Boyle Abbey

Boyle Abbey is in the town of Boyle, in County Roscommon in Ireland. I have written about it before as part of my Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions in 2017, you can see that post here. This post is going to go into more detail though.

Boyle Abbey is one of the many Cistercian abbeys in Ireland. I have written about the foundation of the Cistercian order, Bernard of Clairvaux and the spread of the Cistercian order in Ireland in this previous post about Mellifont Abbey, the first Cistercian abbey in Ireland. https://historicalragbag.com/2017/05/22/mellifont-abbey/

Suffice to say that the Cistercian order was founded on the concept of a life devoted to prayer, study and manual labour. It was a reaction against the more worldly and lavish monasticism that had risen out of the Benedictine monasteries, and the idea was a return to the original ideals of the Order of St Benedict. The Cistercian abbeys all followed a relatively similar layout and you can see how Boyle would have looked originally in the photo below.

Cistercian abbeys were intended to be self-sufficient, relying on fishing and farming to support their communities. Boyle Abbey, like most Cistercian foundations, relied on water and it lies on the banks of Boyle River. The water would have been used for drinking, running the mill and flushing drains. In Boyle, not all the monastic buildings remain even in ruin, as it was converted to a military barracks in the 16th century. You can see the walls and the gatehouse in photo below

There are treasures that survive at Boyle though, especially in the exquisite carvings in the church, but I’ll return to them a little later. To begin at the beginning.

The first monks arrived at Boyle Abbey in 1161. It was a daughter house of Mellifont Abbey which you can see in the photo below.

Abbeys were often founded by a specific person or family. For example Tintern Parva, also in Ireland, was founded by William Marshal in thanks for surviving a particularly rough crossing of the Irish Sea. You can see Tintern in the photo below.

In the case of Boyle though, we don’t know who the founder was, if any, but the MacDermot Family who were Lords of Moylurg were patrons from early on in Boyle’s existence.

Once Boyle was founded in 1161 it maintained its self sufficiency, for the most part continuing as it always had through the years. There are a handful of times where it did step onto the centre stage. The first was in 1202 when the Anglo-Norman lord William de Burgh, who was in alliance with the King of Connacht, ransacked Boyle Abbey for three days. The Annals of Loch Ce described it as

They reached the monastery of Ath-da-larag on the Buill [Boyle Abbey], in which they fixed their residence; and they were three days in it, so that they polluted and defiled the entire monastery; and such was the extent of the defilement that the mercenaries of the army had the women in the hospital of the monks, and in every place in the entire monastery besides. No structure in the monastery was left without breaking and burning except the roofs of the houses alone; and even of these a great portion was broken and burned. No part of the buildings of the entire monastery was allowed to the monks and the brothers, excepting only the dormitory of the monks, and the house of the novices.

This was part of broader fighting both between the Anglo-Norman lords, who had arrived in Ireland in 1169 and began to claim large swathes of Ireland, John King of England and the Irish chieftains and kings. These depredations would have slowed down the construction of Boyle’s buildings as well, the church was still being built at this point. In fact Boyle was almost a perpetual construction site.

Boyle’s next moment in the limelight was when the Abbot was involved with the Conspiracy of Mellifont. This was part of a broader conflict between the Cistercian General Chapter in Clairveaux in France and the Cistercian abbeys in Ireland. The General Chapter believed that the Irish abbeys were answering only to Mellifont and were behaving not in accordance with the rule of the General Chapter. It’s perfectly possible that this didn’t mean that their conduct with problematic, more that they just weren’t directly under the control of the General Chapter as much as the General Chapter wanted. It was a conflict years in the making, but resulted in the General Chapter deposing five of the abbots of Irish Cistercian monasteries, including Boyle, and ensuring that they were answerable directly to the General Chapter in Clairveaux, taking Mellifont out of the chain of command. This conflict was also part of the even broader conflict between the native Irish and the Anglo-Norman world.

Unfortunately for Boyle this secondary conflict continued and it was caught in the middle more than once. In 1235 it was attacked by the English who, according to the Annals of Loch Ce

broke open the sacristy; and all its valuable things, and its mass-chalices and altar cloths, were taken of it.

Eventually reparations were paid.

