Visit to the Trappist Monastery of Mount Mellary

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter VI (12) | Start of Chapter

The following morning, in company with two countrywomen, an old lady and her daughter, I attempted to ascend the mountain. A dark deep ravine lies at the foot, the silence of which is broken only by the murmur of a little rill, which stealthily makes its way to the river that runs by the town. We were upon the ridge of the glen, picking blackberries, when a company of men with carts were passing, one called out, "Sure ye'd take a lift up the mountain; the way is long and tedious." A board from the back part of cart was taken out, and the daughter was helped up with "Mickey," and the mother and myself with "Paddy." The aspiring steeple of the monastery now rose in full view; the cultivated garden, the extended lawns, and fields whose ripened corn had just been gathered by the hand of the reaper, were spread on each hand, and in front of the chapel. We reached the porter's lodge, some rods from the monastery, where we descended from our cars. We saw a monk approaching, in his gown and cowl, and hoped he might be coming to meet us; but he passed in silence, not casting a look upon the prohibited article, woman, and entered the lodge.

Reaching the monastery, we were met by men and women, some walking, some riding from the gate to depart, and a pleasant-looking monk approached, and beckoned us to follow. Giving him my card, he drew on his spectacles, and reading "New York," his countenance lighted up, and he broke silence, "Then you are from New York; and how long? And have ye left friends after ye? And did ye come to see Ireland? repeating "America," as he led us into the garden, which was beautifully laid out as a place for ornament, and the burying-ground. Twelve of their number are sleeping there, with a wooden cross at the head and foot of each. We were next introduced into a long hall, where were wooden pegs upon each side, bearing the robes used for the week day, and over each the name of the owner. A narrow passage led us a few steps lower into the chapel. This is imposing, for, contrary to my expectations, it was more grand than gorgeous. The richness and tasteful finish of the decorations were beautiful. The lofty ceiling, the pillars of imitation marble at each end of the altar, and a large stained glass window behind it, which threw over the whole a light peculiarly grateful to the eye, had a happy effect. In the rear was the gallery for the choir and organ; the latter was a present from a gentleman in Dublin, who is now one of the brotherhood. It is an instrument of finished workmanship and tone.

We were next shown into a long corridor, on the end of which is written "Silence." No monk or visitor is here allowed to speak. We passed three of these long walks in silence, and then the dining-room was opened. Here were tables placed for a family of ninety-seven, with a knife, fork, and spoon to each person, a piece of coarse bread wrapped in a clean cloth, and a tumbler for water by the side. No flesh, fish, eggs, or butter is eaten by the monks; and from September till the twenty-fifth of March, they take but one meal a day, except a collation of four ounces of bread in the morning; the other six months they take two meals a day. We were next shown the sleeping-room: this is on true philosophical principles—a spacious, clean room, well ventilated, without a carpet, with a slight partition between each bed, leaving room for the free ingress of air, and a green worsted curtain before each door, elevated some inches from the floor. The beds are narrow, and made of straw, with a coarse covering. We were next seated in the guest's room, when a monk entered, to whom our guide introduced me as an American, and a friend to the Irish. He warmly welcomed me to the country, and set upon a table bread, butter, and wine. Learning that I took no butter, "What shall we get for you, then?" said our guide, "you are worse than ourselves. Why should you live so?" Explaining my reasons, "Very good," was the answer. I assured them that I should make a good dinner on bread and an apple, which the kind lady had given me, and they left the room. The bread was made of what is called in England second flour, the bran taken off, and the corn ground coarsely; it was brown and very sweet, and my companions testified to the good quality of the butter; both were made by the hands of a monk.

When we had been left a suitable time to finish our repast, the guide returned, presenting a book to register our names. We presented him with a piece of money, which we saw written over the door was requested to be given to any in attendance; he said to each of us, "Maybe you cannot consistently spare this; if so, we do not wish it." We assured him we were more than compensated. He then said, "walk down," and showing us to a little room at the foot of the stairs, without asking us to sit, he introduced me to an American, inquiring, "Did you leave your native land alone to seek out the poor in Ireland?" Then turning to a brother, he said in an under tone, "This is doing as Christ did. And," said he, addressing himself to me, "what, after all, do you think of Ireland? It is true she is a little island, but she has made a great noise in the world." She is, and has always been, poor in spirit, and struggling with poverty, and Christ has said the kingdom of heaven belongs to such. The being "poor in spirit" did not seem quite to the point, but leaving no time for argument, without apology, one after another presented the hand, saying, "good morrow," and retired, The guide took us out at the door, thanked us for coming, wished me a safe journey, showed us a shorter route over the mountain, and said, "Farewell."

