Bangor Abbey was one of the most important monasteries and missionary schools during the Early Christian era. Its earliest history lies with St Patrick who passed through Bangor in the 5th Century and had a vision of a choir of angels; he named the place Vallis Angelorum. On this site St Comgall founded Bangor Abbey in 558. The monks who studied at Bangor went on to establish important monasteries of their own and some of its earliest students brought Christianity to Western Europe.
Comgall was born about 516 near present-day Magheramorne, County Antrim. He chose to study under St Finnian of Clonenagh whose strict rule was to influence Comgall’s teachings. He also travelled to Lough Erne for spiritual rest after which he was ordained. Comgall was then sent north by Fintan to found a monastery; Bangor was calling.
Bangor Abbey was governed by ‘good rule’ which we know of from the Bangor Antiphonary, a 7th Century book of hymns, prayers and antiphons, produced in the Abbey. This records the importance of obedience, charity and humility. Life in Bangor was extremely difficult even food was limited to bread, water and some vegetables as a way of controlling the body. An ancient rule attributed to Comgall states “These are thy three rules: have thou nought else dearer: Patience, humility; and the love of the Lord in thy heart”.
Students of Bangor Abbey
Many important Saints began their training at Bangor Abbey and went on to found sister foundations across Ireland and Scotland such as Maelrubha of Applecross and St Carthach of Lismore. However the two most significant students were Columbanus and Gall who left Bangor in 591 and travelled across Europe where they established many monasteries.
Unfortunately the Golden Age was not to remain and in the 9th Century the Abbey suffered several times from Viking raids. The worst was in 824 when many monks were slaughtered and the shrine of St Comgall was desecrated and his bones scattered. However, in 1124 St Malachy was appointed Abbot. Malachy wanted to return the Abbey to its former glory and built the first stone church on the site. The lone wall beside the Church halls today is known St Malachy’s Wall. Malachy succeeded with his dream as the Abbey can be seen on the Mappa Mundi (Map of the World) in Hereford Cathedral. This map marks the important pilgrimage sites around the world in 1300 and Bangor is one of only four places marked in Ireland.
The earliest parts of the current church date from 14th Century, since then there have been various modifications and additions. As the Abbey has always been on this site archaeological investigations have been limited. In 2006 test trenches near the car park found old timber dating to the 6th Century, remains of the original monastery. The most recent excavation took place in 2011 before building the new church halls when archaeologists found almost 30 skeletons and fragments of mediaeval pottery.