Clonmacnoise is a medieval monastery complex in County Offaly in the centre of Ireland. The village is tiny, with almost no visitor amenities, and most people come on day trips from Dublin or Athlone. It's pronounced as written, "Klon-mack-noyz".
- 547 AD: In this year Cluain Moccu Nóis was founded: that is, Nós, swineherd of the king of Connachta, from whom Cluain Moccu Nóis is named.
Clonmacnoise was a prehistoric crossroads at the centre of Ireland which became a great religious centre. Much of the land was bog, but you could travel north-south on the River Shannon, and east-west on the Esker Riada, a line of low sandy ridges created by glaciers. The esker ridges had created the bogs, by blocking valleys so lakes backed up that infilled as wetland; but being themselves well-drained they supported travel, habitations and farming, so villages grew up along them. Clonmacnoise (Cluain Mhic Nóis, "meadow of the sons of Nós") was the point where the Shannon cut through the ridge and was already important long before its monastery was founded.
Ciarán mac an tSaeir (circa 516-549) meaning "son of the carpenter" was probably born in Rathcrogan, County Roscommon. He was a priest in various parts of Ireland and possibly Scotland, then settled here in 544 and founded the monastery. He was only 33 when he died in 549, of what's said to be plague. All sorts of fanciful legends and wonders were later ascribed to him and he's now venerated as St Ciarán the Younger, to distinguish him from the 5th century St Ciarán the Elder; his "pattern-day" is 9 September.
The early monastery was a humble wooden affair, but from the 9th century it enjoyed patronage by the kings of Connacht and was rebuilt in stone. Around it grew a secular town, boosted by the construction of Ireland's first known bridge in 804 AD, an oak causeway on piles across the Shannon. It became a major centre of religion, learning, craftsmanship, trade and pilgrimage, internationally renowned, and high kings of Tara and Connacht were buried here. It was wrecked several times by raids (Viking or Irish) yet continued to be important. One major manuscript "The Book of the Dun Cow" was certainly created here, the "Annals of Clonmacnoise" very likely also, and its events are chronicled in other medieval accounts. What you see today is mostly 10th to 12th century, when the monks were Augustinian Canons.
The coming of the Normans revived many monasteries in Ireland yet caused Clonmacnoise to wither. The east-west transport route shifted north, to cross the river at Athlone; that town blossomed into a well-defended city with the area's major cathedral. Competitor monastic orders popped up all over, luring pilgrims and patrons with enough holy relics to recreate the Ark and a crew of Saints let alone the True Cross. Clonmacnoise fell down the religious pecking order and was already a sorry place before the last military incursion of 1552 and the Dissolution of 1568. The town vanished, so the site wasn't built over or the stones pilfered. Nevertheless the church and graveyard remained in use, and it's a pilgrimage site to this day.
There is no public transport to Clonmacnoise. The nearest town is Athlone, with trains and buses on the Dublin-Galway route; then head 22 km south by road.
The village of Shannonbridge is 7 km southeast but likewise has no public transport.
By road from Dublin take M6 to junction 7, then dog-leg onto R444 south. It's well-signposted, but the road is narrow, cross fingers you don't meet a tour coach coming the other way.
If you don't have your own wheels, consider taking an organised tour: day-trips run from Dublin, eg by Bus Éireann.
The site is on the navigable River Shannon (with no bridge between Athlone and Shannonbridge) so early visitors came by river, and you still can, with a mooring point here. The inland waterway network reaches all the way to Dublin, Waterford, Limerick and Enniskillen. Rental companies of course set limits on how far you may take their boat.
The Clonmacnoise and West Offaly Railway was scrapped in 2008. It was a 3-foot (914 mm) gauge railway for hauling peat, made over into a tourist ride.
918 AD A great flood in this year, so that the water reached the Abbot's Fort of Cluain-mic-Nois, and to the causeway of the Monument of the Three Crosses.
Walk around the site. There's wheelchair access into the visitor centre then along the west side of the compound, but beyond that are steps or you have to cross the grass.
- 1 The Castle is the teetering remnant on the hillock seen west of the Monastery car park. That's close enough, the ruins are unsafe. It was built by the Normans in 1214, encircled by a deep fosse, to replace their earlier wooden motte-and-bailey guarding the river crossing. But already they were losing interest in Clonmacnoise and fortifying Athlone, so after the Irish wrecked it circa 1300 it wasn't repaired.