Apart from being the site of a few prominent burials Boyle stayed out of centre stage until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. While Henry VIII’s Act of Suppression of the Monasteries was passed in 1534, it took some time for all the monasteries to be suppressed, especially remote sites like Boyle. So Boyle hung on until 1584 when it was finally dissolved and its abbot Abbot Glaisne O’Culleanain was executed in Dublin when he refused to renounce Rome. Boyle was leased to William Usher from 1589 until 1599 and then until the 18th century it was under military occupation, and was known as Boyle Castle. It came into the hands of the Commissioners of Public Works as a National Monument in 1892 and is today in the hands of the OPW.

Before it was restored in 20th century, Boyle was allowed to return somewhat to nature. You can see some etchings of it in the 1800s below.

So despite being a military fortification for over 300 years, a surprisingly large part of the Cistercian structure of Boyle remains. You can see some of the surviving structures in the photos below

The jewel in the crown at Boyle though is the church.

It is a truly remarkable survival and actually my reason for wanting to write about Boyle, because it has some incredible carvings. The church was built over a number of years, with sections begun with the foundation of the abbey in 1161 including the presbytery and the transepts, where the tower also began.

The church was not built quickly. Its construction was interrupted by things like raids from Anglo-Norman lords, but a building of its grandeur simply takes time to build. The church wasn’t consecrated until 1218, and even then it was most likely not entirely complete, you can see elements of both Romanesque and gothic, and an early adoption of more English styles, such as the tower. The earliest part dates to the late 12th century and the latest part, mainly the north piers, to the start of the 13th. It was added to as time went on as well, with much of the current tower dating to the 1300s. The really interesting thing about Boyle’s church is its grandeur. Cistercian churches were meant to be plain and austere, towers were frowned upon because they were considered extravagant and elaborate carvings and ornamentations were also not approved. Boyle’s church, however, adheres to none of these rules. Illustrating how the Irish Cistercian churches were separating themselves from the General Chapter of the Cistercian order which led to the Mellifont Conspiracy.

To return though, to the carvings I keep mentioning. When the church was complete, there were nearly 40 new capitals (the top part of a column) that needed to be decorated, and it is these decorations that survive today. Again, this was against Cistercian tradition. Most were adorned with floral motifs, which were fairly common at the time.

Others were decorated with animals and similar figures.

The most remarkable though is one that depicts little men

This carving, and some of the animals, was completely out of keeping with anything you’d find in any Cistercian church. This indicates the Irishness of these churches, and their separation from the rest of the Cistercian order. They also indicate the wealth and influence of Boyle Abbey, and apart from anything else they are just lovely.

These aren’t the only carvings to survive at Boyle, you can see some of the others that have become dislodged over the years in the small museum on site. These include a sundial- which you can see on the left.

Boyle Abbey represents much of Irish history, with its incursion from Anglo-Norman lords and the English, along with conflict with the broader Cistercian order. Boyle is part of a large network of Cistercian churches throughout Ireland, but it stands out for its size and grandeur and especially its carvings.

References:

Site visit 2015

Boyle Abbey OPW booklet

The Antiquities of Ireland Volume I Grosse

The Daily Telegraph Castles and Ancient Monuments of Ireland by Damien Noonan

https://archive.org/details/annalsoflochcc01hennuoft/page/n11/mode/2up

https://www.dhi.ac.uk/cistercians/abbeys/boyle.php

Smith, Brendan. “The Armagh-Clogher Dispute and the ‘Mellifont Conspiracy’: Diocesan Politics and Monastic Reform in Early Thirteenth Century Ireland.” Seanchas Ardmhacha: Journal of the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society, vol. 14, no. 2, 1991, pp. 26–38. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/29742491. Accessed 5 Oct. 2020.

https://historicalragbag.com/2017/05/22/mellifont-abbey/

https://historicalragbag.com/2017/12/18/advent-calendar-of-medieval-religious-institutions-december-18th-boyle-abbey/

The photos are all mine.

St Govan’s Chapel

St Govan’s Chapel in Pembrokeshire Wales, is one of those places that has stories seeped into it. There’s not a lot of information, but it’s a fascinating place so in the tradition of Historical Ragbag, I thought I’d write about it. Especially because my last two posts have been so long and in depth, I thought something with a few more pictures and a little bit shorter might be nice too, so I settled on St Govan’s.

