Cistercian monks first appeared in Ireland in 1142 with the foundation of Mellifont Abbey, County Louth on the instructions of St Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh. The Cistercians were a reforming order established in Cîteaux, Burgundy at the very end of the previous century to counter what was perceived to be the decadence of the Benedictines in houses like Cluny. Cistercian monks sought to live in remote sites far from existing settlements and their buildings reflected the same desire for austerity: as a rule the order’s monasteries were designed to be simple and utilitarian, and devoid of superfluous decoration. The same was also true of their churches where ornamentation might distract the monks from prayer and reflection. In a much-quoted and influential passage from his Apologia written in 1124 St Bernard of Clairvaux denounced the overly-elaborate religious buildings of the period: ‘But in the cloister, in the sight of the reading monks, what is the point of such ridiculous monstrosity, the strange kind of shapely shapelessness? Why these unsightly monkeys, why these fierce lions, why the monstrous centaurs, why semi-humans, why spotted tigers, why fighting soldiers, why trumpeting huntsmen?…In short there is such a variety and such a diversity of strange shapes everywhere that we may prefer to read the marbles rather than the books.’ The outcome was that Cistercian abbeys remained notable for the purity of their architecture such as can still be seen in the ruins of the former house at Boyle, County Roscommon.
Under its abbot Maurice O’Duffy the monastery at Boyle was the first successful Cistercian settlement in Connaught, the monks from Mellifont arriving on the site in 1161. Several efforts had been made in the years immediately preceding to establish a house elsewhere in the area but to no avail. Fortunately the Boyle monastery received support from the MacDermots, Lords of Moylurg who governed over this part of north Roscommon. Nevertheless, even before the building’s completion Boyle Abbey was sacked by the Anglo-Norman adventurer William de Burgo in 1202. Twenty-five years later, the abbey had become involved in a religious dispute known as the ‘Conspiracy of Mellifont.’ In essence, this was an argument between Irish monks and those from France and England about what form the cloistered life should take. Whereas the latter wished to impose uniformity of practice among members of the order, the Irish appear to have retained some of their own traditions, such as monks occupying individual cells rather than participating in communal living. Eventually in 1228 Stephen of Lexington, abbot of Stanley Abbey in Wiltshire (and future abbot of Clairvaux) was sent by the Cistercian General Chapter on a visitation to Ireland with the intent of ensuring obedience. Several abbots, including that of Boyle, were removed from their position (and often sent to houses in England or France) and Boyle itself was affiliated to Clairvaux rather than Mellifont so as to ensure it did not slip back into the old ways. A mere seven years later, the monastery was was attacked and plundered by forces under the command of the Lords Justices including Maurice FitzGerald; this army took possession of the premises, seized all goods, vestments and chalices, and stripped the monks of their habits in the cloister. There were further attacks in the later Middle Ages when Boyle became caught up in feuds between the warring MacDermot and O’Conor clans.
Boyle Abbey exemplifies mediaeval Cistercian architecture while in some respects differing from it. In addition, owing to the length of time taken to construct the church, this building includes elements of both the Romanesque and Early Gothic styles: it was only in 1218, almost sixty years after the monks first settled on the site that the church was solemnly consecrated. The monastery was laid out according to the usual Cistercian plan, around a central cloister garth. To the immediate north of this lies the church, with the chapter house and abbot’s parlour on the east side, and the kitchen and refectory on the south. and the dormitory a church on the north side of a roughly rectangular cloister area, with a chapter house for meetings of the monks on a second side, and a kitchen and a refectory on the third (with access to clean water from the river immediately behind this range). The gatehouse lay on the west side, as did public access to the church. The last of these remains the best preserved part of the complex. It features a barrel-vaulted 12th century chancel with 13th century lancet windows above the crossing. To the west of this, the main body has a nave with side aisles, a transept to the north and south of the crossing, each with a pair of chapels on the east wall. A massive tower at the crossing rises to some sixty feet. In the nave the most striking feature is the difference between the piers on the south and north sides. The former are squatter with rounded arches, the latter’s pointed. And contrary to Cistercian disapproval of ornament, many of the corbels and capitals, especially those to the west end of the church, are carved with elaborate designs, some featuring humans and animals.
The Cistercians remained at Boyle Abbey until the 16th century when the turmoil experienced some three hundred years earlier befell them again. Although Henry VIII introduced legislation in the Irish Parliament in 1537 for the the dissolution of the country’s monasteries, his authority did not actually run throughout Ireland and so the majority of houses continued as before. However, Boyle became caught up in a family dispute among the MacDermotts and in 1555 the abbey was burnt, followed by further assaults in the following years. In 1569 the abbey as granted by the English crown to Patrick Cusack of Gerrardstown, County Meath although ostensibly there was still an abbot of Boyle, Tomaltach MacDermot. In fact its last abbot was Glaisne O Cuilleanain, executed in Dublin in 1584. Five years later it was granted to William Ussher on a lease of twenty-one years and six years after that the old abbey was besieged by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone with a force of some 2,300 men. In 1603 Boyle was leased to two English soldiers, John Bingley and John King, the latter finally taking possession of the property, along with more than 4,000 acres in 1617: the Kings remained a dominant presence in the area until the last century. As for the abbey, now renamed Boyle Castle it became a military barracks and accordingly suffered further, with much of the stone of the cloisters being dismantled and recycled elsewhere. Only the main body of the church remained relatively immune to deprecation, hence its condition today. Boyle Abbey is now in the care of the state and in recent years has benefitted from an extensive programme of restoration, although the large glass corridor built along the north side of the church will not be to everyone’s taste. Resembling a bloated greenhouse it is supposed to protect the building from the elements. However given the rest of the site has no such covering the protection on offer is rather limited. Ignore this latest addition and revel in the superior taste of the Cistercians.