- The Monastery, Clonmacnoise N37 V292, ☏ +353 90 967 4195. Daily 10:00-17:00. Almost all the sites of Clonmacnoise are within the monastery compound, run by Heritage Ireland. Start at the Visitor Centre and Museum (housed in three conical huts) for a short AV presentation. The High Crosses here are the originals, with replicas outside, and there are several early Christian grave slabs. The centre has toilets and a cafe. Then wander round the site at leisure - allow 90 min, the description below is a clockwise circuit. Dogs on leads are permitted. Adult €4, conc €3, child €2.
- 2 Cross of the Scriptures (replica) by the entrance is 4 m tall, one of the most skillfully wrought of any High Cross. It depicts the arrest of Jesus, the Crucifixion, the Last Judgement, and Christ in the Tomb. Another panel depicts King Flann Sinna and Abbot Colmán and seeks your prayers for them: they commissioned the cross circa 900 AD and the Cathedral.
- See what the tour groups are doing, and plan to dodge them. The Cathedral stands before you: it's described below as the culmination of the circuit, but if it happens just then to be quiet, you might want to see it and its surrounds first.
- 3 O'Rourke's Tower was originally outside the compound wall; close to the river, it would have been a 30 m tall landmark for arriving pilgrims. It's named for King Fergal O'Rourke (d 964) but wasn't finished until 1124. In 1135 it was decapitated by lightning and only partly rebuilt, so it's now a 19.3 m stump but still impressive. The entrance is 3.3 m above ground but it's now understood that this was simply to avoid weakening the base, and that such towers were bell-towers with no defensive purpose, usually just west of their church. Indeed several long-lost churches have been unearthed by searching in the vicinity of a tower.
- 4 North Cross (replica) is the oldest cross, from 800 AD. Only the limestone shaft and sandstone base (a former millstone) survive. Only the east side of the shaft is decorated, so it was probably intended to stand against a wall. The decoration is non-Christian, with lions, spirals and an image of Cernunnos, the Celtic God of hunting and fertility. It's been badly smashed up at some stage, perhaps in zealotry against the pagan god.
- Temple Kelly: the subsidiary churches here are called Temples (Irish teampall). Temple Kelly (built 1167) near the middle of the compound is just a course of foundation stones.
- 5 Temple Connor was built around 1200 in a style transitional between Romanesque and Gothic. But it stands out from the rest because it was restored as a C of I (Anglican) church in the 18th century, with further extensive work in the 1910s. So it looks modern: the intact roof is the give-away. It's only open for services, which are usually on summer Sundays at 16:00.
- The Mass Shelter adjacent is modern, built for the visit of Pope John Paul II on 30 Sept 1979.
- 6 Temple Finghín and McCarthy's Tower is a 12th century Romanesque church and round tower. The unusual feature is that the 16 m tower is incorporated into the church, and has a ground-level doorway - O'Rourke's free-standing tower is much more typical. In 1864 a tourist from Birr called John Glennon set about smashing up the church; his motive isn't recorded but it led to a landmark law case. It was clearly illegal to damage someone's property, including exhibits within a museum, but there was no legal precedent around "cultural commons" such as ancient monuments, and looting old places for curios and building masonry was common practice. The case against Glennon therefore fell through and he got away with it, but it led to better legal protection of heritage.
- The Old Cemetery occupies the east half of the compound. It was practically full by the 20th century, with just a few local families retaining burial rights to lie with their kin. From the 1950s the New Cemetery was developed adjacent outside the compound wall: its preparation turned up many items from the vanished secular town. Modern funerary sculpture was moved there from the Old, which was closed to further burials.
- 7 Temple Ciarán at 2.8 by 3.8 m is the smallest church here, and it was probably a 9th / 10th century shrine chapel or reliquary. It's reputed to stand over the grave of St Ciarán, and excavations revealed the fabulous Clonmacnoise Crozier, but no saintly remains. In the 19th century it was partly rebuilt because of subsidence. That was exacerbated by the fashion for "holy clay" - people paid money for clay from holy ground (or so touted by priestly huxters) that would soothe the ills of yourself, cattle and crops, and if placed in your coffin would preserve you from contamination by less righteous corpses. As a result the floor of this church is lower than outside: it's been protected by slabs yet still people gouge clay from the area, and the walls lean. And this in an Ireland with so many skilled doctors, vets, agronomists and morticians.
- The Bullaun nearby is a hollowed stone that collects rainwater, with wonderful holy and curative properties like the clay that it's failed to reached. Such stones are common near old churches in Ireland and some reflect natural erosion, while others including this one have been worn hollow by use as grindstones.
- 8 Temple Melaghlin, built circa 1200, is also called the King's Church, because at least seven generations of Melaghlin Kings are said to be buried beneath it. The church may also have housed the scriptorium, the room where manuscripts were designed and decorated.
