Keenaghan Graveyard

Keenaghan Monastery.

Keenaghan Monastery ruins in the town land of Tievealough is said to be one of the oldest in Ireland. This sacred place with the a-joining walled cemetery alongside Keenaghan Lough has a long history. Destroyed by Cromwellian forces in the early 1600’s Keenaghan Abbey had for several 100 years been the focal point for Christianity in the ancient Kingdom of Mulleek.

According to local folklore the Monks in Keenaghan had a strong connection with a Church in Toura, in the town land of Slawin on the south side of the River Erne. The priests from Keenaghan crossed the River Erne from the town land of Carrowkeel on the north shore of the river to the town land of Corrakeel on the south shore to say Mass, assist in the administration of the sacraments and preach the Gospel to the flock in the church at Slawin. The cemetery in Slawin is very similar to the one in Keenaghan, but there are no longer any of the old church walls to be seen. There are still traces of the route used by the monks while travelling between both sites. This pathway is known locally as the Dean’s walk. Tradition also has it that there was school building which was attached to Keenaghan on the farm in Druminillar now owned by Brian Flanagan.

The Keenaghan Monastery has been in ruins for hundreds of years, but the east gable and part of the walls are still standing. Over the years this graveyard had succumbed to briars, nettles and bushes, completely hiding the graves and headstones. Some of the headstones had fallen down and others lay broken. Thanks to the willingness of local residents this graveyard took on a new lease of life. In the spring of 1965 Tommy O’Loughlin from Belleek whose ancestors are buried in it, organised a group of local men, who stepped in and did a wonderful job. They came, the men with the scythes and hooks, weather beaten outdoor men, who worked steadily at their pace. With the aid of edged tools and with the determination of those who worked the field, the task was undertaken. The crack of blade on stone; brought forth blessings on the dead, uncovering the resting place of old friends and of long forgotten families. It stirred memories of a past age, recalled the wit and fun of other days. The moon rose above the eastern gable wall with its unique stone window frame, designed to give the maximum of natural light to the interior of the building. Order was restored and headstones stood proud and free, the living giving dignity to the dead. The oldest headstone was that of Edward McGoldrick who died on 6th March 1732 aged 47 years.

Travellers looking down at the lake from the main road are really surprised to see graves and headstones, as it is the first time within years that this graveyard was visible. Thankfully since then Fermanagh District Council cut the grass several times a year and maintain this historic Keenaghan site.

Some reports say that Keenaghan Monastery was founded by St. Molaise who died in 563. There is no evidence to support this theory but we do know that along the south of the Erne, St. Ninnid operated from the Moy at Bundoran in the west and as far as Derrylin in the east of County Fermanagh. In Toura a hill and a Holy well bear his name; he lived in the 6th century. He was a contemporary of Molaise, so there is a possibility that Molaise was connected to Keenaghan. We need to bear in mind that early church settlements were constructed of wood and thatched so no trace of them remains. During the Viking period all such structures would have been destroyed. From the Vikings, over a period of 300 years, the native Irish learned many crafts and skills. One of these being the erection of stone buildings. As a result of this many Abbeys and church buildings were built in the twelfth century.

The early Abbeys were the fore runners of the inn or of a commercial guest house. Here the traveller was assured of hospitality, let he or she be a wandering scholar, pilgrim, church person, bard, poet, tradesman or trader. No matter what was his or her status in life they were assured of food, shelter and rest. The Abbey complex would have had a section for worship, living quarters and workshops. The noted historian, the late Fr. Paddy Gallagher tells us that the large field south of Keenaghan Lough was part of the area of Drum an Iolar. Now the modern town land of Druminillar meaning the ‘Ridge of Plenty’. The large field where the Abbey is was known as Tievalough – ‘The lake side field’.

