Monday, July 22, 2013

Smooth Getaway Postcard From Clonmacnoise Ireland

Walking inside the tumbled chapel walls and seeing birds nesting in the silent bell towers, it's hard to believe this was once one of Europe's great universities. Yet, Ireland's Clonmacnoise, quiet now but for the rustling of the nearby River Shannon, was the home of 3000 scholars at a time when Ireland stood as a beacon of learning amidst Europe's Dark Ages. While a trip to the Emerald Isle offers much in the way of fun - singing, dancing, shopping and pub hopping - a visit to Clonmacnoise in rural County Offaly is a sobering journey into a history both glorious and tragic.

Clonmacnoise was founded by Saint Ciaran in 547, under the sponsorship of Prince Diarmuid, who later became king of Ireland. This was about 100 years after Saint Patrick's evangelization of the region. Clonmacnoise was a monastery and center of learning for over 1000 years, but its golden age was from the 6th to 9th centuries, a time of European anarchy with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. During that period, Ireland's scholars kept learning alive and Irish monks founded monasteries all over the continent.

This is the period chronicled in Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization. Clonmacnoise, mentioned prominently in the book, became one of Ireland's most important monastic communities, renowned not only for scholarship but artisans producing medieval masterpieces such as The Cross of Cong (a bejeweled processional cross now in Dublin's National Museum) and The Book of the Dun Cow (an illuminated manuscript now in an Oxford University library). Two High Celtic crosses in the visitors' center demonstrate the sophistication of stone sculpture in medieval Ireland. Also, the remains of the Nuns' Church and the Cathedral, dating from the 10th century, are fine examples of early Hiberno-Romanesque architecture.

The 67-foot-high O'Rourke's Tower is in remarkably good shape, given that Clonmacnoise suffered eight raids by Vikings and a dozen more by warring Irish clans in the 10th and 11th centuries, plus destruction by invading English troops from the 12th century through the 1640s. 

Also in the visitors' center is a grouping of ancient carved grave slabs, lovingly restored and displayed like an art gallery. While the center's museum, which opened about a dozen years ago, gives an excellent presentation of the site's history, I preferred the atmosphere that existed before the museum, when the stark lonely ruins gave mute testimony to the glories and tragedies of this holy site.

The significance of Clonmacnoise is apparent in the fact that it's the final resting place of such luminaries as King Turlough O'Connor and the last high king Rory O'Connor, buried there in 1198. Interestingly, the Nuns' Church was commisioned by the queen of Breffni Dearbhforgaill, whose abduction led to an invasion by Anglo-Norman mercenaries then the first English colonization.

Deemed "greater than kingdoms in its dignity," Clonmacnoise was the most important monastic site of Ireland's golden age of learning. It's still a place of pilgrimage, with devout crowds traveling to the site each September. Though not on the tourist trail around Ireland's southern coast from Shannon to Dublin and missing from the itineraries of most escorted tour packages, Clonmacnoise is worth a visit by anyone interested in the faith, learning or sorrow of Ireland's storied history.

Mike Quane is a travel writer with twenty-five years experience. His work has appeared in The New York Daily News, Newsday, Grit, Endless Vacation, Parents Magazine, The Portland Press Herald, Telegraph Publications, Hong Kong Traveling Magazine, the inflight magazines of Singapore and Korean airlines plus many other places. He wrote a weekly column at This Week Publications for fifteen years and a monthly column at for over a decade.


  1. A place I would have to visit in Ireland.

    Thank you for profiling it, Mike!

  2. Thanks, William. I'm sure you'll be as enthralled as I was.