The Ross Errilly Friary is a medieval Franciscan friary located about a mile to the northwest of Headford, County Galway. It is a National Monument and among the best-preserved medieval monastic sites in the country. Though usually referred to by locals as “Ross Abbey,” this is not technically correct as the community never had an abbot. It is believed to have been founded in 1460
Life at Ross Errilly was disrupted by the English Reformation. The Franciscans had loudly opposed King Henry VIII’s break with Rome, which would prove costly after the schism. In 1538, English authorities imprisoned two hundred of the monks and banished or killed an indeterminate number of others. The rest of the Franciscans’ history at Ross Errilly would be marked by repeated evictions and other persecutions.
On August 10, 1656, Cromwellian forces made their way to Ross Errilly. The 140 Franciscans living there had fled a few hours earlier, but the soldiers ransacked the grounds, destroying crosses and other religious iconography and even defiling tombs in search of loot. Legend maintains that the fleeing monks somehow found the time to remove the bell from the bell tower and sink it in the nearby Black River, where it remains today. The English Restoration in 1660 brought Charles II to the throne. His nominally tolerant policies towards Catholics allowed the reoccupation and repair of the abbey in 1664.
However, in 1698, under the Popery Act, the Franciscans of Ross became fugitives again and abandoned the Friary only to return again in 1712. Several other such departures and returns took place and the Franciscans last left the friary in 1753 never to reside on the premises again and returned only to celebrate mass in the deteriorating building. By 1832, when the place finally closed, there were only three monks left.
The long-abandoned friary continued its descent into ruin and several famous visitors over the decades remarks on its state, in particularly commenting on the abundance of unburied human remains strewn about the site, including leg bones and moss-grown skulls. One visitor also noted with dismay that further “desecration” was being effected by sheep and cattle, which roamed freely through the ruins.
The church and bell tower are to the south of a small but well preserved central cloister and domestic buildings are to the north. Among these are a kitchen (equipped with an oven and a water tank for live fish), a bake house and a refectory or dining area. The dormitories were on the upper levels. One unusual feature is a second courtyard or cloister, built to accommodate the friary’s growing population.
Like many other abandoned Christian sites in Ireland, Ross Errilly has continued to be used as a burial ground by area residents. In addition to tombs that date from the friary’s active period, many graves dating from the 18th through 20th centuries can be found inside the church walls. In some cases, tombstones comprise the floors of walkways and crawlspaces.