This majestic historical site is a significant structure in terms of social, religious and architectural history of the west of Ireland. Ross Errilly (or Mainistir Ros Oirialaigh in Irish) is a medieval Franciscan friary that was founded, according to a charming foundation legend, in 1351 after the local bishop followed three swans carrying flax seed in their mouth to a spot along the banks of the Black river. Known to locals as Ross Abbey, it never actually had an abbot, so it is technically a friary. It still stands proudly in the landscape today in a remarkable state of preservation.
Visiting the Abbey has been a part of my life from a very young age. Despite its out of the way location, it is only a few minutes drive from Headford town itself. It was and is the place our family bring family and friends to visit regularly, as it certainly does not disappoint visually! Wandering around the Abbey has always enthralled me, its vast system of rooms and corridors lend themselves to hours of childish fun regardless of a person’s age. Distinctive architectural features survive, meaning that upper floors and elements such as ovens, window seats and chimneys are all discernible. Tracery still survives on the magnificent windows that once adorned the building, but they can still be appreciated today, particularly on sunny days when light beams flow in. Standing inside the giant fireplaces and looking upwards to the sky inside the chimney is one of my favourite things to do when visiting. The impressive central tower, now closed, used to be a particularly thrilling aspect of the tour, as visitors could view the sprawling surrounding area from an unrivaled vantage point.
Although two books have been published on it, the Abbey itself is crying out for some care and attention. Bus tours do make their way down the windy road to it during summer months, but apart from a small sign on the main road pointing to it, the structure is all but lost. It can be seen from the main road between Cong and Headford, but there is no access road from that side and I feel that the Abbey has missed numerous potential visitors because of its location. Although the site is in the control of the OPW, nothing of note has been done with it to improve its image or attract more visitors. As with many OPW sites, an information board to the right as one enters the Abbey provides basic details about when it was built and how. This is certainly helpful, but not anywhere near adequate. The lack of information provided about each individual room (of which plans survive, so we know what they were used for!) is an injustice to my mind, as this building bursts with untold history of the people who built it, lived in it and are buried in it.
In order to be properly recognized for its importance as a heritage site, Ross Abbey would benefit from better signage and advertising in the local area. It is featured on a Headford website but this is also lacking and could be made far more educational and informative. It should have its own website that provides historical details, reconstructions, photographs, interactive games and activities. There should be a series of children’s activity sheets available for download to make a visit fulfilling for kids in a historical sense too. Engaging information boards should be placed in each room, with explanations for the space’s function depicted both in words and images. This at the very least would provide visitors with a self-guided tour option and would unlock some details about the Abbey’s history and function in the local area. In the place of a functioning heritage Centro, that is completely impossible due to current funding issues, small ideas like the ones outlined above could elevate the Abbey to having a deserved national status as a prominent historical site.