Clonmacnoise on the River Shannon

No matter whom I asked, all advisors pointed me toward a visit to Clonmacnoise, a ruin on the banks of the River Shannon in the Irish Midlands. Located at the junction of the Shannon and a major trade route on an ancient esker (high deposits of gravel formed in the wake of receding glaciers during the Ice Age, serving as natural roadways) through the bogs, the early Christian site includes ruins of a cathedral, seven churches (10th through 13th centuries), two round towers, three high crosses and the largest collection of Early Christian grave slabs in Ireland.

Fisherman coming into dock at Shannonbridge

Shannonbridge, one of the crossings of the River Shannon with a small community of the same name

The old fort protecting the crossing for centuries

Good friend’s name–had to stop at Killeen’s

Open door policy at Killeen’s pub

Rustic sign–made by hand, of course

Inside Killeen’s Pub (had to add my own business card among all the rest, a sign that I’ll return some day)

Founded in A.D. 544 by Saint Cieran (“Kee-ron”), the Clonmacnoise monastery was associated with the Irish kings of Connacht. The strategic location made it the most famous center in Ireland for trade, religion, learning and craftsmanship by the 9th century. Scholars from all over Europe visited Clonmacnoise. Up to ten scribes at once worked on illuminated manuscripts here, copying religious documents of the time, and many of the high kings of Connacht, Meade, and Tara tribes are buried here.

Rare thatched roof stone cottage–few left–on the road to Clonmacnoise

Detail of thatched roof border

Roadway to the ruin–and typical, with NO space to pull over for a photo (almost never, so frustrating at times)

Diorama depicting of the death of St. Cieran, buried under the oratory

The “high crosses” were erected in tribute to King Flan in the 10th century, and the originals have been moved into the visitor center for preservation, with recently-made replacements now out in the elements where the originals once stood.

Original “high cross” now in the visitor center–“Cross of the Scriptures”

High Cross, “The Cross of the Scriptures”

Full cross (Cross of the Scriptures), nearly 20 feet tall

Incised funeral slab, in the visitor center, laid flat on the ground over burials

Funeral slab, probably 6th-9th century

The decline of Clonmacnoise began with the growth of the village of Athlone to the north in the 12th century, a more secure and popular ford of the River Shannon. The old site lost many inhabitants to Athlone, and the influx of religious orders of the Franciscans, Augustinians, and Benedictines from the continent arrived to feed into the decline. Clonmacnoise was repeatedly plundered by Vikings, Normans, English and warring Irish tribes, and finally the buildings were looted and reduced to ruins around 1552 by the English garrison at Athlone.

O’Rourke’s Tower (finished in 1124, and topless after being struck by lightning a few years later), on the east bank of the River Shannon–named for a king of Connacht, Turlough O’Rourke, and the abbot of Clonmacnoise at that time.

High crosses remaining outdoors at the site

Ruin of the cathedral, “Temple McDermot”

Temple windows, Temple Ri (“King’s Temple”)

McCarthy’s Tower, and Temple Finghen (12th century)

River Shannon in the distance

Entry to the cathedral, with three saints above the doorway


Funeral slabs, the largest collection in Ireland

Wildflowers invading the crumbling walls

One of the seven church ruins

Standing funeral stone and cross

The tomb of St. Cieran is in a small oratory, open to the elements as are all of the remaining buildings now. Since the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979, Clonmacnoise has been the site of the August Clonmacnoise Youth Festival of Irish Catholic youth in a nearby meadow, now grown into a major event hosting thousands for an annual retreat.

Temple Cieran, the oratory later built over the tomb of St. Cieran, with his stone standing on the wall

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