Clonmacnoise (Irish: Cluain Mhic Nois, “meadow of the sons of Nos”) is a monastic site overlooking the River Shannon in County Offaly. The extensive ruins include a cathedral, castle, round tower, numerous churches, two important high crosses, and a large collection of early Christian grave slabs (the last two on display in the excellent site museum).
History of Clonmacnoise
Clonmacnoise was founded in 548 by St. Ciaran, the son of a master craftsman. The settlement soon became a major center of religion, learning, trade, craftsmanship and politics, thanks in large part to its position at the major crossroads of the River Shannon (flowing north-south) and the gravel ridges of the glacial eskers (running east-west).
The settlement was also situated between the two provinces of Meath and Connacht, and benefited from the patronage of powerful provincial kings. Clonmacnoise was originally associated with Connacht, but from the 9th to 11th centuries allied itself with Meath. In the late 11th and 12th centuries, allegiance reverted once again to Connacht. The last high king of Ireland, Rory O’Connor, was buried in Clonmacnoise’s cathedral in 1198.
Religion was the central focus at Clonmacnoise, but it always had a large lay population and thus looked more like a town than a monastery. The houses and domestic buildings were made of wood and have not survived, but there is a reconstruction of one such building in the site’s museum. The earliest churches at Clonmacnoise were also made of wood, but from the 10th century onward they were built of stone.
Like nearly all monastic settlements in Ireland, Clonmacnoise was plundered on several occasions by invaders, including the Vikings and Anglo-Normans. It then fell into decline from the 13th century onwards until it was destroyed in 1552 by the English garrison from nearby Athlone.
Clonmacnoise was designated a national monument in 1877 and is now overseen by the Office of Public Works (OPW).
What to See at Clonmacnoise
Near the visitors’ center and museum is a large round tower, built in 1124 by Turlough O’Connor and O’Malone (successor of St. Ciaran). It was struck by lightning in 1135 and the present top is of a later date. As it normally the case, the doorway is well above ground level. It is faced with rectangular limestone blocks.
The largest of the many churches at Clonmacnoise is the Cathedral, originally built in 909 by the King of Tara (Flann Sinna) and the Abbot of Clonmacnoise (Colman). The brown sandstone of the original building can be seen in the north wall.
The west door dates from about 1200 and is in the transitional style between Romanesque and Gothic. A sacristy was also added around that time. The last high king of Ireland, Rory O’Connor, was buried close to the altar in 1198. In the late 13th century, the south wall was rebuilt two meters over from its original positions, probably to correct a structural problem.
In the 1450s, an elaborate vault was added over the east end (now ruined), the north door was inserted, and an accommodation with fireplace was added above the sacristy. An inscription above the north door attributes these improvements to Odo, dean of Clonmacnoise, who died in 1461. The doorway features fine carvings of Sts. Dominic, Patrick and Francis.
Next to the cathedral are two churches joined together. On the west is Temple Dowling, named for Edmund Dowling of Clondalare, who extended it westwards and re-roofed it in 1689. The east end of the church dates from the 11th century and was faced with large stones set on edge and retains its small round-headed east window, which now looks into Temple Hurpan. This church was added around 1700.
Behind these two is Temple Melaghlin, a plain rectangular church from c.1200 AD. It features a two-light east window with an internal molded frame, similar to those seen in the west of Ireland. The church is connected with the Melaghlin family, the descendents of the kings of Meath. (This church was closed for renovations during this author's August 2007 visit.)
North of Temple Melaghin is Temple Ciaran, the smallest of the churches (just 3.8m by 2.8m inside) and the reputed burial site of St. Ciaran. The early masonry church was one of the first to be built in stone at Clonmacnoise, dating from the early 10th century. The southern end of the church is of a more recent date.
At the bottom of the hill next to the River Shannon is Temple Finghin, a pretty little Romanesque church with a fully intact round belltower. The church has been dated to about 1160-70. The Romanesque chancel arch appears to have been damaged by fire; its present inner order is a later limestone replacement.
Nearby is Temple Connor, a little church with an intact roof that has been used since the 18th century by the Church of Ireland. Dating from about 1200, it has a west door and south window in the transitional style. (This church was locked during the author's August 2007 visit.)
East of these ruins is a modern Catholic cemetery; about 500 meters further east is the Nuns’ Church. The Romanesque nave-and-chancel church was completed in 1167 by the infamous Dearbhforgaill, wife of Tighearnan O’Rourke. It features a finely carved doorway and chancel arch, both reconstructed in the 19th century. In the field a few meters to the southeast is part of a wall from an earlier church.
On the far west of the site, on a mound close to the River Shannon, are the intriguing remains of a castle built by the Chief Governor of Ireland in 1214. It was destroyed as early as 1300. The ruins balance precariously on the edge of the hill, looking as though they fell out of the sky and lodged themselves there. The castle consisted of a masonry hall and courtyard surrounded by timber defensive structures on the banks.
Don’t miss the excellent on-site museum, which includes a visual timeline of the site, the original high crosses from the site, and a fantastic collection of early Christian gravestones dating from the 8th through 12th centuries.
Originally standing in front of the Cathedral is the remarkable Cross of the Scriptures, one of the finest high crosses in Ireland. Dating from about 900 AD, the cross stands 13 feet (4m) high and is divided into panels of sculptured biblical scenes as well as portraits of the abbot and king who erected the cross and cathedral.
Also preserved in the museum and replaced with a replica in its original position is the South Cross, standing about 12 feet (3.7m) high. It is thought to date from the early 9th century and its style is related to the Ahenny group of crosses. Most of the decoration is abstract, including interlacing designs, spirals and bosses. It also has a bas-relief Crucifixion scene, which (unusually) appears on the shaft rather than the cross-head.
The North Cross is even earlier, dating from about 800, but only the shaft and base survives. Its style is similar to that of the Book of Kells. The shaft is carved on three sides with abstract designs, human interlace, and animals.
The dozen or so early Christian graveslabs on display in the museum are only a small selection from Clonmacnoise's extensive collection. The slabs are carved with crosses and Celtic designs, and most have an inscription giving the name of the deceased. The inscription usually takes the form "OR DO," meaning “a prayer for.”
Quick Facts on Clonmacnoise
|Names:||Clonmacnoise · Cluain Mhic Nois|
|Categories:||cathedrals; archaeological sites; monasteries; high cross sites|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||53.326029° N, 7.986277° W|
County Offaly, Ireland
|Phone:||090 967 4195|
|Hours:||mid-May to mid-Sep: 9am-7pm|
mid-Sep to Oct, mid-Mar to mid-May: 10am-6pm
Nov to mid-Mar: 10am-5pm
Last admission 45 min before closing.
|Lodging:||View hotels near Clonmacnoise|
- Personal visit (August 31, 2007).
- Clonmacnoise Visitor's Guide - brochure sold by OPW
- Lonely Planet Ireland, 7th ed. (January 2006), 351-53.
Map of Clonmacnoise, County Offaly
Below is a location map and aerial view of Clonmacnoise. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.