken from the abbey church and a Romanesque doorway dates from c. 1180 – 1200. A tomb slab is built into the wall of the churchyard, decorated with an elaborate cross and inscription.