The editor of “The Register of Clogher” mentions – ‘Maolcabha, the cleric, to whom is consecrated the church of Druimndileir’ now known as Keenaghan. Maolcabha was a native of Armagh. He was captured by the Vikings and after some years released near Lough Erne in or about 879. He set up a hermitage at Keenaghan – it was named Diseart Beag Mhaolcobha meaning Maolcobha’s Wee Retreat. Like many another Holy man’s hermitage it developed into a place of worship for the local people, lasting right through the Middle Ages. Having been established about 880 Keenaghan would have suffered further Viking raids as they did not finally leave Ireland until about 1200. Keenaghan – the name means ‘A mossy place’, was part of the ancient old Kingdom of Miodbholg, now the modern Mulleek. The Abbey continued as the principal place of worship for the inhabitants of Mulleek, a territory that stretches from the Boa Island to the Donegal Fermanagh border at Belleek. Its destruction took place during the Cromwellian period in or about 1650. Cromwell himself did not operate in Fermanagh; this was left to his son-in-law General Ludlow who destroyed much church property in 1652.

With the introduction of the penal laws at this time, Catholics were forbidden to have churches or to practice their religion. Although they were outlawed priests travelled in secret throughout the land, in very remote places the people would assemble when a priest was in the area to celebrate the Mass and administer the sacraments. These places were known as Mass Rocks or Mass Gardens. Two of these places have been marked in recent years with suitable engraved memorial stones. One is in the town land of Oughterdrum, midway between the present St. Michael’s Church in Mulleek and the now ruined Church of Ireland building on the hilltop of Oughterdrum. The other Mass Rock is situated near Breesy Mountain, a most remote place. The place has been known as ‘The Altars’ by generations of local people. In recent years both places have been permanently marked by the engraved stones. Local folklore has it that one of the travelling priests a Fr. Greene, who having celebrated Mass at the Altars Mass rock was travelling over the rugged moor land when he fell into a white hole, that is, a soft place in the bog. He was rescued, brought to a nearby cabin where he developed pneumonia and died.

He was buried in secret during the night. A poem records the event.

We buried him secretly in the dead of the night
The sods with our spades turning
By the struggling moonbeams misty light
And a lantern dimly burning.
No useless coffin enclosed his heart
Not in sheet of shroud we wound him
But he lay like a Friar taking his rest
With his priestly cloak around him.

It would be understandable that as Keenaghan had been an Abbey for such a long period that a number of the Friars had been buried there although there is no evidence of this.

One of the most important of the abbeys founded in the area was the Abbey Assaroe, which was built on the Erne estuary at Ballyshannon by the Cistercian order. It soon became a well known seat of learning, the monks acquired large tracts of fertile land and owned the fishing rights for the Erne estuary and river as far as the broad Lough about four miles up from Belleek. As the abbey property expanded more churches and buildings were required. Staff was needed to teach in the schools, practice the crafts, write the books, farm the land and to operate the fishery. It was normal to catch 60 ton of salmon in a season and a similar quantity of eels, therefore the Abbey became a profitable concern. It became necessary to build several smaller abbeys, one at Teetunney, another at Keenaghan and a third at Slawin. Each had their own church and graveyard, being in the route to that world known place of pilgrimage – Lough Derg, the abbeys offered accommodation to the many travellers going to Lough Derg and to the other famous seat of learning on Devenish Island. For upwards on 400 years Keenaghan Abbey was the focal point for Christianity in the ancient Kingdom of Mulleek. With the relaxation of the Penal Laws in the early years of the19th century it became possible once again for the faithful of Mulleek to have their own place of worship and so St. Michael’s Church was erected in 1810.

Key on foundation of the Abbey in Ballyshannon and the area that they controlled.

With the Plantation of Ulster in 1610 all of the territory of the ancient Kingdom of Mulleek that had been for hundreds of years under the control of the Abbey Assaroe was granted to the Blennerhassetts who built their castle on Rosbeg. In 1671, Sir Augustus Blennerhassett sold the estate to an Enniskillen merchant – James Caldwell. Keenaghan Abbey, the lake and the surrounding land which was the most fertile in the district was an important part of the Caldwell Estate.

