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  • Writer's pictureShane Smith

Ruins

Updated: Jul 24, 2023


I like going on quiet walks. A time to enjoy the crisp air and to set my imagination free, much like letting a dog off a leash to run away and sniff around with indiscriminate curiosity. I bemoaned the little crew of kids then, that were skittering around and making sound effects to embellish whatever game it was they were playing. Hopping over stone walls, running through stone archways, and climbing steep stone stairs. So much stone because I had chosen for my afternoon walk the ruins of Bective Abbey in County Meath, Ireland.


Bective Abbey

I love the Abbey. It is nestled in the rolling green hills near my home and truly transports any visitors to the past. A Cistercian Abbey, built in 1147, it is a little slice of the Middle Ages ten minutes from my house in the bustling town of Navan. Besides a small gravelly car park, here there is no sign of modernity. The ruins are left alone. It is populated with birdlife of all kinds, the country winds whistle through each crack in the stone and in the grounds that surround it, the branches of beautiful oak trees sway and creak. In other words, it is the perfect place to find a bit of quiet and allow one’s imagination to run wild and untethered. But I couldn’t hide my irritation at the squeals of laughter and surprise as the kids found a new alcove to explore over here, or a hidden entrance to a guard tower over there.


A cloister alley

I turned my mind away from the noise, and tried to focus on the majesty of the ruins within the context of the sleepy green countryside. My thoughts drifted back through the centuries in which these great stone walls played host to countless lives and stories. I wondered what souls drifted through the archways, or strolled around the courtyard on a sunny day, or took to the battlements to defend it from enemies. Intrigue, drama, swordfights, maybe?


A glance at the history of the Abbey suggests it was not without its fair share of medieval melodrama. When an Irishman beheaded the Anglo-Norman lord of Meath, Hugh de Lacy, with an axe in 1195, his body was interred at Bective while his head was sent to another abbey in Dublin. The two abbeys claimed the right to de Lacy’s remains until at last the Bishop of Meath intervened and sent the dead lord’s body packing down to Dublin to be reunited with his beloved noggin.


Bective was later dissolved as a Cistercian abbey during the Dissolution of Monasteries, and became the private residence of an English lord, which explains the fortified elements that from certain angles make the Abbey look more like a castle from the stories of King Arthur.



18th century print of Bective Abbey (from Grose's, Antiquities of Ireland)

As I skirted around the outer walls of the Abbey, further from the odd bursts of laughter, I contemplated the perspective of the average country folk that would have grown up and lived in the shadow of Bective’s stone walls. Even in its ruined state, it is quite a powerful structure, and it provoked a rich storytelling tradition in the locals (Much of which is preserved in the incredible online archive: https://www.duchas.ie/en).


There are many stories of hidden treasure. One involves a pillaging Dane who, despite having just stolen it from the Abbey, proceeded to bury gold right beside the walls, lest the Irish find out he took it and kill him. A second tells of a bishop that was buried beneath the Abbey in a coffin of pure gold. Perhaps the most gripping though, is of a man who, while living in America, dreamt of gold buried beneath the Bective ruins. He returned home and once he had recruited three friends to help him, set out to the Abbey. Neither he nor his companions were ever seen again.


Another eerie tale tells of a woman dressed all in white who walks the halls and grounds of the abbey at night, a ghostly guardian. I couldn’t help but wonder if these stories were in anyway connected, and with a hop, leap and a jump my imagination did what it could to weave together dozens of potential yarns.



Local folklore tells of a woman in white patrolling the Abbey grounds (Still from my upcoming short film, inspired by the folklore of Bective Abbey)

I came full circle around the Abbey and landed just out in front, by the rickety iron gate. It was late

afternoon at this point, and the sun had dipped enough to splash the abbey in dashes of rich orange and gold. It really did look like a castle from the stories of myth and folklore I loved to read, right from my childhood through to the present day.


I could see the dishevelled Dane, burying his stolen gold; and the bickering bishops deciding the fate of de Lacey’s head; the English soldiers patrolling the battlements in service of their master; the woman in white, walking the grounds, burdened with some mysterious and ghostly anguish. And then I saw one of the kids, breathless, red faced, smiling. In one hand was a stick, and he swung it this way and that, his sword. And I realised that he saw all of those things too, and probably much more. If a place like Bective Abbey can breathe such verve and colour into the imagination, well then, let the kids run wild.



Much more than just a ruin.


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