A 14th century poem attributes the foundation of an early church at Ardbraccan to Breacán of Inishmore, but it is spurious (Ó Riain 2011, 112-3), and the credit must go to St. Ultán, who is reputed to be an author and the source for later lives of St. Bridget and St. Patrick, including Tírechán’s life of the national saint. Although his father was descended from the northern Dál nAraidhe, Ultán’s mother, Colla, was of the Gaileanga, who gave their name to the Meath barony of Morgallion. Living through the Great Plague of the 7th century, Ultán cared for the orphaned children and inspired Dr. Kathleen Lynn to name a childrens' hospital on Charlemont St. in Dublin (1919-89) after him (Ó Hógarthaigh 2003). His death is said to have occurred in 657, and his feast is on 4 September (ibid. 580-1). The deaths of some abbots and bishops of Ardbraccan are recorded from AD 730, and in 886 it was first plundered by Vikings. It suffered again in the great plundering of 949, and in 992. When the Vikings attacked in 1031 two hundred people were burned in the daimhliag, or great church, and a similar number were enslaved. Further raids followed, largely led by Irish groups, and the daimhliag was burned again in 1115. It is recorded that the steeple, by which is probably meant a round tower, fell in 1170 (Cogan 1862-70, 1, 51-4), but there is no other evidence of one (Barrow 1979, 169).
After the Anglo-Norman settlement Ardbraccan became a parish church, but it also became a residence of the bishops. The deaths of Bishops Alexander Petit (1400), William Silke (1450) and Edmund Ouldhall (1459) are recorded at Ardbraccan (Cogan 1862-70, 2, 258), and from 1547 the Bishop was also the vicar (O’Reilly 1956, 17). Ardbraccan House, c. 350m to the NW served as the Bishop’s Palace into the 19th century (Lewis 1837, 1, 42). Bishop Dopping repaired the nave in 1683 when the graveyard was already enclosed by a stone wall. However, the chancel had been a ruin since the rebellion of 1641 (Ellison 1972, 10). In 1777 the present church was built, but this is now closed. In clearing away the remains of the old church the monument of Bishop Ouldhall was said to have been destroyed (O’Reilly 1956, 18), but a triangular stone (dims 0.5m x 0.5m) depicting a chalice and host in the reconstructed tomb of George Montgomery, who was Bishop of Meath (1610-1620), could be from Ouldhall’s tomb (Moore, c. 1975, 8).
The church site is located on a rise in a level landscape and it is within a rectangular graveyard (dims c. 80m E-W; c. 65m N-S) defined by masonry walls (H c. 3m). The tower (ext. dims 6.81m E-W; 4.57m N-S) has good quoins and is the only survival of the medieval church, which may have been located to its S. It has four floors and is entered through a pointed doorway (Wth 1.03m; H 2.47m) at S, now locked. The ground floor has a double cusped ogee-headed window on the E side, and a single cusped ogee-headed window on the N wall. A lintelled doorway at the S end of the W wall leads to a mural stairs that becomes a newel stairs at the NW angle and leads through lintelled doorways to the upper floors, which were wooden and supported on corbels in the N and S walls. The first floor has ogee-headed windows on the E and N walls, while the second has an ogee-headed window in the S wall. The third floor has one blocked ogee-headed window in the W wall. The belfry stage and spire appear to have been added, probably when the present church was built.
The Montgomery tomb is just S of the tower and is a composite display of cut stone on a masonry pier, in which more than one tomb could be represented. A chest tomb (dims 2.42m x 1.35m; H 0.8m) is built into the base displaying on the N side a side-stone with three worn female figures and angels at either end. Above this and recessed under a decorated segmental arch is a side-stone (Wth 1.6m; max. H 1.06m) with three figures identified by their initials as the bishop (GLM), his first wife Susan Steyning (SM) and daughter Jane (IM). Three armorial plaques also displayed probably relate to this tomb; one (Wth 0.92m; H 0.84m) with the angel Gabriel and the inscription ‘Repose SM’ while above it a smaller stone (Wth 0.49m; H 0.51) has a crest and the date 1638. The third (Wth 0.76m; H 0.91m) has the Montgomery arms supported by two angels and the date 1614 (O’Reilly 1956, 18-19).
Moore (c. 1975, 9) records the graveslab of Peter Nov (?), dated 1585, which is a trapezoidal stone (dims 0.4-0.46m; H 0.64m plus; T 0.15m) with chamfered edges set up as a headstone near the tower. Another slab (dims 2.26m x 0.95m; T 0.2m) with roman lettering in false relief is against the E wall of the church and may have been associated with a nearby side-panel (dims 1.96m x 0.72m) that has three crests in false relief to form another chest tomb. For Bishop Montgomery see this web page accessed on 25 June, 2014: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Montgomery_(bishop)
The above description is derived from the published 'Archaeological Inventory of County Meath' (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1987). In certain instances the entries have been revised and updated in the light of recent research.
See the attached general view of graveyard and tower from the E.
Compiled by: Michael Moore
Date of upload/revision: 3 July 2014
Description Source: National Monuments Service, Department of Arts, Heritage Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.