Nendrum: Charming Medieval Monastery Ruins

The Nendrum Monastery ruins are perhaps some of the most fascinating monastery ruins in Northern Ireland. They are located on the small island of Mahee in Strangford Lough, County Down. Though Mahee is an island, there are causeways that connect it to the mainland so there is no need to take a boat.

Centre for Mission

Nendrum is thought to date from the 5th century. It is associated with Machaoi who was one of the disciples of St. Patrick. The island Mahee takes its name after Machaoi. Some have also associated the site with Patrick himself. The monastery was used as a base by Machaoi and other early Christians to evangelise the surrounding area. The work seems to have been successful and converts won here went on to bring Christianity to other parts of the island and across the waters to Britain. Another of its famous leaders was Cronan of Roscrea who is mentioned in some Irish annals as “bishop of Nendrum”. Cronan died in AD 640 and is most known for overseeing the work of copying the gospels by a group of scribes. One of these gospels appears to be the “Book of Dimma” currently in the library of Trinity College in Dublin and an exquisite example of early manuscript preparation.

The Vikings Attack

There are at least four references to the monastery in early literature the last of which dates it to about AD 976 when it seems to have been destroyed probably by marauding Vikings. The Vikings often sailed into Strangford Lough and they often targeted monasteries. In the AD 976 raid the abbot was killed and the monastery burned.

Enter the Normans

It is mentioned again in connection with John De Courcy, the Norman knight famous for building Carrickfergus and Dundrum castles, as well as monasteries. In AD 1178 he gave it over to British monks probably of the Benedictine order. It also served as a parish church but was abandoned sometime in the 14th century when another church was built on the mainland at Tullynakill. It lay in ruins for about five centuries to the point that the buildings fell apart and the site was forgotten.

Modern Discovery

In 1844 William Reeves who was a bishop in the Church of Ireland and took an interest in antiquities undertook some excavation work and discovered the remains of the monastery. Further work was done in the 1920's and the monastery was restored to more or less its present form. A house that was built on the island serves as a visitor centre, with plenty of historical information. There are the remains of a round tower, walls, earthworks and a restored sundial, possibly the most important item of interest. Some artifacts are on display in the Ulster Museum in Belfast.

To Visit?

The Nendrum medieval monastery ruins are off the beaten track and by no means impressive. If early and medieval history do not interest you, the site may not seem worth a visit. If, on the other hand, you take even a casual interest in history then Nendrum is worth a visit. Entrance is free, the drive is beautiful and the area around Strangford Lough has several places of interest (Castle Espie, Scrabo Tower and Country Park, Exploris), so a visit to Nendrum can be a part of a worthwhile day tour from Belfast.

To get there take the A22 road that leads from Comber to Killyleagh. At Lisbane turn towards the Lough on the Quarry Road. Half a mile down the road it is called Rignell Road. Follow it and it will take you to Mahee Island.

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