Ireland’s first Cistercian Abbey, Old Mellifont Abbey in County Louth, lies in ruins, cupped in the hollow of protective hills, listening to the ever gurgling sounds of a busy stream.
A still and peaceful setting, it’s easy to imagine medieval monks living, working and praying in this idyllic setting. It is one of Ireland’s thin places, a spiritual place with an interesting turn in its long history.
Let’s explore this amazing place, which is part of Ireland’s cultural heritage.
First, take a look at this quick video which highlights the state of this monastic site today.
Founded By Saint Malachy:
Founded in 1142 by Saint Malachy, Bishop of Down, it survived for four centuries until it was suppressed in 1539, by the notorious Henry VIII of England.
Malachy spent some time at a French Cistercian Monastery at Clairvaux, where the abbot Saint Bernard agreed to help the Irish bishop. A French architect was sent to Ireland to design the monastery.
It was finally completed in 1225. Over 35 other Cistercian monasteries soon followed, all over Ireland.
Mellifont was the first Irish example of the classic, monastic architecture of medieval Europe.
Building of the monastery was sponsored by Donchadh O’Carroll, King of Uriel, another name for County Louth.
Saint Malachy sent some Irish novices to be trained at Clairvaux, and they returned with some French monks to start the monastery.
Saint Bernard also sent a master-mason to help with the building and his skill and expertise is still evident in the magnificent stone carvings around the octagonal centerpiece building.
The Opening of the First Church at Mellifont:
In 1157 the first church at Mellifont was consecrated and opened.
The opening celebration was attended by a noational synod, the papal legate Cardinal Paparo, and the High King of Ireland, Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn.
The High King presented 160 cows and 60 ounces of gold to the abbey. Other important people made generous gifts including Dervorgilla, the wife of Tiernan O’Rourke of Breifne.
She presented the monastery with 60 ounces of gold, a gold chalice for the high-altar and furnishings and ornaments for nine other altars throughout the monastery.
Now Dervorgilla was a unique character in Irish history – she could be called Ireland’s Helen of Troy. She was abducted by Dermot McMurrough, the infamous King of Leinster, who invited the Normans to Ireland. But that’s a story for another day.
Dervorgilla’s generous gift may have been a down payment for her retirement. Once she was released from captivity and returned to the O’Rourke clan, she retired to Mellifont Abbey. In her old age she was cared for at the monastery and she died there in 1193.
Suppression Of Old Mellifont Abbey:
In 1539 Old Mellifont Abbey ceased operating as a monastery.
It fell victim to Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, a set of administrative and legal processes set into motion between 1536 and 1541.
The self-proclaimed head of the English Church set about disbanding monasteries, priories, convents and friaries, in England, Wales and Ireland.
He confiscated their assets, appropriated their income, sold off their treasures, while taking over their functions. His motive was none other than greed.
He hoped to increase the regular income of the Crown, by controlling the functions of the monasteries, but his need to fund his military campaigns resulted in the sale of many former monastic properties.
In 1566 the buildings at Mellifont were granted to Edward Moore, ancestor of the Earls of Drogheda, and loyal follower of the British Crown. He turned the abbey into a fortified residence, and his family lived their until the 1700’s.
In March 1603, the Great Hugh O’Neill was starved into surrender in the house of his supposed friend, Sir Garret Moore. He was forced to submit to the English Lord Deputy, Mountjoy.
Exploring the Ruins Today:
Even though it now lies in ruins, the beautiful architecture and design of this busy monastery lie as testament to the men who built and worked here at Old Mellifont Abbey.
The ruins of the lavabo building have become symbolic of County Louth.
This lavabo was a washing area for he monks. Its Romanesque arches are still stunning to this very day, even though only a small portion of the building remains.
Here’s a look at how this Abbey once looked.
Traces of these buildings can still be recognized from the low stone walls that still stand.
Fragmentary remains of the chapter house, the church, the kitchen and dormitories reveal glimpses of a time long past.
Just north of the abbey are the remains of a 15th century castle-like gatehouse.
Its ruined remains mark a stunning entrance for visitors to this ancient monastic site.
Discover Ireland’s Monastic Heritage In County Louth:
Old Mellifont Abbey is a spiritual place to this very day. Ireland’s deeply entwined Celtic and Christian roots date back many centuries, and are clearly evident in the fragmentary remains of this ruined Cistercian monastery.
Visiting Ireland’s crumbling churches, monasteries and holy landmarks, takes visitors on a sacred journey.
Even though the physical surroundings may lie in ruins, these ancient monastic sites are where Celtic spirituality continues to resonate on a soulful level.
As tourists wander around the peaceful ruins of this once bustling monastery, sheep observe from the surrounding hills, just as they probably did over one thousand years ago.
Thank you for taking this tour of Old Mellifont Abbey with me today.
You may wish to check out all that County Louth has to offer, from monastic sites to medieval castles, dolmens to ancient stone circles, and majestic mountains to a stunning coastline.
To celebrate this iconic symbol of County Louth I created an online jigsaw puzzle celebrating Old Mellifont Abbey. I hope you have fun recreating these ancient monastic buildings.
Here are some other ancient sites we have visited in the past:
Thanks for following my recipes and ramblings.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
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