Founded in 1142 by St Malachy, Mellifont, some 8km northwest of Drogheda, was the first and subsequently most important Cistercian foundation in Ireland, eventually heading an affiliation of more than twenty monasteries. Set in a tranquil spot by the River Mattock, Mellifont must once have been a hugely impressive complex, though its scant ruins leave much to the imagination.
Before touring the remains, take in the small exhibition in the visitor centre by the entrance, which details the foundation’s history and provides a scale model of the abbey’s layout. After the Reformation the abbey passed into the hands of Edward Moore, who converted its buildings into a fortified residence. Here in 1603, the great Irish chieftain Hugh O’Neill was besieged by Lord Mountjoy until starvation forced his surrender. During the Battle of the Boyne, William of Orange based himself at Mellifont, after which the property was abandoned and fell ultimately into dilapidation. It eventually passed into the hands of the Office of Public Works in the late twentieth century.
Entrance to the site is via the church’s north transept which features the remains of two stone piscinae, sinks for cleaning sacred serving vessels. As the church was built on sloping ground the broad nave has an uncommon feature, a crypt constructed to ensure it remained level. Next to the south transept stood the chapter house, whose floor features medieval glazed tiles, though some of these have been brought here from other parts of the abbey.
The tallest and finest remnant of the abbey stands in its expansive cloister garth, a remarkable octagonal arched lavabo, with fountains and basins where the monks would wash. The remaining ruins rarely rise above knee-height and you’ll need to consult the display-board map or buy the visitors’ guide to interpret them. Behind the lavabo, the southern ruins included both the calefactory (or warming house), the only heated room in the entire complex, and the refectory.