Sligo Abbey – a misnomer, since it is in fact a friary – was founded in 1252 for the Dominican Order by Maurice FitzGerald. It was said that he wished to house a community of monks to devote prayers for the soul of Richard Marshal, 3rd Earl of Pembroke (d.1234). Throughout his time as Justiciar of Ireland, and after, FitzGerald had been dogged by rumours that he had betrayed and been responsible for Earl Marshal’s death. An oath taken before the king, Henry III, asserting his innocence, did little to allay these rumours.
The Dominicans were known as ‘The Black Friars’ due to their black cloaks – known as a cappa – worn over white habits. The first Irish Dominican foundation had been established in Athenry, Galway in 1241, a decade prior to the foundation at Sligo. As well as providing for the construction of the abbey, FitzGerald also granted the Sligo friars land on the south bank of the river for agricultural purposes, and fishing rights to the river.
The 13th century was a sporadically turbulent time in Ireland’s history, as the Gaelic nobility sought to reclaim territory from the Anglo-Normans. It wasn’t long before war and raids came to Sligo, and in 1257 the town was burned to the ground by the O’Donnells. By the beginning of the 14th century, the near constant unrest led the FitzGeralds to abandon Sligo altogether. Remarkably, despite the upheaval and destruction taking place at its doorstep, Sligo Abbey not only survived, but appears to have suffered little or no damage. Richard de Burgo, Earl of Ulster, took control of Sligo later in the 14th century, restored its castle, and work continued without hindrance in the abbey.
Over the next century, Sligo Abbey grew in prestige and prominence, becoming the choice burial place for many of the elite of the region including the Lords of Bréifne, the O’Rourkes. This rise, however, was disastrously cut short in 1414, when an accidental fire blazed through the compound. The friars’ living quarters and much of the church were destroyed.
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