Clonmacnoise

Clonmacnoise, an important monastery that attracted religious pilgrims and royal patronage, is considered a quintessential example of the early Irish church.

Clonmacnoise, 6th–13th century, County Offaly, Ireland


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”clonmacnoise,”]

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re at Clonmacnoise in Ireland on a cold, rainy day. It looks spectacular. We’re surrounded by magnificent early medieval gravestones and buildings.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:17] It is one of the most important ecclesiastical or monastic sites in Ireland, and it’s situated in the center of Ireland on the River Shannon, which is right at the edge of the complex.

[0:30] The River Shannon moves from north to south, and then a very important road went east to west, so it really was at the crossroads of trade, at the crossroads of different political boundaries, and it drew tons of people here.

Dr. Zucker: [0:45] Clonmacnoise became wealthy. It attracted extraordinary artistic talent and intellectual talent.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:50] It was founded in the 6th century by Saint Ciarán, an important saint in Ireland’s early Christian history. He was a student of some of the most important figures — who are now saints — who helped to establish not only Christianity in Ireland, but monasticism more broadly.

[1:09] Christianity really begins to spread around Ireland with Saint Patrick in the 5th century, and then you have figures like Saint Brigid who are helping to spread it as well.

Dr. Zucker: [1:19] A monastery, in the simplest sense, is the home to a community of monks, people who have devoted themselves to religious prayer and live an introspective life.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:29] While we’re looking at what remains of the stone buildings and crosses and grave slabs, there were many other buildings made in wood that do not survive. There was also a vibrant craft economy. There were weavers, stonemasons, metalworkers, among many other things.

[1:48] And that is because people were living here who were not monks but who were creating objects that could have been used by the monastic community or that were engaged in trade, because being here on this important intersection of the river and the road, you had lots of different people coming and going and trading objects.

Dr. Zucker: [2:08] And one of the most important communities of people that would visit were religious pilgrims, and they would come here to venerate both sacred objects and sacred spaces.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:18] Here at Clonmacnoise, we have several shrine chapels, or temples, most famously the one associated with Saint Ciarán. It’s considered a sacred location that could be associated with physical relics. Possibly it marks the site of a grave underneath it, or it’s one maybe that a particular saint lived in, or somehow touched, a contact relic.

[2:41] Regardless of that, it’s usually a small, single-celled room, sometimes with a small additional room to the side of it, and it would have attracted pilgrims who could come here to experience some of that sacred aura that is associated with figures like Saint Ciarán.

Dr. Zucker: [2:58] Because Clonmacnoise was located at the edge of two kingdoms, it had important royal patronage.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:04] Clonmacnoise is basically right on the dividing line between the lands of Connacht and the lands of Mide or Meath. Between the 9th and the 11th centuries, the high kings of Meath were funding much of the building that’s happening here.

[3:19] For instance, what is now the cathedral that had been a smaller church beforehand was financed by the high king of Meath, and so too were several of the high crosses, these large crosses with relief sculpture, with different narrative scenes, or interlace and abstract patterns, that would have marked the inner sanctum, the most sacred land, of Clonmacnoise.

[3:43] But it wasn’t just the kings of Meath. Eventually, the monks at Clonmacnoise shift alliances. Because they were savvy, they realized that they needed money and they could benefit from royal patronage. So in the 12th century is when you see the kings of Connacht financing different things here at Clonmacnoise, such as the round tower built in the 12th century as well as fine metalwork objects.

[4:08] We even have two of the high kings of Connacht buried here at Clonmacnoise.

Dr. Zucker: [4:13] One of the most distinctive features at Clonmacnoise are these beautifully incised grave slabs, and there are over 700 of them here. Some of the most important are now inside the museum, and they speak to the multiplicity of the communities here. There’s one, for example, that is a prayer for a craftsman.

[4:31] There’s another that gives a prayer for a man of learning. And so we have this wonderful reflection of the different communities that made Clonmacnoise so important.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:40] It really does speak to the prestige of being buried here at Clonmacnoise, this important ecclesiastical site. It also would have been valuable to people buried here because people coming here, whether they’re monks or pilgrims, would have prayed for the souls of the dead.

[4:56] Even though this site was founded in the 6th century, it really speaks to the longevity of these types of monastic communities in that most of the buildings, and the crosses and the graves and the towers, come from different centuries.

[5:11] This site isn’t abandoned until the 13th century, when the political and even religious, landscape is shifting dramatically. It’s easy to see why Clonmacnoise was so important in the 19th century to people who were involved with looking to what they thought was their unique Irish heritage, this so-called Celtic Revival.

[5:33] So George Petrie, for instance, was here painting the different cross slabs, painting the different buildings. And this site is actually conserved in the 1860s. And because of its significance, it becomes a national monument in 1877, because it becomes the quintessential example of the early Irish church.

[5:54] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Clonmacnoise," in Smarthistory, December 21, 2022, accessed June 25, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/clonmacnoise/.