Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Old Mellifont Abbey, Castle & Church Co Louth

                                         Above Image: Entrance to the infirmary

                                                Above Image: Part of the crypt

                                               Above Image: Chapter house

                                  Above & Below Images: Within the chapter house

                                          Above Image: Part of the cloister pillars

                                            Above & Below Images: The Lavabo

                                             Entrance to kitchen warming room

                            Above Image; Remains of cloister and lavabo with Castle
                                                    in the backround

                                   Above Image: Remains of North transept pillars
                                                           Visitor centre visible on top left.

                                                Above Image: Mellifont Castle

                                            Above Image: Vaulted lower chamber

                                Above Image: View of the Castle from the river bank

                                              Above Image: St Bernard's chapel

                                             Above Image: South facing window

                                   Above Image: Ancient stones in the graveyard

                                        Above Image: Approach lane to the chapel

The ruins of Old Mellifont Abbey lie in a valley adjacent to a fast running section of the River Mattock that was part of a millrace to an old nearby flax mill. The Abbey was founded in 1142 by order of St Malachy, who was at that time Bishop of Armagh. It was the first Cistercian monastic site in Ireland and was inhabited initially by French monks. It prospered over the years and many other Abbeys were founded in its wake. In 1539 it was dissolved by Henry VIII in his suppression of Churches and Abbeys. Interestingly the chapter house remained in use after the dissolution utilised by among others Sir Edward Moore who also turned the Abbey into a fortified residence. The chapter house was also the site where Hugh O’Neill signed the treaty of Mellifont with the crown after the battle of Kinsale. Later in 1690 it was used as a headquarters for William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne. It is the only building remaining intact and today houses some medieval glazed tiles.
I have to say I heard mixed reports regarding the ruins. Some found that the lack of many upstanding buildings left them underwhelmed but personally I think they have a lot to offer. A lot of what remains is at near foundation level but gives you an almost 3D map of the layout of the Abbey. You can walk on top of these low walls and get a sense of how great this place was. You can even see down to what was the Abbey crypt. We visited on Good Friday and it was a really sunny day and I think this is the perfect type of weather to compliment the ruins. Also the visitor centre only opens May-September but you can still access the ruins apart from the locked up chapter house at any time. Although many would like the tour I found it nicer to walk around uninhibited by crowds. I think I only met 5 or 6 people there on that visit and the serenity of the Abbey was only broken by the sound of the nearby Mattock river.
Apart from the aforementioned chapter house the most striking feature here is the Lavabo, a 13th century wash house for the monks. It is octagonal in shape with tall arches and a castellated top. A good deal of it remains and even some evidence of basins and water spouts.

A few arches also remain on site from the cloister and there are sections of walls from the refectory, kitchen and infirmary. In the area of the North Transept there are the remains of the giant columns that would have held up the roof.
Adjacent to the Abbey entrance is a medieval tower house that is likely to have been built after the dissolution in 1539. As mentioned the Abbey was turned into fortified home by Sir Edward Moore who may have constructed the castle as a means of defence against the numerous attacks by the Irish clans. The South facing half has collapsed exposing the inner walls and there is evidence of a once spiral staircase. What seems to be a large arched gateway is actually the vaulted ceiling of the castle basement. This did in fact come into use as a gateway later as it was depicted so in a print published in Francis Grose's Antiquities of England and Wales, 1786. It shows a man ambling towards the castle it in a very rural setting. It also depicts the castle in ruins at this stage.

On the hill behind the visitor centre are the ruins of a small L-shaped church with an ancient graveyard around it. It is accessed by a short lane way running up behind the centre. It is thought to have been constructed in the fourteenth century and is listed on the 1888-1913 ordnance survey map as being St Bernards’s Chapel. It is likely that it is named after St Bernard of Clairvaux in France who initially sent the monks to Ireland at St Malachy’s request and who died in 1152. The Chapel has a twin bellcote and an arched doorway with a double rounded window above it. There is another smaller window in the gable of the small section at the rear. While the Church was initially Roman Catholic it continued in use for a while after the dissolution as a Church of Ireland place of worship.
Quite a lot to see then and it turned out a really enjoyable visit. The blue sky and sunshine gave the ruins a real glow. As there are no restrictions to access you can visit the ruins at any time. I’m sure on a late summer’s evening when the sun is waning they would take on a totally different countenance.

To find the ruins take the Junction 10 exit of the M1 motorway and on the roundabout at the top take the exit for the R168 to Collon. (There is also a sign for the Abbey) Drive for approx. 3.3KM and you will see a left hand turn for the L6314 also signposting the Abbey. Drive for approx. 2KM and you will spot the castle tower ahead. There is a car park at the tower.

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