This ancient monastic centre was built at the very centre of Ireland, its location was chosen by St. Ciaran in 545 A.D.
It is believed that he made his decision based on the site’s strategic location – the crossroads of the country’s road and river system at the time. Before the Vikings invaded, there were no villages or towns in Ireland, and Clonmacnoise was the busiest and most populous settlement in the country.
Today, the remains of the intriguing Clonmacnoise monastic complex, often considered the most important religious site in Ireland, consist of the ruins of groups of small, simple churches and burial sites. St. Ciaran built the first church on this site with the aid of Prince Diarmiud, who at the time was designated to become Ireland’s first Christian High King.
Ciaran died four years later, and never saw his dream for a flourishing monastic settlement become a reality. His monastery would eventually become one of the most renowned and extensive learning centers in the world, and remained so for nearly 1,000 years. Men came from locations far and near to study religion, learn trades, and exercise political power.
The Irish Kings patronized the community, and the grave of Rory O’Conor, the last High King, can be found here. St. Ciaran himself is believed to be buried in a tiny cell structure from the 9th century, known as “The Little Church”. Celtic craftwork, in stone and metal, was a popular practice at Clonmacnoise, which produced some of the greatest existing ancient treasures. It is said that the elaborate scripting skills required for the creation of the artistry in the Book of Kells and Durrow were developed and taught here. Overall, the settlement’s promotion of a diverse selection of intellectual, craft and religious pursuits may have established it as a forerunner of the modern university.
During the turbulent periods of Irish history, the monastic settlement was destroyed by fire 13 times, and there were forty attacks that proved very destructive during the period between the 8th and 12th century. The English destroyed Clonmacnoise for the final time in 1552, and it lay in ruins for hundreds of years before the government began renovations.
The site now features a unique Heritage Center, built in the likeness of several Crannog, or ancient Celtic living quarters. In these circular buildings, you can view many stonework treasures from ancient times, including the North and South Crosses, exquisitely carved in quartzose sandstone. The Cross of the Scriptures features biblical scenes carved along its base.
Clonmacnoise is located about 20km south of Athlone – Ireland’s most central town, located about halfway between Galway and Dublin on the N6. From Athlone, take the N62 until Shannonbridge, where Clonmacnoise is well signposted.