St Patrick, Ballintober

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Feature Sets (4)


A large cruciform, aisleless early 13thc. church standing next to the abbey ruins (W wall of nave to E wall of chancel 40.23m, w. across transepts 22.86 m). The rebuilt chapter house and sacristy survive and are also early 13thc. while the remains of the cloister and domestic buildings are mainly 15thc. The church has a vaulted chancel with a chamber above and two barrel-vaulted chapels in each transept, the inner round-headed and the outer pointed and rather taller. The sacristy adjoins the south transept and abuts onto a small chamber, accessible from the cloister walk. The chapter house is attached to the sacristy. A 17thc. chapel adjoins the chancel on the S. The nave was rebuilt in 1270. Plain round-headed doorways are found in the N wall of the N transept and N and S side of nave (all reconstructed in 1965-6). The plain sacristy doorway and the doorway to the storeroom in the E cloister range are original. This doorway is round-headed and of three plain chamfered orders, the first order with a tympanum and the others continuous. There are plain round-headed windows at clerestorey level (one on S two on N); one in the E wall of each transept chapel, with a small rectangular window above; and two, one above the other, over the triple window on the E face, the upper being rectangular. There are a number of narrow round-headed windows to the chapter house, some reconstructed. Romanesque sculpture is found on the corbels of the crossing, the chancel vaulting and E window, the W door of the chapter house, a reset corbel and a mortar (used as a font).


Ballintober Abbey was founded in 1216 by Cathal Crobdearg Ua Conchobair (O'Connor), King of Connaught, the natural son of King Toirrdelbach Ua Conchobhair (Turlough O'Connor) for whom the Cross of Cong was made. Knox suggests that Cathal may have founded the abbey in order to make amends for imprisoning the Bishop of Tuam, an deed recorded in the Annals of Loch Ce. This scandalous event also involved Cathal's brother Maelisa, who later became Prior of Inishmaine Abbey. Cathal also founded Abbeyknockmoy in Galway in 1189-90.

Ballintober is close by the site of a church said to be founded by St Patrick c.441 and lies fifteen miles E of Croagh Patrick, where the saint is supposed to have spent a 40 day vigil before founding the church.

The Abbey was founded for Canons Regular and dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Abbot Maelbrighde O'Maicin led the building campaign. The Annals of Loch Ce record that 'it was by him the church of Tobair Patraic was begun and its sanctuary and crosses were diligently finished' (Blake). The Annals of the Four Masters state that O'Maicin 'with great exertions begun and finished' Ballintober.

The Annals of the Four Masters record the burning of part of the abbey in 1265, causing the nave to be rebuilt in 1270. In 1536 legislation was passed to dissolve the abbey, but this was not enforced, at least, no deed of surrender has been found from Henry VIII's time (Blake) In 1653 Cromwell's soldiers burned the abbey, unroofing the church and destroying the monastic buildings, dormitories, cloisters and domestic buildings. The first attempt at restoration was 1846, although the Great Famine put an early halt to this (Killanin and Duignan, 87). The restoration was resumed in 1889 by George C Ashlin, with a further campaign in 1965-6.


Exterior Features


Chapter House, W doorway

Pointed arch of four orders with coursed jambs. The doorway is extremely weathered, and possibly fire damaged. It has plain, round, chamfered bases supporting attached nook-shafts (apart from the first order which has three-quarter respond shafts) and massive capitals with plain necking. The impost is faceted above each capital and continues to the outermost order. It has a narrow upright above a cavetto, very weathered. The arch is of plain, square section on all four orders.

First order

N capital: above an incised line are four symmetrical trees with shared branches. The trees have grooved triangular trunks and the branches bear bulbous leaves.

S capital: as N, but very damaged.

Fourth order

N capital: from a central stem which terminates in a lily about halfway up the angle, two symmetrical branches spring, each separates into three triskeles, one below the lily (clockwise), one above (anticlockwise) and one outer (clockwise).

S capital: traces of branching foliage with bulbous leaves, very weathered.


On either side of the doorway are round attached shafts with capitals. The capitals are reeded.

Second order

N capital: two triskeles may be seen but most of the design is lost.

S capital: a stem on the angle branches, forming a Y-shape, each arm terminating in a triskele. There may have been carving between the triskeles but this is now lost.

Third order

N capital: a stem on the angle becomes two branches which curl inward forming a bulbous leaf similar to the first order, N capital. Very weathered.

S capital: as N but not as badly weathered, a multi-lobed leaf rises between the two stems.


E chancel wall, C window,

L capital: on each face two inward-facing spiralling stems, each containing an inverted half-palmette with a double row of berries along the edge. Beneath this, on each face, a small branch from the main stem terminates in a half-lily.

