Boyle Abbey, a 12th century Cistercian monastery, is a national monument in the care of the OPW (Office of Public Works).
If you are based near Boyle or are travelling through, spend an hour here looking around the impressive ruin of the monastery’s main building and visiting the exhibition in the restored part of the abbey.
The abbey is a big, imposing ruin right in the centre of Boyle, County Roscommon. You can’t miss it. Drive towards the town centre and look for the church and bell tower you see on the photo underneath. Parking is not a problem in Boyle most of the time, and so far, parking in the town is free of charge.
The abbey is open from Easter until October daily from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. The charge is 3 Euros for an adult, 1 euro for children and students. These are OPW rates.
Boyle Abbey is a 12th century Cistercian Abbey. The Cistercian order was invited to Ireland by Saint Malachy who was an instrumental part of Irish Church reform. Bringing in foreign orders like the Cistercians from Normandy who were loyal to Rome was to mark the end of an era of indigenous Celtic Irish monasticism such as was practised at Clonmacnoise.
The Cistercians settled first at Mellifont Abbey in County Louth. From there, a total of 34 daughter houses were established all over the country. Boyle Abbey was one of those. The order was given lands by the local ruling family, the McGreevy’s mid twelfth century. From 1161 on the Cistercians settled and started building in Boyle. The building process went on for 60 odd years. The building incorporated old monastic buildings that were already on the site. Boyle Abbey was consecrated in 1218 at the peak of the Cistercian activities in Ireland which declined towards the end of the 13th century.
Life in a Cistercian monastery was very ordered. It was structured from dawn until dusk between work, prayer and other duties. The order lives in silence. Cistercians are normally known for simplicity in architecture as well as in their way of life, but the ruin of Boyle Abbey tells a different story.
The building is massive, especially the large tower is unusually big compared to other architecture of the time around here. Even though the abbey was destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries, there are a good few remaining elaborate stone carvings that decorated the church and adjoining buildings. See an example on the photo above.
You have to take into account that the building was used as an English garrison for some two hundred years and took a lot of abuse during that time. The only carvings that are left now are those high up that could not be easily destroyed. originally, there would have been more.The stone carvings were executed by local stone masons who were contracted and paid by the Cistercians indicating that there must have been substantial funds around, at least for a while.
Bru Na Boinne
Eugene Handley of the OPW gave us a private guided tour around the abbey and showed us some of these carvings. Many symbols have yet to be deciphered such as the image of wild cats or dogs and a peacock collectively eating a human head. The symbol of the peacock, originally from the Middle East, had been adopted by Christians alright, but what about the rest of the image? Death versus rebirth? Why wild cats or dogs?
Another image shows some monks, initially you would only see four or five, but the closer you look at it the more you end up seeing. Altogether, 14 monks are depicted in this small carving. They are shown to have shoulder length hair. The standard Roman hairstyle or ‘tonsure’ for monks was a circle of hair around the head. The top of the head was shaved exposing a large circle, and the bottom of the hair was shaved also. The circle of hair around the head was meant to resemble a crown of thorns. Irish monks however had their own style of tonsure. Historians were trying to solve the puzzle of what Irish tonsure looked like by piecing together scant information from documents, and by taking into account images like this carving. Historians now believe that the back of the head was shaven in a triangular pattern with the point of the triangle pointing down towards the back of the neck.
The abbey also has a small carving which is believed to be a Sheela Na Gig, (see it on the photo underneath) even though the delicate features of the relief are quite damaged. A Sheela Na Gig is the image of a woman spreading her legs to reveal her vagina. This symbol was adopted into early Christianity from paganism, and again, there is no definitive interpretation of what it means. One possible meaning here at Boyle Abbey could be about the idea of rebirth, seeing that the Sheela diagonally opposes deaths' door at the front of the church which was only ever used for exiting coffins after a funeral mass.The monastery’s last abbot was executed by the English in 1584 for refusing to disavow his allegiance to Rome. From 1599 on the building became used as a barracks for the next two hundred years and was destroyed badly in the process.
If you are around the area don't miss this special place which gives you a good feel for just how impressive the culture of medieval Ireland would have been.
Check out the OPW heritage card if you plan to visit more than one OPW site during the season. There are real savings to be had here.
Check out some of the other attractions that are within easy reach of Boyle town on this page and make a weekend trip of it!
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