It was Saint Malachy of Armagh who was instrumental in establishing the Cistercian Order in Ireland. On his way to Rome in 1139 to discuss with Pope Innocent II important matters appertaining to the ongoing reform of the Irish Church, Malachy visited Saint Bernard at Clairvaux. The Irishman was so impressed by the life of the Cistercian monks that when he reached Rome he asked the Pope to allow him to become a monk at Clairvaux. Pope Innocent would not agree to this, as he regarded Malachy’s work as a bishop to be indispensable under the prevailing ecclesiastical re-structuring circumstances in Ireland. Indeed the Pope appointed Malachy papal legate for the country.
On his way home from Rome in 1140 Malachy again visited Clairvaux and left behind him there some of his Irish companions to be trained as Cistercian monks, and he sent more Irish postulants to France for the same purpose when he arrived back in Ireland. Then in 1142 Bernard sent the first Cistercians to Ireland, a mixed colony of Irish and French monks.
The first Irish Cistercian abbot was Gillacríst (anglicised as Christian) O’Conarchy, who had been a fellow novice at Clairvaux with Bernardo Paganelli (Bernard of Pisa), who in 1145 became Pope Eugene III. Gillacríst presided over this pioneer community during the early stages of the construction and religious development of Mellifont Abbey, built on a carefully chosen site near Drogheda.
The number of Cistercian houses in Ireland grew rapidly after the foundation of Mellifont in 1142, and by the opening years of the following century there was hardly a corner of Ireland into which the Cistercian Order had not penetrated. Probably as a result of the country’s monastic heritage, the Irish character and temperament adapted without difficulty to the Cistercian spirit, observance and outlook. The monks identified closely with the people of the localities around their monasteries. Their orientation towards agriculture and pastoral activities pleased the people very much. The austerity of Cistercian practices, too, was reminiscent of the old traditional, native asceticism. At any rate, the Order naturalised itself at once in the island, and as long as the original rigour and fervour were maintained it flourished, and the number of abbeys grew.
When the Normans arrived in the country in 1169, ten Irish Cistercian monasteries had already been established. Most of the other abbeys that post-dated the Norman landing were founded from these pre-Norman houses. Some of the more prominent abbeys were, however, of Norman-British affiliation, such as the two County Wexford abbeys of Dunbrody and Tintern, the County Kilkenny abbey of Duiske (Graiguenamanagh) and Owney Abbey in County Limerick. Also, a few of the Irish abbeys, including Saint Mary’s, Dublin, which had been in existence before the Norman invasion, finding themselves later in the centre of the British sphere of influence, became anglicised, and remained so until the monastic suppressions in the sixteenth century.