Saint Fechin founded a monastic settlement in Cong during the seventh century. It is believed that he also established several other Irish monasteries. He dedicated his monastery at Cong to the Blessed Virgin Mary. One source states that the construction of the monastery was financed in 624 by King Domhnall Mac Aedh Mac Ainmire. According to the ancient annals relating to Cong, Saint Fechin died in 664 of the great yellow plague which ravaged the countryside. The monastery fell into ruin over the following centuries. By 1120, the Augustinians had arrived in the area and Turlough Mor O’Connor, who was the Irish High King at the time, had a church and other facilities constructed on the site for the Augustinians. This became known as the Royal Abbey because it was built by the king. It was recorded that the abbey was the pride of the kings of Connacht and many of them retired there in old age. Others took refuge there during times of political tension. Some of the abbots at Cong were related or friends of O’Connor.
It is generally accepted that Turlough Mor O’Connor was among the three greatest high kings of Ireland, the others being Niall of the Nine Hostages and Brian Boru. O’Connor was an extremely powerful man and also had a residence, a large fort, near Dunmore, hence the name. His reign over Connacht and Ireland lasted overall from 1106 to 1156. Cong Abbey was among his greatest achievements and is considered one of the finest examples of early Irish church architecture. It was built and embellished also through the support of the royal families of Connacht and indeed Ireland. It has wonderful examples Irish craftsmanship from that period, some of which can still be seen today. Visitors are fascinated by its Gothic and Romanesque windows and doorways. The pillars, columns and arches indicate a strongly built abbey and the floral capitals are a credit to the stone masons all those centuries ago.
One can enter the abbey from the village by the north doorway. On the east wall is located a very fine three-light window. There are many grave-flags within the confines of the abbey and at least two of them have been identified as being the last resting place of Cong abbots. Other burials include bishops, chieftains and members of the royal families of Connacht. There are many other interesting headstones there also. One in particular is located at the west end of the chancel. It marks the grave of Michael O’Briain, a republican, who was killed in action at Tourmakeady in 1921.
There is an arched recess in the wall located just before the entrance from the chancel to the old sacristy. It has been suggested that this was a sedilia or rostrum. Close-by between the sedilia and the doorway there was a stone projecting from the wall that people said had healing powers; a cure for breast ailments was mentioned. One is presented with two striking Gothic doorways on the western fai§ade of the abbey. There are also two fine Romanesque windows on the same wall and on the upper levels of the abbey there are also wonderful features to be seen. Attached to the abbey are the cloisters, which are unusually spacious. They measure over 100 feet north to south and are just short of this dimension in the opposite direction. This was enclosed by a ten foot wide ambulatory and was surrounded by an arcade of 160 arches of what were once wonderfully constructed arches. All of the features there indicate that Cong Abbey was certainly a sight to behold during the time of Turlough Mor O’Connor. There also a great school of learning was established, which over time attracted some 3,000 students and scholars. One must also remember that this was a period just prior to the Norman invasion of the country. Despite some writers having recorded that the Irish lived in a state of semi-barbarism until the Normans arrived, this cannot be taken as entirely accurate. Cong Abbey and other facts surrounding it contradict such accounts. Because it had such strong associations with the royal family of Ireland at that time was, of course, of great benefit to the monks. The fact that many of the leading families of the period chose to spent the last days of their lives there is a testament to its status. One of the most famous inhabitants of Cong Abbey was Rory O’Connor, the last High King of Ireland. He was also the son of Turlough Mor O’Connor.
Following the Norman invasion of 1169 there were incursions into Connacht and Rory O’Connor began to lose control of his country. He retired to Cong Abbey and spent the last fifteen years of his life there. He died in 1198 and according to tradition was first buried under the chancel window at Cong. His remains were later exhumed and taken to Clonmacnoise, where he was buried close to the high altar. His father had been buried on the opposite side of the altar. His son ‘Maurice the Canon’ was buried in Cong Abbey in 1224. Two years later, Nuala, the daughter of O’Connor, was also buried there and in 1246, her sister Fionnuala was interred at Cong. Members of the powerful de Bermingham family of Athenry were also buried in the Royal Abbey. Among the many other leading figures who found their last resting place in Cong were abbots, Niahol and Gillebard O’Duffy during its early history. Another flagstone is dedicated to Patrick Prendergast, known as ‘Lord Abbot’. He was the last abbot of Cong and was buried there in 1829.
Cong was named as a bishopric in the Synod of Rath Breasill in 1010 along with Tuam, Killala, Clonfert and Ardcharne. It is believed that the abbey was burnt on a number of occasions, 1133, 1137 and 1201. However, it was always rebuilt. The Annals of the Four Masters state that it was one of a number of Ecclesiastical establishments burnt in 1114 and the bishopric status was also removed. Cong Abbey was originally built in the Hiberno-Romanesque style and many believe that the Gothic features were added following its last restoration, which was completed by Cathal O’Connor of the ‘Wine Red Hand’. He is known to history by this name and was the illegitimate son of the O’Connor king. Cathal came to power in 1205. He dedicated the abbey to Our Lady of the Rosary and it survived many attacks over the following centuries. Cong Abbey was finally suppressed by Henry VIII in 1542. Suppression is really the politically correct word for destruction. However, the abbots remained in the area and filled the role of parish priests. Over the following centuries the abbey fell into ruin. A lot of restoration work was carried out at the abbey by Benjamin Lee Guinness during his time at Ashford. The actual work was completed by members of the Foy family, who were local sculptors. Members of this family had been the stone masons for generations and were employed at the abbey long before Benjamin Lee Guinness arrived there in the nineteenth century.
One cannot mention Cong Abbey without referring to the Monk’s Fishing House. This is a very interesting feature or structure associated with the abbey. This building was constructed on a stone platform over the Cong River sometime between 1400 and 1550. It was built in such a manner that it allowed the water to flow through a long channel beneath the floor of the house. Some say that the monks were forbidden to use a rod and line for fishing at that time so these industrious people had the fishing house constructed. A trap was set in the channel which involved a net and it was using this method that the monks caught their fish. A long rope was attached to a bell in the monastery kitchen and the other end was connected to the net. The movement of the trapped fish caused the bell to ring in the kitchen and the monks knew that dinner had arrived. This also ensured that there was always fresh fish available as it could be left in the water until required for cooking. Across the bridge near the Monk’s Fishing House there is a doorway over which is a nineteenth century carved stone image of King Rory O’Connor. It is a reminder of the once greatness of the Royal Abbey of Cong.