I wanted to start with the coast that St Govan’s is nestled in. The spectacular coastline is part of the Pembrokeshire National Park, but St Govan’s itself is actually situated on land owned by the Ministry of Defence. It’s called the Castlemartin Range, and means that it isn’t always open to visitors when the military is using the area. The Pembrokeshire National Park and The Ministry of Defence work closely together to preserve and protect this bit of coastline. You can see just how beautiful if is in the photos below.

You would be forgiven for missing St Govan’s. I had no idea it was there certainly. I was lucky enough that the owner of the BnB I was staying in knew I was interested in medieval history and drove me to some of the best medieval sites in the region. St Govan’s is nestled so close into the rock, it is almost invisible.

In winter waves can break over the Chapel. I was lucky enough to be there in excellent weather, it is still somewhat of a precarious descent though.

When you reach the bottom of the steps, you are met with a secluded door.

Once you walk through the Chapel, you can see why it is so prone to incursion by the sea.

So the history of this little Chapel, built into the cliffs of Pembrokeshire, is actually quite up for debate. All sorts of stories have grown up around it over time, it is even arguable who St Govan was and how he came to give him name to the Chapel. The spelling of ‘Govan’ is relatively contemporary with earlier maps referring to the chapel as St Gouen, Gowen, Goven, Gofan and Gobin. He could have been the nephew of St David, or possibly a disciple of St Eilfyw who baptised St David, or both. According to the information sign at the chapel, St Govan was most likely St Gobham who was the Abbot of Dairinis in County Wexford in Ireland, but there is an argument that this St Gobham was a totally seperate person who became confused with Govan over time because of the similarity of the names and two sources that got confused. It also gets murky because there is the possibility that the name Govan is a bastardisation of Gawain, one of King Arthur’s knights. This is unlikely (apart from the fact that Gawain is probably legendary), it is a story that has become woven into the history of the chapel over the centuries, and doesn’t seem to have any vaguely contemporary references. Most likely St Govan, if he existed at all, was a local saint possibly connected to St David. Regardless of who he was; at some point in probably the 5th century Govan came to the area and set up a monastic hermitage on the site the chapel now stands on. The current building dates to later than this, but I’ll return to that in a moment.

So the next question is, why did St Govan decide to set up a monastic hermitage on this site? Now, as you’ll see will become common in the history of St Govan’s, there’s a few different version of the story. The basic narrative is that he was being pursued by pirates, or the local villagers, or bandits of some kind and he couldn’t find safe refuge, so he prayed and a cleft in the rock opened miraculously for him to hide in. In one version the rocks closed so tightly around him to protect him that his ribs left an impression in the stone. Then in thanks he built a hermitage there and stayed the remainder of his life. St Govan’s Chapel is certainly in a small cleft in the rock, though I don’t think it was opened miraculously by God.

The other part of this legend is St Govan’s Bell. Again there are different versions, but the gist is that St Govan had a silver bell that he used to warn people of pirates in the area. The pirates stole the bell and St Govan prayed for its return and angels brought the bell back and set it in stone, so St Govan could still send out warnings. The large rock to the right of the Chapel is said to be this bell, and is still called bell rock.

Another, slightly more poetic version of the story can be seen in the BBC Cymru clip below, it also gives you a great idea of the landscape surrounding St Govan’s.

So, so far we aren’t sure exactly who St Govan was, or why he was there, or what he was doing, but there are lots of good stories. Now let’s turn to the Chapel itself. It was built on the site in either the 11th, 12th, 13th or 14th centuries, depending on who you talk to, and it is possible that versions of it were built in all of these centuries. It was definitely restored in the 1980s, which is why it is so intact. In particular I think the roof is the most recent. The Chapel itself is a single chamber measuring 5.5m by 3.7m with three doors, one of which opens into a natural cave which you can see in the photo below.

This cave is known as the saint’s cell, and it most likely here that the original St Govan set himself up before any version of the chapel was built, it is also possible that this is where he hid from the pirates (or whoever else was chasing him). It is right next to the altar in the chapel proper. There are a couple of intriguing legends that tie to the saint’s cell, one is that Jesus hid in there at one point, possibly from pirates (though no one seems clear on why Jesus was in Wales hiding from anyone). There is also the legend that if you climb into the cell and can turn around while making a wish, that it will come true. So again St Govan’s history is almost more of myth than of fact, but that in many ways makes it more interesting.

So the interior of the Chapel proper is quite sparse there is an altar, a piscina (a place for disposing of holy water etc), some stone benches and a well, along with some small windows looking out to sea. I will return to the well in a moment. You can see the interior of the Chapel in the photos below.

