A look at the history and archaeology of Mellifont Abbey in County Louth, the first Cistercian abbey to be built in Ireland.

The remains of Mellifont Abbey lie in a valley of the River Mattock, a tributary of the Boyne, near Drogheda in County Louth. The monastery is close to Brú na Bóinne and the site of the Battle of the Boyne. However Mellifont was founded in 1142, over 500 years before King James II and William fought in 1690.

The first Cistercians came to Ireland at the invitation of Saint Malachy, archbishop of Armagh. Having visited their monastery at Clairvaux in North East France, he asked the abbot, Saint Bernard, to train some of his men in the monastic way of life.  

These monks, along with some French monks came back to Ireland and founded Mellifont Abbey. 
The abbey adopted the same style of architecture as seen in the order in France.

By 1170, Mellifont had one hundred monks and three hundred lay brothers. The Abbey became the model for other Cistercian abbeys built in Ireland and a number of other Cistercian houses in Ireland were established. 

Mellifont was the main abbey in Ireland until King Henry VIII’s suppression of the monasteries in 1539. In 1566 the building was granted to the Moore family. who sold it in 1727 and it then fell into ruin.

Little was known about the remains at Mellifont until archaeological excavations took place at the site. Now visitors to Mellifont can see the ground plan of the Abbey and some of the intact portions of the monastic settlement. One such structure is an octagonal colonnade, a wash house known as the Lavabo, of which four sides remain.

Objects found during excavations include a chalice, coins, fragments of pillars and capitals, as well as glazed tiles from the original Abbey church.

Archaeologist and historian Liam de Paor carried out excavations at Mellifont Abbey in the 1950s and his findings published in the proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy.

This episode of ‘Broadsheet’ was first broadcast on 18 December 1962. The reporter is Liam de Paor.