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Bangor Abbey is incredibly significant historically as it was one of the first Irish abbeys from which came numerous preachers and monks that preserved and spread Christianity across much of Europe.
It is of great personal significance to me as some of my Irish ancestors — Protestants likely transplanted hundreds of years ago from Scotland — hail from Bangor. Some of my ancestors are buried in Bangor Abbey’s cemetery.
The church’s history is nicely summed up here:
The ancient Abbey of Bangor was one of those renowned Irish monasteries, which gained for Ireland the title of “The Isle of Saints and Scholars “.
Our Founder, Comgall, was born at Magheramorne, Co. Antrim in 517 A.D., of the race of Fiacha Araidhe, founder of the kingdom of Dalaradia. Comgall’s father was Setna, a Pictish warrior; his mother’s name was Briga. Having shown early promise of a vocation to the Christian ministry, he was educated under St. Fintan at Clonenagh, and also studied under Finian at Clonard and Mobi Clairenach at Glasnevin. He was ordained deacon and priest by Bishop Lugidius, either at Clonmacnoise or Connor.
Comgall founded his most famous monastery at Bangor about 558 A.D. The ancient Annals differ about the exact year, giving various dates between 552 and 559. The earliest, the Annals of Tighernach, and the Annals of Innisfallen, give 558 A.D. as the date of the foundation.
Here Comgall gathered round him a band of monks, whose saintly life and scholarly attainments became the wonder of their age.
Life in the monasteries was very severe. Food was scant and plain. Herbs, water, and bread was customary. Even milk was considered an indulgence. At Bangor only one meal was allowed, and that not until evening. Confession was in public before the community. Severe acts of penance were frequent. Silence was observed at meals and at other times also, conversation being restricted to the minimum. Fasting was frequent and prolonged.
Worship held the foremost place in the life of the community. The divine services and the daily offices (five during the day and three at night) were scrupulously observed.
It is clear that music was a prominent feature of the worship of the Bangor monks. But of its exact nature in this remote age little is known.
St. Bernard, writing in 12th century, states that, at Bangor, “the solemnization of divine offices was kept up by companies, who relieved each other in succession, so that not for one moment, day or night, was there an intermission of their devotions”. This refers to the monastic “laus perennis”‘. But there is no evidence from the Antiphonary of Bangor or other early sources that this was in fact the practice at Bangor.
Comgall died on 10th May, 602, and was buried at Bangor. So ended the memorable earthly life of one whose fame has come down to us over fourteen hundred years as “one of the greatest fathers of Irish monasticism”.
How well indeed does he deserve the tribute —
“Christ loved Comgall,
Well too did he, the Lord”.
Nothing now remains of the original buildings of Comgall’s monastery. In the Private Chapel at Clandeboye, however, may be seen, built into the wall, the shaft of a Cross, which was found in the Abbey precincts. This is a fragment of a Celtic High Cross, which may have stood on “the Cross Hill” adjacent to Bangor Castle, and which is indicated on a 17th century map. This fragment probably dates from about the 8th century.