A few people asked me last week what my next blog post was on and I was very excited to tell them that I was visiting Clonmacnoise in Co Offaly. Amazingly enough some people had never even heard of it or knew where it even was! I visited Clonmacnoise many moons ago on a school tour. That was presumably an educational trip but my memories of it were just that it was beside the Shannon river with pretty boats travelling past it. This amazing monastic site is obviously so much more and well worth a trip.
Clonmacnoise is right smack bang in the middle of Ireland so its not too far from anywhere. Its a 15 minute drive from Athlone and just off the R444. The road down to the site is pretty narrow in places and quite bumpy also so take your time. I came in from the Athone side but if you are travelling from the West and coming in from the Shannonbridge side then the roads are fine.
Clonmacnoise features heavily in the promotion of Irelands ancient East. Well you can’t get more ancient than this! On entering through the small reception area at the front of the site you are greeted with a display of old ruins from churches to towers to temples. History is seeping out of this place and rather than grabbing a guide book I paid the €7 to take a short guided tour around the site. The first thing I noticed about our little group is that the majority of us were Irish. It was fantastic to see so many people from different parts of Ireland getting out there to learn more about our amazing history. Clonmacnoise was founded in the 6th Century by St Ciarán- a Roscomman man no less. St Ciarán died of the plague not long after the first church was built but his work was continued by high kings and monks well into the 16th Century.
Our guide around the site was very informative and filled us in on all the ailments that can be cured just by visiting Clonmacnoise! Apparently if you suffer with migraine you can take a walk down to the left hand side of the site to Temple Finghin. There you can enter the small orratory and place a coin on your head and say a prayer to whomever you like. The patron saint of headaches I presume (St Gemma Galgani for those of you who are interested- and no I didn’t just make that up!) and then leave your coin as an offering in the temple. Worth a try I suppose! There is also a little rock basin with water beside the Cathedral on the site that has the cure of warts. Don’t drink the water (its fairly green looking anyway!)- just dip your hand in it.
Just past the main Cathedral you will find Temple Ciarán. This is where St Ciarán himself is buried. The first thing I noticed about this particular ruin was how lob sided it looked. There is a reason for this though! Apparently the soil that this temple was built on was sacred and anyone who took a little bit of this soil home to their own farm would be blessed with big fat cows, luscious green grass (I wonder did the Bull McCabe visit?) and a thriving farm in general. So much of the soil was taken from the ground of the temple though that it started to keel in on itself. They have put flagstones down now to protect the ground that it is built on. Hilariously enough, if you look to the right of the temple there are big chunks of grass pulled out of the ground beside it.
The main Cathedral in Clonmacnoise, or Temple MacDermot, is situated right in front of you as you enter the site. The outside wall of the Cathedral has a beautiful arched door known as the “Whispering Arch”. This was used long ago to hear confession. The monk would stand at one side while their penitent would stand on the other and whisper his or her confession into the groves in the door way. The only one who could hear what they were saying was the monk! Another story tells how this was built around the time of a plague so that the monks wouldn’t have to get too close to the lay people who may have been riddled with diseases. After I took a picture of this amazing arch a group of German tourists started whispering (not very softly cause all their other fellow tourists could hear them) into the door- all you could hear was -“Luke, I am your fader!”:)
The last high king of Ireland- Rory O’Connor- is buried here in the Cathedral. Interestingly enough, long ago you could buy the privilege of being buried in the ruins of the Cathedral also. Apparently if you were buried here then you went straight to Heaven and avoid the inconvenience and hassle of waiting around in Purgatory. There are so many stories here I am just scraping at the surface!
There are two round towers at Clonmacnoise. O’Rourkes tower to the left as you enter the site and McCarthys tower at Temple Finghin. Amazingly, these two towers were once just one tower on the site of O’Rourke’s tower. O’Rourkes tower was hit by lightning in 1135 and instead of rebuilding the top of the tower they took the debris and built McCarthys tower closer to the Shannon. It would probably have been more difficult to build scaffolding in those days to reach the top of O’Rourkes Tower! It is pretty amazing that both towers are still standing to this day.
Another place of interest that our guide told us about was the Nuns church- situated just 300 metres up the road from the main site. It was built under the patronage of Dearbhforgaill- Dervorgilla. She was the wife of the King of Breifne- Tighearnan O’Rourke. A sort of Helen of Troy figure, apparently she wasn’t too happy with poor old Tighearnan so she was “abducted” by Dermott MacMurrogh Kavanagh (King of Leinster). She managed to take all her cows and wealth with her during her abduction though so she obviously didn’t put up much of a fight.
To make a long story short Tighearnan (pronounced Tiernan today) stole Dearbhforgaill back and dispossessed Dermott of all of his lands. Dermott was seriously annoyed at this so he called on Henry the 2nd across the water in England to come over and beat the crap out of Tighearnan and get his lands back (I don’t know if he was too annoyed about the bold Dearbhforgaill at this stage). Henry sent the Normans down to Ireland to give Dermott a hand and hence Dearbhforgaill was blamed for bringing the Normans and their killing sprees to Ireland.
All of this history in just one little site in County Offaly. There are so many other stories and legends from this Monastic settlement but you really need to visit it to hear them for yourselves. Back at the entrance to the site I concluded my time at Clonmacnoise in the interpretive center where they have an amazing exhibition of how the site would have looked in its hay day. This is also where the original high crosses are homed. (There are replicas on the main site). I spent a good half an hour in here just checking out the old artifacts and learning more about the history of the place that wasn’t told in the tour. There are more detailed guide books on sale in reception for €5 also. There is a lovely little coffee shop to the right of the entrance where I got my compulsory tea and a bun. On the way out of the car park you will also find a gift shop with all the Clonmacnoise souvenirs. Clonmacnoise is open all year around from 10am to 5.30pm and from 9am to 6.30pm during the summer months. Entry is €7 for adults and this included the tour. I think this is the perfect day trip for anyone who is into history or just to discover a little bit of Ireland’s past. You will definitely feel more enlightened at the end of it.
I have attached a few helpful links below and feel free to tell us about your trip if you decide to visit. As always- Happy Galavanting! xx