CLONMACNOISE AND ST. CIARAN
Revd. George Dobbs, St. Aidan, Sudden, Rochdale
In the Spring of 2000, Irish archaeologist, Ellen O’ Carroll discovered a wooden sixth century bishop’s crozier in a peat bog in County Offaly. The crozier is a relic of the Celtic Church in Ireland. It was stuck vertically in the peat besides an ancient track. The Irish Times described the track thus “The upper walking surface was made of split oak planks laid end-to-end and pegged into the peat at each end”. This was part of the early Irish system of “oak roads” or “toghers” some of which date back to the early Bronze Age in the second millennium BC. Many such toghers became early pilgrim routes and determined the location of monastic settlements.
Another common form of early Irish road is the “Esker”. Eskers are long, graveled ridges created at the end of the last Ice Age by the melt water of thawing ice sheets. Since prehistoric times, eskers formed natural roads that allowed travel through bogs and wetlands. Many later man-made roads followed the course of an old esker. Part of the N4/N6, Dublin to Galway road lies on the Eiscir Riada. Again, the esker roadways were instrumental in the location of, and communication between, early monastic settlements.
It is hardly surprising that the Celtic Monastery of Clonmacnoise is situated in the center of Ireland on a gravel ridge beside the River Shannon. The Shannon is the longest river in Ireland, offering north-south navigation, and a band of esker ridges with togher pathways provide an east-west route. Clonmacnoise is located at the main crossroads in old Celtic Ireland. Set up for ease of travel and communication, Clonmacnoise became one of the most influential places of learning in Ireland and beyond. It remains today as a place of pilgrimage and a successful tourist attraction.
Situated near Athlone, in County Offaly, only a few structures remain of this once huge settlement founded by St. Ciaran in the sixth century. Ciaran is somewhat unique amongst the Irish saints in that most of them came from noble birth. Ciaran is surnamed Mac an Tsair, “son of the carpenter” and came of an artisan background. Some references suggest that his father was, in fact, a chariot maker. His name can be confusing and is sometimes written as “St. Kieran”. There is no “K” in the Gaelic so probably the authentic usage is Ciaran which is pronounced “Keer-un”. There are also at least three other Irish saints with the name Ciaran, the most famous being Ciaran of Ossory.
Ciaran was born around 516 and according to legend his family were too poor to support him when he wished to join the school of St. Finnian in Clonard. He asked for a cow to offer as payment but this was also beyond the family means. When he began the journey to Clonard, a dun cow and her calf followed him. The cow provided milk for the monks and students throughout his time at the monastery. After the cow’s death, it is said that her hide was the parchment on which the Book of the Dun Cow, “Lebor Na h’Uidre” was written. This book of poetry, stories and genealogy is one of the oldest surviving manuscripts in Ireland.
On leaving Clonard, like many young Irish monks of the time, He travelled to Aran to study under St. Enda. One night Ciaran and Enda had the same vision, “a great and fruitful tree beside a stream, in the middle of Ireland, and it protected the island of Ireland, and its fruits went forth over the sea that surrounded the island”. Enda suggested “the great tree is thou thyself … Go then, with God’s word, to the bank of a stream, and there found a church”. Ciaran returned to Ireland and after spending a little time in several monasteries on his journey south, he came to the banks of the Shannon where he found a grassy ridge called Ard Tiprait, or the “Height of Spring”. Here, the annuls say, on January 23rd 544 he laid the foundation stone of his monastic school of Clonmacnoise.
He was fortunate to gain the friendship and patronage of Prince Diarmait, son of Cerball, the High King of Ireland. Diarmait offered every assistance to the building of the monastery and endowed large amounts of land for use of the community. Diarmait was later to become the first Christian High King of Ireland.
Although Ciaran was the founder of Clonmacnoise, he was never to see it come to fruition. In September of 544, only 9 months after the work began, Ciaran died from the yellow plague which was sweeping across Ireland. It has been estimated that as many as six or seven thousand students may have been at Clonmacnoise at its height – a monastic university founded by a carpenter’s son. But the Irish monastic schools did appear to be very democratic places. At Clonard, the carpenter’s son was in the same class as Coimcille, the saint who was son of a king.
Ciaran himself never saw the emergence of Clonmacnoise as the great literary school of Ireland. Perhaps he gave it its character - that of a school for the whole nation. The teachers were chosen simply for their learning and zeal and the abbots were elected from every province. It enjoyed the support of bishops and kings. In the grounds are buried Diarmait the High King and his rival, Guaire of Connaught and many other royal benefactors including Rory O’ Connor, the last High King of Ireland. Its geographical position and access to road and river routes drew students from all over Ireland and Continental Europe. It became not only a centre for scholarship but for craftsmen in the Celtic tradition.
The prosperity of Clonmacnoise was not to last for ever. It was subject to difficulties and attack. In the seventh century a plaque killed almost all its students and monks and in the eighth century the monastery was burned down three times, probably due to its wooden buildings. Between the ninth and eleventh centuries, the Shannon became the route for the Viking invasion of central Ireland and the monastery was frequently plundered. The attacks were continued by the Normans and finally, in 1552, the site was plundered for the last time by the English garrison at Athlone.
