At Melleray Abbey residents get up at 3.45am, don't speak and own nothing. Peter Cunningham checked in
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Nowhere in Ireland resonates more with unchanged tradition than West Waterford. These rolling grasslands have long produced the richest of milks and cheeses. In the weak autumn sunlight, you can see the shapes remaining from the tight round haybales made here last summer.

The Duke of Devonshire's castle on the Blackwater in Lismore is said to be almost as magnificent as the castle in Warwick; and the banks of the river beneath Lismore Castle boast some of the best salmon beats in the British Isles. So it is on Lismore that most west-bound tourists are bent as they enter the town of Cappoquin, and in the process miss a chapter or two of Irish history.

Cappoquin, in the foothills of the Knockmealdown mountains, is gathered around the base of Cappoquin House. The town's streets and its shopfronts are largely unchanged from the 1950s: I don't know many places nowadays where you can see two tailors - two brothers - sitting cross-legged in a window on the main street at their sewing. I bought my newspaper in the local grocery and when the lady behind the counter couldn't break a tenner the local garda sergeant shimmered into view from behind the cornflakes and came up with change.

The Keane family have lived in Cappoquin House since the early-18th century and are a good example of how in Ireland seeming contradictions are never an impediment to getting on with daily life. The family still employ English titles - "Sir" and "Lady" - and speak in the manner which the Anglo-Irish believe to be English ascendancy but which the British have long and whimsically considered Irish. Keanes were Roman Catholic, Gaelic-speaking, and not Keane at all but O'Cahan before the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. King Billy's victory set off more than a trend in outsize bowler hats. The O'Cahans, showing how nimbleness is all in the survival of a species, changed their name, their language and their religion, and went on to serve the empire. Three hundred years after the Boyne they live in their beautiful house and estate in Cappoquin, their attitudes and manners largely frozen in another age, yet accepted by the townspeople as equally as the garda sergeant or the tailor brothers in their shop.

In 1832 Sir Richard Keane gave a homeless band of Cistercian monks from Melleray, not far from Chateaubriand in Brittany, over 600 acres of arid, windswept mountainage three miles up the road from Cappoquin. You approach it, as I did, from Cappoquin, or from the north, coming down from Tipperary over The Vee, a legendary mountain pass from which may be seen four counties.

The monks worked with the zeal of pioneers, and like Israel's kibbutzniks, transformed the wastes into pastures now protected from the cutting winds by thick swathes of fir trees. They called it Melleray. Three miles away you can see across a valley to the four square spires of Melleray's austere grey bell-tower brooding over the hinterland that supports it.

Cistercian monks will next year celebrate the 900th year of their founding in Citeaux, France. Their Rule is based on the Rule of St Benedict but is distinguished by a much stricter set of practices and a simpler way of life. It was to achieve these goals - and in the process to become, as they believe, closer to God - that the Cistercians, once Benedictines, set up in Citeaux in the first place.

There is a hint of this strict simplicity, this almost prosaic approach, in the layout, seen from the distance, of Melleray's lands. The fields stack up in a series of equal rectangles, the deep, green shelter belts seem all to have been cut to the one length. This suggestion of rigid functionality is strengthened as one sweeps uphill to the church, monastery and reception house. A church both Gothic and Romanesque, massive and sombre in proportion to the place, rises in grey limestone of sharp, unyielding angles, its buttresses as stark as gibbets. Its stone came from Mitchelstown Castle, destroyed by the IRA and purchased as a ruin by a farseeing abbot. The stone was removed to Melleray and in 1940 the present church was opened.

Cistercian abbeys have, over the centuries, been built to the same general plan: a long naved church running west to east, and then behind the church a series of cold, serviceable rooms for eating, reading and sleeping, of which only the "warming room" - appropriately - and the infirmary had fireplaces. Melleray is like this with, in addition, a black lake of tarmacadam, almost an acre of it, out front, making it that little bit harder for the very best summer's day you could imagine to cheery up the setting.

But the tarmac is needed for the buses that bring pilgrims here, for Melleray, with its long tradition of prayer, has for years been associated with the hearing of confessions. Hardened dockers from the ports of Waterford and Cork, men whose apprenticeships were served in the merchant navies of the world are among those who roll up here and unload their souls in Melleray's dark, comfortingly musty confession boxes.

"Can you make a bed?" asked Fr Kevin, the guest master.

Slight of build, nimble, in his sixties, below his Adam's apple the button stud of his coarse fabric shirt shone like the head of a nail.

There is a long tradition too in Melleray of welcoming travellers. Guests of both sexes are housed and fed and may join the monks throughout the day for prayers and daily mass. No set fee is asked, but two nights is the minimum stay so that the Abbey is not used as a bed-and-breakfast.

My room was 6ft by 10ft, high-ceilinged, and decorated by a single wooden crucifix. The window looked out on an internal courtyard of uncut grass. The guest house itself was reached through a door of polished pinewood in the wall beyond the church and onwards through a refreshing garden with a summer house and, in case you might momentarily forget where you were, two enormous, white statues, one of St Joseph with the infant Christ, the other of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Father Kevin told me that Vespers were at 5.45pm and tea was at six. This was his 43rd year as a monk in Melleray. Never once in all those years, he told me, had he stayed in bed for more than five seconds after the morning bell went for Vigils. What time did that bell sound, I asked him? 3.45am he told me, his eyes clear and blue and understanding.

