• Ali Isaac

the ancient ecclesiastical site of clonmacnoise

Something a little different for you today; it was recently suggested to me that it might be interesting to feature some early churches and monasteries on the blog, and I agree, not on religious grounds, but because these sites were often constructed on earlier pagan sacred sites, and because they went on to have a huge impact on Irish society and the landscape. Also, they usually present some interesting and photogenic archaeology.

If you are interested in ancient ecclesiastical sites, you may be interested in

More on Fore: Holy Site of the Seven Wonders

A Walk in the Footsteps of St. Feichin

Located at the junction of the River Shannon and one of the five ancient roads of Ireland, the An Slí Mhór, Clonmacnoise enjoyed a strategic position in Medieval Ireland which undoubtedly contributed to its success and longevity. Founded by St Ciaran in 548AD, the monastic site at Clonmacnoise continued until its destruction in 1552 at the hands of the English, who were garrisoned in nearby Athlone (Halpin and Newman 381). Clonmacnoise, or Cluain Mhic Nóis in Irish, means 'Meadow of the Sons of Nós'.

The river and the Great Road brought pilgrims and trade, and as the monastery grew, it attracted patronage in the form of donations of land, livestock, and other riches. In addition, the monastery became wealthy from renting out land, charging fees for services and raising taxes.

Today, the site consists of a walled inner enclosure containing the remains of several stone structures dating to between 800–1200 AD, including churches, round towers, high crosses, and grave slabs.

who was st ciaran?

Stained glass window, St Brendan's Church, Birr, depicting St. Ciaran,By Andreas F. Borchert, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15196921
By Andreas F. Borchert

Born in 516AD to a carpenter and chariot builder in Co. Roscommon, Ciarán mac an tSaeir (meaning 'son of the carpenter') herded cattle as a child and studied at Clonard under Saint Finian. He was ordained as a priest by Saint Enda of Arden on Inishmore, after which he travelled Ireland, finally settling in Offaly in 544, where he founded Clonmacnoise.

He died a few months later, a young man aged only 33, after contracting the plague. His feast day is the 9th of September.

Ciarán possessed a cow which was famous for producing vast quantities of milk which could feed everyone in the monastery.

It is said that the hide of this cow had magical properties; any man who died whilst sleeping on it would automatically be blessed with eternal life. According to legend, the hide of this cow was used to make the vellum upon which the Leabhar na hUidhre was later written.

The earliest building on the site is arguably the least significant in terms of size or grandeur. ‘Temple Ciarán’ can be found in the centre of the old graveyard, dwarfed by the Diamliag which overshadows it. The mortar from this structure has been radiocarbon dated to the eighth or ninth centuries.

The remains of Temple Ciarán: 1. Ducking through the low doorway. 2. Looking through the window into the building; under that floor is evidence of an older wooden structure beneath which Ciarán is rumoured to be buried.

Its alignment suggests it has been built over an older wooden church beneath which St Ciarán himself is buried. To this day, clay from the floor of the building continues to be removed by visitors in the belief that it will protect harvests. Although much of the masonry has collapsed and probably been re–used elsewhere, the remains were partially rebuilt in the nineteenth century.

The largest, and most historically significant building is the Daimliag, meaning ‘stone church’. At 18m in length, it is the largest pre–Romanesque church in Ireland (Halpin and Newman 382). The church is rectangular in shape, with distinctive antae for supporting the roof.

The Daimliag: 1. The facade with grand entrance and unequally proportioned wall. 2. facade with the Cross of the Scriptures in the foreground. 3. The Whispering Doorway.

It was built in 909AD by Flann Sinna, King of Tara, undoubtedly praising God for his victory over the King of Munster the previous year, in partnership with Colmán, who was Abbot of Clonmacnoise.

At the same time, an elaborately decorated high cross was installed before the entrance to the building, known as the ‘Cross of the Scriptures’. It depicts various scenes from the Bible, but its most famous panel represents Flann and Colmán ceremonially planting the first post of the church, with an inscription to that effect below. It is also thought to commemorate the founding of the monastery by St Ciarán and Diarmait mac Cerbaill, who was then King of Tara, thus reinforcing the association between church and king.

The Daimliag has undergone several renovations during its lifetime: the addition of the west door, east window and sacristy in the twelfth century; the relocation of the south wall 2m north of its previous position, some hundred or so years later, giving the church façade its slightly unbalanced look; and lastly, in the fifteenth century it was partly vaulted, and Dean Odo O’Malone had the highly decorated north door added (Halpin and Newman 382). The last King of Ireland, Ruaidhri Ua Conchobair, was buried there in 1198.

Just look at all those high crosses!

Temple Dowling, Temple Melaghlin, and Temple Finghín were all constructed during the twelfth century. Temple Melaghlin is believed to have housed the scriptorium, where manuscripts such as the Lebor na hUidre (the Book of the Dun Cow) were written.

Temple Dowling was renovated in 1689 as a mausoleum for the Dowling family (Halpin and Newman 382), with the addition of Temple Hurpan.

Temple Finghín is built in Hiberno–Romanesque style with a round bell tower (McCarthy’s Tower) attached to it. The tower is, unusually, entered via the church at ground level, and stands just under 17m high, and 4m wide, with a conical roof (Anon 32).

Just outside of the central enclosure lies the Nuns’ Church, which occupies a key position along the Eisker Riada upon which the Pilgrim’s Way is located. Here, visitors would pause their pilgrimage in order to prepare themselves for entering the ecclesiastical site, providing the nuns with a means of income.

The existing church is of Hiberno–Romanesque style, measures 13m by 8m, and dates to 1167 AD. It features intricately decorated arches to both the entrance and the chancel, with monstrous creatures, animal heads, foliage, geometric designs including Greek key, and even an ‘exhibitionist female’ (Anon 31), or Sheela–na–gig. The foundations of two earlier churches have been identified in the surrounding grounds.

According to the Annals of the Four Masters, the Church of the Nuns was constructed under the patronage of Dearbhforgaill, daughter of Murchadh Ua Maeleachlainn (Celt M1167.16). This lady is notorious in Irish history; she was abducted by Diarmuid mac Murchadha, King of Leinster (Celt M1152.10), and although she was restored to her husband, Tighearnan Ua Ruirc, the following year (Celt M1153.21), her abduction sparked a feud between the two men, setting off a chain of events which resulted in the English invasion of Ireland.

However, she was a pious woman, donating gold and riches to Mellifont Abbey (Celt M1157.9), retiring there in 1186, where she died in 1193 (Celt M1193.3). It is unusual for a woman to feature so frequently in the Irish Annals (sounds like she deserves a post of her own in the near future!).

It is clear that Clonmacnoise prospered through the centuries, as the chronology of its churches, from the initial wooden buildings constructed by its founder in the sixth century, through various phases of replacement with stone buildings in the ninth and tenth centuries, and renovations through the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries show.

Its military and commercial strategic position on the intersection of Medieval Ireland’s two busiest routes, the River Shannon and the Slighe Mhór, undoubtedly contributed to its success, as did the patronage it attracted from various royal dynasties throughout its lifetime, until its decline and eventual abandonment in 1552.


Anon. 2009 The Monastic City of Clonmacnoise and its Cultural Landscape Candidate World Heritage Site. World Heritage Site Draft Management Plan 2009–2014. Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government/ Office of Public Works, Dublin.

Celt: The Corpus of Electronic Texts, The Annals of the Four Masters, https://celt.ucc.ie/publishd.html.

Halpin, A., and Newman, C. 2006. Ireland: An Oxford Archaeological Guide to Sites from Earliest Times to AD1600, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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