The monastery at Clonmacnoise is probably one of the most important archaeological sites in Ireland. Its beautifully ornate high crosses, round towers and multiple churches stand poignantly overlooking the banks of the River Shannon, the craftsmanship and dedication that went into creating these beautiful objects is inspiring, and perhaps another reason why this place is steeped in lore and legend.
Clonmacnoise was founded by Saint Ciarán in 546, Clonmacnoise is situated along an esker, and also at a point where a major east-west land route meets through the more boggy surrounding land. It was at this meeting place that Saint Ciarán was introduced to Diarmait Uí Cerbaill, later a High King of Ireland, who helped him built the first wooden church on the site. In legend Saint Ciarán was reportedly buried under the original wooden church , later replaced by the 9th century stone oratory Temple Ciarán, though excavations found no human remains. The temple is the oldest building that stands on the site, quite small in size and subsiding heavily but in a way that gives great aesthetic pleasure.
Of course one of the most renowned sights at Clonmacnoise is the High Crosses, now housed in an interpretive centre which presents the crosses and old grave slabs in a very tasteful manner, with replicas replacing their former positions outside. The cross I was most eager to see is the North Cross, the earliest of the three surviving crosses. This 8th century cross is decorated unusually in Non-Christian imagery. An image of the Celtic God Cernunnos is displayed on eastern face of the cross. Cernunnos was a horned deity who was mostly associated with nature and fertility. Some legends surrounding the life of Saint Ciarán might explain the reasoning behind the Cernunnos carving. In some ancient writings Saint Ciarán was said to have established his monastery with the aid of a disciple and monk that was a tame wild boar; his next disciples were a fox, badger, wolf and a stag. The cross appears to have been vandalised at some point, perhaps when links between the old pre-Christian beliefs were downplayed and disregarded.
The Cross of the Scriptures is one of the most beautiful High Crosses I have seen. It was carved from sandstone around 900AD,measures 4 metres in height and features images of the crucifixion and the last judgement. The South Cross is the final one housed in the interpretative centre, alongside the grave slabs and other archaeological finds.
Clonmacnoise’s greatest period of growth was between the 8th and 12th centuries and it would have been home to almost 2,000 people by the 11th century. Considering how many times the monastery was raided its surprising so many beautiful artefacts remain. The Annals of Tighernach (11th century) and the Book of the Dun Cow (12th century) were written at Clonmacnoise and are magnificent examples of early Irish manuscripts, the Clonmacnoise Crozier was also found buried under Temple Ciarán. I have always been fascinated by the way raids on the monasteries was taught in the Irish school system. Maybe things have changed since I was a child in the 80s but the image that was imparted to me was that the Vikings nearly always were the ones to blame for the raids, later the Normans, however this really is a skewed version of events and Clonmacnoise’s history is testament to that. Between the 8th and 12th century Clonmacnoise was attacked numerous times, mostly by the Irish (27 times), whereas the Vikings and the Normans only attacked it 7 and 6 times respectively. One of the most interesting raids was by the Viking Turgesius who was trying to rid Ireland of Christianity, when he raided the monastery in 845 he placed his wife on the altar as a priestess from where she proclaimed oracles.
The settlement suffered heavily from an attack by the Normans in 1179, burning over 105 houses in the process. This seems to be one of the reasons Clonmacnoise began to decline, it was still repeatedly plundered until finally in 1552 an English garrison from Athlone stripped the monastery of all its valuables. This decline coincided with the growth of nearby Athlone, which became the main trading post and crossing point of the Shannon, it was also a well defended settlement.
Several of the buildings at Clonmacnoise were funded by High Kings of Ireland and this explains why many of the Kings of Tara and Connaught were buried there. O’Rourkes Tower was named after the 10th century Connaught King Fergal O’Rourke and was completed by Turlough O’Connor, High King of Connaught, in 1124. Ten years after its completion it was struck by lightning which knocked the conical top off the tower. The upper sections of the tower were restored at a later date and it is believed that some of the masonry was reused in the building of McCarthy’s Tower. McCarthy’s tower is possibly the earliest example in Ireland of a church and round tower being built as a single structure. This tower and Romanesque church , named Temple Finghín, was built during the 12th century. It was heavily vandalised in 1864 by a person from Birr on a ‘pleasure party’ to Clonmacnoise! A criminal case followed and some of the money raised by the prosecution was used to repair the conical cap at the top of the tower.
The Cathedral is one of the largest structures on the site and building commenced on it around 909AD. The North doorway is a sight to behold, incredibly Gothic in nature and often called the Whispering Arch, this was built in the mid 1400s. Rory O’Connor, the last High King of Ireland was buried near the altar in 1198.