Today Clonmacnoise remains as a Celtic Christian site worthy of a visit by anyone interested in things Celtic. The present site has the ruins of a Cathedral, eight churches, two round towers, three high crosses and a large collection of very early Christian grave slabs. It has one of the best Interpretative Centres I have seen at any Celtic site housed in buildings which resemble crannogs: circular Celtic living quarters. The preservation and presentation of the site is a credit to Duchas – the National Heritage service of Ireland. The Visitor’s Centre houses the three high crosses and a collection of slab stones. The sandstone high crosses were brought under cover in 1993 for protection against the elements. Excellent replicas of the crosses have been erected in their original places on the site.
The Cross of the Scriptures is one of Ireland’s finest crosses and stands 3.9 metres high. It is my second favourite high cross, after the Cross of Moone. The base on the east and west faces bares the inscription “OR DO RIG FLAIND MAC MAELSECHNAILL OROIT DO RIG HERENN OR DO COLMAN DORRO … IN CROSA AR … RIG FLAIND”. ( A prayer for King Flann, son of Maelsechnaill, a prayer for the king of Ireland. Prayer for Colman who made this cross for King Flann.) Maelsechnaill was king or Tara and Meath from 879 to 916 and Colman was probably the Abbot of Clomacnoise from about 904 to 926. The sides of the cross are highly decorated with figurative carvings. The west face panels depict scenes from the life of Christ, the head showing the crucifixion. The east face is rather more difficult to interpret but has scriptural panels with the Last Judgment at the head.
The South Cross is a somewhat simpler, and early, high cross. The carvings are mainly abstract ornamentation with one figured scene on the west shaft showing the crucifixion. The date of the Southern Cross is arguable. Some scholars suggest a date around, or even before, 800 but a recent interpretation of badly worn letters on the base suggest it may have been erected at the time of Maelsechnaill, the king named on the Cross of Scriptures. The Northern Cross is little more than a fragment. All that survives is a square sectioned shaft with rather worn patterns including interlaced human figures. The east side is totally blank which may suggest that it was originally erected against a wall. When the cross was excavated in the 1990’s it was found to be set into a large circular millstone.
The Visitor’s Centre also has an impressive array of grave slabs from the period of the Celtic church in Ireland ranging in date from about 700 to the twelfth century. I consider these slabs, their with simple Celtic knotwork crosses, to be the most beautiful artifacts on the site. Several have dedications in bold Irish insular script, which usually take the form “OR DO X” (a prayer for X). The oldest stone is perhaps the least impressive in appearance. It is a plain piece of sandstone with a worn Ogham inscription on one edge. It may be as early as the fifth century and the only remnant from the time of St. Ciaran.
The site itself is really a graveyard, which is common for many Irish monastic sites. The later faithful wished to be buried where saints had trod. A Round Tower, minus roof, stands in the north-west corner of the site. This is a typical Irish round tower with a doorway 3.3 metres above ground level. There is a later dated round tower attached to a Romanesque church, Temple Finghin, situated on the River Shannon side of the site. This tower still retains the distinctive conical stone roof.
The Cathedral is, by far, the largest of the church buildings. Said to have first been erected in 904, little of the original building survives. What can be seen are the subsequent rebuildings of the eleventh, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The remains show an impressive Romanesque building enhanced by the Cross of the Scriptures standing outside the western entrance. The other churches on the site are small and various. My favourite is Temple Ciaran, smallest of the churches, with intriguing twisted walls caused by movement due to burial activity. It measures only 3.8 x 2.8 metres and is traditionally the location of St. Ciaran’s grave. The grave is supposed to be in the north corner furthest away from the entrance. The soil from around this area was much sought after for its healing properties and by farmers to add to their soil for a bountiful crop. On my last visit, I noticed that the soil was disturbed around this area. Perhaps the old practices continue?
A much later church, but well worth a visit, is located some 500 metres from the main site. It is reached by following the old pilgrims path, which goes through the modern graveyard, then following the sign along an adjacent lane. This leads to the Nun’s Church, a small and beautiful Romanesque church with a nave and chancel. The Annuls of Clonmacnoise record that this was completed in 1167 by Dearbhforgaill, the wife of the king of Breifne, who was abducted (apparently not unwillingly) by the king of Leinster who “kept her for a long space to satisfy his insatiable and carnal lust”. Perhaps rather fittingly, it has a small Sheela Na Gig figure carved on one of the ornate arches. Despite this history, it is a lovely and peaceful small church set some way from the main tourist area of the site.
Clonmacnoise is easy to find by following the signs leading off the N6 (Dublin to Galway) road just south of Athlone. It demands at least a whole day of one’s life for a worthwhile visit and I have returned to offer it more than one day of mine. The site is open all year and I can recommend an out of season visit.