Exploring our ancient heritage at Clonmacnoise
Updated: Jun 20
This article was published in the Offaly Independent on Sat 12th June 2021 - full text and an additional gallery of images below
One of the good news stories of the summer was the announcement that admission charges to all fee-paying Office of Public Works (OPW) heritage sites are being waived until the end of the year. Full list of sites can be found here. This means that Clonmacnoise, one of Offaly’s most important cultural and historical sites, is now free to enter. Though the Interpretive Centre remains closed due to Covid-19 restrictions, visitors can enjoy full access to all outdoor areas. Famed for its scenic location and beautifully preserved ruins, this is a day-trip that should be on everyone’s list this summer.
This 6th century monastery on the banks of the River Shannon was founded by St Ciarán and is one of the oldest and most important early Christian settlements in Europe. Its significance cannot be overstated - it became internationally known as a university city, attracting students from all over Europe due to its reputation as a great seat of learning and spirituality.
On a warm summer’s day, this is one of the best places in Ireland to spend a few hours, and there can be few more impressive sights than from the hill above. From here, you have an uninterrupted view of the entire site as it sweeps down to the Shannon: dotted before you are a series of attractive stone buildings and ruins dating from 9th-11th centuries including two round towers, a cathedral, a series of temples and three High Crosses (replicas). Interspersed between the buildings are hundreds of weather-beaten Early Christian grave slabs in all shapes and sizes, leaning in all directions. There’s an extraordinary sense of history in this tranquil place, and a peaceful atmosphere.
It’s worth noting that the original High Crosses are now housed in the Visitor Centre to protect them from the elements but the replicas are excellent reproductions and stand in the original locations. Of particular note are the intricate carvings on all four sides of the Cross of the Scriptures. If you’re travelling with children, make sure to pick up a Kids’ Activity sheet from reception. It has lots of fun challenges to do, treasures to find and questions to answer as you make your way around.
One of the highlights is the cathedral which stands at the heart of Clonmacnoise, a beautiful building with many of its architectural features still distinctly visible. A magnificent four-order doorway topped by a pointed arch is the main entrance, while a second three-order doorway at the side hides a cool secret that kids will get a kick out of. It provided hours of entertainment for us when we were children. Also known as the Whispering Arch, this is where monks would hear confessions: penitents would whisper their confession at one side of the arch, heard only by the monk whose ear was firmly pressed to the opposite jamb. It still works today – make sure to try it out.
Above the doorway stand three sculpted figures in high relief: St Dominic, St Patrick and St Francis. They are still in good condition though St Francis’ head has been worn away, and we can clearly see the folds of St Patrick’s drapery, the staff in his hand and his grinning expression. The outer order surrounding the door also has some beautifully intricate carved decoration.
Standing in the ruinous interior is a photographer’s dream: exceptional views of the river and round towers appear through the tracery windows, and tiny purple wildflowers are popping up in every nook and cranny. When sunlight streams through the arches, the effects of light and shadow are quite breathtaking.
Centuries of architectural achievements can be seen here with remnants of ornate pillars, traces of original rib vaulting and stumps of piers. An interesting fact to note - Rory O’Connor, one of the last High Kings of Ireland, is buried here.
St Ciarán’s temple is the smallest one on site, measuring just 4x3 metres on the interior, and is believed to be the burial place of the saint. It is endearingly distinctive with a pronounced lean and a sloping arched doorway.
Temple Melaghlin or Temple Rí is believed to be the burial place for seven generations of Melaghlin kings. Dating to c.1200, the stonework is still in remarkably good condition. Make sure to go inside - the windows in the east wall are fabulous: deeply splayed with moulded surrounds in the late Romanesque / early Gothic style which is unique to Ireland.
Clonmacnoise is home to two round towers, O’Rourke’s and McCarthy’s, which dominate the skyline and were completed in the 12th century. O’Rourke’s Tower originally stood outside the walls of the monastic complex but has been enclosed by the present wall which was built in 1957. The doorway is almost four metres from ground level and it has ten windows, eight of which are at bell-tower level. It narrows as it rises, tapering towards the top as it soars above the trees.
McCarthy’s Tower is not a freestanding structure, but forms part of Temple Finghin. It boasts a distinctive conical cap and unusually for a round tower, the door stands at ground level.
About 500 metres outside of the walled site, make the time to visit the exquisite ruins of Nun’s Church, described as one of the finest examples of Hiberno-Romanesque architecture in Ireland. The decoration on the two arches is remarkable and a must-visit before you leave.
One of the most extraordinary sights comes into view from the car park – the ruins of a castle perched precariously on an earthen bank, surrounded by a deep ditch and with the Shannon as a backdrop. Built on the site of an older timber structure, it’s believed to have been completed in 1215 by the De Burgo family in this strategically important location. It was abandoned and subsequently destroyed during the Gaelic Resurgence.
A few kilometres away, the lovely village of Shannonbridge is definitely worth a visit. Its most striking feature is the iconic sixteen-arch stone bridge, dating to 1757 which links Offaly to Roscommon and there are gorgeous views of the vast expanse of the Shannon from either side.
For more info on all the sights and activities in Offaly this summer, check out their excellent website here - https://www.visitoffaly.ie/