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May 16, 2012
From journal Ireland's Heritage Card - Your Ticket to History
May 27, 2004
Clonmacnoise was founded in 545 AD by St. Ciaran (Kieran in English) in what was then the Kingdom of Meath. This was an ideal location in the heart of Celtic Ireland, handy to both road and river travel, and became the burial place for many kings of Tara and Connaught.
Prince Diarmuid, who later became the first Christian High King of Ireland, helped Ciaran build the first church on the site. Ciaran himself did not live to see Clonmacnoise grow; he died of plague only 4 years later at the age of 33. No major cathedral ever graced the site – rather a number of smaller wood and stone churches – but Clonmacnoise became a major center for learning and the arts. Some of the finest Celtic craftwork to be produced here is still unsurpassed.
The monastery saw many troublesome times in its history – it was destroyed at least a dozen times and attacked at least three times as many. Every time, the monks rebuilt, until Cromwell’s forces destroyed it in 1552. After Clonmacnoise’s demise, there were no monasteries in Ireland until the 19th century.
Today, a tastefully designed visitor center – meant to resemble the crannogs that one provided living quarters in Clonmacnoise’s heyday – guards the entrance. Norman conquerors built a castle here in 1214 and the remains of that structure can still be seen just outside the site’s entrance. It was only quite recently that extensive ground radar surveys were taken to determine the extent of the site, and the modern cemetery that was started on the grounds in the 1950’s stopped further burials.
It is interesting to note that Ciaran chose this site over the rich plains not far away; it was considered uninviting at the time and Ciaran felt the harshness would better serve disciples of the Cross. Today, Clonmacnoise is regarded as one of the most beautiful religious sites in Europe, with little modern development around the site to take away from the beauty of the site.
Once you pass through the visitor center and the informative short film, you wander into the main part of the site. Here are the ruins of various churches built on the site over time, as well as the largest collection of ancient Celtic high crosses. One of these, the Cross of the Scriptures, is considered the finest example of high cross work. The 3 major historical crosses (the others being the South and North crosses) were moved inside the visitor center to preserve them, and replicas placed on their spots. While many gravestones have been uncovered, there is still plenty of work to be done here, with more than 600 known grave slabs or fragments found to date – the largest collection of Early Medieval grave slabs in Ireland and Great Britain. There are many interesting stones to look at throughout the grounds.
You pass a round tower as you enter the site, and sections of the area have been separated by stone walls. A small group of ruined churches cluster together at the crest of the hill – the smallest of these is believed to contain St. Ciaran’s grave. Down the slope, with the beautiful River Shannon behind, is the small pavilion built for Pope John Paul II’s visit here in 1979 (you can even sit where His Holiness sat). The grounds are a fascinating jumble of graves dating back over hundreds of years, with high crosses and markers in varying states of repair.
One of the largest and best preserved buildings on the site, simply called the Cathedral, has an interesting feature – the whispering arch. A monk would stand on one side of the arch and the sinner on the other, whispering his confession into the carved details of the arch, which would carry the confession to the monk’s ears only. It still works!
On the far side of the grounds, leading to the lovely Nuns’ Chapel, is the pilgrimage path, where you can walk the same stones the pilgrims to the site did hundreds of years ago.
Admission is approximately €5 and the site is open year-round. The site is primarily hilly, grass and stones, so has limited accessibility.
From journal Churches of Ireland