A round tower at Clonmacnoise
Clonmacnoise means ‘meadow of the sons of Nois’ and indicates that the area was an important populated centre long before the establishment of the monastery. Archaeological reports suggest that a significant population was sustained in the area during the Iron Age. It was in the sixth century that Saint Ciaran came to establish the monastic city in the area, beside the great River Shannon. It was to become one of the most important religious settlements in all of Europe.
View out over the River Shannon
The Esker Riada (or Sli Mhor; meaning ‘great way’) was a road that ran from the east of Ireland to the west. It is in fact a ridge - a natural formation composed of sand, large stones and rubble, created at the end of the ice age. This road became of central importance to Clonmacnoise and was essentially a pilgrim’s road (much like the pilgrim’s road to Glendalough), thought to have been in regular use in connection to the monastery as early as 606AD. This would make it the oldest pilgrim path in all of Europe. This pilgrim path had its hazards though, and there are many records of people dying in tragic circumstances along this route.
A sculpted memorial to the deceased pilgrim Aedh
Clonmacnoise had a five hundred year golden period beginning in the eighth century. It grew in this period into a huge monastic city and enjoyed the patronage of kings and chieftains who also funded the construction of the churches and the high crosses. Two of the high Kings of Ireland are buried here; Ruaidhri Ua Conchobair is interred in the cathedral and Flann mac Maeleachlainn at an unknown site. It was a renowned place of trade and was described in early medieval sources as ‘the noblest fair in Ireland’. This was no doubt helped and aided by the fact that a very large wooden bridge across the river had been built in its early period, providing easier access to the site for trade. Remains of this bridge were discovered in 1998, making it the oldest and possibly the largest wooden bridge in Ireland. As a monastery it enjoyed considerable success in the literary and artistic world, despite its geographical location its scholars were of international repute and its highly skilled metalworkers created one of the most beautiful metalwork crosiers in all of Europe - the crosier of Clonmacnoise.
The crosier of Clonmacnoise, now held in the Dublin Museum
Despite its peaceful surroundings the monastery was anything but peaceful. It was attacked once by a native king, raided more than once by Vikings which resulted in looting and the destruction of many buildings and the pillaging of important artifacts, and most notoriously it became embroiled in a rivalry with the Columban settlement of Durrow which eventually spilled over into violence!
The remains of the de Burgo castle
The decline of Clanmacnoise is a somewhat sad tale. Hoping to piggyback off its popularity, the Anglo-Norman de Burgo family decided to erect a castle in Clonmacnoise in the early twelfth century. Initially the appearance of this family line was peaceful, but it soon turned to a grab for power and wealth. The de Burgo’s attempted to establish their rights over the land by curtailing the rights of the local inhabitants and those in the monastery itself. This resulted in an effect that the de Burgo’s did not expect - the locals literally got up and left. The vast majority moved to the newly emerging town of Athlone. Other monastic settlements in the surrounding area blossomed without the curtailments of the de Burgo’s and so Clonmacnoise slowly dissolved as the other settlements grew from strength to strength. Although it had a few brief resurgences of fortune, by the sixteenth century it was abandoned and unused and remained this way until the Church of Ireland restored a small church on the site for use in the late eighteenth century (Temple Connor; reputed burial site of the royal O’Connors).
The burial chambers of the royal O'Connors
The layout of Clonmacnoise is significant. Like most Irish monastic sites, it is a roughly circular enclosure. In the case of a very important site there can be circles within circles to impose a strict hierarchy within the community and to convey the idea of the Jerusalem temple and its Holy of Holies. In the case of a circular enclosure with a surrounding wall, it was to symbolize the walled city of Jerusalem – an image of heaven too (Adomnan, ‘Life of Columba’ 697AD, bk 1 ch 3). This circular hierarchy was also of practical importance. As the settlement grew and attracted people who settled around it, the circular enclosures would help to preserve the sacred core of the site.