R capital: an inverted version of the L capital. Two stems intertwine on the centre of each face. There are no berries below the half-palmettes. A secondary branch below each main stem forms a spiral, and a wide leaf lies between the stems on each face.

The arch has free-standing angled chevrons spanning the face and soffit, positioned to form lozenges. These are supported by a roll on soffit and face and a wedge lies beneath them. As on the L arch two fine grooves lie beyond the rolls on face and soffit. The label is square rather than chamfered over this window.

E chancel wall, L window

L capital: on each face a pair of inward-facing half palmettes frames a second smaller pair which clasp a bowed leaf with a curved row of berries.

R capital: as L.

On the face of the arch, L and R, within the borders of the label are two slender vertical leaves, pointed with raised central vein, these are common to each window.

The imposts have a tiny cavetto. The narrow upright has a deep groove which terminates before reaching the two end leaves. This occurs on each window.

The arch has a keeled angle roll followed on soffit and face with a row of nailhead, a small roll then a double incised line. The chamfered label rests above the double leaves. This continues over all three windows, connecting between them and continuing as a string course.

E chancel wall R window

L capital: on each face are two sets of slender, pointed, crossed leaves.

R capital: as L

The arch consists of a row of lateral face and soffit chevron emphasised by fine double grooves, and joined point-to-point by a keeled roll.

First order

Round half-columns, continuous around the base of the window with an inward-facing dragon head growing from the top of each column, each with a snake protruding from its jaws.


Splayed, round-headed, of two orders.

Second order

The second order has keeled half-shafts, continuous around each window, surmounted between the windows and on the outer side of L and R windows by a grimacing animal mask with a snake protruding from either side of its mouth. The dragons of the inner order appear to bite the grotesque masks which lie between them and the snakes link together. The outermost grotesque heads issue only one snake, and have only one (inner) biting dragon. There are no imposts although there is the suggestion of a roll moulding above the mask.

The arches are carved with lateral chevron on face and soffit with the points touching on a keeled angle roll. The label has a keeled roll followed by a fine double groove.

Exterior Decoration

String courses


A chamfered string course extended around the whole of the church about 0.60m below the clerestory windows, most of this is now missing. On the E wall this continues as the label of the ground level windows.


On the E wall of the chancel is a plain string course at the level of the sill of the uppermost window, extending to within a metre of the gabled roof, with another at the level of the window arch, continuing as a label, this extends to within 0.30m of the roof.

Interior Features


Tower/Transept arches

Tower arches

Massive, slightly pointed arches spring from decorated corbels. The E arch is slightly more pointed, and for about one metre on either side of the apex, a roll moulding within a concavity extends on soffit and face on the W face of the arch. Each arch has a smaller, square section running along the soffit. On the inside of the crossing each arch has a plain label which terminates next to conical, torch-like projections in the angles, which may have been supports for a tower or vaulting. On the outer side of the crossing only the W arch has a label (damaged). The corbels are so badly damaged (perhaps by fire) that it is very difficult to make out their decoration. They take the form of short, clustered colonettes (a thick half-round central pier flanked by a keeled and then a round pier which merge into one tapering colonette) and are decorated with carved foliage. A chamfered impost lies above, this is very damaged in all cases.

E arch N corbel: this is carved with flat, straight, upward-pointing leaves with thick, sheathed tendrils on either side which terminate in spirals at the top and tapering leaves between. The tapered colonette may have had a small carving at the bottom, a tiny, broken, square surface remains, this appears to be integral with the colonette.

E arch S corbel: similar to S but the details are not as readily visible. Below the colonette is a dragon. (w. 0.28 m, h. 0.12 m)

S arch E corbel: difficult to read. Below the colonette is what could have been a carved surface as E arch N corbel.

S arch W corbel: this has a design of curving half-palmettes with volutes or berries at the base of the leaves. The colonette is missing.

W arch N corbel: difficult to read. The colonette is incomplete.

W arch S corbel: difficult to read. Colonette intact.

N arch W corbel: difficult to read. Clustered stems/reeding above necking may be made out.

N arch E corbel: a repeated pattern of bowed leaves with beading. At the end of the colonette is a small broken square as E arch N corbel.

Vaulting/Roof Supports


Of three bays with quadripartite responds and pointed arches. The capitals between the bays have a fine roll moulding below the impost which is decorated with a double groove. The impost continues into a plain chamfered string between the bays and this continues to the E wall, becoming the plain label of the triple, nave window. The capitals (apart from those at E and W angles) rest on a coursed, triple-colonnette, consisting of a central keeled three-quarter respond flanked by a three-quarter round shaft. The responds taper to a point just above a plain round string-course about 2.0 m from floor level (this continues to the E wall dropping 0.30 m app. to continue beneath the nave window). At the tapering point of the columns of the S capital between first and second bays is a small, damaged mask, with the side columns emerging from its mouth. There are pointed arches between the bays.