But to return to the wells. There are two at St Govan’s but only the one outside the Chapel is named for the saint. You can see it under the little domed cover in the bottom right of the photo below.

So this is a holy well. The stories of the powers of Welsh holy wells and St Govan’s in particular is a long one, and one that has been covered in detail by this excellent article from the Pembrokeshire Historical Society. http://www.pembrokeshirehistoricalsociety.co.uk/famous-cure-diseases-st-govans-well-350-years/

So the well at St Govan’s would have been famous locally for centuries, but the earliest recorded mention of it as a place to visit is from 1662 where a traveller John Ray said “Thence the same day to St. Gobin’s Well, by the sea side, where under the cliff stands a little chapel, sacred to the saint, and a little below it a well, famous for the cure of all diseases. There is, from the top of the cliff to the Chapel a descent of 52 steps”

Before I return to the well, I just want to quickly make a point about the steps. There is a legend that it is impossible to exactly count the number of steps down to the Chapel. Every account certainly seems to give a different number ranging between 50 ish and 70.

Returning to the well though. “Cure of all diseases” is a lovely catch all. Pilgrims did definitely go there to be cured over the centuries, and even into the 19th century sick people were visiting St Govan’s well in the hope of miraculous cures. As travel became easier more people were able to visit the well and it became known for cures for “scrofula, paralysis, dropsy, and other complaints” according to one account from the late 19th century. By 1922 however, the well was dry, as it remains today and St Govan’s story, and the Chapel’s story began to drift back into obscurity. Though it has remained a lovely and rather fascinating tourist destination, as well as having a very real history interwoven with myth. It’s definitely well worth visiting for the location alone, but I wouldn’t be looking for a cure for COVID there (sadly).

References:

Site visit 2012

https://www.visitpembrokeshire.com/attraction-listing/st-govans-chapel

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/st-govans-chapel

https://www.visitbritain.com/au/en/st-govans-chapel

https://www.pembrokeshirecoast.wales/about-the-national-park/culture-and-heritage/land-of-legends/st-govans-chapel/

All the photos are mine.

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 21st: Clonmacnoise

Clonmacnoise1clonmacnoise2Clonmacnoise3Clonmacnoise  in County Offaly was founded on the banks of the Shannon River by St. Ciaran in 544.

St. Ciaran didn’t have the chance to lead the monastery he founded for long. Clonmacnoise was founded on the 23rd of January 544 and St. Ciaran died of the plague on the 9th of September 544, he was only 33.

Clomanoise has buildings from a variety of ages:  round towers, temples and high crosses from the 10th and 11th century, a cathedral,  temples and churches from the 12th century, an Anglo-Norman castle from the the 13th century and 17th century temples. Clonmacnoise has also been an important burial site since its inception, with everyone from kings to saints buried there.

Clonmacnoise was much more than a simple monastery however, it was a renowned school that was a seminary for all of Ireland not just the local area. Masters were chosen for their learning and their zeal and abbots were changed on a rotation from all around Ireland. Students flocked to the monastery from all over Europe. From the eighth to the tenth centuries if boasted a legendary Scriptorium.

In the Scriptorium monks copied and illustrated bibles and other classical works. This was the golden age of monastic arts and craft and exquisite Celtic motifs. In the community at the same time stonemasons were carving the spectacular high crosses you can see today.

Sadly Clonmacnoise wasn’t allowed to remain a peaceful site of learning. It was the object of many raids by vikings, local lords and once the Anglo-Normans arrived they enacted almost yearly raids. The monastery was burnt and rebuilt many times, either partly or wholly. The ultimate demise of Clonmacnoise was down to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It was reduced to ruins by the English garrison of Athlone in 1552. They carried away absolutely everything of value leaving the monastery devastated.

References:

Site visit 2015.

The Story of Clonmacnoise and St. Ciaran: History, stories and legends of Clonmacnoise ISBN: 9781782800217

The photos are all mine

 

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 5th: Lindisfarne Priory

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The elegant and almost ethereal Lindisfarne Priory sits on Holy Island, which is only accessible by a causeway that is completely flooded with every high tide. The priory is one of the oldest religious sites in England. The land was gifted to Saint Aiden by Oswald, an Anglo Saxon King, in 635. Saint Aiden and later Saint Cuthbert used it as a base to convert Northumberland to Christianity. Lindisfarne is known as the cradle of Christianity in England.