One of the replica high crosses at Clonmacnoise
The Cathedral is the largest building on the site and was built under the auspices of Flann mac Maeleachlainn, High King of Ireland from 879-916AD, who also erected the high cross. This was recorded by Saint Colman in 909AD who was then abbot of Cloanmacnoise. Flann did this act out of thanksgiving (a thanks not necessarily attributed to the Christian God) for victory in war over Cormac of Munster and as an expression of his wealth, power and self importance, but it does indicate that even the saintly were quite prepared to accept the patronage of the clearly unsaintly in order to see their work furthered! As a stone building it is somewhat remarkable, in a time when many cathedrals were still being built of wood. It has Roman influence in its design, but still nods towards an Irish style. It is sixty feet in length; thought to be an allusion to the temple of Solomon. Its archway is nick-named the whispering arch and it is said that if two people stand at either arch base with their backs to one another and one whispers something, the other will hear it clearly.
An arch with an image of Saint Ciaran above (centre)
The famous ‘Cross of the Scriptures’ stands close to the ruined cathedral and was erected in 909AD. The origins of these free standing stone crosses is thought to come from the early practice in the holy land of marking out Christian sites of importance with stone crosses, as recorded by Saint Adomnan at Iona when he discusses it with Arculf the shipwrecked pilgrim in 680AD, who describes many of the things that he has seen in the Holy Land. The ringed shape is typical of Irish high crosses: practically speaking it supports the weight of the stone arms, but it is also decorated to give a theological interplay to the figures depicted on it. There may be flattery involved too, especially with this cross. King David features highly on this cross and maybe the carver wished to flatter the patron; or the maybe the patron had a very high opinion of himself and considered himself as important as King David. Some have suggested that the crosses are merely a material representation of the relationship of the sacral and secular powers of early Christian Ireland. This seems unlikely, as many crosses - both here and elsewhere have a complex theology attached to their execution, and some are very plain, with no carvings or inscriptions at all (the high cross at Glendalough and the crosses at Ferns). The Cross of the Scriptures does have some significant symbols that we do know about. The pyramidal base represents the hill of Golgotha and the capstone represents the Holy Sepulchre. All of these symbols of the crucifixion and death of Christ are crowned with the pervasive image of his resurrection. The rest of the images on the cross tell the story of the passion and of Christ’s redemptive power. Unique to this cross is a ‘modern’ image of someone recently benefiting from this hard won redemption - Saint Ciaran. At Clonmacnoise there were numerous significant crosses, but today only a few survive. The archaeological evidence points to five main crosses representing the five wounds of Christ, significantly placed in the area to trace the shape of a cross as seen from above. The crosses on the site itself today are recreations - the original crosses are in the visitors centre to protect and conserve them. A number of beautiful and important cross slabs are also housed in the visitors centre.
The central section of the Cross of the Scriptures (the original, housed in the Visitor's Centre)
The Round Tower was built in 1124 AD. While the purpose of round towers throughout Ireland is much disputed, it is thought that these later towers were principally used as bell towers rather than reliquary houses. This tower was struck by lightning in 1135AD resulting in a shorter than normal tower. The present nineteen metre high tower has lost its top. The Nun’s church to the east of the main monastic enclosure marks the start of the pilgrim’s road. Various daughters of the high Kings of Ireland are buried here. The Romanesque style church has some very fine carvings. Temple Finghin is a small church close to the river banks. It has a Romanesque style, but has a round tower integrated into it. In 1864 this church was very badly vandalized and led to the resurgence of interest in the site and its adoption as a site of merit by the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, who first began to raise funds for the restoration of the area. Temple Melaghlin was one of the last buildings to be erected on the site, said to be a burial place of a number of Ireland’s kings, but remaining records reveal nothing.
A cross slab inscribed: 'Pray for Odran who was gifted in knowledge'
Temple Ciaran is a structure dating from the ninth century. Today it is in a sorry state, much neglected and missing its roof and a portion of the walls. It was at one time a uniquely Irish architectural gem. It is an Irish shrine chapel, quite possibly the oldest of its type in Ireland. It would have been a reliquary for the relics important to the community. In the medieval period reliquary shrines were often in the church, but in early Irish monastic communities these shrines were always separate spaces in their own right, indicating the level of importance that they held for the community. It is thought that the design echoes the appearance of the tomb of Christ and was built over the burial site of Saint Ciaran. The building leans dramatically to one side due to subsidence caused by pilgrims who took handfuls of clay from the site as part of their devotion. The practice continues today as a preventative against pests on crops. A preserved arm was also kept in this shrine church up until its disappearance in 1684. It is unclear if it is the arm of Ciaran (the only bit of him to be preserved above ground in the shrine), the arm of another saint or abbot or what the Annals of Tigernach curiously refer to as the withered arm of a man who made a false oath at the time of Ciaran’s death. The Church of Ireland Bishop of Meath is said to have made regular visits to this withered, preserved arm in the early 1600’s and prayed most fervently in the shrine!
