Cong Abbey was erected on the ancient site of the monastery of St Feichin by Turlough O’Connor, the King of Connaught and High King of Ireland, in 1106. It was built for the Augustinians order.
It was established as a learning centre and no less than 3000 students are said to have received their education there, but the Abbey served also many purposes such as hiding place for the O’Conor family, hospital, shelter for poor and starving people.
Rory O’ Connor, the last High King of Ireland and son of Durlach Mor, spent his last twelve years in seclusion in the abbey and, on his death, he was buried at the abbey. He was later exhumed and buried with his father Turlough O’Connor at Clonmacnoise.
The Abbey was suppressed in 1542 by King Henry 8th and the Abbey fell into ruin. Sir Benjamin Guinness, the owner of Ashford Castle, began to rebuild the abbey in 1860. The Foys from Cong, who were renowned for their expertise with stonework, completed the masonry.
There are three beautiful carved doorways, which illustrate some of the Foys most outstanding work. The Gothic doorway consists of columns, brilliantly carved capitals and gothic arches; it is probably the Abbey’s finest feature and is very famous as there are very few of its type left in Ireland.
Near the doorway, in the wall, there is the sedilia where the visiting dignitaries used to seat during ceremonies and a small stone jutting out from the ground. According to legend, this stone could cure chest ailments.
A set of steps called ‘the night stairs’ led up to the second floor into the dormitory where the monks slept. Overhead the windows of the dormitory can be seen.
The Abbey’s cloisters are larger than cloisters in other abbeys. They extended over a hundred feet from North to South and more or less the same from East to West. There were a wide ambulatory and a beautiful arcade of 160 carved arches.
Today, only a small portion of two arches can be seen.
The western facade contains three doorways. The first one, in Romanesque style, led to the library; the second is Gothic and led to the chapter room, while the third, in Gothic style, opened to a passage leading to the refectory.
Part of the Abbey grounds have been used as the parish burial grounds and one of the earliest inscribed gravestones is a tombstone which lies in the nave of the church on the way into the Abbey. The inscription reads “pray for the soul of James Lynch, Abbot of Conge”, who died AD 1709.
This magnificent cross of 12th century craftsmanship is regarded as one of the finest of its era. It is called the “Bacall Bui” (yellow crozier) and was commissioned by the King Turlach O’ Connor. It was made in Roscommon in 1123. It measures 30 inches in height by 19 inches across the arms and was made of oak and covered with bronze and silver. It originally contained a relic of the True Cross, which Turlach Mor got from Rome and kept under a large crystal in the centre of the cross. Unfortunately both relic and crystal were lost. Now the Cross is in the National Museum in Dublin.
From the cloisters the ruins of George McNamara’s house can be spotted among the trees. George, born in 1690 in Co. Clare, was also known as the “Robin Hood of Cong”. It is said he came to Cong to help the poor peasants, he robbed the wealthy local families for the benefit of the peasants using a secret underground passage from his house. He also had a legendary horse called Venus. According to legend, Venus jumped a 30 foot ravine to save him from his enemies. George is buried near the sedilia in the Abbey.
The Monks’ Fishing House dates back when the Abbey was erected and it is nestled on the riverside. This curious building was built on a stone platform with a big hole in the floor. The monks used to place a net through that hole; a long line connected the fishing house to the Abbey kitchen. When a fish was caught, a bell rang into the kitchen to inform the cook. That was a clever way of catching fish!
Near the main Abbey the wall of the Old Refectory can be seen. In the past it was part of the Abbey and here through a hatch in the wall the monks used to serve food to the visitors. Dignitaries, guests, but also poor and starving people were fed in the refectory. The refectory’s chimney has a twisted shape. It is said that in 1847 a gale twisted the stack of the chimney during a legendary night known as “ Oiche na Gaoithe Moire” (The night of the big wind).
This limestone church was erected by Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness, former owner of Ashford Castle, in 1864. Outside this church a famous scene from “The Quiet Man” with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara was filmed in 1951.
This limestone cross stands in the centre of the main street and it is supposed to be the mark where a just judge was killed in 1350. It is said to be part of a High Cross erected to commemorate the completion of the Cong Abbey in the 12th century. It also commemorates two former abbots of the monastery. The cross was removed and damaged by British soldiers in 1880, but then it was restored to the actual position by the locals.
Across the street near the market cross there is the pub ’ Pat Cohan’s Bar’. It used to be the little shop of John Murphy. The shop became famous because it was the location of many scenes of the very well known film ‘The Quiet Man’, made in Cong in 1951. The name over the shop was changed to ‘Pat Cohan’s Bar’ for the purpose of the film.
This church was built by the aid of a loan from the late “Board of First Fruits” in 1811. On the site of the Old Church of Ireland is the graveyard.