Mellifont Abbey

Mellifont Abbey in County Louth was founded because of the enthusiasm of three people, King Donough O’Carroll of Oriel, Malachy O’Morgair and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Malachy O’Morgair is more commonly known as St. Malachy. In 1140 Malachy went to Rome for a meeting with the Pope. He did so in his capacity as Papal Legate. On his way he detoured to visit Clairvaux where he met Bernard. Obviously the two men got on very well and developed a close friendship. Malachy was very impressed by what he saw at Clairvaux and initially considered resigning as Papal Legate and joining the monastery.

He actually petitioned the Pope for permission to do this, but the Pope refused, indicating that Malachy was needed to guide through Church reforms in Ireland. On his return journey, Malachy paid another visit to Bernard and discussed the possibility of introducing the Cistercians to Ireland. It was agreed to proceed and Malachy left four of his travelling companions behind at Clairvaux to be trained in Cistercian monastic life. Left behind was Christian O’Connor, who was to be Mellifont’s first Abbot. When Malachy arrived home, he discussed matters with Donough O’Carroll who was anxious to have the monastery located in his Kingdom and in the new Diocese of Oriel. He donated land outside of Drogheda along the banks of the Mattock River, a small tributary of the Boyne. He also donated 60 ounces of gold from his personal fortune to the new Abbey and paid for much of the building. He had a deep personal interest in the entire project.

Malachy now sent over a new group of Irish recruits to be trained at Clairvaux and shortly after this, requested that two of the original group, who had been trained at Clairvaux, be allowed to return to Oriel to prepare for the building of the new monastery. Bernard in correspondence with Malachy stated that the original group of four were not yet ready to return home. Bernard wrote “It would not be well for them to be separated from us until Christ is more fully formed in them”. The foundation date of the new monastery was 1142 A.D. when an Abbot and twelve monks arrived. These were both French and Irish and shortly afterwards, the second group of Irish, who had trained at Clairvaux arrived. Malachy died at Clairvaux in November 1148 A.D. He was on another journey to Rome and again diverted to visit Clairvaux. He died there of fever, aged 54. Christian O’Conor, the first Abbot, became Bishop of Lismore in 1150, and also Papal Legate. He was granted this by a former fellow student at Clairvaux, Bernard of Pisa, in his capacity as Pope Eugenius III. Christian O’Connor was succeeded as Abbot by his brother Malchus. The Abbey was finally consecrated in 1157 A.D. in the presence of Donough O’Carroll, O’Rourke and the High King O’Lochlainn. All of these men generously endowed the new Monastery. Mellifont prospered and the huge inflow of people wishing to join, made it necessary to set up a daughter house at Bective in Meath. By 1154 A.D. there were ten Cistercian Monasteries in Ireland.

Donough O’Carroll was buried at Mellifont Abbey. This is recorded in the Annals of Multyfarnham. His tomb was on the Gospel side of the High Altar of the old Abbey Church. This Church was extended eastwards in late medieval times and so the position of the altar would also have moved. In 1954 extensive excavations were carried out at Mellifont Abbey. Two stone coffins were discovered, one appeared to be of 15th century workmanship and the other of earlier workmanship. At least five sets of human remains were discovered in the 15th century coffin, while the earlier one was empty. The main burial consisted of a full human skeleton, badly crushed and containing a small silver chalice and a fragmented paten. This was probably the remains of a bishop. The other skeletons consisted of a mass of bones that were mixed together and would have been transferred to this coffin sometime in the 15th century. It can be speculated that when the Abbey church was being extended eastwards, that the bones of Donough O’Carroll and of his son, Murrough, who succeeded him as King and who died in 1189 A.D. were reinterred in the equivalent place of honour in the new Abbey Church within this stone coffin. This would have been consistent with the custom of the time when the founder of a monastic establishment would be remembered and honoured in this way.

Interestingly, when Malachy died at Clairvaux in 1148 A.D. he was buried in front of the high alter of the Abbey and when Bernard died he was buried beside Malachy, indicating the great friendship that existed between these two men.