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    Burgess Court and the Seven Castles

The defence of Kells was completely ignored by its absentee lords who neither improved upon Geoffrey's castle nor built town walls. The lack of a secure refuge during the increasing turbulence of the fifteenth century must have been a major concern for the burgesses of Kells.
In the second half of the century the priors of Kells, by then long elected from the local community, assumed the responsibility of the lord in this respect. The prior's newly adopted role is reflected in the construction of Burgess Court, south of the existing priory, between 1460 and 1475. A fortified enclosure, it was intended for the security of the local population (hence its name) and their cattle when threatened with attack. Enclosures and towers were built for the same purpose at the abbeys of Fore in Westmeath, Navan in Meath and Baltinglass in Wicklow
(Figure 1D).
In the second half of the fifteenth century the practice of'coign and livery' was extended to cover carpenters and masons and even, by the mid-sixteenth century, tailors, huntsmen, horses and hounds. Besides lodging and feeding them, tenants were eventually also expected to pay the wages of their lord's employees and to become unpaid labourers when required. The broader definition of 'coign and livery' would have significantly reduced the cost of manorial building and was undoubtedly a major factor in the rash of castle building throughout Ireland in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.
The broadening of 'coign and livery' was generally unpopular. It was considered serious enough an abuse of tenants' rights to give rise to indictments in the courts. One such indictment, in 1537, included the then prior of Kells. However, it seems likely that the application of 'coign and livery' at Kells in the later fifteenth century would have been freely sanctioned as being in the interests of the local population. Indeed, the extensive building programme at the priory was probably jointly commissioned by town and priory in the first place.
Fortification of the priory included the construction of six new and independent tower houses
(Figure 8). Two of the tower houses (Water Tower and Prior's Tower) would have been large enough to have qualified for a £10 grant had Kells been situated within the Pale around Dublin (Figure 1D) and another two (Southeast Tower and West Tower) are at the minimum size limit. (The £10 grant was instituted by King Henry VI in 1429 to ensure the defence of Anglo-Norman Pale. The sum of £10 amounted to a knight's fee in the mid-fifteenth century and was considered adequate income for a gentleman).
As well as providing a safe refuge for the townspeople, the building programme benefitted the priory with a new and fortified lodging for the prior (Prior's Tower) and a fashionable new belfry over the church
(Figure 8). Other late medieval work carried out on the church, perhaps at the same time, includes blocking of the eastern aisle of the north transept and construction of a western aisle, construction of a north aisle for the nave, and possibly the replacement of windows in the presbytery.

The last operative prior of Kells known to have been appointed by papal brief was Phillip O'Holohan (or Howleghan) in 1531. Nicholas Tobin, named in Patent Rolls as prior in 1540, might have been sub-prior. Following a quarrel with the Pope concerning authority over the clergy rather than his marriage problems, King Henry VIII made himself head of the English catholic church. In 1536 he began the dissolution of monasteries in Britain and Ireland. Dissolution of Kells Priory finally took place in March 1540 and its church and property were surrendered to James Butler, Ninth earl of Ormond5 (by O'Holohan according to some accounts and by Tobin according to others).
Nicholas Tobin and two other canons, apparently the full compliment at the time, were pensioned off. Tobin received £5, Edmund Laghnan (or Laughnan) received forty shillings (£2) and Nicholas Lahy (or Laby) received twenty-six shillings and eight pence (fl.32). Prior O'Holohan's absence from the roll suggests that Tobin might have been elected as his successor by 1540 but had not then received his papal brief. Or perhaps O'Holohan forfeited any right to a pension by earlier resistance to the dissolution. Tobin retained a rectory and continued as curate of Kells after 1540.

A final prior

In the early seventeenth century Pope Paul V appointed Patrick Comerford as Commendatory Prior of Kells in Ossory. Born in Waterford city in 1586, Patrick was a scholar noted across catholic Europe by the time he joined the Order of the Hermits of St Augustine. In 1629 he returned to Ireland as the newly appointed Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, retaining the priory of Kells. He was banished in 1650 following Cromwell's Irish war and died two years later in Nantes where he is buried in the cathedral.

Conversion from priory to farm

After its transfer into secular hands some of the priory buildings were put into use for other purposes. The remainder would soon have fallen into disrepair with unused stone walls becoming nothing more than a source of building material. Prior's Tower continued in use as a farmhouse with the cloister, the claustral east range and the northern part of the outer court being raised and cobbled as a stable yard during the seventeenth century.
The built-up kitchen entrance to the refectory suggests that the reasonable preservation of its walls reflects continued secular use here too (perhaps as the stables). Construction of a thin wall separating the nave and crossing of the church6 and the probable insertion of a large replacement doorway into the west end of the nave both suggest it continued in use in some secular role.
What became of Nicholas Johne or the tower in which he was living in 1540 is not recorded, but at some point during the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries openings for firearms were inserted into Prior's Tower, Water Tower and West Tower. Around the same time the upper level of South Tower was converted into a columbarium (dovecote). The other towers presumably fell into disuse.

A return to St Kieran's?

The ruined church above the priory, 500 metres (one third of a mile) southeast of Kells
(Fig. 1A), is believed locally to be the medieval parish church, dating back to before the reformation (though it lacks any datable architectural features). The jury finding of 1541 disputes this and it does seem odd that the parish church should have stood so far beyond the town's most probable defences, however limited these might have been.
This church may have been Geoffrey fitz Robert's original foundation dedicated to St Kieran. Certainly St Kieran's existence and its ownership by the priory were confirmed in 1411-12 by King Henry IV. It seems that it was replaced as parish church by the priory church from around 1218 until 1540. After dissolution, with the priory church no longer available for worship, it must have came back into parochial (parish) use for a time, but re-dedicated to St Mary.