Capitals at W end of chancel

N Capital: overlapped by the corbel on the tower arch, decorated with slender leaves as on exterior E window, three on the N face and two on the E face, with a plain supporting corbel beneath.

S Capital: as N Capital.

Capitals between first and second bays

N capital: affronted figures on horseback. The animals have long sinuous bodies with front legs lower than the rear so that the haunches are raised up. The tails are long and straight. The animals have thick arching necks and glare at each other with round eyes, the bridle and reins have fine reeding. The L rider and horse are very damaged.

S capital: affronted winged dragons with scaly necks, with claws gripping a collar of large, rounded flat leaves. The wings and body of each beast taper and spiral into a triskele. The protruding tongues of the beasts hang down between them. Beneath the head of each beast is a coiled snake with head pointing downward. To either side of the creatures are further coils.

Capitals between second and third bays.

N capital: affronted lions with open mouths and coils (?snakes) beneath their out-thrust necks. The lions' floriated tails curl between their hind legs and up over the bodies. The beasts stand above a necking of wide, flat slightly pointed leaves.

S capital: two pairs of dragons with intertwined necks, each with its head bending over its own back. The dragons are of the same type as those on the S capital between first and second bays. Their necks are carved with diagonal grooves so they appear to be twisted around. The dragons stand on a necking of wide, flat slightly pointed leaves, the inner dragons standing on the feet of the outer ones.

E end of Chancel

The capitals stand above nook shafts with Attic bases, with two deep grooves running along their length. The bases are at the same level as the tapered ends of the columns between the bays.

N capital: a trumpet capital alternating plain and twisted cones (three plain, two decorated) The decorated cones have spirals incised into the shields. Plain necking

S capital: as N.

Interior Decoration

String courses


Round, situated just below the tapered point of the columns between the bays and the Attic bases of the E shafts. This continues to the E wall where it drops about 0.30 m to continue as the keeled window moulding.


Square, chamfered in its lower half. Situated at the level of the imposts of the vaulting, continuous to the E wall where it becomes the label of the E windows.


Piscinae/Pillar Piscinae


Set into the S wall of the N chapel in the N transept. A corbel carved with a human head, and with a round shallow bowl carved into the top of the head which drains into the wall. The lower part of the jaw is missing and the carving is scored and chipped. It has simply delineated features and slightly waving hair which is drawn back behind large ears.



S transept, N chapel. A mortar set on a modern plinth and used as a font. The mortar is small and square with bulging rounded sides, with a shallow roll-moulding running from top to bottom on each angle, flanked by a wider, flat, squared moulding. These taper towards the lower part of the font. There are a number of cement repairs and the font is very weathered. Lead lined.

circ. 1.82 m
h. 0.29 m
internal d. 0.14 m


As a 'School of the West' Church Ballintober has architectural and sculptural links with many other sites in the west of Ireland. Abbeyknockmoy (Galway), a Cistercian Abbey established some years before Ballintober and also founded by Cathal Crobdearg, provides a number of parallels. For example, the quadripartite vaulting in the chancel at Ballintober has its antecedent at Abbeyknockmoy and is thought to be the work of the same mason (Stalley, 1987, 194, Kalkreuter, 86). The structure of the chancel with its tiered windows and dormitory chamber above the vaulted ceiling, is also found at Abbeyknockmoy, and at Corcumroe (Clare). The overall plan of Ballintober is Cistercian, although it remained aisleless.

The massive dimensions of the crossing and the large supports in the angles, provide evidence that vaulting for the crossing was planned (Leask, 1967, 63). Grose states that the 'tower is down, but the noble arch that supported it remains', but few others support the view that Ballintober had a tower.

Much of the carving at Ballintober Abbey, appears to be the work of one hand. The craftsman has been dubbed, appropriately enough, the 'Ballintober Master' (Harbison, 1976). What is generally acknowledged to be earlier work of his is found at Boyle Abbey (Roscommon), a Cistercian foundation about forty miles east of Ballintober, consecrated c.1218-20. There are many examples of similar features at each site in both figurative and foliage carving and architectural detail and there is an increased maturity in the composition and execution of the carving at Ballintober when compared to Boyle. Stalley suggests that there may be an English source for some of the motifs in the Boyle/Ballintober carvings, via a series of late Romanesque capitals at Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin, the work of an English craftsman. (Stalley 1987, 187; 1979, 116). This has however been disputed by Kalkreuter who questions the existence of a master craftsman who progressed from Boyle to Ballintober and also the link with English sculpture. (136, 137)