"But don't try and get up," Father Kevin added. "You'll just be tired all day if you're not used to it."

A mile below Melleray is a popular grotto where, over the course of a single week in 1985, the Virgin appeared to three local children. You enter a realm here where the supernatural is assumed without question. In Melleray itself, in the porch to the church is a notice beneath the photograph of Edel Quinn, a Catholic lay missionary in Africa over 50 years ago on whom the Vatican has bestowed the title "Venerable". The notice tells you that one miracle in Miss Quinn's name is needed to promote her to "Blessed" and when this happens, one further miracle to make her a saint. You are now in the world of realised wonder.

One such wonder is the effect of prayer on time. Spending even a couple of days in a place like Melleray does for time what walking does for distance. Slows it to just above a stall, and in the process gives you a dramatically altered perspective.

Forty-six men make up Melleray's community; a century ago such were the demands of the then tough, unyielding Knockmealdown soil that when the bell tolled for holy office, every man would drop to his knees out in the fields and sing the psalms kneeling in the furrows.

Cistercian abbeys are usually found in places removed from life and Melleray is no exception. You can walk on the roads in these parts for an hour and no car will pass you. The business of contemplating God is best transacted with minimum interruption.

As in Zen Buddhism, life here is lived for the moment. A monk in Melleray has no possessions, no money. He takes no holidays. Tobacco and alco- hol are forbidden. Silence is the rule of the order and although nowadays this rule is somewhat relaxed, in their early years here many of the older men communicated only through sign language. There are no trips for these monks, or television, or weekends in which to unwind, or tickets for a match, or nights at the movies, or meals in restaurants. No particular friendships, and of course, no women. In the life of now there is nothing, in the material sense, to look forward to. Which is the point. Unlike the rest of us for whom the present is simply a highway to the fulfilment of future ambitions, in Melleray they live in the liberating power of nothingness. What is the point of straining for the future when it will not be any different to today? And the past is simply an accumulation of even-sized days spent in the contemplation of God and in a world where ambitions have been replaced by intentions.

As someone deeply attached to personal freedom, it was difficult for me to settle in, even temporarily, to a regime in which the only freedom is inner. Watching the last day-trippers leave Melleray I immediately began planning my escape. The bell for Vespers reverberated.

Life in Melleray is ordered by the bell. The tone it deals out is not melodious but functional. The bell's first voice is heard every morning at 3.45, winter and summer, summoning the community to Vigils at 4am. Cistercian monks sing all 150 of the psalms of David each week in a daily series of seven services, starting with Vigils. Lauds and mass are before breakfast. Sext is at 12.15, None at 2.15 and Vespers before tea. Compline at 8pm is the final office before the monks retire at 8.30pm. The psalms in Melleray are melodically based on and inspired by ancient psalm-tones. They are sung in English.

You have to let go in order to live this experience. Within Melleray's cloisters and in the hillsides behind its farm buildings are places for retreat, lovely, lonely walks, incredible panoramas and little sounds beyond those of munching heifers. Strange, but for a short time anyway, it's not all that difficult to change the focus of your life, to actually allow yourself to be drawn back - home, as it were - by the sound of the bell, and to sit in stall to hear the gentle, mesmeric lyricism of the psalms.

Pastoral simplicity and a hot-line to God have not been enough in recent years to bolster the numbers of new recruits to Melleray. You see these men in church in their famous white robes and you realise that few of them are under 60.

"It's the lack of freedom," said Father Kevin grimly. "They can't take it. People say we're coming in here to escape from the world, but what they don't realise is that our life in here is much harder than anything you leave outside."

Only two new men have joined up and stayed the course in the last three years, raising the spectre of the unthinkable: that sometime in the next century Melleray will become yet another empty and echoing institution, like the many already to be found around Ireland, symbols from a different age, from the days of heroic Christianity.

I left Melleray as mist, in grey, transparent bundles, rolled down the Knockmealdown mountains and seemed to drive the sunlight before it across the plains to the distant sea. Brother Peter, a small, lively man in his late sixties from Donegal, a monk of Melleray since his 20th birthday, bid me goodbye and let me out by a side door which he unlocked with a key from a gaoler's bunch attached to his leather belt. Surprising security, I remarked, in such a sanctified setting.

"It's a fallen world," he twinkled and gently closed the door. CAPT: 'A monk in Melleray has no possessions, no money. He takes no holidays. Tobacco and alcohol are forbidden. Silence is the rule of the order and although nowadays this rule is somewhat relaxed, in their early years here many of the older men commun icated only through sign language.'

Mount Melleray Abbey, Cappoquin, Co Waterford welcomes both men and women as guests throughout the year, but only if they stay for two nights or more. Donations to the Abbey are left to the guests' discretion. Telephone the guestmaster: 00 353 58 54404.