Saint Cuthbert became bishop in 685 and when he died in 687 he was buried in a stone coffin on Lindisfarne. When his tomb was opened 11 years later the body was “incorrupt,” which was taken as a sign of his saintliness and a cult sprang up around him. The cult attracted pilgrims and ensured Lindisfarne’s place as a centre of Christian learning. This resulted in what, for me, is the most interesting part of the priory’s history; the famous Lindisfarne Gospels. They were begun at the priory in 698.

Very unusually for a medieval manuscript we know not only that the gospels were the work of one man, but who that man was. A note was added later identifying the artist as Eadfrith, who was bishop of Lindisfarne between 698 and 721. The work is one of extraordinary detail and skill, using a wide variety of pigments, although it remains partly unfinished due to Eadfrith’s death in 721. The Lindisfarne Gospels embodied a sense of Englishness that was growing at the time; the gospels are a mixture of Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Roman, Coptic and Eastern traditions. They symbolise a realm that was beginning to develop an individual identity. It is also truly beautiful.

This image is from the British Library and can be found here

http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/sacredtexts/lindisfarne_lg.html

To return to the priory itself. The origins of what you see today largely dates to the early 12th century when the priory was re-founded in 1122. The priory was abandoned in 875 after a series of devastating Viking raids from the 790s onwards led to the decision being taken that remaining on the island wasn’t safe. The church, the remains of which you can see in the first photo, was built around 1150.

The priory continued despite ongoing border warfare until it was dissolved under the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537. It was one of the 200 small religious houses that were the first to be suppressed.

References:

Site visit 2012.

Holy Island of Lindisfarne information booklet.

http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/lindisfarne-priory/history/

http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/sacredtexts/lindisfarne.html

The photos (apart from the gospel) are all mine

Mellifont Abbey

 

Mellifont Abbey in County Louth is one of the most interesting if inconspicuous (at first glance) abbeys in Ireland.

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It was founded by St. Malachy, with a group of Irish and French monks in 1142. It was the first Cistercian monastery in Ireland.

The Cistercian Order was founded in 1098 in Citeaux in what is now France. While its foundation is complex, essentially it was a reaction against the perceived corruption and extravagance of the older Benedictine monasteries like Cluny. The aim of the Cistercian Order was to return to the original ideals of St Benedict and to live a very simple life. Cistercian abbeys were usually isolated and self sufficient, though the lay brothers did the work on the farms because the monks were cloistered. They lived simply and ascetically, closely following the rule, away from the gold, excesses and luxuries often seen in the bigger older monasteries. They also deliberately founded daughter houses. By 1153 over 350 houses had been established across Europe, including Mellifont. This was at least partly due to the work of the man who is probably the best known Cistercian of his period; Bernard of Clairvaux.

Bernard is not one of my favourite historical figures, largely due to his puritanical opposition to Eleanor of Aquitaine when she was Queen of France. He was, however important. He joined the Cistercian Order as a novice in 1113 and by 1115 was the founding abbot of one of the early daughter houses in Clairvaux. He preached the 2nd crusade, was a councillor to Louis VII and had an immense amount of influence. He died in 1153 and was canonised  by 1174.

It was Bernard’s friend St Malachy who founded Mellifont Abbey. He was granted the land by Donnchadh Ua Cerbhaill, King of Airghialla. It was founded with roughly 300 monks and 300 conventuals. The church in the abbey was consecrated in 1157. The remains of part of the transept can be seen below.

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The foundation was part of a general re-evaluation of christianity in Ireland. There were several Synods leading up to Mellifont’s foundation in 1142. Furthermore the Cistercians were only one of a number of continental orders that arrived in Ireland at around the same time.

Mellifont might have been the first Cistercian abbey in Ireland, but it certainly wasn’t the last. It was the mother house for at least 8 daughter houses by 1153, including Boyle Abbey which was founded in 1148. The church of which can be seen below.

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The Cistercian Order spread quickly, partly because of Ireland’s landscape, which worked well for the Cistercian model of isolated self-sufficiency. The abbeys were also supported by the incoming Norman-French/ English nobility who came to Ireland in c.1170. Many of the Cistercian abbeys can be found in parts of Ireland that were  under Norman control by 1200. An example is Tintern Abbey which was founded by William Marshal.

