Fr Kevin Hegarty
Mount Melleray is the best-known Cistercian Monastery in Ireland. Established in 1833, it is situated on the slopes of the Knockmealdown Mountain in County Waterford. It merits a mention in James Joyce’s short story ‘The Dead’, and Seán Ó Riordán and Seán Dunne have written poems about it.
What is less well known is that it might have been founded on the Erris Peninsula in Mayo. Recently I came across, in a second-hand bookshop, a biography of the monastery’s founder, Dom Vincent, which tells the story of what might have been.
Dom Vincent Ryan was a Waterford man who had joined the Cistercian order in France. Due to the fraught political situation in France at the time, the order decided to build a monastery in Ireland.
In 1831 Dom Vincent was sent to Ireland to find a site for the foundation. On his arrival in Dublin he sought the help of Daniel O’Connell in his task.
Fresh from his achievement of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, O’Connell was the leading nationalist politician in Ireland and a fervent champion of the Catholic cause.
It so happened that also at the meeting was Fr John Patrick Lyons, the parish priest of Kilmore-Erris, who had come to seek O’Connell’s support for the alleviation of the famine that was ravaging his community. He showed an immediate interest in Dom Vincent’s ambition and believed that he could help.
Lyons had been appointed parish priest in Kilmore-Erris in 1825. In the early 19th century, the barony of Erris, which approximates in size to the county of Dublin, was relatively undiscovered. WH Maxwell in his book ‘Wild Sports of the West’, wrote that on leaving Newport to enter Erris, he looked around and ‘took a silent but mournful farewell of Christendom’. Until the 1820s, when the first major road was constructed, Erris was inaccessible from November to May.
Given its barren landscape, its distance from centres of commerce and its high population, Erris was one of the most impoverished regions in pre-Great Famine Ireland. Over half of Lyons’ parishioners lived in a constant tension between survival and destitution.
Lyons was an enthusiastic reformer. He had a church built at Binghamstown where he also established a Sunday School for religious eduction.
He did not confine himself to the religious sphere. He believed that Christian witness had to be actualised in active concern for the alleviation of poverty and the removal of its structural causes. He wanted to lift the tyranny of poverty from the shoulders of his people.
Believing that education was one of the keys to social progress, he welcomed the national school education system, set up in 1831, as it enabled him to provide schools throughout the parish. When his community suffered a severe famine in 1831, he travelled to England to collect money to relieve the distress. He was aware that such measures met only an immediate need. They assuaged but did not solve the economic problems.
This perception led him to become involved in agricultural reform. He believed that agricultural practises in Erris were primitive and contributed to its economic vulnerability. Just before he met Dom Vincent he had rented a large tract of land in the parish where he hoped to established model farms.
That is why he was so enthusiastic about his meeting with Dom Vincent. To him it seemed providential. The Cistercian order is noted for its commitment to progressive agricultural methods on their monastery farms. He invited Dom Vincent to establish a monastery on the land he had rented. There they could instruct the locals in agricultural reform.
Dom Vincent also believed his prayers had been answered. Enthusiasm, however, soon turned into disillusion. On a visit to the proposed site in Erris he was shocked by the desolate vista before his eyes. His biographer Killian Walshe, wrote:
“Before him lay the land of promise, flowing not alas with milk and honey but with dark pools of brackish water. It was simply an extensive black bog, bare of vegetation and open to the sea.”
To Lyons’s disappointment Dom Vincent turned down the offer of the site as he ‘could not expose my brethren to the dreadful consequences of settling down in such a place’.
Even the Cistercian appetite for austerity was exhausted by the barren landscape of Erris. Some time afterwards he found a home for his monks in the fertile lands of his native Waterford.