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Cistercian Abbeys: MELLIFONT

Name: MELLIFONT Location: nr Drogheda County: Louth
Foundation: 1142 Mother house: Clairvaux
Relocation: None Founder: Malachy, archbishop of Armargh
Dissolution: 1539 Prominent members: Christian O’Conarchy
Access: Heritage of Ireland - open to the public

Mellifont cloister arcade
© Stuart Harrison
<click to enlarge>
Mellifont cloister arcade

Mellifont was the first Cistercian abbey to be founded in Ireland. In 1139 St. Malachy O’Morgair, former archbishop of Armagh and then Bishop of Down, set out on a pilgrimage to Rome. On his way he stayed in the Cistercian abbey of Clairvaux and was so impressed with life at the monastery that he decided to become a Cistercian monk himself. In Rome Malachy appealed to the pope to absolve him of his priestly duties but his request was refused and so he returned to Ireland to fulfil his pastoral responsibilities. On his return journey Malachy stayed at Clairvaux for another two months, and left four of his companions at the abbey when he continued to Ireland.
After returning to Ireland, Malachy sent another group of Irishmen to Clairvaux to be taught in the Cistercian rule. Christian O’Conarchy (Gilla Crist O’Connairche) was made father of the Irish monks. In the meantime Malachy had found a suitable site for the new abbey, a secluded spot near Drogheda on the River Mattock, a tributary of the Boyne. The site had been granted by Donough O’Carroll, king of Oriel, who was a strong supporter of the ecclesiastical reform movement. The Latin name of the abbey, ‘Fons Mellis’ or the fount of honey, alludes to the purity and sweetness of Cistercian life. When all the Irishmen had been professed they returned to their homeland, accompanied by a group of French monks. One of the French monks, called Robert, was to direct the construction of the abbey based on the design of Cîteaux. The monks arrived in 1142 and they settled at Mellifont. The French monks, however, did not mix well with the Irish and most of them returned to Clairvaux. In 1151 Abbot Christian was made bishop of Lismore and soon after became papal legate. After his death (in 1186) his name was inscribed in the calendar of the saints, and he has long been venerated as one of the most powerful protectors of Ireland.

The church was consecrated in 1152. The ceremony was conducted by Gillamacliag mac Ruadhri, archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland, and was attended by seventeen bishops, together with Muircheartach Ua Lochlainn, King of Ireland, Devorigilla, wife of the king of Meath and several other Irish kings. The growing prestige of the abbey was reflected by the fact that by 1170 four out of the five provincial kings had become patrons of the order. The size of the community increased rapidly and Mellifont had established six daughter houses within ten years of its foundation: Bective (1146); Boyle (1148); Monasterenanagh (1148); Baltinglass (1148); Shrule (1150); and Newry (1153). By 1170 the abbey was said to contain 100 monks and 300 lay-brothers. However, by the turn of the thirteenth century the internal standards of the abbey had been allowed to decline. The Cistercian General Chapter heard disturbing reports and, in 1216, organised a general visitation of the Irish houses. The Irish monks resented this interference from Clairvaux and when the visitors arrived at Mellifont the gates of the monastery were shut in their faces. The troubled soon spread to the other Irish Cistercian monasteries; the visitors were blocked from entry and their presence was greeted with riot. The rebellion soon became known as the ‘conspiracy of Mellifont’ and in 1217 the Cistercian General Chapter deposed Thomas, the abbot of Mellifont. In 1227 the abbot of Clairvaux sent two French monks to address the problems but they were able to remove no more than six abbots from office and they appointed the Anglo-Norman abbot of Owney to act in their stead. The Irish bitterly resented him and did all they could to hinder his progress.

In 1228 a new visitor was appointed: Stephen of Lexington, abbot of Stanley, in Wiltshire. He introduced a radical programme of reform. He broke up the Mellifont affiliation and new mother houses – Margam, Buildwas, Furness, Fountains and Clairvaux – were appointed to the Irish houses. He also placed groups of Anglo-Norman monks in the Irish houses and deposed those abbots involved in the rebellion, appointing some twelve abbots himself. In 1228 Jocelin, the prior, was elected abbot of Mellifont; twelve repentant monks and sixteen lay-brothers who were involved in the conspiracy were received back; forty others, who had fled were reconciled and sent to French or English abbeys. In the same year the number in the community was fixed at fifty monks and sixty lay-brothers. The situation eventually settled down and in 1274 it was decreed that the Irish abbeys should be restored to their former parentage. Abbot John Waring, c. 1458 – 71, brought the abbey to the verge of ruin by leasing out property too cheaply. His successor, Roger Boley, did much to improve the temporal prosperity of the abbey and at the time of the Dissolution the annual income of the abbey was valued at £352, making it the second richest Cistercian house in Ireland. Abbot Richard Contour surrendered the abbey in July 1539. King Henry VIII seized the treasures of the abbey, and unfortunately th annals were either destroyed or lost at this tim. In 1540 the royal commissioners reported that the abbey church had been used as the local parish church for some time prior to the Dissolution and that much of the precinct was in a state of ruin.

The lavabo at Mellifont
© Stuart Harrison
<click to enlarge>
The lavabo at Mellifont

In 1566 the property was granted to Edward Moore, chief of the family Drogheda, who built a fortified house within the monastery. Several of the monks stayed on at the abbey and in 1623 the title of abbot of Mellifont was granted to Patrick Barnewell and again in 1648 to John Devreux. When war broke out in 1641 the Cistercians began to disperse and in 1718 the last abbot of Mellifont was succeeded by a secular priest. In 1727 the property passed to Balfour of Townly Hall and was thereafter allowed to decay. The only parts of the abbey to have survived are the lavabo (c. 1200), the chapter-house (c. 1220) and the late medieval gatehouse. A series of excavations have also revealed the foundations of the church and conventual buildings. The octagonal lavabo is intricately decorated and is one of the most delicate medieval buildings in Ireland. It was not an essential building and it is thought that it was constructed in order to enhance the prestige of the abbey within the Order. A reconstructed section of the Romanesque cloister arcade now stands beside the lavabo. Hundreds of carved and moulded stones have been recovered from the site together with thousands of pieces of floor tiles. Six patterns have been recovered on the floor tiles, four with foliage and floral motifs, the other two with animals. Although the remains are only fragmentary they are sufficient to convey the immense size of the monastery in its heyday.
The site is now managed by Heritage of Ireland; it has a visitor’s centre and picnic area and can be accessed by the public at all reasonable times. The ‘Story of Mellifont’ by Father Colmcille covers the history of Mellifont and the Cistercian Order in Ireland in more detail.