Thursday, April 28, 2016

Travel Thursday: The Sacred Site of Clonmacnoise

On the grounds of Clonmacnoise.
For many of us who search for evidence of ancestors, rarely are we able to cite the location of a found ancestor in a monastic settlement. Nevertheless, depending on where our ancestors settled on the island of Ireland, and how far back in time their homesteads were established, some among us may be able to count an ancestor or two among those interred on the grounds of these sacred sites. Sadly, I cannot count myself among those lucky souls. Still in all, I find early Christian settlements fascinating, and muse that perhaps one day I shall learn of an ancient ancestor or relative interred among the ruins.

Recently I revisited two monastic sites— Monasterboice in County Louth, near Drogheda (founded in the late 5th century by Saint Buithe) and Clonmacnoise in County Offaly on the River Shannon (founded in 544 by St Ciarán Mac a tsar). The sites are approximately 140 kilometres (87 miles) apart via good roads. Thankfully, the rain held off and the drive was uneventful. Today's post features images from my visit to Clonmacnoise.

Clonmacnoise is the much larger of the two, and is said to have been more like a small town than a monastic settlement — it is estimated that in the 11th century between 1,500 and 2,000 people lived here. Unlike other monastic settlements, there was a significant lay population living and working here. All of the domestic buildings were constructed of timber, so none remain, but traces of them have been found during archaeological excavation.

There are remarkable similarities between Clonmacnoise and Monasterboice, with respect to not only the structures, but also the High crosses, replete with carved figures said to have been used to illustrate biblical stories and the history of Christ. Such similarities between the sites give you a sense of the efforts made so very long ago to spread Christianity across the untamed wilderness of Ireland.


Perhaps it is its place on the edge of the River Shannon, or the fact that within the grounds of the settlement there are so many markers of lives once lived in this community, but the spirit of this place is palpable.

On his visit to Ireland in 1979 Pope John Paul II made it a point to include Clonmacnoise in his itinerary. Upon his return to Rome he reportedly said, "I will never forget that place ... the ruins of the monastery and churches speak of the life that once pulsated there. Whole generations of Europe owe to them the light of the Gospel. These ruins are still charged with a great mission. They still constitute a challenge."

From the hillside looking toward the River Shannon.
Between the 6th and the 13 centuries, the grounds between the buildings were used for burials.
Temple Connor: Also called the Little Church,
it has been roofed and used by the Church of Ireland since the 18th century.
Temple Finghin with its round tower.
Looking toward the round tower of Temple Finghin from the ruins of the Cathedral.
The Cathedral dates to 909, with the main entryway replaced around the year 1200.
In front of the ruins of the Cathedral, a replica of the Cross of the Scriptures,
placed outside where the original cross once stood
when the original was brought into the museum to protect it.
The original Cross of the Scriptures. The shaft and the ringed head were
crafted from a single piece of sandstone sometime around 900 AD.
It stands 4 meters tall (13 ft). The stories depicted with the carved figures include
The Crucifixion, the Last Judgement and Christ in the Tomb.
As well, there are figures of ecclesiastics and King Flann depicted on the cross.
One out of a large collection of burial slabs which date from the 8th to the 12th century.
These are now inside the onsite museum in order to protect and preserve them.
In English: ‘A prayer for Turcain by whom this cross was made.’
A burial slab. The inscription reads:
in English: 'A prayer for Tuathal the craftsman'.
Clonmacnoise Castle: dating to the 13th century, it was plundered on many occasions,
including one last time in 1552, when English soldiers from an Athlone garrison reduced it to a ruin,
carrying away what they could and destroying the rest.
The 'New' Cemetery beyond the walls of Clonmacnoise.
©irisheyesjgg. All Rights Reserved.


  1. You have just added a place for me to visit when I get back to visit Ireland, looks a wonderful place to look around, the cross is one of the most beautiful I have seen

    1. Bill, thanks very much for your comments. I hope you do visit Clonmacnoise. It is indeed a wonderful place to visit!


  2. I think Clonmacnoise is truly beautiful but my heart lies with Glendalough which I first saw in a frosty day when the grass crackled underfoot.

    1. Pauleen, thanks very much for your comments. Glendalough is a favourite of mine too. I remember running along the paths with my cousins on a visit when I was a child, and climbing over, under and all around the ruins and grave markers. Visited again a couple of years ago, recollecting those happy times.


  3. Jenn, beautiful images. I especially like the grave slabs; so interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Charlotte, thanks very much for your comments. I really like the burial slabs too. The images and lettering are very beautiful.


  4. Beautiful, peaceful photographs. Thanks for posting them!

    1. Colleen, thanks very much for your comments. I'm glad you like the photos.



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