The Cistercian Order was founded by St Bernard of Clairvaux in Burgundy, France, in 1098. St Bernard believed that the other monastic orders had become dissolute and undisciplined, and he founded the Cistercians as an austere and hard-working order who focused on a life of prayer. Inspired by his zeal, St Malachy of Armagh, the Irish saint and friend of St Bernard, founded Mellifont Abbey in 1142 with a group of Irish and French monks.
The abbey was extremely successful from its earliest stages and it developed rapidly. Monks from Mellifont were dispatched to found ‘daughter houses’ around Ireland; within just five years of the foundation of Mellifont in 1147, a daughter house had already been established at Bective in County Meath and within twenty years the Cistercians had establishments in Connacht, such as that founded at Boyle, County Roscommon in 1161. It is recorded that at least twenty-one abbeys were founded by monks from Mellifont.
Their foundations went beyond places of prayer. The Cistercians launched nothing short of an agricultural revolution in Ireland. Their management of land, establishment of mill complexes and trades such as the wool trade, was highly profitable, and brought wealth and power to the Cistercian order. This expanded considerably after the Norman invasion of Ireland. The Cistercians divided their land into large lots, and sent their lay brethren out to work it. They farmed cereals like bread wheat, oats and barley. They also established orchards and fruit gardens, and their continental connections allowed them to set up sophisticated import and export networks. An important excavation of a Cistercian grange at Beaubec, not far from Mellifont, revealed insights into this aspect of their story. You can hear more about this dig in Episode 25 of our Amplify Archaeology Podcast.
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