Located approximately 1km south of Buttevant, you can discover the ruins of Ballybeg Priory, one of the best preserved medieval priories in Ireland. It was founded in 1229 by the de Barrys for the Canons Regular of St Augustine – an order of priests who lived according to monastic rule. The Priory was dedicated to St Thomas à Becket of Canterbury, and the first prior was David de Cardigan, who like the priory’s founder, was Welsh. Ballybeg was constructed in the English Gothic style. The ruins you can see today represent a large church and bell tower, with claustral buildings and a cloister to the south. The laver or basin where the priors used to wash their hands can still be seen where a refectory once stood, where the brethren used to eat communal meals.
One of the most famous features of Ballybeg is small circular tower located nearby to the southeast of the main ruins of the priory. This is a dovecote or columbarium, that housed eleven rows of roosting boxes for pigeons or doves. The meat and eggs of the birds provided an important food source for the community, and their droppings were highly prized as fertiliser. Ballybeg’s dovecot ensured the birds were dry and safe from predators, with a small doorway at ground level for the monks, and an opening in the domed roof at the top so the birds could fly out safely. Another doorway set high near roof level allowed a monk to clean out the roosts in order to collect the droppings for use in the gardens and fields.
The Augustines were a particularly affluent order. They were diocesan administrators and played a key role in the bureaucracy of the Norman Conquest. The Priory in Ballybeg owned over 2,000 acres of land, along with numerous rectories across the diocese of Cloyne, from which they drew an income. Theirs was not a life of preaching, penance and alms giving such as lived by the Franciscans in Buttevant town.
Ballybeg Priory was eventually dissolved as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1541. It was recorded as being in ruins by 1750, and parts of the ruin were used by a farm until the early 20th century. Today it is an atmospheric place to explore and to experience a sense of Ireland’s medieval past.