As we looked back, and saw what a barren waste had been converted into a fruitful field by the hand of untiring industry, I felt an earnest desire to learn the history of this Herculean task; and at evening a member of the family where I lodged, who had been conversant with its history from the beginning, gave me the desired information.

These monks had been united with the brotherhood at La Trappe, in France, but had been banished thence. Those who were Irishmen returned to Ireland, in number about sixty, with but three shillings as all their earthly possessions. Some thirty pounds were collected, and sent to their relief the evening after their landing, and they soon fixed their eyes on this barren spot as the place for a future residence. Lord Kane, the owner of the mountain, offered six hundred acres, for a shilling a year per acre for twenty-one years; then, for half-a-crown an acre for ninety-nine years; and the lease to be renewed at the end of that term. This being settled, the bounds were laid out, and the neighboring priests invited their people to take spade and mattock, pick and shovel, and assist in making the wall. The day was appointed, the people assembled in crowds, each with his instrument of husbandry, and formed a procession at Cappoquin, with the monks at their head, carrying a cross. A band of music escorted them up the mountain, and the provisions and implements of cookery were carried on carts, the women following to cook the provisions. Thus commenced the wall, and so continued daily, the band going up at night to escort them down, and ascending with them in the mountain. The mountain was then a rocky, sterile, unpromising spot, covered with heath, and, to any but the eyes of a monk, wholly impervious to cultivation. They built a temporary shelter when the wall was finished, and remained there, working with their own hands, till a fruitful harvest gladdened their toil, and the "desert rejoiced and blossomed as the rose."

In 1833, the corner-stone of the grand chapel was laid. Thousands from all parts of Ireland collected. The monks, dressed in their robes, performed high mass before a temporary altar, erected under a tent, and a multitude of seventy thousand united in the celebration. A sermon was preached by the bishop, and the cornerstone was laid. Under this stone were placed the different coins, from the sovereign to the farthing. On it was inscribed:—

"Aug. 20th, 1838. Pope Pius VII., Sir Richard Kane, Baronet, and Lady Kane, patrons. Right Rev. Dr. Abraham, Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Waterford, the layer of the foundation-stone. Very Rev. Dr. M. V. Ryan, Prior of Mount Mellary Abbey.

The latter being the first abbot in Ireland since the Reformation. The foundation being laid, the work went on, till what now meets the wondering eye was completed. Not one of Eve's daughters has contaminated its purity, for the work is wholly performed by the monks, and the housekeeping does honor to the establishment; the cleanliness and the arrangements coinciding with those of the Shakers of America.

They retire a quarter before eight, and rise at two, when the bell of the chapel is rung, and they perform private devotion till six; then mass is performed in the chapel, and each goes to his respective labor. Perfect silence is enjoined for certain hours of the day, when they make known their wants by signs. They have a mechanic's shop where tailors, cabinet-makers, saddlers, shoe-makers, carpenters, weavers, &c., perform their work; and likewise a printing-press. All the labor is performed by the monks. They have twenty cows, a good stock of horses, and sheep and fowls of all kinds; and though they eat no flesh themselves, they present it in all its varieties to those who visit them. So economical are they of time, that during meals, one stands in an elevated pulpit, reading and lecturing, that no time may be lost in idle words at table.

The following Sabbath I had appointed to visit and read to an old woman upon the mountain, and we heard a sermon in the chapel. The sight of nearly a hundred monks, dressed in priestly robes, with all the accompaniments of grandeur, cannot fail deeply to impress a credulous people. When the deep-toned organ was swelling upon my ear, when the incense was ascending, and the people bowing to the floor, a kind of awe fell upon me, as I thought of the days of the church's former greatness, and what she is still destined to be and to do. The subject of the sermon was that of the guests at the wedding taking the highest seat, and the preacher expatiated beautifully and scripturally upon the sin of pride, referring to Lucifer, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and Herod. He dwelt on the depravity of man, and his liability to fall, saying he had a dead soul in a living body, exhorted them to be faithful in the penance of confession, to ask Jesus to forgive them, and the Blessed Virgin to pray for them. He was in look, manner, and eloquence, one of the most finished specimens of public speakers I had ever heard. His dress was becoming, and his figure beautiful. The simple unostentatious pulpit was a narrow corridor, extending from side to side of the chapel, parallel with the gallery, with a railing upon each side, and not a seat of any kind to rest upon.

My young and intelligent guide, who was a Catholic, turned into a part of the monastery to light his pipe, and left me to make my way down the mountain alone.

Ireland’s Welome to the Stranger is one of the best accounts of Irish social conditions, customs, quirks and habits that you could wish for. The author, Mrs Asenath Nicholson, was an American widow who travelled extensively in Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine and meticulously observed the Irish peasantry at work and play, as well as noting their living conditions and diet. The book is also available from Kindle.