Mellifont Abbey is a ruined 12th-century Cistercian monastery near Monasterboice in County Louth, Ireland. It is of considerable historical significance, for it was the Cistercians’ first and most important abbey in Ireland, and a site of conflict between the Irish and the Anglo-Normans.
By the mid-12th century, Irish monastic life (as in many other places) had become significantly less austere and more corrupt than in earlier days. So in 1140, Malachy, Bishop of Down, invited a group of severe Cistercian monks from Clairvaux to set up a monastery in Ireland and act as a reforming influence. Malachy had stopped by Clairvaux in France during a pilgrimage to Rome and had been so impressed by St. Bernard (founder of the Cistercian order) and his monks that he converted to the monastic life himself. Malachy was canonized a saint after his death. A group of Irish and French monks settled in this remote site in 1142 and began construction in the traditional Cistercian style. This marked the first time that a monastery was built in Ireland with the formal layout used in the Continent. The name Mellifont comes from the Latin, ‘Fons Mellis’ meaning ‘Fount of Honey’.
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 (1556) of Sir Edward Moore, using materials scavenged from the monastic buildings. This house was the site of a turning point in Irish history. After Hugh O’Neill, last of the great Irish chieftains, was defeated in the Battle of Kinsale (1603), he was given shelter here by Sir Garret Moore. O’Neill soon surrendered to the English Lord Deputy Mountjoy and was pardoned, but he fled to the Continent in 1607 with other Irish leaders in the Flight of the Earls. Later Mellifont played host to William of Orange, who established his headquarters at Mellifont during the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The site of Mellifont Abbey and its manor house was abandoned in 1727.
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.
The first ruins visitors encounter are those of the abbey church, which has a typical cruciform plan and some gravestones in its floor. Beyond this, to the south, is the cloister (with only a short section of its colonnade remaining) and the chapter house. The chapter house remains mostly intact and is partially paved with medieval glazed tiles that originally decorated the church. Adjacent to this was the refectory, kitchen and warming room. The monks’ sleeping quarters was in the eastern range.
Up the hill from Mellifont Abbey and worth a quick look is a ruined little church, of unknown date but presumably used by the lay employees of the monastery.
My daughter is sorting out things to throw away and things to keep, when she finally will be at her own home, we hope in just a few months. So we were lost among books, photos albums and travels diaries…I found myself so longing for coming back to the Emerald Isle….