Scroll through the page as you walk along.
When taking a tour of Grey Abbey the modern approach is from the north west through the physic garden and across the stream. A physic garden created in the site uses plants indicative of medieval period. These herbs would supply the monastery with natural remedies for themselves, their animals and visitors. The site, in its beautiful parkland sirroundings, preserves much of the calm which the Cistercians were eager to find.
Once across the stream you face the western end of the church. As you approach note the beam holes (highlighted), corbels and high set windows in the external north wall of the church, all signs of where a 'pentice' or covered way once stood.
West Door plan view
The path leads to the abbey's most striking feature, the west door, weathered and partly reconstructed but still impressive. The door is elaborately shafted and moulded, with a distinctive pyramidal 'dog tooth' decoration. It has been dated as 1220 to 1230.
It is also worth noting that despite its imposing presence the doorway itself was rarely used, the church itself was almost exclusively for use by the monks themselves who would have entered via a doorway on the south wall.
Churches were usually built from east to west, so the west front would have been one of the last parts to be finished. Higher in the west gable are a 15th century window and a bell turret added in the 17th with the church was re-roofed for parish use.
Possible use of nave for 'lay brothers'
Once through the door you enter the Nave of the church. The nave itself bears no markings of aisles; this is unusual for the time of construction. Aisleless naves were common in early Cistercian churches but by the late 12th century aisles were usual as they were important for possessions. The present open access eastwards does not reflect the rental arrangements: the lay brothers' area would have been closed from the choir to the east by a screen against which all stood.
A blocked door led to their quarters in the cloisters west range (16). The piscina (4) in the south wall of the nave was used for washing the vessels from the lay brothers' alter.
Beyond the now vanished screen, in the east part of the church moving towards the high alter you enter the crossing above which a square tower rose (3). The crossing was once furnished with wooden stalls for use by the 'choir' or 'white' monks. The chancel (4) is situated to the east end of the church building above where the high alter stood. You will notice the impressive set of long narrow windows with pointed arches repeated on the north, south and east sides. These are known as 'gothic lancet windows' and were possibly the first ever built in Ireland.
In the south wall are a piscina, a small sink for washing service vessels, and a 'sedile', a seta for the priest. The long recess opposite may have been for storage. Restoration early in the 20th century is responsible for the concrete much in evidence in the chancel.
The north transept has doors to west and north and two east facing chapels. The most northerly of these two chapels has largely disappeared and the parish graveyard wall now runs across it. The South Chapel is well preserved, with a pointed barrel vault with a piscina in the south wall. Each of the smaller chapels would have had an altar, making six in total throughout the Abbey. Each of these would be visited in procession by the monks as part of their services.
From the south transept (6) with its two east facing chapels, doors lead west to the cloister and south to the vestry or sacristy (7) where vestments and service equipment were kept, while the stair in the south wall may have led to a wall passage. It is often called the night stair (A) as it led to the choir monks dormitory.
The Cloister (8) south of the nave was a secluded area with buildings on each side. Cistercian planning was very regular, the same rooms being found in the same positions in abbeys all over Europe. So even when buildings are ruined it is usually posssible to identify them with confidence. The visitor must imagine the covered alleys or walks around the edge of the cloister: the positions of the south east and south west angles are shown in concrete and marks of the cloister roof can be seen on the south wall of the church. The north walk of the cloister (which runs against the south wall of the nave) was used for study and there was usually a book cupboard in the cloister's north east corner. Three massive buttresses partly obscure the line of the north walk, built early in the last century to prop the leaning wall.
Arttist impression of how a cloister might look.
The cloister in Grey Abbey is, rectangular rather than square, but in other respects the plan is the 'normal' Cistercian one. This rectangular shape may have come about due to issues with time or money. The refectory would normally indicate the middle of the south range so we must use our imaginations to visualise the scale of the original plans for Grey Abbey. It is likely that Affreca's early widowhood in 1219 put pay to these larger plans.
South of the vestry in the east walk is the chapter house, once aisled and vaulted in stone, ehere daily meetings of the monks were held. Its importance is emphasised by once grand west door and triple east windows.
Next to the chapter house we find the 'slype' or parlour, the only place where monks were allowed to talk to each other. The parlour led to an alley which gave access to the east range, which held further buildings belonging to the monastery although their purpose is unknown. The monks' cemetery was prpbably east and north east of the chancel in part of the area now occupied by the parish graveyard.
Parlour or 'Slype' picture
Chapter House drawing
The function of the long day-room with its central row of columns are less certain: training novices and indoor work by the monks are possibilities. Originally it was divided into eight bays by three columns and a stone vault.
Connected to the day room we find washing and lavatory block, now largely disappeared. This provided washing and latrine facilities at first floor level and was served by the main drain, now open but originally covered.
At the first floor level along the eastern side of the cloister would have been the choir monks' dormitory or 'dorter'. The dormitory was reached via two staircases. One was yje night stairs, which led to the church through the southern transept. Tthe other was the stairs which lead into the cloister beside the day room.
Night stairs drawing
In the south range we find the warming-house, the only place off the cloister with a fireplace for monks to warm themselves.
A view of the warming room with the refectory 'serving hatch' at the back right.
The refectory at Grey abbey is the biggest and finest in Ireland. It is here that the community met at set times each day to eat together. In the west wall of the refectory we find the serving hatch which led through to the now vanished kitchen. We can also see a set of steps which led to a pulpit from which one of the monks would read to the silent diners at their wooden benches and tables.
Refectory serving hatch
Pulpit from which monks woul read
The west range has disappeared. However it is possible to see the outline on the ground when the weather is very dry. It is possible that it may have been made of wood. It usually contained the lay brothers' refectory, dormotory and storage accommodation. To complete the picture the visitor must imagine barns and byres, gardens, orchards and fields with stock and crops. Our reconstruction from the south east inevitably includes points of uncertainty but it is a guide to what the buildings once looked like, roofred and peopled
West Range drawing