Boyle Abbey (Irish: Mainistir na Búille) was the first successful foundation in Connacht of the Cistercian order which had opened its first Irish house at Mellifont, County Louth, in 1142. Its monks were invited to the country by the St Malachy, sometime archbishop of Armagh, in order to help him in his efforts to reform the old Irish church which, both morally and organisationally, had fallen out of line with much of the rest of Christian Europe.
Their initial success was phenomenal, as Mellifont sent out its monks to found one daughter house after another within a decade of its foundation. For some as yet unexplained reason, the Cistercians found it difficult to find a permanent home for themselves in Connacht, making three false starts before they finally settled at Boyle in 1161 beside a small river that flows into Lough Key. Their patrons there are likely to have been the local MacDermott lords of Moylurg but, perhaps because money was short, building progress was slow, and the church must have taken about sixty years to complete, going from east to west until the final portion was completed around 1220. The monastery was laid out according to the usual Cistercian plan, a church on the north side of a roughly rectangular cloister area, with a chapter house for meetings of the monks on a second side, a kitchen and a refectory on the third, and probably store houses and dormitory above on the fourth.
But only small parts of the cloister survive, because it was turned into a barracks by the Elizabethans in 1592, and the Cromwellians who besieged it in 1645. This, along with possible later stonequarrying, ensured that little survives. Despite this, the ruins are impressive, dominated by a squat square tower that was added above the crossing sometime in the thirteenth century. The church adheres to the Cistercian canon in having a nave with side aisles, a transept to the north and south of the crossing, each with a pair of chapels in the east wall, and a chancel, whose original windows were replaced in the thirteenth century. The design was influenced by styles from Burgundy, from whence the Cistercians came to Ireland, but 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 is now a national monument in state care and admission is currently free while restoration work is being carried out.
- Boyle Abbey at Ireland West