Monday, June 24, 2013

Mellifont Abbey, County Louth

 Mellifont Abbey was the first Cistercian Abbey in Ireland, known to the Cistercians in Ireland as the ‘Mother House’, a base from where the Cistercians expanded, adding more and more institutions (known as ‘daughter houses’) across Ireland. The name Mellifont comes from the Latin, ‘Fons Mellis’ meaning ‘Fount of Honey’.

The Cistercian Order was founded by St. Bernard of Clairvaux in Burgundy, Central France in 1098. St. Bernard believed that the other monastic orders had become dissolute and undisciplined, and he founded the Cistercians as an austere and hard-working order who focused on a life of prayer. St. Malachy of Armagh, the Irish Saint and friend of St. Bernard, founded Mellifont Abbey in 1142 with a group of Irish and French monks.

The Abbey was extremely successful from it’s earliest stages, and it developed rapidly. Monks from Mellifont were dispatched to found ‘daughter houses’ around Ireland, within just five years of the foundation of Mellifont in 1147 a daughter house had already been established at Bective in County Meath and within twenty years the Cistercians had establishments in Connacht, such as that founded at Boyle, County Roscommon in 1161. It is recorded that at least 21 abbeys were founded by monks from Mellifont.
The Cistercian community in Ireland faced a grave crisis following the Norman Invasions of Ireland in the late twelfth century. Irish established Cistercian institutions such as Mellifont became embroiled in a power-struggle with the Cistercian establishments that came from England following the invasion. The outcome of what became known as ‘The Conspiracy of Mellifont’ led to a dramatic reduction in the powers and number of monks allowed to Mellifont. Despite these restrictions, Mellifont remained one of the richest monastic institutions in Ireland due to it’s huge landholdings of the rich agricultural land of Meath and Louth.

It was probably due to this vast ownership of prime land that Mellifont was one of the first of the Irish monastic sites to be Dissolved in 1539 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Mellifont became the private fortified home of Sir Edward Moore, and it was here that the famous Treaty of Mellifont was signed in 1603 that ended the bloody Nine Years War. Later Mellifont played host to William of Orange, who established his headquarters at Mellifont during the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Of the site itself there isn’t much of the original Abbey left standing today. However excavations have revealed the foundations of many of the buildings, so it is easy to get a good sense of the size and layout of this important Abbey. Mellifont became the standard format for all Cistercian Abbeys in Ireland, and many other monastic orders were influenced by the layout. The cloisters were positioned at the south, and were surrounded by a range of domestic and spiritual buildings, with a cruciform shaped church to the North. The site is certainly worth visiting for its famous Lavabo. This building is in the Romanesque style of architecture, and dates to the early thirteenth century. It is octagonal in shape and served as the ritual washroom, where the monks would wash their hands before entering the refectory for meals. Excavations revealed fragments of lead pipe that brought the water into the central fountain. The interior was decorated with delicate images of plants and birds. A number of fragments of the fine architectural features are on display in the visitor centre.
You’ll find Mellifont about 10km north-west of Drogheda, off the R168 (Drogheda-Collon Road). Guided tours are available from the Office of Public Works from the 30th May to the 28th August. Open daily from 10.00am – 6pm (please note that last entry is at 5pm). Prices are €3 for an adult, €2 for over-60’s, €1 for children/students. For more details please see their website here.

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All photographs © Neil Jackman /