Temple Melaghlin also known as Temple Rí (King’s Church) was built circa 1200. Several generations of Melaghlin Kings are said to be buried underneath the structure, it is believed that this building housed the scriptorium, the room where the manuscripts were designed and decorated. The Nun’s Church stands 1km from the main site of Clonmacnoise but was undergoing restoration the day of my visit.
Temple Dowling also know as MacClaffey’s Church is a small building and originally dates from the 10th century, it was named after Edmund Dowling who renovated it in 1689. At the eastern end of Temple Dowling is Temple Hurpan, this was built as an annex in the 17th century and functioned purely as a burial ground. Temple Kelly stands nearby, but all that remains of this church are the low lying perimeter stones. Temple Connor is the only church still in use and was restored in both the 18th century and the 1920s by the Church if Ireland.
Several myths and legends surround Clonmacnoise, two of my favourites I will feature below, one about a giant buried at Clonmacnoise and another involving a visit by flying ship!
One day while the monks were praying, in the earliest period of Clonmacnoise, a ship appeared in the sky above them. The ship moved slowly across the sky before dropping its massive anchor to the ground and becoming wedged at the base of the altar, the ship could not progress. A sailor clambered down the rope to try and unhook the anchor, though not underwater he began to ‘drown’, realising this the monks used all their strength to unhook the anchor and help the sailor back up the rope to the ship…which then sailed away, this legend has been retold many times and perhaps most eloquently by Seamus Heaney in his poem ‘Lightenings’.
My favourite legend involves a giant and is perfectly retold my P.W Joyce in his 1911 book ‘The Wonders of Ireland’, from which the following excerpt is taken.
“In the reign of Congalach king of Ireland (A.D. 944 to 956) there lived a poet named Erard Mac Cossi who at the time of the present occurrence was on a visit with the king beside Lough Leane in Westmeath (near the village of Fore). Early one morning in summer this poet happened to be walking on the shore of the lake: and he saw at a little distance a very large woman—far beyond the usual size of women—sitting alone. She was dressed all in green, and as the poet came towards her he observed that she was extremely beautiful, and that she was weeping bitterly. He spoke to her and asked why she was weeping so. She replied that her husband had been killed that morning at the fairy-hill of Shee Codail; and buried in the great cemetery at Clonmacnoise. After some further conversation the woman rose up and went away: and Mac Cossi immediately sought the king and told him of his strange adventure. The king was much surprised and interested; and he felt so curious about the matter, and so anxious to test the truth of the story, that he set out at once with the poet for Clonmacnoise, where he arrived in the evening of the same day.
After the brotherhood had welcomed the visitors the poet told his story. But the monks knew nothing of such a person as he spoke of; and they were quite sure that no one had been buried in the cemetery that day. So the king concluded that either the story told by the large green-dressed lady was an invention, or that Mac Cossi himself was under some strange delusion: and they thought no more of the matter.
It was too late to return that night; so the king and the poet slept at the monastery. Early next morning they were awakened by the tolling of the death bell; and on inquiry they were informed that one of the monks had died the evening before and was to be buried that day. The monastery was all astir in preparation for the funeral; and as the cemetery was close by, the king and the poet remained to see the interment.
When the monks went to dig the grave, they were surprised to find that the spot they had chosen had all the appearance of being quite recently disturbed—the red clay fresh and soft—as if a grave had been opened and closed again. But how this could have come to pass was more than any one could tell, seeing that the burial ground was within full view of the monastery windows; and that not even a single stranger, much less a funeral, could enter it without being observed. And what was more startling still, they found marks of blood on the clay, and fresh green leaves scattered about. Seeing this, they set about examining the place thoroughly while the king and Mac Cossi looked on; and they resolved to open the grave. Deeper and deeper they dug, tempted on by the blood-marks and leaves; till at length, at a depth far beneath the ordinary graves, they came upon the body of a great bearded man fifteen feet high, lying full length with the face downwards. It was surrounded with a thick covering of green birch-branches, carefully placed between it and the clay;and when they came to examine the body, they found it all bloody, with many great wounds and other marks and tokens of a violent death.
After some time they replaced the body in the same position as before, after carefully adjusting the covering of birch-branches; and having filled in the grave, proceeded to bury the monk elsewhere. Meantime the story got wind; and next day the people of the neighbourhood came in crowds to look at the grave. But the sight of the place only raised their curiosity all the more: they brought spades and shovels and began to open the grave anew, determined to see and examine for themselves the body of the bearded giant.
The same marks were in the clay; and as the wondering people dug on and on, the blood and green leaves continued to increase. But when they came to the place where the body had been left the evening before, there they found indeed the branches of green birch lying the whole length of the grave, but no body. There was blood on the branches and blood on the clay beneath; but although the people dug and searched carefully downwards and sideways and all round, they found nothing more. So they closed up the grave and left the place; and from that day to this no one has ever been able to find out anything more about the buried giant of Clonmacnoise.”
GPS: 53.32599, -7.98658