Boyne Valley part 2: the new religion

5 days ago
60 in ireland

A few days back I published an article about a recent trip to Ireland’s Boyne valley. That account of Newgrange took us back to the dawn of the human presence on my island. But a few miles away - a delightful drive through winding lanes and crisp winter sunshine, the mist all gone by now - lie two of the most evocative monuments of a different spirituality. This second part introduces Monasterboice with its celtic christianity, and Mellifont abbey, from a time when the Roman rule had ousted the religion of Patrick’s precursors.

Once again the photographs are by @janicesmith.

Founded in the late 5th century by Saint Buite (who died around 521), Monasterboice was an important religious centre until the establishment of nearby Mellifont in 1142. After 400 years of worship, the settlement was captured by invading Vikings in 968 AD, who were then comprehensively expelled by Donal, the Irish High King of Tara.

The Monasterboice round tower was used as a watchtower and refuge for monks and valuables during times of Viking attack

We knew little about the site when we found our way to a small carpark across from an old graveyard, two ruined churches and - the landmark Monasterboice is most famous for - a round tower. Inside the ruins stands the impressive Muiredach's High Cross (5.5 metres high), regarded as the finest high cross in the whole of Ireland.

The crosses stand in the shadow of the magnificent but now roofless round tower, about 35 metres high and apparently divided into four or more storeys inside, once connected with ladders. The Monasterboice round tower was used as a watchtower and refuge for monks and valuables during times of Viking attack.

The Cross of Muiredach, west face pictured on the right, gets its name from an inscription at the base of the west face, saying it was erected by Muiredach. Generally, the east side of a high cross will contain scenes from the Christian Old Testament and the west side scenes from the New Testament.

Samson toppling the pillars of the temple, David with the head of Goliath, the Temptation of St Anthony, the Baptism of Christ, Christ in the Tomb, Samuel anointing David and Pilate washing his hands

The east face of Muiredach's cross bears scriptural panels from the old testament. At the bottom of the shaft are two animals, possibly lions - though we like to think of them as cats! Other panels show Adam and Eve with Cain and Abel, David smiting Goliath, Moses striking water from the rock, and the adoration of the Magi.

The Tall or West Cross, the tallest high cross in Ireland, stands about 7 metres high. This cross is unusual in that the crucifixion scene on the west face, has a fully clothed figure of Christ.

It’s an interesting site, still used as a burial-place by local families, the same few names recurring on headstones across the last century or so. And there beside and above them, emblems and monuments from ‘dark age’ Christianity.

But the spiritual practices of the Celtic Monastic period fell into disfavour, and by the 12th century abbeys such as Monasterboice lay in ruins. Rome pressed for a new monastic settlement in an Ireland now under the influence of the Anglo-Normans. St. Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh, along with a group of Irish monks who had trained in the Cistercian order at Clairvaux, Burgundy founded Mellifont abbey in 1142.

It’s interesting, in these days of Trump and Brexit, to remember that pan-national - even pan-cultural - alliances have often been the norm. Here, an austere Cistercian style would have been recognised across western Europe.

And perhaps the most striking, and dissonant, piece of architecture, the lavabo - a washing-place for the monks - would have been familiar to travellers returning from France or Germany where new more ornate Romanesque styles were coming into fashion.

By 1170, Mellifont had one hundred monks and three hundred lay brothers. It became the model for other Irish Cistercian abbeys, with its formal style of architecture imported from the abbeys of the same order in France. But in 1539, following Henry VIII’s break from Rome and dissolution of the monasteries, the abbey became a fortified house.

William of Orange used Mellifont Abbey House as his headquarters during the Battle of the Boyne in 1690

In 1603 the Treaty of Mellifont was agreed between the English Crown and Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone in the abbey grounds, Mellifont was then the property of Garret Moore, 1st Viscount Moore, who was a close friend of Tyrone, and helped persuade him to sign the Treaty. The Moore family remained at Mellifont until 1927. (William of Orange used Mellifont Abbey House as his headquarters during the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.)

I hope you’ve enjoyed this whistlestop tour through Ireland’s Boyne valley. We didn’t have time to visit the many other sites in the area, but if you’re thinking of visiting you can do some preliminary research on Wikipedia’s entries on Monasterboice and Mellifont and the Discover Boyne Valley website which has information on the sites we visited, and more.

And of course, call me if you need a guide!

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