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Cistercian Abbeys: BOYLE

Name: BOYLE Location: nr Boyle County: Roscommon
Foundation: 1148 Mother house: Mellifont
Relocation: c. 1156, 1158-9, 1161 Founder: MacDermots of Moylurg
Dissolution: - 1589 Prominent members: Donchad O’Daly
Access: Heritage of Ireland - Open to the public

The nave of Boyle Abbey
© Stuart Harrison
<click to enlarge>
The nave of Boyle Abbey

Boyle abbey was first founded in 1148 under the patronage of the local ruling family, the MacDermots of Moylurg, and was colonised with monks from Mellifont. The first monks originally settled at Grellechdinach under Abbot Peter O’Mordha. The community moved to Drumconaid c. 1156 and then to Buniffi c. 1158-9. The final move was to Ath-da-Larc on the river Boyle in 1161. It seems that this was the site of an earlier monastery, also known as Ath-da-Larc, but no remains of it survive and it had probably died out before the community from Mellifont arrived. It is not known what caused the community to move three times; interference from the lay world or the unsuitability of the terrain are thought to be two possibilities. The Latin name of the abbey represents the local river: ‘Bellium’, the Boyle. Scant resources and the impediments of war meant that the abbey took a very long time to complete. In 1202 construction was interrupted when the abbey was seized by an alliance of English and Irish troops under the command of William de Burgo and Cathal Crovderg O’Conor. The church was finally consecrated some time between 1218 and 1220; almost sixty years after the first stones were laid. Boyle was one of the main instigators in the ‘conspiracy of Mellifont’ (1216-1228); in 1227 the General Chapter deposed the Abbot of Boyle and in 1228 the abbey was affiliated directly with Clairvaux. It is argued that it was at this time that some of the monks from Boyle joined the Premonstratensian foundation on Trinity Island, taking with them their manuscripts and learning. In 1235 Boyle was attacked and plundered by English forces under the command of Maurice Fiztgerald and McWilliam; they took possession of the abbey, seized all goods, vestments and chalices belonging to the abbey and stripped the monks of their habits in the cloister. The abbey was subject to further attacks during the feuds between the warring MacDermot and O’Conor clans.

No reliable sources concerning the annual income of the abbey survive, although a list of lands drawn up in 1569 indicate that Boyle was one of the most richly-endowed religious houses in Ireland. It is not clear exactly when the abbey was dissolved; the Act of Dissolution had little impact in Moylurg which was then outside the royal sphere of influence. Following the Dissolution the abbey was affected by a succession dispute amongst the MacDermot clan, one faction included the abbot of Boyle, also king of Moylurg. In 1569 Queen Elizabeth granted the property to Patrick Cusack of Gerrardston, County Meath. It is unlikely that there was still a functioning community in residence at this time, although Tomaltach MacDermot was still abbot in 1577. In 1584 Glaisne O’Cuillenain, abbot of Boyle, was executed in Dublin, after refusing to renounce his allegiance to Rome. The abbey was probably suppressed shortly after this incident. In 1589 a lease of the abbey was granted to William Ussher and from 1592 the monastery buildings were used as barracks, known as ‘Boyle Castle’. In 1607 King John built ‘a great castle’ at Boyle; the monastic buildings were extensively altered and rebuilt in order that they could be put to military use; the east range was completely demolished. It was for this reason that the abbey was besieged in 1645, during the Cromwellian wars.

Though mutilated during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when it was used to accommodate a military garrison, Boyle abbey has been remarkably well preserved. The abbey has one of the finest Romanesque churches of the Cistercian Order in Ireland, and the thirteenth-century tower remains intact to a height of over sixty-foot. Built over sixty years, the abbey church exhibits features of both the Romanesque and Gothic periods: the most notable being the row of rounded arches on one side of the nave which faces a row of pointed arches on the other side. Some parts of the abbey were built in the austere style of the classical Cistercians whilst the western part of the nave has been carved with elaborate designs. Seven of the capitals in this section of the church were ornamented with animals and human figures, the work of the so-called Ballintober Master. There is also a stylised beast head carved into the sedilia. The abbey is the recorded burial place of twenty-one MacDermots, thirteen of them kings of Morlurg, and of twelve known members of the royal family of Boyle. Abbot Donchad O’Daly (d. 1250) is considered a medieval poet of special merit. He is now spoken of as the Ovid of Ireland.

The site is now managed by Heritage of Ireland and the recently restored gatehouse now houses an exhibition and visitors centre. The site is open to the public at regular times throughout the year.