Armchair Archaeology: Old Mellifont Abbey

Published: 11 Jun 2020

Welcome to the ninth edition of Armchair Archaeology! In this series we look at the famous and the less well-known sites in the Boyne Valley. As restrictions ease and we plan on where to explore once again, let Boyne Valley Tourism take you on a virtual tour of some of our favourite sites. This afternoon we have a special guest post by Lindsey Ilona Brady, OPW guide at the magnificent Old Mellifont Abbey, Co. Louth.

 

Old Mellifont Abbey

Nestled on the eastern bank of the tranquil Mattock river in County Louth, the ruins of Old Mellifont Abbey stand as testament to what was once the most powerful and influential monastery in medieval Ireland. Founded in 1142 by St. Malachy of Armagh, on lands granted by O’Cearbhaill, the local king of Airghialla (Oriel), Mellifont was the first Abbey belonging to the Cistercian order founded in Ireland. The arrival of the Cistercian monks heralded a new wave of European Monasticism, which over time, replaced the earlier Celtic tradition that had previously flourished for centuries.

Following the ideals of St. Benedict’s rule (poverty, chastity and obedience) the Cistercians lived “in a spot far removed from the noise and bustle of the world”. They developed as a reform order from the Benedictine monks in 1098, and spread quite rapidly throughout France and Europe under the auspices of St. Bernard, the Abbot of Clairvaux. Clairvaux was Mellifont’s mother-house. They became renowned for their organisational skills and agricultural knowledge, which led them to become excellent farmers and land managers. This acclaim led them to receive over 50,000 acres of surrounding land in counties Meath and Louth through patronage; donated by local chieftains, kings and Anglo-Norman lords. The legacy of their “grange” system of land division has today given title to one of the most celebrated sites in Ireland, Newgrange passage tomb.

Cistercian architecture is considered to be one of the most beautiful styles of medieval design. Its “pure” unadorned appearance compliments the simple “Ora et Labora” (prayer and manual work) mantra of daily monastic life. Although the remains of Mellifont are quite fragmentary, the outlines of the church and domestic buildings can be seen. Two buildings remain largely intact today, the thirteenth century early English Gothic chapter house, and the octagonal Romanesque lavabo. The lavabo is the unique architectural feature of Mellifont, the only one to be built in Ireland. It stood as a medieval washroom, that originally contained a fountain used for both physical and spiritual cleansing. It is from this fountain that Mellifont or Melli-Fons (honey fountain) derives its name.

Over the course of its monastic life, Mellifont became the founding house of over twenty affiliated “daughter” monasteries, including Baltinglass Abbey in Co. Wicklow, Bective Abbey in Co. Meath and Boyle Abbey in Co. Sligo. Its fortunes waxed and waned for 397 years, until it was surrendered to the British crown at the dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry the VIII of England. On the 23rd of July 1539 it was valued at £352.3s.10d, making it the most wealthy Cistercian house in Ireland after St. Marys Abbey in Dublin

Following the dissolution, the property eventually passed to Sir Edward Moore. He distinguished himself in the army of Queen Elizabeth I and was knighted in 1579, whereupon the dissolved abbey and lands of Mellifont were granted to him in reward for his services. He converted the abbey buildings into a fortified Tudor residence, and the upper storey extension of the lavabo stands as a reminder of the Moore family's architectural alterations. It was Edward’s son Garrett that received the title of Earl of Drogheda in 1621, and with Mellifont as his primary residence, his title carried down to the four further generations of Moores that resided here.

In 1603, during Sir Garret Moore’s time at Mellifont, Hugh O’Neill the Earl of Tyrone, submitted to Lord Deputy Mountjoy after the Nine Years War. It was this submission and the subsequent signing of the “Treaty of Mellifont” that was to forever change the course of political history in Ireland. The Treaty led to the confiscation of Gaelic lands and the Plantation of Ulster after the “Flight of the Earls” in 1607.

During the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, Mellifont was used as the headquarters of King William of Orange. Both the chapter house and lavabo were intact during this period. Today, they stand as monuments to the immense history created in their walls.

Visiting the ruins of Old Mellifont Abbey today, it is easy to recall the wisdom of St. Aelred of Rievaux, “everywhere peace, everywhere serenity, and a marvellous freedom from the tumult of the world”.

 

Lindsey Ilona Brady