Very recently much new information has come to light about the importance of Keenaghan Abbey in local history. In the summer of 2005 I received a phone call from Mrs. Wendy Tredennick/Henderson who lives in Kent, England. Mrs. Henderson told me that there was a connection between the Tredennick family and Keenaghan. I was not aware of any connection; all that I knew was that Camlin Castle, which was near Belleek and in Donegal, was the seat of the Tredennick family in this district. I offered to make some enquiries locally, this I did but I did not discover anything. In August 2006 I had a further phone call from Mrs. Henderson to tell me that she and her cousin Mary Tredennick would be visiting Ballyshannon in September and that they would like to meet me. This was arranged and I brought both ladies to visit the ruins of the old Abbey and its graveyard. We could find no evidence on the site of any connection with the Tredennick family. I offered to send Mrs. Henderson some documentation on Keenaghan, Magheramena, Castle Caldwell and Teetunney cemetery where her ancestors are buried in a family vault. I invited her to send me a copy of the section of the family papers that made reference to the connection with Keenaghan. The papers did produce some remarkable information on the Tredennick family and connection with Keenaghan which was part of the Caldwell estate. It was as “Of Kenaghan” that we first hear of William Tredennick the first member of the family in this area.

He appears suddenly at Keenaghan, Co. Fermanagh, apparently possessed of some means and holding a good position. The tradition is that he came from Cork after leaving Cornwall and it had been thought that he married Margaret, the daughter of Abraham Dixon of Cork, a tyler, but this has been disproved and it seems more likely that the Margaret Dixon whom he married was of the Ballyshannon/Belleek Dixon families. The family evidently lost it’s estates in Cornwall about 1700 and a trade in slates might very well have been set up between Cornwall and Cork. On the other hand his position and that of his immediate descendants is against the idea of his having been a tiler.

There is an original deed dated 8-7-1756 signed by Wm. Tredennick, his daughter Martha and John M’Craigh on the marriage of the two latter. There is another dated 29-4-1758 signed by John Tredennick of Camlin; being articles of agreement between him and his brother William of Keenaghan (they being both sons of the first William). John undertakes to convey and assign to William all his estate, right, title, interest to the town land of Keenaghan, demised by Sir James Caldwell to William Tredennick, deceased father to the said John and William. This deed is also signed by Margaret Tredennick, widow of the first William on the ground that he had made over by his will his freehold lease of Keenaghan for her life. This she makes over to her son William.

There is a burial-ground called Teetunney between Camlin and Belleek in which the first William is interred. There is a stone slab with the martlet crest and coat of arms consisting of a crescent between two crosses surrounded by three stars and underneath the motto ‘FIDES NON TIMET’. The inscription reads; ‘Here lieth interred the body of Mr. William Tredennick, late of Keenaghan, who departed this life on the 25th day of October1756 aged 79 years’. Under this is another slab with exactly the same design with inscription: ‘This tomb was erected by John Tredennick of Camlin in memory of his wife Elizabeth Tredennick alias Crozier who departed this life the 16th of Feb. 1747, aged 26 years, also Jane and John Tredennick their children who died young.’

Then beneath is a plain slab with the inscription: ‘Beneath this stone are deposited the remains of Galbraith Tredennick Esq. Who departed this life on 17 day of June 1817 aged 59 years. The honourable and honest principles which distinguished all his actions endeared him to his acquaintances and gained him the general esteem of society. His honourable and kind conduct towards the poor and the friendless was rewarded by a bountiful providence with prosperity in all his pursuits; and these virtues with his humble confidence in the Divine mercy have secured for him, we trust, a lot of happiness in Eternity.

The first William Tredennick leased Keenaghan from Sir James Caldwell, later in the early 1700’s he leased Camlin from Rt.Hon. William Connolly. Keenaghan was later passed to his 2nd son, also William, while the eldest son, John, inherited Camlin. Sir James Caldwell must have held William Tredennick in high esteem when he granted him the lease of Keenaghan it being the third most important part of his estate. The second important part, Magheramena was leased to the Johnston family who later leased Keenaghan when it was vacated by the Tredennick family.

