St Mullin’s

The Book of Mulling (TCD MS 60) is traditionally associated with the ecclesiastical site of St Mullin’s in Co. Carlow, located on the picturesque banks of the river Barrow (fig. 1). This was a strategic location, overlooking the border between the ancient territories of Leinster and Ossory, and at a crossing point of the river. The river provided easy access to the coast, a benefit in some ways, but one that left it prone to Viking attack in 824/5, 888, 915 and again in 951.

St Mullin's ©
Fig. 1 St Mullin’s today © R. Moss.

St Mullin’s was renowned as a place of pilgrimage, possibly stretching back to pre-Christian times and the festival of Lughnasa. In the 12th century King Dermot MacMurrough, gave the lands at St Mullin’s to the Augustinian canons of Ferns, probably so that they might administer the pilgrimage to the site. There is reference to an oath being sworn on the altar and shrine of St Moling in 1170, and the destruction of relics of the saint at a church dedicated to him in nearby Tullow, is also recorded in 1323. However, rather than relics, the focus of pilgrimage at St Mullins is likely to have been water.

Fig. 2 Image of St Moling from an early 19th century gravestone at St Mullin’s  © Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.

Devotions were focused on two locations: St Moling’s well and a watercourse said to have been dug by the saint in his Latin Life (fig. 2). In 1348, it was these features which provided the focus of pilgrims who descended on St Mullin’s to wade the waters. According to the contemporary account of Franciscan Friar Clyne, ‘some came from feelings of devotion, but others, and they the majority, from dread of the plague, which then grew very rife.’1

The well-house (fig. 3) and St Moling’s millrace still survive a short distance from the main ecclesiastical site, together with the remains of four/ five churches, now much altered, the base of a round tower and a sculpted high cross.

St Moling's well today. Source.
Fig. 3 St Moling’s well today. Source.

The presence of a substantial motte and bailey overlooking the strategic crossing point of the Barrow, attests to an Anglo-Norman settlement at St Mullin’s from the late 12th century, which had an associated manorial settlement. The town here was ‘rebuilt’ in 1347 at the behest of Walter Bermingham, the Justiciar, or king’s representative in Ireland at the time. The Dublin administration’s interest in the place was most likely strategic, and again in 1581 £350 was raised to erect a fortification protecting the Barrow navigation. It is likely that this was achieved through the conversion of one of the churches on the site, the so-called abbey, which incorporates a number of domestic and defensive features.

Rachel Moss, Assistant Professor, Department of History of Art and Architecture

For more on the topic, see:


  1. Rev. R. Butler, The Annals of Ireland, together with the Annals of Ross by Friar John Clyn and Thady Dowling (Dublin, 1849), p. xxiv.