Movilla Abbey is believed to have been one of Ulster's and Ireland's most important monasteries. It was founded in 540 by St. Finnian (d. 579) under the patronage of the king of the Dál Fiatach. It survived as a place of Christian witness for over a thousand years, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1542. The name Movilla is an Anglicized form of the Irish magh bile, which means “the plain of the ancient tree”, so called because on the site where the abbey was built, pagans had previously worshipped a sacred tree.

Finnian's legacy ensured that Movilla Abbey flourished. By the seventh century, it had become one of the greatest monasteries in Ireland - a thriving centre of Celtic Christianity, a community of worship, prayer, study, mission and trade. The Abbey's reputation was enhanced by virtue of the fact it had a complete copy of the Bible, which Finnian had obtained from Rome.

Movilla began to decline after it was sacked by the Danes in 823, and was united with Bangor Abbey in the tenth century. It was somewhat revitalized in 1135 when St. Malachy of Armagh established a group of Augustinians in the abbey, but it never recovered its former glory. In 1306 the monastery at Movilla had one of the lowest valuations of church property in the area, at two and a half marks. Movilla was so poor that the ruling Anglo-Normans had no interest in taking it over and left Irishmen as abbots.

The abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1542. During the reign of Elizabeth I, Brian O’Neill, chief of the O'Neills of Clandeboye, burned Movilla, along with other abbeys in the Ards in his campaign to prevent the English from using Irish abbeys for their military garrisons.

Nothing visible remains today of Finnian's Celtic Abbey. What ruins still standing are those of the (15th century) Augustinian church, which comprises two gables, placed about 150 feet apart. In the east wall, there once was a three-light window, two of which have largely been blocked up. The third window remaining is Romanesque in style. At the top of the arch are two small carved heads. In the west wall are two lights with trefoil heads and transoms showing signs of tracery.

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Founded: 540 AD
Category: Religious sites in United Kingdom

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