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The monastery at Clonmacnoise held a strategic position.

Clonmacnoise: Medieval Monastery Still Standing After 80 Attacks by the English, Irish, Vikings and Normans!

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Clonmacnoise is a medieval monastic site located in County Offaly in the Irish province of Leinster. This monastic site is recorded to have been founded during the middle of the 6 th century AD, though the area itself is reckoned to have already been inhabited at a much earlier point of time. Clonmacnoise flourished until the 13 th century, after which is went into decline, due to several factors. The site was destroyed during the 16 th century, and the ruins that can still be seen at the site today are a testament to the past greatness of this monastic site.

Monastic ruins at Clonmacnoise

Monastic ruins at Clonmacnoise

A Monastic Meadow of Sons

In Irish, Clonmacnoise is said to have been Cluain Mhic Nóis, which translates as ‘Meadow of the Sons of Nóis’. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the site was known in Irish as Cluain Muccu Nóis, meaning ‘Meadow of the Pigs of Nóis’, though this moniker may be less likely. Clonmacnoise is located on the eastern bank of the River Shannon, at the point where an ancient roadway crossed the river. The archaeological evidence suggests that the area was already occupied during the Irish Iron Age, i.e. around 2500 years ago.

Numerous burial mounds and other Iron Age sites are scattered around the landscape surrounding Clonmacnoisee

Numerous burial mounds and other Iron Age sites are scattered around the landscape surrounding Clonmacnoisee

In the middle of the 6 th century AD, a saint by the name of Ciarán mac an tSaeir (meaning ‘Ciarán son of the carpenter’) arrived in Clonmacnoise and established a monastery there. The monastery founded by St. Ciarán had a geographically strategic position, as the ancient roadway that crossed the river was the major east-west road in Ireland, whilst the river facilitated travel from the north to the south, and vice versa .

Church ruins at Clonmacnoisee

Church ruins at Clonmacnoisee

As a result of this, the monastery grew in importance over time. In addition to being a major religious site, Clonmacnoise was also an important center for trade, as well as learning. Moreover, Clonmacnoise became renowned as a center of fine craftsmanship, most notably in the production of Celtic art and illuminated manuscripts. A number of important historical manuscripts, including the Annals of Tighernach (11 th century) and the Book of the Dun Cow (12 th century) were produced at Clonmacnoise.

Many stone slabs were found on site with detailed Celtic carvings

Many stone slabs were found on site with detailed Celtic carvings

A Tempting Target for All

Clonmacnoise also dabbled in politics, as it was located between two provinces – Meath and Connacht which greatly contributed to it being a high target for attacks. Its most persistent aggressor was the English, who attacked the monastery on some 40 or more occasions. It suffered assaults from the Irish at least 27 times, the Vikings 7 times and the Normans 6 times!

Originally, it supported the rulers of Connacht, but shifted its allegiance to Meath between the 9 th and 11 th centuries.  Towards the end of the 11 th century, however, it returned to the side of Connacht once more. Apparently, the inhabitants of Clonmacnoise even participated in a battle against the rival monastery of St. Columba in Durrow.

Of course, there were also Viking and Norman raiders who attacked the monastery due to its great wealth.

Church ruins at Clonmacnoisee

Church ruins at Clonmacnoisee

Clonmacnoise began to decline during the 12 th century. During this time, a royal castle was built by the Anglo-Norman de Burgo family not far from the monastic complex. In effect, this challenged the monastery’s ownership of the surrounding area. Additionally, it was during this time that the nearby city of Athlone began to gain prominence. This meant that the local population had the option of migrating somewhere else for work, instead of depending entirely on the monastery. Moreover, other monastic centers emerged around Ireland. The combination of these factors caused Clonmacnoise’s gradual decline, and it was finally destroyed by the English garrison stationed at Athlone in 1552.

The High Crosses at Clonmacnoise

Today, the ruins of Clonmacnoise may be visited by the public. Some of the highlights of the site include the cathedral, and three high crosses. The cathedral is, unsurprisingly, the largest church at the site, and was originally built in the beginning of the 10 th century. One of the most fascinating features of the cathedral is its north entrance, which is called the ‘Whispering Arch’. According to legend, this used to be a confessional, where a penitent would face the wall and make his / her confession to a priest standing on the opposite side of the door.

The remains of the cathedral at Clonmacnoise

The remains of the cathedral at Clonmacnoise

As for the high crosses, the original ones are now exhibited in the visitor’s center, whilst replicas take their place in their original positions in the open air. The most famous of these crosses is the Cross of the Scriptures, a 4 m (13 feet) high cross elaborately decorated with biblical scenes. The reputation of this high cross is evident in the fact that it was mentioned not once, but twice, in the Annals of the Four Masters.

Cross of the Scriptures in the Clonmacnoise Visitor Center

Cross of the Scriptures in the Clonmacnoise Visitor Center

Replica of the Cross of the Scriptures in situ

Replica of the Cross of the Scriptures in situ

Top image: The monastery at Clonmacnoise held a strategic position. Photo source: Ioannis Syrigos

All images courtesy of Ioannis Syrigos

By: Wu Mingren

References

DoChara, 2018. Clonmacnoisee. [Online]
Available at: https://www.dochara.com/places-to-visit/monastic-sites/Clonmacnoisee/

Failte Ireland, 2018. Clonmacnoisee - Monastic site. [Online]
Available at: https://www.discoverireland.ie/Arts-Culture-Heritage/Clonmacnoisee-monastic-site/16281

Sacred Destinations, 2018. Clonmacnoisee, County Offaly. [Online]
Available at: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/ireland/Clonmacnoisee

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014. Clonmacnoisee. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Clonmacnoisee

www.ireland.com, 2018. Clonmacnoisee. [Online]
Available at: https://www.ireland.com/what-is-available/attractions-built-heritage/churches-abbeys-and-monasteries/articles/Clonmacnoisee/

www.visitoffaly.ie, 2018. Clonmacnoisee Monastic Site. [Online]
Available at: https://www.visitoffaly.ie/Places-to-Go/Clonmacnoisee-Monastic-Site/

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