Saint Ciaran's shrine
The Irish Sanctorale has two Saints called Ciaran and Ciaran of Clonmacnoise is sometimes called Ciaran the son of a carpenter or Ciaran the younger to distinguish him from Saint Ciaran of Saighir or Ciaran the elder. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise is considered to be one of the twelve apostles of Ireland. He studied alongside Finian and Enda of Aran and went on to found several monasteries, the most faous and most successful being Claonmacnoise. His life was short, dying in his early thirties shortly after the foundation of the monastery. Information on Ciaran is scant, but the hagiographies of the monks in 548AD give some indication of the sort of life he led including some of the famous tales that are repeated in the ‘Latin Life’ record of Saint Ciaran written in the mid fifteenth century. Central to the charism of Ciaran is learning, dedicated scholarship and very generous hospitality.
The pine tree lined path to the well
The most famous story relating to Ciaran recorded in both the hagiographies of the monks and in ‘Latin Life’ is the tale of the dun cow (‘dun’ being a description of its colour). Ciaran is said to have expressed to his parents a desire to study in the college with Finian and asked if he could take a cow from their herds with him to feed himself on its milk when he was in need. His parents objected to this, feeling that his request was somewhat outrageous. When the time came to leave to go and study with Finian and the rest of the students, Ciaran blessed a cow in the fields from his parents herds and it (and its calf) followed him the whole way to the college. While at the college the cow and calf produced a miraculous amount of milk that sufficed to provide enough drink and cheese for everyone who studied with Finian for the whole year. The cow survived Ciaran and lived out its life at the monastery at Clonmacnoise. When the cow died, the monks of Clonmacnoise tanned and preserved the hide and made the famous book of the dun cow (the oldest Irish manuscript in the Irish language) which records Irish dynastic lines, sayings, hymns, prayers and activities of various saints, devotional books, Irish legends, a few secular poems and a curious prophesy by a second century Irish King said to have foreseen the coming of Christianity to Ireland. The document is currently held by the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin and is currently not on view to the public, although some scans are available on the Internet. Later English myths from the eleventh century speak of the dun cow kept by a giant that had an inexhaustible supply of milk. It is Durham’s founding myth and has many saints praying to be rid of this cow and its giant. Curiously, in the eighth century in Irish records there are many references to Ciaran as a giant, but the inference is clearly that he is a ‘spiritual giant’ and there are likewise many references to the jealousy of other saints from his lifetime and those long after who deplored the attention lavished upon the monastic site at Clonmacnoise and its saints shrine.
The well enclosure
With almost 200,000 visitors during the spring and summer period, the footfall at Clonmacnoise is significant and much conservation work is underway. It is a shame however that even in the World Heritage Management Plan for Clonmacnoise of 2004, there is little mention of any intention to restore the well, although when I visited it, a sign at the entrance to the well indicated that some works were taking place. This could be both a beautiful and a very significant site. Sadly it has been greatly neglected. From the road you walk down a pine tree lined avenue to a circular area where the well housing resides, partially covered by a wooden structure with steps down to the bottom of the well. The well is sadly as dry as a bone. I was there on a rainy afternoon after a very wet autumn and the bottom of the well was barely damp; unusual for a well so deep and so close to the banks of the river. Nearby, cattle swarm around a large basin full of water.
Saint Ciaran's well (dry)
The well today is on private land but the site has attracted pilgrims since the seventh century. Many of the pilgrims died from lack of food or from dehydration (sites for clean, drinkable water could be rare enough) and the Annals of Tigernach record the death of an Irish chieftain named Aedh who had been making his way to Clonmacnoise for pilgrimage. Pilgrims to Clonmacnoise would have first stopped here to slake their thirst, wash themselves and to remind themselves of their own baptism; the start of their pilgrimage. The location of this well so close to the river may be significant in symbolizing the River Jordan for those who would have been baptized here and would certainly be in keeping with the symbolism present to the rest of the monastic site. Unlike many European monastic communities, Ireland does not appear to have had separate baptistry's, as baptism took place outside the boundaries of the community for those who were penitential catechumens who would have only been given access to the monastic area and the church after their baptism. Baptisms seem to have taken place exclusively in wells that were also at the heart of the community's life.
