Just beyond the boundaries of the parish lies the abbey of Achadh Bhó (Aghaboe). Passing it countless times, there had never been time to stop and wander around the medieval remains, but a cancelled appointment allowed the opportunity to pull into the car park. In the chill breeze of a grey May afternoon, it was hard to imagine this place had once been significant.
In the Sixth Century, Co Derry-born Saint Canice (Kenny) had founded a monastery here. In the eleventh century the Aghaboe became the cathedral of the diocese of Ossory, before the seat of the bishop of the bishop was moved to Cill Chainnigh (Kilkenny), the city that now bears the name.
The monastery was destroyed in the Fourteenth Century. ‘The Annals of Ireland by Friar John Clyn’ telling how,
The one eyed Diarmaid Mac Giollaphádraig … aided by the Uí Céarbhail … burned the town of Aghaboe and the cemetery and church and cruelly forsaking St. Canice, abbot, patron of the neighbourhood and found of the place, he, like a degenerate son to his father, burnt and completely destroyed with the crullest fire, the saint’s shrine with his bones and relics.
The restored walls that now stand at roadside date from 1382, the time when the abbey was restored. The abbey of Canice’s time would have been of less permanent stuff.
More intriguing, though than the shell of the medieval building are two plaques affixed to the south wall of the nave, one marking the visit of the bishop of Salzburg in 1984 and one marking the visit of the Austrian ambassador to Ireland in 2001. What brought them to this corner of Laois, the name of which literally means ‘field of cows’ was that the cathedral of the great city of Salzburg was founded by one of the monks who had gone from this field in the Eight Century. Feargal (Virgilius) built the cathedral in 774, dying six years later in 784.
Even to those who do not share the faith of those Irish monks, their achievements must seem extraordinary. To travel from Ireland, an island that had never been part of the Roman Empire, to the heart of Europe in the Eighth Century, and to achieve the things they did demanded a rare combination of courage and intelligence. The bishop of Salzburg travelling to Laois on the twelve hundredth anniversary of the death of Feargal would have been a story too strange to believe for those who had stood among the cows.
One fraction of the confidence of those monks might transform Ireland of the 21st Century.