I was pleased to see that Archaeology Ireland’s Heritage Guide No. 70 (September 2015) was dedicated to Boyle Abbey.
In 1148 twelve monks and their abbot, Maurice O’Duffy, set out from Mellifont, Co. Louth, with the intention of establishing a Cistercian house in Connacht and eventually settled on the west bank of the Boyle River in 1161. Mellifont had been founded in 1142 by monks from Clairvaux in France. Boyle Abbey Church was finally consecrated in 1220.
It is of Romanesque and Gothic design and despite being plundered on a number of occasions, remains one of the finest examples of Medieval art.
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, the kitchen and refectory on the south and the dormitory on the north side of a roughly rectangular cloister area.
|Remains of Cloister and Garth|
Much of the detailing of the nave and particularly the cylindrical piers of the south arcade has strong echoes of the West of England. The decorated corbels and capitals belonging to them were probably carved by local masons, some of them members of the so-called ‘School of the West’, creating some of the most inventive architectural sculpture of the early thirteenth century in the West of Ireland.
The Abbey has been considerably altered over the years and at one time served as a military barracks. After the dissolution of monasteries in 1541, the Abbey survived for some years under the protection of Ruaidhri Mac Diarmada, King of Magh Luirg who was granted the monastic lands. However, by 1592 the abbey was being used as a military barracks by Richard Bingham, Governor of Connacht. In 1645 the monastery came under attack by Irish forces during the Cromwellian wars.
The gatehouse is thought to have been built during the 17th Century military occupation but may contain parts of the original entrance to the monastery. It leads into the cloister garth which still survives but with a cobbled surface which was laid down during the military occupation. At this time the cloister arcade was destroyed and new walls constructed to the south and west.
|The Nave - Boyle Abbey|
The abbey church is a long cross-shaped rectangular building. The east end of the building is thought to have been built shortly after the abbey was founded in 1161. Contrasting styles of architecture can be seen in the arches and pillars of the nave. Some of the pillars on the south side of the nave are cylindrical and the arches are Romanesque in style. The pillars opposite them on the north side are square with pointed arches representing the move towards a Gothic style.
Some similarities between Boyle Abbey and Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin have been noted and it is possible that some of the same craftsmen may have worked on both buildings. A number of the arch columns and corbels are highly decorated with different floral motifs and other decorations including: two male figures standing between trees, two dogs fighting and a pair of cockerels.
A number of medieval graveslabs have been found on this site. These include a thirteenth-century abbot’s gravestone which shows an arm holding a crozier while others bear the names Ua Mailchanig and Matheus.
The Cistercians remained at Boyle Abbey until the 16th century. Although Henry VIII introduced legislation in the Irish Parliament in 1537 for the dissolution of the country’s monasteries, his authority did not extend 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 with further assaults in the following years. In 1569 the abbey was granted by the English crown to Patrick Cusack of Gerrardstown, County Meath.
Boyle Abbey was the official family burial place of the MacDermots from the end of the twelfth Century until the latter part of the sixteenth.
Major conservation work was carried out on the Abbey during the period 2006 – 2012. This work followed an archaeological excavation to establish the original line of the north aisle wall which no longer exists. A new exterior wall and roof, made of reinforced glass, was erected reflecting the outline of the original building. Archaeological excavations produced evidence of medieval occupation including pottery, coins, pins and graveslabs together with numerous burials.
For further information please see Archaeology Ireland Heritage Guide No. 70 (September 2015)