The Medieval Saint Mary's Abbey in Howth

St. Mary's Abbey in York.
Kaly99 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Strolling along the seafront in the quaint fishing and pleasure harbor town of Howth, one of the most interesting things you'll see when looking back at the town is the steeple of Saint Mary's Abbey, often simply called "Howth Abbey". Situated halfway up the hill in the center of town, it is one of the oldest edifices in the area. And worth your attention - both for its historical connotations and the view to be had from there.

A Short History

Sitric (or Sigtrygg), the Viking King of Dublin, was no bloodthirsty heathen and despoiler of churches. And the proof of that assertion can still be seen above Howth harbor because the Norseman founded the very first church here, in the year of 1042. With an eye to the view? Or with a desire to minimize flood damage? We don't know, but the elevated position of Saint Mary's Abbey certainly was a good choice in both aspects. However, nothing remains of the Viking foundation.

Because the (we can assume fairly simple) church Sitric built was replaced around 1235. By a full-blown abbey. Which was amalgamated with the old, "Celtic", monastery on Ireland's Eye, an island just off Howth (which still has some monastic ruins). This also fizzled out and the abbey was re-founded by the Archbishop of Dublin in the late 14th century, with a church newly built and then partly demolished again, and then rebuilt again. And it is this modification which is at the core of the building we now know as Saint Mary's Abbey (or, rather, the ruins thereof).

Saint Mary's Abbey has two parallel aisles, and each of these would once have had a gabled roof. In the 15th and 16th century a further modification combined the gables into one single, taller gable - at this time a bellcote was also added, as was a new porch and south door. Another 16th-century addition was the east window, when the St Lawrence family (Lords of Howth and owners of Howth Castle) adapted the east end of Saint Mary's Abbey as a private chapel.

Later, the abbey fell into disrepair, while still being used for local burials. Not a very exciting story. Basically, around 1630 the congregation simply moved to another church in the area, leaving Saint Mary's Abbey without patronage.

The Highlights of the Abbey

You can still find the richly carved tomb with a double effigy of the 13th Baron and his wife in the area of the former private chapel. Finished around 1470, the impressive tomb sports a fine double effigy of the deceased, with side panels showing the crucifixion, the archangel Saint Michael and two further angels with censers, Saint Peter with the keys to heaven, and Saint Katherine with her wheel (actually the instrument of her martyrdom, not a fireworks).

Visitors should, however, be aware that access to the interior of Saint Mary's Abbey and this tomb is blocked by a locked gate.

Many will be content just to explore the outside of Saint Mary's Abbey, which is impressive enough. And amongst the grave-sites, you might notice a rusted piece of tramway rail sticking out. This actually is Dublin's strangest grave (though the Dublin cemeteries have many more attractions). The background story is that during the construction of the tramway to Howth, a migrant worker was killed in Howth. As the man had basically kept to himself, nobody knew any details about him. So his body was interred in the grounds of Saint Mary's Abbey, with a piece of tramway rail as a fitting grave marker.

And let us not forget another attraction of Saint Mary's Abbey: the view! On a clear day you will see a whole panorama of the coastline north of Howth, the harbor, Ireland's Eye, and (further away) Lambay Island. Just enjoy.

Saint Mary's Abbey Essentials

  • Directions: To visit Saint Mary's Abbey by car, please do not bother to find a parking space nearby as it will be a frustrating experience of trying to negotiate one-way roads, ending with not a parking space in sight. Simply park anywhere along Howth seafront and then head up Abbey Street (the name is a giveaway). Halfway up the hill, the Abbey Tavern is on the right, and to the right of this, you'll find a narrow alleyway of stone steps leading further uphill. At the top of the steps turn right, the gate to Saint Mary's Abbey should be easy to find now.
  • Public Transport: Howth Railway Station (terminus for the DART service) and Dublin Bus stops are a short walk away from Abbey Street and Saint Mary's Abbey.
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