Mellifont - Lavabo

"The more things change the more they remain the same" goes one adage. This can be applied with good effect to Mellifont, perhaps the most famous Cistercian monastery in Ireland. For the remains of the Lavabo, the communal washing place of the monastery, which drew Thomas Wright's eye when he visited the place in the 1740s, is still the most striking feature to the modern pilgrim. That this should be the case is all the more notable when one considers that this site has been subjected to an extensive archaeological excavation in the 1880s, 1902 and 1954-5 and ongoing conservation and presentation programmes ever since.

Mellifont was the parent house in Ireland of the Cistercian Order, one of the most successful of the new monastic orders that spread across Europe in the 11th, 12th and early 13th centuries. It was founded in 1142 by no less a personage than St Malachy of Armagh who brought a group of monks with him from Clairvaux, one of the most famous Cistercian houses in France. The monastery was laid out in traditional style with a church and domestic buildings ranged around a rectangular cloister (for further details, see Stalley 1987, 248 and index). The Lavabo stood within the cloister garth and the scale of its late Romanesque architecture hints at the grace of the other monastic buildings that once stood here. While lavabos were a regular features of monastic cloisters, nothing like this structure can be found anywhere else in Ireland. Mellifont was one the most influential monasteries during its 400 year history but it along with most others in Britian and Ireland was dissolved in 1538-39 by order of King Henry VIII.

Thomas Wright also drew a pointed arch doorway here (see Louthiana, Book III, Plate XVII) but, along with almost all of the monastic buildings including the church, it has since disappeared. One wonders whether such total destruction was merely the product of an assiduous mind or part of a more ideological plan to destroy all trace of this bastion of medieval Catholicism. The survival of the Lavabo, when almost all else was reduced to foundations, is in many ways intriguing. One suspects the presence of a protective hand who, late in the day, cried "halt, you have destroyed enough!"

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