Clonmacnoise (Co. Offaly – West)
Clonmacnoise (Cluain Mhic Nóis – “Meadow of the Sons of Nós” / Cluain Muccu Nóis – “Meadow of the Pigs of Nós”) is a remarkable monastic site on the River Shannon. Strategically located on the Eiscir Riada, the major east-west land route through the bogs of central Ireland, and almost in the centre of the island, it become a major centre of religion, learning, craftsmanship and trade, visited by scholars from all over Europe. Many of the high kings of Tara and Connacht were buried here. (Photo – Aix tom)
Clonmacnoise was founded c.546 AD by Ciarán Mac a tSair, a carpenter’s son from nearby Rathcroghan (Co. Roscommon) who had studied with Saint Finian at Clonard and Saint Enda at Aran. He and seven companions built the first of many small wooden churches on the site with the help of Diarmait Uí Cerbaill, who went on to become the first practising Christian to be crowned High King of Ireland.
The founder died less than one year later of the yellow fever (Justinian Plague) at the age of 33 and was reportedly buried under the original wooden church. He has long been revered as Saint Ciarán of Clonmacnoise, aka Saint Ciarán the Younger, regarded as one of the Apostles of Ireland.
Clonmacnoise underwent its period of greatest growth between the C8th and C12th. It was attacked frequently during these four centuries, mostly by natives (at least 27 times) and also Vikings (at least 7 times). The early wooden buildings began to be replaced by more durable stone structures in the C9th, and the original population of fewer than ten men had grown to perhaps 1,500 / 2,000 by the C11th. Artisans created some of the most beautiful and enduring artworks in metal and stone ever made in Ireland, most notably the Clonmacnoise Crozier (on display in the NMI).
Clonmacnoise began to decline as a cultural centre in the C12th for a number of reasons, primarily the growth of nearby Athlone as the most popular route for crossing the River Shannon. The influx of continental religious orders such as the Franciscans, Augustinians, Bendictines, Cluniacs, and others and the change in the Irish Church from a monastic framework to a diocesan basis reduced the site’s religious standing, as it was designated the seat of a small and impoverished diocese. At least 6 attacks by Anglo-Normans did nothing to help, and the site was soon little more than a necropolis.
English soldiers from nearby Athlone looted and destroyed Clonmacnoise in 1552. By the end of that century its churches were in ruins, and no monasteries remained in Ireland for another 300 years.
In 1864, thoughtless souvenir hunting by a person from Birr on a ‘pleasure party’ to the Seven Churches, as Clonmacnoise was often termed, led to a landmark Crown prosecution against the vandal at the behest of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.
In 1877 the Clonmacnoise ruins were taken into the care of the Crown. In 1955 the Church of Ireland gave the remaining main buildings and the extensive graveyard to the state. The site was visited by Pope John Paul II in 1979.
Temple Ciarán is traditionally presented as the burial site of Saint Ciarán, but while excavations unearthed the Clonmacnoise Crozier, there were no saintly remains. At 2.8 x 3.8m, this is the smallest church in Clonmacnoise. (Photo by Joseph Mischyshyn)
Temple Dowling is a tiny church originally built in the C10th, named afterEdmund Dowling, who renovated it in 1689, placing a stone carving of his family crest above the door. It is sometimes referred to as MacClaffey’s church. An eastern annex called Temple Hurpan, built in the C17th, had no religious function beyond being a burial ground for some members of the local parish.
The Cathedral, commenced c. 909 by king Flann Sinna and Abbot Colmán, is the largest of the churches at Clonmacnoise. Rory O’Connor, the last High King of Ireland, was buried near the altar in 1198, joining his father Turlough. The Gothic-style north doorway, often called the Whispering Arch, dates to the mid-C15th. Most of the graves currently visible are those of the Coghlan family, who extensively rebuilt the cathedral in the mid-C17th. The fine Romanesque west doorway has been recently (and controversially) restored.
O’Rourke’s Tower, named after C10th king Fergal O’Rourke, was finished in 1124 by Turlough O’Connor, king of Connacht, and Gilla Christ Ua Maoileoin, abbot of Clonmacnoise. 11 years later it was struck by lightning, knocking off the head. The upper part is later work, giving rise to speculation that the masonry toppled in the storm of 1135 may have been reused in the building of McCarthy’s Tower.
Temple Finghín & McCarthy’s Tower, possibly the earliest example in Ireland of a church and Round Tower united in a single structure, dates from c.1165. The Romanesque chancel arch appears to have been damaged by fire; its present inner order is a later limestone replacement.
Temple Melaghlin, aka Temple Rí (King’s church) was built c.1200. At least seven generations of Melaghlin kings are said to be buried underneath the structure, which is also believed to have housed a scriptorium where manuscripts were designed and decorated.
Temple Kelly has left little trace beyond its perimeter stones, which still give a good indication of the church’s original size.
Temple Connor, erected c.1200, has been used for worship by the Church of Ireland since the C18th, and services are still held every Sunday afternoon in summer. It underwent significant restoration works in the second decade of the twentieth century, when the pitch of the roof was raised and the internal space was remodelled.
The Nuns’ Church, reached through a modern Roman Catholic cemetery east of the other ruins , was completed in 1167 by the notorious Dearbhforgaill, wife of Tighearnan O’Rourke. This Romanesque nave-and-chancel church features a finely carved doorway and chancel arch, both reconstructed in the 1865. In the field to the southeast is part of a wall from an earlier church. (Photo by Bob Embleton)
Clonmacnoise Castle, inaccurately aka King John’s Castle, nowadays attracts more birds than humans. Standing on top of a Norman motte surrounded by a deep fosse, the original wooden bailey erected to guard the River Shannon crossing point was destroyed by fire c.1205, and was replaced in 1214 by a three-storey stone castle at the command of the Justiciar of Ireland, Henry de Loundres, who was ordered in 1216 to compensate the Abbot for his lands and any others items such as animals or fruit trees the Abbot may have lost. The Castle was destroyed during the short-lived Gaelic Resurgence of the late C13th / early C14th, and the precariously balanced remnants are out of bounds to visitors for obvious safety reasons.
