I'd got the notion of a monastic retreat from H.V. Morton's In Search of Ireland, published in 1930. (At the time I was working on a story idea, and though that story's on the back burner now my experience there was still very worthwhile.) The English travel-writer outlines the history of Mount Melleray like this:
In 1830 a band of Trappist monks expelled from France arrived on the slopes of the barren Knockmealdown Mountains with 1s. 10d. between them! They made some kind of shelter and a little oratory. The peasants came from the hills to do a day's work for them. Their farm-lands grew. They became known for their good works. Rich men made wills in their favour, and so, gradually and within one hundred years, the penniless settlement has grown into a large, prosperous, and obviously wealthy community. Their farm-lands are a tribute to their energy and their knowledge. They have made what was once a wilderness a place of corn and fruit; and grass, where fat cattle graze...(I hope that, like the vow of silence, this excessively morbid practice has been discontinued. At any rate, we walked the grounds and didn't see any ominous holes in the ground.)
We went out into the garden and into the grounds. There are rows of open graves. At first the visitor does not understand what they are. He has to be told that it is part of a Trappist's duty to dig his own grave...
Long after Morton's visit to the abbey, in August 1985, three local children claimed that the Virgin Mary appeared to them in a grotto just down the road. We took a walk down there too, where there's a sheltered area for masses and all the usual religious bits and bobs, candles and prayer-cards and suchlike.
The whole time we were at the monastery I only took pictures of the splendid old windows in my room. I wanted to document our visit, but not at the risk of offending the monks; after all, we were meant to be pilgrims, not tourists.
The first night we got up at 4am to hear the vigils sung in the chapel. I think it was more of a chant, but at any rate it was a rather surreal experience to be rising at the sound of church-bells in the middle of the night. I was too lazy to get up the following night, although I'd wanted to.
In H.V. Morton's time, the monastery offered more than just a quiet retreat; the writer describes being woken in the middle of the night by another guest gone delirious for want of a drink.
Father Brendan, the guestmaster, I have been told, is one of the greatest living experts in the treatment of dipsomania. I believe that when a drunkard goes to Melleray he is given the amount of liquor to which he is accustomed, but in reduced quantities every day until, at the end of the cure, he is drinking water. But it is the moral influence of the monastery which pulls him through.The monks we met—those few who were delegated to interact with the guests—were such lovely old men, warm and welcoming, with a great sense of humor. We had simple, filling meals in the guesthouse dining room, and at the end of our stay we just slipped an envelope into a box on the guestmaster's door.
The voice whimpered on for half an hour or so and ended in silly babbling laughter.
After Mount Melleray we drove to Ardmore, where we'd planned to spend the night, but it turns out absolutely nobody (save us) visits Ardmore in the low season. The lovely B&B I'd stayed at in May 2006 wasn't open, nor was the old hotel. But we visited St. Declan's and did the cliff walk before leaving, of course. Ardmore is far and away my favorite spot in County Waterford.
(Angels in the graveyard; St. Declan's Church; a close-up of Adam and Eve; the view over Ardmore Bay; Seanan on the cliff walk.)
So we spent the night in Dungarvan, where we had a delicious dinner at The Tannery (the portions were rather dainty though), and the next day we drove to Glendalough.
Seanan had never been to Glendalough, which surprised me—I figured it was the sort of place you'd visit on a school field trip even if your parents never took you. It's one of those rare tourist destinations that somehow manages to feel completely unspoiled; but that probably has much to do with it being so near Dublin, so most people only come for the afternoon.
Anyway, we had very nice eating and sleeping there too, at the Wicklow Heather (a great meal every time I've been there) and at Heather House, which is owned by the same folks. The village of Laragh is only a kilometer away, and that's where most of the accommodation is, plus a convenience store and petrol station. I've never been to the pub in Laragh, but I've heard the grub isn't very good. Eating at the Wicklow Heather is a no-brainer. And we got to have breakfast there too!
(I'll post better Glendalough photos at some point. The foliage was really pretty—we were there at the beginning of November—but my pics from this trip don't do it justice.)