Mellifont Abbey and Irelands Helen of Troy

Mellifont Abbey Model

Mellifont Abbey Model

Mellifont Abbey in County Louth was the first Cistercian Abbey in Ireland. The Cistercian’s where founded in France by Robert of Molesme in 1098 seeking a simpler more Spartan way of live; which he found on a bog south of Dijon called Cîteaux (Cistercian is derived from this villages name).

Cîteaux abbey

Cîteaux abbey

 

The Cistercians grew in popularity and started to spread their wings. Saint Malachy, the Archbishop of Armagh described the Irish population as nothing short of pagans after years of Viking integration. In 1140 he visited Clairvaux Abbey in France and returned to set up sister Abbeys in here. Interestingly he is credited to penning the ‘Prophecy of the Popes’. Malachy had a vision there would be 112 more popes until final redemption. Good news, Pope Francis is now 112.

Saint Malachy, the Archbishop of Armagh

Saint Malachy, the Archbishop of Armagh

So Mellifont was Saint Malachys first stab at setting up the Cistercian system here. It was founded in 1142 only two years after his excursion to France. The Abbey had at one point over 100 monks and several hundred lay brothers farming the surrounding lands. The remains of the church column bases give some indication to the enormous size of the structure that used to stand on the site.

Column Base

Column Base

During excavations a number of graves where discovered beneath the church. Coffin shaped stone marking are now embedded into the ground to highlight where remains were found. They would have belonged to benefactors and patrons to the monastery. Curiously they all pointed towards the alter, facing east…expect for two.

Site where graves were found....all facing East

Locations  where graves were found, all facing East…

Two Graves Facing West

…except these two

As with most stories there is a twist. Mellifont Abbey couldn’t be a straightforward tale of the rise and fall of this monetary. Believed to be also buried under the church was Derbforgaill (Derval). Who was Derbforgaill? She was the daughter of the King of Meath. She was married off to Tigernán Ua Ruairc (Tiernan O’Rourke), a north eastern king in 1128 as to create an alliance as was the tradition globally. Things get a little hazy here.

Things start to get hazy with Helen of  Troy

Things start to get hazy with this story of Troy

By all accounts she was abducted by the Kingdom of Leinster Diarmait McMurrough and taken (without a whole lot of protest it seems) to Ferns in Wexford. After some standing off she was returned safely in 1153 within a year. So why is she buried at the Abbey? Well she was there for the actual consecration of the Abbey in 1157. She was a generous benefactor and thus earned her right to be buried on its grounds. However the rumours that her abduction may have actually been ‘elopement’ never left her and so as she possibly broke the sanctity of marriage. Therefore Helen of Troy was she was buried pointing west, away from the alter (The second grave is believed to be her (unfortunate) lady in waiting.

Mellifont Abbey

Mellifont Abbey

Moving on from the church is the 14th Century Chapter House. As you’d expect this little room has its own tale to tell. From the original tiles, gothic archways and ordinate doorway which was so beautiful it was stolen in the 18th Century.

Chapter House Arches

Chapter House Arches

Chapter House Tiling

Chapter House Tiling

Walking away with door is beyond even the slight-handed individual so it’s assumed it was lost in a wager. Or else someone had one hell of a party on site. Either way it’s gone and someone somewhere in the world, when the doorbell rings answers that door. That person was believed to be Archbishop of New York until a very similar doorway in St Patricks Cathedral in New York was proven to be a replica. As I said, that would have been some party.

Chapter House minus a door

Chapter House minus a door

The iconic photo of this site is the octagonal lavabo. Built around the 13th Century this was an ordinate basin for washing the monk’s hands. Lavabo is Latin for ‘I shall wash’. In the ecclesiastical life it is a ritual before mass. The current ruins are a little grander then Saint Malachy and friends envisaged.

Mellifont Abbey Lavabo

Mellifont Abbey Lavabo

Mellifont Abbey actually fell in to private hands in 1556. Those lucky hands belonged to Sir Edward Moore; no doubt friend reigning King Henry VIII (Its no mean feat keeping on Henrys good side given the rate of attrition with his wives). Over a period of five years (1536-1541) King Henry VIII set about closed down monasteries while conveniently assuming all their assets, including the bricks and mortar monasteries themselves. This was partly due to Henry waking up in February 1531 and deciding he was Supreme Head of the Church in England and partly due to being a really, really handy way to get his bank balance looking more healthy.

King Henry also liked the look of this

King Henry also liked the look of this

Sir Edward Moore built and fortified his new home on the site. The extra level on the lavabo is believed to have been added around this time to make the lavabo as a grand entrance to the house. The abbey remained a private residence until it was finally unoccupied in the early 1700’s and since fell in to disrepair. It wasn’t an uneventful period; in 1603 the Treaty of Mellifont was signed here which ended the Nine Years War.

The Gatehouse (Added Fortifications)

The Gatehouse (Added Fortifications)

Briefly the Nine Years War involved a rebellion by Hugh O’Neill of County Tyrone and Hugh Roe O’Donnell of County Donegal against English rule in 1594. In 1598 2000 English troops were ambushed and beaten at the Battle of the Yellow Ford en route to Armagh. This really kicked things off, and the rebellion spread out of the North to all corners of the island. The rebellion was actually going places, even the Spanish helped out sending over a force to land in Kinsale in Cork. However the English penned the Spanish into Kinsale and subsequently trashed a force of Hugh Roe O’Donnell’s trying to rescue them. This swung momentum in the English direction and O’Donnell fled to Spain whist Hugh O’Neill eventually surrendered and signed the following terms:

The Surrender

The Surrender

  • Swear loyality to the Crown.
  • Renounce his the Gaelic title and reinstate the title of Earl of Tyrone which allowed him a seat in the Irish House of Lords.
  • He retained his origional lands.
  • Brehon law (early Irish law) is be replaced with English law on his lands.
  • English would be the official language on his lands.
  • He retained his traditional core territory, apart from any Church lands.
  • Catholic buildings could not be built on his lands.
A small museum is on site

A small museum is on site

On-Site Map

On-Site Map

View from Map Point

View from Map Point

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