The Annals of Clonmacnoise chronicle events in Ireland from pre-history to A.D. 1408. The original manuscript or manuscripts are lost, and the names of its compilers are unknown. It is so-called because it was thought to be based on materials gathered at the monastery of Clonmacnoise, though there is some doubt about this.
The Clonmacnoise Crosses
The North Cross, created c.800 AD, is the oldest of the three extant crosses. Only the limestone shaft and sandstone base (a former millstone) survive. The decoration is non-Christian, with an image of Cernunnos, the Celtic God of hunting and fertility, displayed on the east face of the shaft. It appears that the piece was badly vandalised at some point in its history, a hypothesis which may explain its current state.
The South Cross is a C9th piece originally situated at the southern end of the central hub. It has one Christian scene on its west face, a rough carving of the Crucifixion of Christ. Many believe that the Cross may have been part inspiration for the later Cross of the Scriptures. The original is in the interpretative centre, with a not particularly accomplished replica (wrong colour, for a start) occupying its original site.
The Cross of the Scriptures, carved from Clare sandstone c.900 AD, is one of the most skilfully executed of the surviving High Crosses in Ireland, and bears an interesting inscription asking a prayer for Flann Sinna, king of Ireland, and Abbot Colmán who commissioned it. The surface of the cross is divided into panels, showing scenes including the Crucifixion, the Last Judgement, and Christ in the Tomb. The 4m high original has been moved into the visitors’ centre; a reasonably convincing, if hollow, replica stands at the original site.
The OPW Interpretative Centre opened in 1993, houses the most important High Crosses, a collection of early Christian grave slabs, a reproduction of a wooden building c.900 AD, a theatre (56 seats) showing an audio-visual presentation in various languages, and various dioramas illustrating the history of Clonmacnoise. Guided tours are available for groups, but have to be pre-booked.
A Tourist Office located outside the main site stocks a wider selection of publications and souvenirs than the OPW Centre.
The site attracted a record 169,000 visitors in 2007. Given the absence of interpretative panels on the site, a guide book is essential for those interested in understanding what it is they are looking at. The 1500-year-old monastic settlement also remains a destination for Roman Catholic pilgrims, especially on St. Ciarán’s Day, 9th September.
A totally inadequate parking area for cars (thirty-six spaces) and coaches (four spaces) is located at the west end of the site. Very often visitors abandon their cars on the small road nearby, as do coach companies, making the site difficult to access at times.
Clonfinlough is the location of a carved boulder known as the Fairy’s / Horseman’s Stone, bearing many marks in the shape of cups, crosses, daggers, and a pair of human feet (a Petrosomatoglyph), possibly used the inauguration of ancient chieftains (Dunadd in Scotland has a well-known example of this tradition). Some of the hollows may be due to weathering.
Curleys Island is one of two neighbouring islands originating the curious name of the ford of Snámh Dá Éan (“swim two birds”), where according to legend Saint Patrick crossed the River Shannon into Connacht, and was the site of an early Christian nunnery that survived for many centuries. The Anglo-Normans considered the ford important enough to be guarded by a campaign fort, and constructed the great Motte of Clonburren on the western side of the river.
Shannonbridge (Co. Offaly / West)
Shannonbridge (Droichead na Sionainne) (pop. 600), a picturesque village located in the townland of Raghra (Reachra), gets its name from a splendid bridge across the River Shannon, erected in 1757 and still in use. (Photo by Sarah777)
(The military may have initially constructed a village, the ‘first Shannonbridge’, downriver in the vicinity of Temple Duff graveyard)
Shannonbridge Fort (1804) was one of several heavy fortifications built locally in the Napoleonic era; the others, including a structure now housing a restaurant, are (rather oddly?) situated on the west bank of the river.
The Electricity Supply Board‘s West Offaly Power Station, the largest peat-fired power station in the country, with a capacity of 150 megawatts, is located about 1km downriver. The peat is supplied from the Blackwater Bog peatlands, managed by Bord na Móna.
The Clonmacnoise and West Offaly Railway, a narrow gauge railway, is principally used to transport peat to the power station, and also provides passenger 45 minute Bog Tours out across a cutaway area of preserved peatlands showing 12,000 years of history, heritage and archaeology. About 32,000 visitors go on the tour per annum. (Highly recommended!).
Shannonbridge Potteries has a very extensive range of ceramic products and is open to the public.
The Callows comprise an internationally recognised nature conservation area of seasonally flooded wet grasslands, used in summer for agriculture (grazing, hay cutting). There are brown hares, foxes, mink, frogs, butterflies, dragonflies, beetles, mussels, snails and leeches. Birds include swans (Berwicks, Mute and Whooper), moorhens, swallows, terns, ducks, lapwing, redshank, curlew, sandpiper, and the increasingly rare corncrake.
Shannonbridge is a popular destination for holidaymakers on river cruisers, anglers and wildlife enthusiasts. On summer nights the village pubs buzz with music, chat and good humoured banter.
Ireland’s first ever Climate Camp was held in the village in August 2009, bringing activists from all over the country to converge in a field next to the West Offaly Power Station. For a week they protested against the extraction and burning of peat in the station, on the grounds that it releases large quantities of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.