- 9 The Cathedral was built from 909 AD by King Flann and Abbott Colmán (surely a vaudeville act?) The west doorway has been restored (perhaps over-restored) and the Gothic north doorway or Whispering Arch is mid-15th century. The last High Kings of Ireland were buried near the altar, Turlough O'Connor in 1156 then his son Rory in 1198. Most of the graves in the church are those of the Coghlan family, who had the cathedral rebuilt in the mid-17th century.
- 10 Temple Dowling or Doolin was built in the 10th century. It's named for Edmund Dowling, who renovated it in 1689, placing a carving of his family crest above the door. Temple Hurpan was also added as an annex east to act as a family burial crypt, and Temple Dowling was enlarged to match it.
- 11 South Cross (replica) is 9th century. With its base it's 3.7 m tall and its carvings are mostly abstract, but the Crucifixion is depicted on its west face. The bosses are because early stone High Crosses replicated the texture of their wooden predecessors.
- Further out: just fields nearby, that's deliberate. There never was much since the Dissolution, but a "buffer zone" has been imposed to prevent encroaching development.
- 12 The Nun's Church is east of the New Cemetery, rebuilt in 1167. It stood on the ancient highway passing north of Mongan Bog, still a public road, while the modern R444 passes south. The church is in charming Romanesque style with many fine carvings. One detail, set into an archway, is what's politely called an acrobat but is a form of "Sheila-na-gig" - a lewd fertility symbol. She's folded her legs behind her large head.
- 13 The Horseman's Stone or Clonfinlough Stone 4 km east is a large limestone boulder, a glacial "erratic", carved with cup-shaped hollows, crosses, daggers, and a pair of human feet. The earliest inscriptions are Bronze Age but some may be medieval: impressions of hands and feet are associated with rituals such as inauguration of kings, pilgrimage, and Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood California.
- 887 AD Anealoen the pilgrim came to Ireland, and the wearing of the hair long was abolished by him, and tonsures were accepted.
- Read the Annals of Clonmacnoise and if possible plunge forward and edit them - scholars are calling for an updated edition. You don't have to be a tonsured monk to contribute, but any work submitted may be hacked and burned by Vikings, have pages ripped out for unspeakable medieval purposes, and (worst of all) draw snarky online comments. The original manuscripts in Irish are long lost, but they were translated in 1627. Like similar Annals they purport to describe history from the dawn of time to the year they were written, so they're sketchy and fanciful in the early sections, then become more factual and detailed up to 1408. They especially describe the lands and landowning families around 15th century Clonmacnoise, so it's a safe bet they were compiled here. The 1627 translation manuscript has in turn been lost but there are authenticated copies in TCD Library Dublin and in the British Museum. There isn't a public online version so there's your first task.
|“||And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them that sold doves. And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.||”|
Well, they've clearly learned their lesson, because they've scarpered and not returned. There'a gift shop by the monastery compound open daily 10:00-17:30 but that's all. Where's a scented organic candle when you need one, or a wildly overpriced little octagonal jar of chutney with a muslin cap? You'll have to wait till the next town on your itinerary for your gift-buying experience.
- There's a small cafe in the visitor centre, nothing in the vicinity outside.
- Holy water anyone? There are no local pubs or cafes; the coaches whisk the tour groups away for their final stop at the Tullamore Dew distillery.
- 954 AD was a sleepy year: Repose of Dub Inse, learned bishop of Ireland, and of Cellachán, king of Caisel, and of Éladach the learned, abbot of Ros Ailithir, and of Uarach, bishop of Imlech Ibuir, and of Célechair, abbot of Cluain Moccu Nóis and Cluain Iraird, and of Cormac Ua Maíl Shluaig, learned sage of Mumu, and of Lugaid Ua Maíl Shempail, abbot of Domnach Pátraic, and of Cenn Faelad mac Suibne, anchorite of Cluain Ferta Brénainn.
- Clonmacnoise B&B, Terriesfield N37 E102 (1 km east of site), ☏ +353 87 617 4327. Friendly B&B close to site.
- Kajon House, 2 Cloghan Rd N37 EP46 (1 km south of site), ☏ +353 90 967 4191. Welcoming knowledgeable hosts.
- The village caravan site has closed.
- Shannonbridge also has a few B&Bs, and a marina for overnight mooring.
As of April 2021, you might, just might, get a mobile signal with Eir or Three, but there's no coverage by Vodafone.
- Athlone has a fine castle and parish church.
- Birr is a small town that for 70 years was at the leading edge of astronomy, with its "Leviathan" telescope.
- Tullamore is best known for its two distilleries.
- Glendalough in the Wicklow mountains is an extensive monastic site to rival Clonmacnoise, the big difference is the scenery of its U-shaped valley. Being so close to Dublin it's very touristy.