In 1718 William Connolly purchased for £52,000-00 the profitable estate of Lord Folliott of Wardtown Castle in and around Ballyshannon. Included were the Erne fisheries that had belonged to the Abbey Assaroe. The fisheries alone brought in an annual income of £450-00. It was then from William Connolly that William Tredennick obtained the lease of Camlin. I am now satisfied that that the links with Keenaghan, the Tredennick family and Camlin are firmly established.

In recent years there has been a renewed interest in Keenaghan Abbey ruins, it has been visited by several historians who strongly feel that the walls should be strengthened and preserved. A number of families from various parts of the world have come to trace their relations. The most notable of the families has been Patricia and Norman Brooks from New Zealand, who discovered in 1991 the headstone marking the grave of the Keenan family ancestors of Patricia Brooks and of other family connections – the Freeburn family. Early in 2006 the cemetery was fully surveyed by Eileen Hewson of Kabristan Archives. Eileen is an internationally recognised authority on important cemeteries not only in Ireland and England but also in the eastern countries of India, Assam, Burma and the Himalayans. She has published a number of books on her researches; these books are available from the author and are in all leading libraries.

In 2010 the Mulleek Church – St. Michael’s will celebrate its bi-centenary. The very active St. Michael’s Community Association plan to produce a book on the history of the area to mark the occasion. The Association is keen to have the walls of the ancient Abbey preserved and made safe. Members would provide voluntary labour to clean up the site and clear the growth of foliage that hinders access to the ruins.

In her report on the ruins when she visited the site in November 1928, Dorothy Lowery- Corry describes the east window as being in good preservation. It is still in a reasonably good state but it is gradually deteriorating, the reason being that grazing cattle while scratching again the corners of the gable wall have dislodged stones. If this continues the gable will eventually collapse and the unique stone carved window will be lost for ever.


To mark the historical occasion of having the local church celebrate its bi-centenary, St. Michael’s Mulleek Community Association took a decision to mark the event in a suitable way. The area has a wonderful history going back to pre-Christian times. The publication of a book was considered the most appropriate manner in which to record the event. For this purpose the book contains two sections, one on St. Michael’s and the other on the history of Keenaghan Abbey which was the place of worship from about the twelfth century until its destruction in the early 1600’s.

The Gaelic name for the Ancient Irish Kingdom was ‘MIODHBHOLG’ which became anglicised as Mulleek. The Kingdom included all that part of Co. Fermanagh north of the River Erne from the Boa Island to the border with Co. Donegal west of Belleek. Following the relaxation of the penal laws in the early 1800’s the then Bishop of Clogher – Dr. James Murphy (1805 – 1824) made the decision to build a Catholic Church in the parish of Templecarn. The parish then included Lough Derg, Lettercran, Pettigoe and Belleek. That Bishop Murphy should choose Mulleek as the site for the new church was an indication of the importance he attached to this part of the large parish. Fr. Alexander McDonnell a native of Tullycorbett was appointed parish priest in succession to Fr. Stephen Keenan, OFM.

Fr. Alexander made a very good impression on the local landlord – Sir James Caldwell – and not only did he get the site to build the church on but he also got a generous cash contribution. Fr. Alexander had the new church built and consecrated for divine worship in 1810. Shortly afterwards he had commenced to build a new church in Pettigoe, but before it was completed the bishop sent him to the parish of Bundoran where he built St. Joseph’s Church on the Rock, Ballyshannon.

Within a few minutes walk of St. Michael’s there is the Penal Mass Rock of Oughterdrum where travelling priests celebrated Mass and administered the sacraments to the faithful. The congregation of St. Michael’s are very proud of their heritage and I am confident that they will be true to the Faith of their ancestors and pass it on to future generations.

Joe Magee, Chairman. St. Michael’s Community Association, Mulleek.