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Clonmacnoise - Ireland's Early Christian Monastic Settlement

The ancient monastic site of Clonmacnoise is situated at the crossroads of Ireland in County Offaly and dates back almost 1,500 years. St. Ciaran, the son of an Ulsterman who had settled in Connaught, chose the site in 545 AD because of its ideal location at the junction of river and road travel in Celtic Ireland. The location borders the three provinces of Connaught, Munster and Leinster.

The monastery is on the east side of the River Shannon, in what was then the Kingdom of Meath, but occupying a position so central it was the burial-place of many of the kings of Connaught as well as those of Tara.

Saint Ciaran was educated by St. Diarmuid of Clonard and St. Finian - tutor of  the ancient Saints of Ireland. His last place of formal learning before establishing his own monastery in Clonmacnoise was with St. Enda on the island of Inís Mór off the coast of Galway. Here, under the tutelage of the strict disciplinarian Enda, he learned Sacred Studies, Prayer and labour.

Models in Clonmacnoise
Models in the Heritage Center, Clonmacnoise

The Whispering Arch
The Whispering Arch

(For centuries courting couples stood each side of the arch whispering their words of love to each other)

Shortly after his arrival, Ciaran met Prince Diarmuid who helped him build the first church - a small wooden structure and the first of many small churches to be clustered on the site. Diarmuid was to be crowned the first Christian High King of Ireland.  Ciaran did not live to see his monastery grow and flourish.....he died of yellow plague 4 years after settling at 33 years old.

The monastery attracted many of the scholars of Ireland and from across Europe and it was to become the most illustrious school in Europe.  It was a Scriptorium from the 8th.-10th. centuries and many scribes toiled long  hours learning the skills  to become world renowned in works such as the Books of Kells and Durrow. Metal workers in gold, silver and bronze produced some of the world's finest Celtic craftwork, not surpassed since the 11th. century.

No single large church exists, or ever existed, at Clonmacnoise, but instead there were several small churches of simple plan and wooden construction.  There is no evidence left of the monks' living quarters. It is presumed the whole complex was enclosed by a rampart of earth or stone. Standing on the site now is a cluster of ruins within the graveyard that were built from the 12th century onwards.

The monastic settlement has seen many violent and destructive periods in its history and was destroyed by fire at least 13 times. It was attacked approximately 40 times from the 8th. to the 12th. century, 8 times by the Vikings, 6 times by the Anglo Normans and 26 times by the Irish. Each time the Monks rebuilt.

In 1552 it was finally reduced to ruin by the English garrison in Athlone.  From that time there were no monasteries in Ireland for almost 300 hundred years. Clonmacnoise lay in decay until the Office of Public Works began the arduous task of turning this place into one of Ireland's most famous visitors' centers.

Remains of The Cathedral with early 10th. Century stone used in the building

Remains of The Cathedral

The North and South Crosses are made from quartzose sandstone found at the foot of the Bernagh mountains near Lough Derg. The stone used in this craftwork was transported by boat up the Lough and the river Shannon to the site.
Both crosses and other invaluable stonework are now housed in a heritage center designed to resemble crannogs. Crannogs were the living quarters in ancient Celtic settlements and were circular in construction.

The South CrossThe North Cross 9th century

The South Cross 

The North Cross

The preservation work is carried on by Duchas - the National Heritage Service.  Clonmacnoise ranks as one of Ireland's most spectacular and valuable heritage sites and is located about 12 miles from both Athlone town and Ballinasloe in County Galway. The nearest village is Shannonbridge but it is not an easy place to get to, especially for those who do not drive or only have access to public transport.  
Next ->

Clonmacnoise - The Burren - The Dohlmans - Cliffs of Moher
- Glendalough - Fanore - More Highlights

updated: 12/28//07

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