Harbison compares the beasts on the chancel corbels to a carving at the bottom L of the interior E window at Clonfert Cathedral, and suggests that the Clonfert carving could be an early work by the Ballintober master. The panel at Clonfert shows a dragon with a triskele tail fighting a smaller, lion-like creature. In motif the carving may be more readily compared to carvings at Inishmaine and Kilmachduagh (Galway), as each shows fighting creatures, one biting the nose or beak of its adversary. The Ballintober carvings also have a greater concern with symmetry than any of these. Stalley suggests that Clonfert is a later imitation of the Ballintober Master's work. (Stalley, 1987, 274)

The bases, jambs and capitals on the Chapter House doorway resemble those of the chancel arch at Inishmaine, which is situated about 10 miles S of Ballintober. The abbey church at Inishmaine may have been built by Cathal's brother Maelisa, who was Prior at Inishmaine, and, as the Annals of Loch record, (267) died there in 1223.

Garton draws attention to the similarities between the beasts carved on the chancel corbels and the fragmentary remains of creatures on the reset S doorway at Killaloe Cathedral. A carving of a ?lion (now headless) on the second order arch has the rounded, full form which is a feature of the Ballintober beasts. The Killaloe beast seems also to have the same corkscrew neck as is found on the Ballintober creatures. This feature may be found on carved snakes on a reset window fragment from Rathblathmaic (Clare) and the E window at Annaghdown (Galway), although it does not occur at Boyle.

The masks between the E windows may be compared to those on the chancel arch at Tuam, although those at Ballintober are more crudely carved and more ferocious in expression.The snakes which flank the masks have been compared with those on the jambs of the reset S doorway at Killaloe Cathedral (Garton, 41).

Ballintober may reasonably be dated to between 1216, the abbey's foundation date, and 1225, the date of its consecration.

A photograph in Champneys (155) shows that the chapter house was still in ruins in the early years of the 20thc. indicating that it was reconstructed during the 1960s restoration campaign.


  • Annals of Loch Ce, Rolls Series, ed. W Hennessey, London, 1871, 267, 291.
  • M. Archdall, Monasticon Hibernicum, or, A history of the abbeys, priories, and other religious houses in Ireland: interspersed with memoirs of their several founders and benefactors, and of their abbots and other superiors, to the time of their final suppression, Dublin, 1786, 495.
  • M. J. Blake, Ballintubber Abbey, County Mayo. Notes on its ancient history, (cuttings from the Tuam Herald), 1903.
  • A. Champneys, Irish Ecclesiastical Architecture, London, 1910, 152-3.
  • M. Killanin and M. Duignan, The Shell Guide to Ireland, London, 1962, 2nd ed. 1967, 87.
  • Rev. T. A. Egan, Ballintubber Abbey, Visitors Guide, (first edition 1963), Ireland, 1990.
  • F. Grose, The Antiquities of Ireland, Vol I, London 1790, pl. 61, 41.
  • A. Gwynn and R. N. Hadcock, Medieval Religious Houses in Ireland, 1970, London, 153,158.
  • P. Harbison, Guide to the National and Historical Monuments of Ireland, Dublin, 1992, 243.
  • B. Kalkreuter, Boyle Abbey and the School of the West, Bray, 2001, 133-7.
  • H. Knox, Notes on the Early History of the Dioceses of Tuam, Killala, and Achonry, Dublin, 1904, 103.
  • H. G. Leask, Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings, II, 1960, 62-63.
  • M. J. Blake, 'Ballintubber Abbey JGHAS,3:2, 1902, 65-88.
  • P. Harbison, 'Animals with Interlocking Necks', The Arts in Ireland, Vol. 2 No. 4, 58 fig. 12, 197.
  • P. Harbison, 'The Ballintober Master and a date for Clonfert Cathedral Chancel', JGAHS, 1976, 96-99.
  • R. Stalley, 'A Romanesque Sculptor in Connaught', Country Life, 21 June, 1973, 1828-1830.
  • R. Stalley, 'The Medieval Sculpture of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin', Archaeologia, 106, 1979, 107-122.
  • R. Stalley, Cistercian Monasteries of Ireland, Yale, 1987,184-189, 274 (footnote 36).
  • T. Garton, 'A Romanesque Doorway at Killaloe', Journal of the British Archaeological Association, CXXXIV, 1981, 31-57.


Site Location
National Grid Reference
M 15 79 
now: Mayo
now: St Patrick
medieval: Holy Trinity
Type of building/monument
Abbey church  
Report authors
Hazel Gardiner