Marshal came to visit his lands in Ireland that came to him by right of his wife Isabel de Clare in 1200-1201. They were caught in a terrible storm crossing the Irish Sea and Marshal vowed to God that if they survived he would found an abbey. The ship didn’t sink and Marshal kept his word. As thanks to God for their survival he founded Tintern Abbey, which  stands on Hook Head Peninsula. It’s known as Tintern of the Vow as well as Tintern Parva, meaning small Tintern in Latin. It can be seen below.
tintern parva

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It is a daughter house of Tintern Abbey in Wales, which also stood on Marshal land. It can be seen below.

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As you can see from the photos of other surviving Cistercian abbeys there is comparatively little left at Mellifont. IMG_4577IMG_4569IMG_4567IMG_4571It, like many other abbeys, was a victim of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. Following the Dissolution the buildings came to Sir Edward Moore who converted them into a fortified residence. It played a role in several Irish wars and during the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 King William based his headquarters there. It fell into disrepair in the early 18th century and eventually ended up in the hands of the state in the 1880s.

Despite that lack of large buildings remaining there are some fascinating surviving features. The one most people notice is the lavabo which dates to the beginning of the 13th century and would have been where the monks washed before entering the refectory. You can see it in the photos below. It is an unusual survival partly because it was octagonal.

IMG_4568IMG_4566Additionally much of the intricate stone work has survived and can be found preserved in the visitors centre. Examples can be seen below.

My favourite survivals however are the medieval tiles. I’ve written about medieval tiles before and that can be found here. 

The tiles at Mellifont aren’t in the original positions and they are kept in formation in a closed off area because they were damaged by vandalism. They were most likely first introduced to Mellifont sometime after 1230. Intricate patterns adorn the tiles. They represent  roughly 10 or 11 of the common medieval tile designs. You can see examples of surviving tiles below. IMG_4557IMG_4560

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I was also lucky enough to be able to have a look at some of the individual tiles which are in storage, including a really lovely lion rampant tile (see below). The tiles are surprisingly heavy and are earthenware with a lead glaze. They were fired in batches in a kiln. Mellifont would have bought them in, not made them on site

IMG_4564Most of these tiles were discovered during an excavation in the 1950s.

The overall evolution of Mellifont Abbey architecturally was key to religious architectural development in Ireland generally. It would have possessed some of the most dramatic and beautiful church buildings in Ireland. By 1540 Mellifont held estates that extended to 50 000 acres making the abbot one of the wealthiest landlords in the country. It was remodelled on several occasions and it is likely that other religious buildings across Ireland would have been based on its design. The photo below is a model which shows how the abbey itself might have looked at the height of its powers.

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Mellifont benefited from the support of many noble families including local Irish nobility, especially in its early years before the Norman conquest. For example Dervogilla, who was the wife of O’Rourke of Breffini, gave a gold chalice for the altar and furnishing for nine other altars as a gift for the consecration of the church in 1157. Only a little before this gift Dervogilla had, unwittingly, become one of the key sources in the Norman invasion of ireland.

Diarmait Mac Murchada was King of Leinster. He was involved with the other kings of Ireland in various disputes and battles. In 1152 during yet another conflict he carried off Dervogilla, who was the wife of his old enemy O’Rourke, and her cattle. Depending what source you believe she may have been consenting as her husband was a bit of a tyrant. This abduction was a personal insult to O’Rourke and he held a grudge. Although O’Rourke managed to reclaim Dervogilla, a little over a year later, he never forgave or forgot Diarmait. His grudge helped to lead to Diarmait’s loss of his kingdom in 1166 and his subsequent request for help from Henry II, which brought the Norman/French to Ireland in 1169. The never left again.

Dervogilla may have stayed with her husband after being reclaimed, but as well as Mellifont she had the Church of the Nuns at Clonmacnoise built. You can see some of Clonmacnoise in the photo below.

IMG_3598Dervogilla retired in 1186 to Mellifont and she died there. It is possible that she was buried in the wall of the church and legend has it that she was buried the wrong way round because she was a “fallen woman”.

Mellifont Abbey was at the core of faith in Ireland from its foundation in 1142 until its dissolution in the 16th century. It shaped the way religion was enacted in the country and it shaped the development of many other religious houses. For what now, especially in comparison to other sites, seems to be a small and inconspicuous grouping of walls and buildings it is of national historical importance.