The crucifixion stone at the well
According to a tale told in The Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick, a leper passing by Clonmacnoise sat beneath an elm tree and asked a man to pull up some rushes. When he did so, water seeped from the earth and it became a well and this well was to later become known as the well of Saint Cairan. A large and impressive whitethorn bush grew beside this well at one time, but is now gone, replaced by a smaller, younger bush. There is a very early Christian cross slab with rather well preserved carving, the stump of a stone cross (but not thought to be a significantly large one), an early medieval cross slab and a stone which once had a head on it that has been since stolen and the stone badly vandalized. I tried to find an Internet image of this stone in its original state, but to no avail. It was an unusual very early Irish carving of what was thought to be an image of Saint Cairan with a distinctive torc collar around his neck and sporting a very odd hairstyle! Images of the untouched carving can be found in photographs in some books before 1990. Another stone image thought to have been pre-Christian, but regarded devotionally as an image of Saint Colman, has been stolen. The loss and damage of these important objects demonstrates the criminal neglect of these sites. This well could be very beautiful and very significant with the artifacts that surround it. As it is, it is a neglected site, a sad reflection of what it once was and what it could be. Nowhere in the visitor’s centre at Clonmacnoise is this important site mentioned! Nevertheless, it is still something of a miracle that this site has survived at all, as devotion at it was heavily suppressed and discouraged by the Roman Catholic church right up until the 1970's.
The vandalised, headless image of Saint Ciaran with the decorative gold torc still visible around the neck
Later tradition around this well involved a pattern that began on the third Sunday in September to mark the feast of Saint Ciaran (9th September). The well was considered to be the first stop on the pattern pilgrimage route now known as ‘the Long Station’. Bare footed, the pilgrim is required to circle the well three times in the name of the holy Trinity, stopping to repent at the stone bearing the crucifixion (this stone is inscribed with the words ‘repent and do penance’) and then kissing the two stone images of the saints (one missing the other now badly vandalized) and finally kneeling to give thanks at the cross slab. From here the pilgrims walk down the road to the monastic settlement and towards the Nun’s Church (modern practice advises the penitent to firstly make three circuits of the graveyards to pray for the deceased) to follow the glacial ridge as far as they are able. Today, most pilgrims stop shortly after the Nun’s Church because much of the esker ridge that forms the pilgrim’s way is inaccessible to walkers, but plans are afoot to renew and restore the ancient pathways and make Europe’s oldest pilgrim route active once again. Watch this space!
The cross slab: 'Pray with thanksgiving'
There is another well at Clonmacnoise (Saint Fingin’s well) which is not dry, but I shall leave that for another day!
Another round tower at the monastic site
As a site for tourists and a reviving site of pilgrimage it seems appropriate to say prayers for all those who travel.
These are the gifts I ask of thee, Spirit serene;
Strength for the daily task,
Courage to face the road,
Good cheer to help me bear the travelers load;
And for the hours that come between,
An inward joy in all things heard and seen.
Henry van Dyke
The replica Cross of the Scriptures aligned to the main door of the ruined cathedral
The shrine of Saint Ciaran is a suitable place to give thanks for the saint.
High King of Heaven, we give thanks for the memory of Saint Ciaran and for the centre of learning that he established at Clonmacnoise: keep before your church such a vision of yourself and a sense of your abiding presence that we may worship you in spirit and in truth here on earth and through Christ’s redemption receive heaven’s joys at the last; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
A memorial cross
How to find it:
From the car park in Clonmacnoise Visitor’s Centre head south-west (straight out the entrance you came in and straight out onto the road, but keeping the river on your right) until you see a line of mature pine trees with a stone wall. This marks the entrance of the well enclosure. A house sits high on a bank opposite and overlooks the site. It is within walking distance from Clonmacnoise.