Benburb Priory is open as a retreat and conference centre with conference rooms, meeting rooms, accommodation and catering facilities. It is located in an area of outstanding natural and scenic beauty and of great historical importance.
Benburb Priory attracts groups from every walk of life who come to meet and discuss the many complex issues which effect their lives. It is also used as a recreational facility for groups wishing to expand their skills in cultural activities or for those wishing to participate in courses in spiritual and human development. Some of the groups who come are inter-denominational and they spend their time here living, working and recreating together.
History of Benburb
The history of Benburb is intimately involved with its proximity to the river Blackwater (An Abhainn Mór) which runs roughly parallel to the village. It is reasonable to speculate that due to the importance of this river and the ford over it at this point some type of settlement, perhaps a trading post, was located on the high ground in prehistoric times.
In the early Christian period there is evidence to suggest that a religious settlement was based at Benburb central to the Parish of Clonfeacle. It is referred to as the “old” church or the church of the priests (Cill Na Sagart). This venerable heritage is referred to in a document of 1531 in the calendar of state papers when the dissolution of the monasteries was underway.
In the early 1600s at the time of the Ulster Plantation, Sir Richard Wingfield, later Viscount Powerscourt, was granted 9000 acres of land in and around Benburb, including the village itself, in recognition of his services to the British Crown. The Wingfield/Powerscourt family were also granted another estate near Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow, where they lived mainly and where the Powerscourt Estate still exists, though the house itself was destroyed by fire in the 1970s.
In 1611, as part of the terms of the grant of land in Benburb, Wingfield/Powerscourt built a castle and bawn at Benburb which is still in existence within the Priory grounds, and is now under the care of the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland (Historical Monuments) and houses an interpretation centre in the restored west keep. The estate is situated one mile from the site of the ‘Battle of Benburb’ which took place in 1646, and was one of the most significant battles during the Irish revolt of 1641-1652. The rebel Ulster army led by Owen Roe O’Neill defeated the Scottish Covenanter army led by Col. Robert Monro.
The house inside the bawn walls was a later addition, built by one of the Powerscourt family in the 1700s. In 1877, James Bruce, a wealthy distiller from Belfast and a partner in the firm of Dunville & Co., bought the Benburb Estate in its entirety from the then Viscount Powerscourt, and set about establishing a country home in Benburb. Bruce made many changes. In order to build his new manor house (now the Servite Priory), he relocated all inhabitants on the south side of the village street, knocked down the houses, and built on the cleared site. He built a new Police Station in the village, the Post Office and a number of houses, one of which is the present Church of Ireland rectory.
James Bruce died in 1917 at the age of eighty two. The estate passed to his brother Samuel who lived in London, who sold the entire estate. After that it passed through a series of owners without anyone taking residence until 1940 when the War Office requisitioned the manor for use as a military hospital. The army left the manor in 1946 and Fr. Peter Moore C.C., supported by Fr. Thomas Soraghan P.P. of the parish of Clonfeacle, purchased the estate on behalf of the Servite Friars in 1947.
The Servites Arrive
When the Servites took over the estate, now reduced through various Land Acts to about 100 acres, it was used as a seminary for training student priests. At its peak, around 1960, there were as many as 100 priests and students in Benburb.
As the number of Servite students declined the presence and purpose of the Servite Community evolved, the student accommodation was utilized for retreat and study groups both religious and lay. Some of the Community became highly involved with this service while the younger members concentrated on college and school students, and the stables area was adapted for this purpose together with two domestic dormitories; one for males and the other for females. This period in the early 1970s was the last time any major renovation was undertaken in the stables block.