Out and About in Ireland’s Heartland – Clonmacnoise

Location! Location! Location! St. Ciarán certainly had an eye for prime real estate, didn’t he! Clonmacnoise (The Meadow of the Sons of Nós) was ideally placed at the crossroads of two major medieval traffic routes – the mighty Shannon River and the Slí Mór (The Great Way) which traversed the country from east to west. It also strategically bordered two of the great kingdoms of early medieval Ireland -Connacht and Mide (Meath).

Unlike many of Ireland’s early saints, Ciarán came from a humble rather than privileged family. The son of a carpenter, he gained a reputation for intelligence and holiness and, upon completing his education, he eventually founded a small monastic community at Clonmacnoise in the mid 6th century, starting off with a small wooden church and a few wattle huts.

He died not long after the foundation of the site so didn’t live to enjoy its growth in renown and prosperity. His monastery flourished into a great seat of learning and, as the wooden structures gave way to some 17 churches, it attracted scholars from all over Europe.

The monastery was given lands by the kings of Connacht and the huge settlement supported not only the monks but a thriving lay community with some 1500-2000 residents . As well as an extensive farming area, there was plenty of work for skilled craftsmen including carpenters, metalworkers and masons. But monastic life was still strictly observed and the area was demarcated as a set of three enclosures – the first one strictly for the monks, the second for lay people who weren’t overly wicked and the third for everyone else!

Of course, all this growth and wealth didn’t go unnoticed and the settlement was prone to attack – it’s estimated that in its 1400 years of operation, it suffered 8 Viking attacks as well as 27 raids by other forces – Irish nobility, the Normans and even other monastic communities! With the Norman invasions, the power of the once mighty kingdoms of Connacht and Mide waned and the monastery’s status began to decline. The monks rebuilt after each attack until Clonmacnoise was finally destroyed in 1552 as part of Henry VIIII’s Dissolution of the monasteries.

Today, the site includes a Cathedral, two round Towers, three high crosses, nine Churches and over 700 Early Christian grave slabs….

The Gothic Cathedral is the largest of the churches, dating from around the beginning of the 11th century.. The last High King of Ireland was buried here in 1198.

The beautiful 15th century doorway features carvings of St. Dominic, St. Patrick and St. Francis..

Known as The Whispering Arch, the doorway was constructed in such a way that voices could drift around the bend of the door and be heard by someone close by but not by the general congregation. Lepers would come and whisper their sins to the stone and the priest could overhear the confession while keeping a safe distance on the other side of the arch!

I don’t know of any other place in the country boasting TWO round towers! While we all grew up with the story that they were built as protection from the Vikings, it is now generally accepted that, despite the elevated doorways, they would not have been a particularly effective defence against the raiders and more than likely served as bell towers or as markers for pilgrims seeking out the monasteries.

The larger tower was completed in 1124 – this is one of very few examples that has been recorded in the annuls of the time. It was severely damaged by lightening in 1135 and although it was rebuilt, today’s elevation of 19m is thought to be about just two thirds of the original height!

Three enormous high crosses stand in a semi-circle around the Cathedral, (those outdoors are convincing reproductions, the originals are on display in the adjacent interpretive centre). The sandstone is beautifully carved with figures, Biblical scenes and Celtic patterns

More than 700 carved cross-slabs and memorial stones date from the 7th century onward. Monks and laity alike would wish to be buried in the same soil as St Ciarán but when the site was transferred to the State in 1955, the burial ground was finally declared full after 1200 years! Land next to the site was purchased and laid out as the new graveyard.

Pope John Paul II included Clonmacnoise in his famous visit to Ireland in 1979.

The site is now managed by the Office of Public Works. Entrance fee is €8 which includes a guided tour. The Visitor Centre houses the fantastic high Crosses as well as other displays and exhibits.

Most of us will come by car or tour bus – but it must be spectacular to arrive by boat!


16 thoughts on “Out and About in Ireland’s Heartland – Clonmacnoise

  1. Great site to visit in the centre of Ireland, yes, there is more that cliffs and coasts. It used to be free, or at least off-season, but it’s true that the OPW do a lot of good work, and a little help is completely reasonable.

    1. The entrance fee includes the guided tour so it’s not so bad – it’s years since we were last there and I can’t remember whether we paid then.

    1. I wonder which monk first discovered that it could be put to practical use!!! Wouldn’t get away with it nowadays!!!😅 😂

    1. It’s actually a major visitor attraction here – there were 3 or 4 busloads there last week when we visited – mostly US visitors. I’d say they couldn’t believe their luck with the weather – a gorgeous day…

  2. I’d never heard of this place, Marie, and so glad you’ve posted about it. It’s fascinating. And those blue skies and the blue water would be a treat in any country but to have them as background to your pictures of Ireland is a miracle. What luck that you chose that day to make your trip into the past.

    1. We’re having an amazing run of good weather – everyone is really looking forward to the Bank Holiday weekend… As you well know, that blue sky is the exception – the boot of the car was crammed with fleeces, scarves and raingear!!

  3. Looks an intriguing spot. I wish now I’d stopped off during one of my drives down the M6. And yes it always struck me as odd, that defensive theory for the round towers. If I’d been a Viking of ill intent I’d have just knocked out a few stones at the bottom and lit a fire 🙂

    1. We always imagined the chosen few – because they couldn’t possibly all fit – cowering up along the internal steps, surrounded by church treasure and the Vikings just heading off and leaving them alone!! Some chance!

  4. Wow what a place, so full of interesting history. It’s so striking and atmospheric, and what a beautiful day to be able to take photos of it on 🙂

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