The Cistercians were founded in 1098 in Burgundy, France by a group of Benedictine monks who had grown dissatisfied with the lax observance of religiosity in their own order. The new order demanded asceticism, manual labour and silence. The Cistercians were predominantly farmers and with a large disciplined, unpaid workforce were able to expand rapidly in Continental Europe and in Britain. With their skill in farming and their ability to increase production, especially in wool in Wales and Yorkshire, they played an important part in economic development in the 12th Century.
The Archbishop of Armagh, St Malachy visited the headquarters of the Cistercians at Clairvaux, France and was impressed by the order and discipline. They were also loyal to Rome. He considered that they might be able to help stem the decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland and invited them to establish in Ireland. Their first establishment was Mellifont Abbey in Louth.
On their arrival in Boyle they were given the old monastic buildings located there and set about building the abbey whose ruins we see today. They were also granted 50,000 acres along the western bank of the River Shannon by the local chieftain, McGreevy.
The monastery at Boyle was laid out in the usual Cistercian quadrangle with a church on the north side of a cloister with a chapter house, living and sleeping quarters and stores making up the other sides. The church itself adheres to Cistercian design with a nave with side aisles, a transept to the north and south of the crossing, each with a chapel and a chancel with high windows.
The abbey was turned into a barracks by the Elizabethan conquerors in 1592, followed by the Cromwellians in 1645. The monastery was used as a barracks for two hundred years before being allowed to fall derelict. While the church building is reasonably well preserved, the rest of the monastery has disappeared, apart from a defensive wall built when the site was used as a barracks.
The OPW carried out extensive archaeological and preservation work in the early 1980s and the abbey was opened to the public in 1983. Jim Fahy, RTE’s then Western Correspondent complied a report and film at the time.
The RTE film clearly shows the precarious condition of the north colonnade (on left in picture below) of the nave of the church which had, at some stage, been crudely buttressed and reinforced to prevent its collapse. This reinforcement has recently been removed by the OPW and the colonnade completely rebuilt.
A feature added during military use was a gatehouse on the western perimeter. This was rebuilt by the OPW as part of the project undertaken in the 1980s.
The Abbey has many fine examples of medieval stonework.