Faith history – Monknewtown

The name Monknewtown derives from Baile Nua na Manach , literally meaning ‘The Monks’ New Town. In the middle ages it was called Munke Newtowne and later, New Towne de Munklande . Rossin is an undefined placename overlapping the townland boundaries of Monknewtown, Belfaddock and Dowth. The parish of Monknewtown is comprised of the townlands of Monknewtown, Belfaddock, Crewbane, Kellystown, Knowth, Mellifont and Newgrange.

The history of Christianity in Monknewtown differs considerably from that of its sister parish of Slane. Different, yes but equally interesting. In earliest Christian times, Slane prospered as a major monastic settlement initiated by saints Patrick and Erc, while Monknewtown developed as a rural Christian area centred round a few hamlets. Perhaps Monknewtown’s chief claim to fame reaches back to Neolithic times when it came within the compass of The Bend Of The Boyne where the Bru Na Boinne complex with some 40 local satellite tumuli was established. This is now classified as a World Heritage Site under UNESCO. A major religious site, yes but hardly Christian.

Another difference in the evolution of the parishes of Slane and Monknewtown is the fact that Monknewtown was part of the great Cistercian dynasty based at Old Mellifont. The Cistercian Order, also known as White monks, developed from the Benedictines and were active in Mellifont before the Norman Invasion. The Abbey was founded in 1142 by monks sent from Clairevaux by St. Bernard at the request of St. Malachy. In Mellifont Abbey’s heyday, the Abbot was spiritual and temporal lord of some 55,000 acres stretching from Mell in the east to Creewood in the west and from Knockcommon in the south to Funshog in the north.

The Cistercians introduced a revolutionary system of land management, dividing large estates into outlying farms called granges. Each grange had its own farm buildings and was worked by monks and lay brethren. Hence we now have place names such as Newgrange, Roughgrange, Littlegrange and Grangegeeth to name but a few. The Abbey church was the parish church and there were chapels belonging to the Abbey at Monknewtown, Collon, Tullyallen, Knockcommon and Donore. The Cistercians harnessed the local rivers – the Boyne, the Mattock and the Devlin – with mills and fish traps. They developed a thriving export industry for corn and wool through the port of Drogheda. The local place names of Sheepgrange and Sheephouse preserve the memory of those sheep farms. 

King Henry VIII and his Reformation brought the great Cistercian establishment crashing down. On July 23rd 1539, the Abbot Richard Contoure surrendered the Abbey with all its possessions to the King’s Lord Chancellor. The monks who agreed with the dissolution were awarded pensions. In the following year of 1540, we surprisingly find former monks of Mellifont officiating in at least seven of the Abbey chapels. Thomas Allen was appointed to the chapel of Monknewtown with a pension of 53 shillings and 4d. Lets not be too critical of the monks who ‘turned’ and acknowledged King Henry as supreme head of the Catholic Church. Schisms and attempts at reform were nothing new in the Catholic Church and perhaps the monks expected Pope and King to settle their differences. 

What of the Cistercian monks who remained loyal to the Pope? The late Kitty Elliott, well known local folklorist, throws some light on the subject. …the top of Carrighreagh (Grangegeeth) was supposed to be a well known haunt of robbers. The chief robbers were the renegade monks of Mellifont. 

Slane and Monknewtown were not always united in the one parish. Prior to 1857, Monknewtown and Grangegeeth were united in a distinct parish with its pastors residing in a parochial house called Valleytuft at Cardrath (Grangegeeth). Slane was then part of Rathkenny parish with a parochial house at College Hill. In 1857, the new parish of Slane was created taking in Monknewtown, Dowth and parts of Gernonstown and Stackallen while Grangegeeth joined up with Rathkenny. The parochial house at College Hill was ceded to Rathkenny. For three years the pastors of Slane resided in Chapel Street. In 1860, Fr. Philip Callary took a lease of the parochial house on the square of Slane. In 1923 it was bought outright by Fr. Kane.

The Civil Survey in 1654 recorded that …on ye lands of Monknewtowne are a farmhouse, a stone bridge and a church. 

In 1682, Bishop Dopping noted in his Visitation Book that … the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Monknewtown once belonged to Mellifont. Fr. Reilly was Parish Priest and Mr. Reilly was Popish Schoolmaster. There were only two families of Protestants and the chapel was out of repair.

We read in The Ordnance Survey Field Name Books (1836) that …eight perches north of the mill are the ruins of a church and a graveyard. 20 perches south of the ruins is a well called Tobar Srátha Baine, so called after St. Banan. 14 perches north of the graveyard is a Roman Catholic Chapel, one storey and slated.

The eighteenth century Gaelic poet Seamus Dall Mac Cuarta, who lived near Slane and wrote many songs and poems inspired by the area, is buried in Monknewtown old graveyard. His grave is unmarked.

In 1838, the Parish Priest, Fr. Duff invited tenders for raising and re-roofing the chapel. In the same year he was replaced as Parish Priest by Fr. Brady who decided to build a new chapel. The old chapel was demolished and the present structure was erected on the same site but a short distance further back from the roadway. The work was not completed until Fr. Finnegan arrived in 1842.

In 1961 the chapel was re-roofed, outside doors were blocked up and some general maintenance was carried out which happily has not taken away from the character of this very pleasant rural church. 

Two mediaeval fonts in the chapel yard maintain links with the past. The larger one, in the form of a roughly finished cylinder survives from the old chapel while the smaller one, an octagonal vessel with a circular basin is believed to have been brought here from the old ruined chapel at Dowth.

A letter from Meath County Council dated 21st October 1993 issued the following directive:  I wish to advise you that Rossin Church is listed to be preserved in the Draft Development Plan because of its historical, artistic, and architectural interest.