The lack of mention of the Mount Melleray Abbey in the guidebooks is most likely because, even though the Abbey itself claims a venerable history, in fact the first settlement, a gamekeeper’s cottage already on the site, was blessed only in 1832. In Irish terms this barely qualifies as yesterday. Having survived the famine years (more miracles, possibly with some substance behind them—in the area around the abbey, only one person died of the black hunger in 1840 at the height of the famine because, the story goes, the community was fed from a miraculous bag of oatmeal, like the 40 loaves and fishes), the brothers began to build a Cistercian college, which stayed active until its closure in 1974.
When Breda took me to the Abbey I was stunned. The place is enormous, wildly out of scale with the surrounding farms and the closest bulge-in-the-road village. Even the Knockmealdown Mountains seem to cower next to its presence. Up closer, the whole place seems to be a series of long and narrow interconnected stone buildings that surround the huge church in a kind of tight maze pattern. Most of the buildings look like dormitories, built rather haphazardly in the heady days when there were so many men wanting to enter the monastery that they were being turned away. The fact that most of these would be empty now (the order is careful not to say how many men are currently in residence) must be gloomy for the few monks still in residence.
We wandered through the main nave, a space that could easily hold hundreds, a number I’m sure this abbey hasn’t seen for decades. As we left for our walk Breda pointed out the café and bookshop, both closed for the night. On the way out, a solitary monk walked by us, wishing us a good evening and blessing us.
The day I got back to the abbey the rain was coming down in torrents. I lost my way for a bit because of poor visibility and a road closure. When I finally arrived, peevish and hungry, I could only just make out the huge church tower through the raindrops on my windshield. Not surprisingly I was the only person in the café, it being late for lunch and the weather so foul Even so, it was not a peaceful place. The two young women working behind the counter had RTE1 blaring on some speakers; Talk to Joe was in full sob-story mode. The women were clearly bored and not about to stop their bantering for anything more than a quick glance at me. When they heard my accent they practically rolled their eyes, and probably did when I wasn’t looking.
I ordered a toasted sandwich which, when it came, was surprisingly tasty. During lunch I read a book about Irish food history, which of course centered on the famine. I am ashamed to admit that it was surprisingly easy to eat a chicken sandwich while reading about the million Irish who died and the other million who left. The darkest history of the famine reveals a time of unimaginable shame, which was not the subject of this particular discussion; I would not have managed so well had I been asked to confront those facts.
When I arrived at the Abbey the bookshop wasn’t open, but soon enough the lights came on, and by the time I walked across the nearly flooded courtyard (although the central fountain was spraying away) there were already two other customers browsing the stock. There were few actual books in the bookshop, which was filled with Catholic tchotchkes, virtually none of which I would have the slightest idea what to do with. Even so I was intrigued by some tiny prayer cards, but in the end I bought two bookmarks—Irish birth trees, no religion involved—and a photo-filled booklet about the Abbey that I will give to Breda. She has taken several people there but says she can never answer any questions about it. The monk who runs the bookstore carefully wrote out on a small paper bag the times for the various services in case I wanted to come back to pray.