 

References:

Site visit to Mellifont, Boyle, Clonmacnoise in 2015. Site visit to Tintern Pava in 2012 and 2015. Site visit to Tintern 2012.

Mellifont Abbey OPW guide-book.

Ireland Under The Normans 1169-1333 by Goddard Henry Orpen. ISBN: 9781851827152

Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 1980: Mellifont Abbey: A Study of Its Architectural History by Stalley. pg 264  http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.slv.vic.gov.au/stable/25506059

Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy :Excavations at Mellifont Abbey, Co. Louth: Liam de Paor, J. Hunt, H. J. Plenderleith and Michael Dolley pg 110. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.slv.vic.gov.au/stable/25505154http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.slv.vic.gov.au/stable/25505154

A Monastic Landscape: The Cistercians in medieval Ireland. Dr. Breda Lynch. ISBN. 9781453561003

Special thanks to Lindsay from OPW at the site who answered all my questions and showed me the tiles.

The photos are all mine.

 

Round Towers of Ireland

These structures have always fascinated me.

They were usually built sometime between the 9th and 12th centuries. They were generally part of monasteries and while they were built to stand alone some have been incorporated into later buildings. They are surprisingly uniform in design with circumferences at the base usually between 14 and 17 m and wall thickness from 0.9m and 1.7m. They also almost all have doors raised above the ground at least 3 m and they have at least four windows at the top, each of which often faces a cardinal point, along with more windows at lower levels in the tower. Most stand at close to 100 feet. There is a possibility that the dimensions were determined by the role of certain numbers in christian theology. They also had several levels connected by ladders. Additionally it is worth noting that the surviving conical tops were often reconstructed in later time periods.

Debate still continues as to their purpose. It is possible that they were simply bell towers, part of the system of the call to prayer with the height made necessary by the size of the ecclesiastical sites. They may have also been symbols reaching towards the glory of God and illustrating the importance of the ecclesiastical site, conveying messages of spiritual and temporal power. There is also an argument, though currently thought of as a little less likely, that they were watch towers and were part of defence systems. They may have been built partly as a response to Viking and other attacks. The monks would have been able to climb in, store their treasures, burn the stairs to the door, keep the raiders out and possibly ring bells from the top of the tower to call for assistance. Essentially no one is absolutely certain as to their purpose. It is also plausible that there were multiple purposes, combinations of the possibilities listed above.

They are immense structures though, the tallest at Kilmacduagh stands at 102 feet and is on a slight lean. They are beautiful and a testament to the ability of their builders as there are over thirty still standing in varying states of repair across Ireland.

Below you can see examples from all around Ireland of these beautiful and truly intriguing buildings.

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Glendalough Round Tower built between 900 and 1200.

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Glendalough Round Tower.

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St Canice’s Cathedral and Round Tower. Built c. 1111.

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View from St Canice’s  Round Tower.

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Interior of St Canice’s  Round Tower. It’s one of the only Round Towers you can climb.

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Kilmacduagh Round Tower c. 10th century.

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Kilmacduagh Round Tower.IMG_3586

The taller of Clonmacnoise’s two Round Towers c. 12th century.

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The taller of Clonmacnoise’s two Round Towers.

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The shorter of Clonmacnoise’s two Round Towers c. 12th century.

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Round Tower at Drumlane Abbey c. 10th- 11th century with c. 15th century additions.

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Round Tower at Drumlane Abbey.

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Kells high cross and Round Tower. The Round Tower dates to 10th century.

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Kells Round Tower.

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Monasterboice Round Tower 10th century.

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Monasterboise high cross and Round Tower.

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Donaghmore church and Round Tower 11th-12th century.

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Donaghmore Round Tower

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Lusk church and Round Tower c. 11th century.

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Lusk Round Tower

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Cashel Round Tower c. 11th century.

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Cashel Round Tower.

You can see the astounding similarity in all these towers. They truly stand as a testament to the immense skill of their builders and will, I’m sure, continue to fascinate people well into the future.

For more information see

This truly excellent article by Russell Ó Ríagáin which also investigates the possible influences in the building of the round towers.

https://www.academia.edu/399978/The_Round_Towers_of_Ireland_Date_Origins_Functions_and_Symbolism

For some more general information

http://www.roundtowers.org/

http://www.catholicireland.net/irelands-round-towers/

all the photos are mine.