The important early convent of Killevy was founded towards the end of the 5th century by St Moninna, also known as Darerca or Bline. It remained a house of nuns for almost 1000 years – one of only four women’s foundations in Ireland to survive as major convents. In 923 the place was plundered by Vikings from Carlingford Lough and in 1146 people were killed by a great wind that caused damage all over the north. In the Middle Ages Killevy was a convent of Augustinian nuns which was dissolved in 1542 when the last abbess was Alicia O’Hanlon.
The very long narrow ‘church’ you see is in fact two churches which have been joined together. The west church is the only surviving pre-Norman church in County Armagh and its massive lintelled door dates from the 10th century.
A pictorial map of 1609 shows that Killevy once had a round tower. It was blown down in a gale in about 1768 and Labhrás Ó Ceallach, Captain Redmond O’Hanlon’s harper, wrote a lament for it:
O steeple of Killevy
My grief to have thee down
If the two Redmonds were living,
Thy top would not be broken.
Armagh was the country of the O’Hanlon lords of Orior, until they were displaced. ‘Count’ Redmond O’Hanlon was a famous outlaw slain at Hilltown in 1681.
Several stories describing a miracle at Killevy during the time of the fourth abbess, Derlaisre. She was building a wooden church here but it was proving impossible to carry a long timber for the roof-ridge down from the mountain. Miraculously, the day after prayers asking for Monnine’s help, the timber was found near the convent, ready for use. A later account, written between 1050 and 1100, adds that the building has been restored and the ridge-piece is preserved as a relic. Taken together the two accounts provide good evidence for a wooden church, restored or rebuilt in the 11th century. Killevy was also the scene of an important meeting in November 1477, when Edmund Cunisburgh, the royal candidate for the primacy of Armagh, met the papal nuncio Octavian. They met first in the church and then retired to the residence of the abbess, where Cunisburgh resigned.
Monastic life continued at Killevy into the Middle Ages, with the foundation of an Augustinian convent, probably in the late 12th century. There are frequent references in medieval documents, several of them reflecting increasing tensions between church and lay power. For example, Papal records show that the rectory was disputed in 1535 between Susanna MacNamee ‘calling herself a nun of the order of St Augustine’ and Felim O’Neill. The end of the convent came in 1542 when the last abbess, Alicia O’Hanlon, withdrew with her companions and the site and endowments were granted to Sir Marmaduke Whitechurch.
The east church is medieval, probably 15th century, and it was here that Edmund Connisburgh, royal nominee for the primacy, met the papal nuncio, Octavian, in November 1477.
The most notable architectural feature is the steeply-pitched east gable, complete with fine coping stones and large window opening. Although many of the cut stones have been removed, if you look closely you can see the small bar holes in the jambs, the fact that they are mismatched showing that the window was once divided by a central mullion. There are also carved heads, both crowned, either side of the window on the outside.
The south wall contains the remains of two rectangular window openings and a small wall cupboard, probably used to hold sacred vessels during worship. There are no windows in the north wall, but towards the east end is a curious lintelled doorway, perhaps intended to echo the west door in the adjacent earlier church but clumsy and unskilled by comparison. It may have led out to domestic buildings, including the house of the abbess where Cunisburgh resigned in 1477, but no trace survives and the area is covered by burials.
Several cut and worked stones can be identified in the space between the two churches, including a large granite slab with a cross in low relief, probably originally used as a grave marker or cover and possibly dating from the 12th or 13th centuries.