Art Eyewitness Essay:
A Journey to Clonmacnoise, Ireland
Photos by Anne Lloyd
Text by Ed Voves
Fifteen hundred years ago, a devout young man named Ciarán had a dream. Ciarán was a monk living at the monastery of Inishmore on the Aran Isles, off the western coast of Ireland. He dreamed of a great tree, growing by the side of a stream in the center of Ireland.
Another monk at Inishmore dreamed the same prophetic scene. This was the abbot of Inishmore, St. Enda, who interpreted the dream for Ciarán. The great tree was Ciarán himself and the site he envisioned was to be the location for a great monastery which would serve all the people of Ireland.
St. Ciarán by Harry Clarke (1889-1931) the great Irish stained glass master. The window is located in St. Manchan's Church, near Clonmacnoise.
St. Enda instructed Ciarán to search for the divinely designated spot. In 544, after several years of looking, St. Ciarán (as he eventually became) located the land of his dreams and there he laid the foundation for the monastery of Clonmacnoise.
By a wonderful confluence of luck and grace, my wife, Anne, and I were able to go to Clonmacnoise in September 2015. The day of our visit was one of gentle sunshine and soaring skies after weeks of heavier than normal rainfall. The beautiful photos that are featured in this essay are a testament to Anne's exceptional artistry and to the compelling energy that one feels at Clonmacnoise.
Anne and I originally ventured to Ireland inorder to visit Banagher, the hometown of Rev. Arthur Bell Nicholls, husband of Charlotte Bronte. Rev. Nicholls returned to Banagher several years after his beloved wife's tragic, early death in 1855. While there, we lodged in Rev. Nicholl's home, now a "B&B" being restored to its Victorian grandeur by Ms. Nicola Daly.
Charlotte's Way B&B, Banagher, Ireland
During our stay at "Charlotte's Way," as the dwelling is known, Ms. Daly kindly introduced us to a local local historian, Mr. James Scully. With a profound grasp of Irish history and plenty of Celtic wit and warmth, James Scully was the perfect guide for an expedition to the nearby site of St. Ciarán's monastery.
Mr. James Scully (left) with Ed Voves
To paraphrase the Irish blessing , "the road rose up to meet us" at the historic, holy place known as Clonmacnoise.
The "road rose up" for St. Ciarán as well - literally in fact. Mr. Scully explained that geology as well as theology influenced St. Ciarán's choice of Clonmacnoise for his monastery.
Clonmacnoise is located at a key point on the band of ridges called the Esker Riada which stretch across Ireland. The historic monastery is in County Offaly, 27 kilometers (about 17 miles) from Charlotte's Way in Banagher. Geographically and spiritually, the site of Clonmacnoise is the heart of Ireland.
When St. Ciarán chose the place to build his monastery, he selected the point on the Esker Riada where this high ground meets the River Shannon, Ireland's longest river. Eskers are sandy ridges which were pushed upwards by the advancing glaciers in the last Ice Age.
A view of the Shannon River near Clonmacnoise. The riverside meadows, known as callows, are often under water during the winter rains.
These eskers generally run east-west, while the Shannon flows down from the Cuilcagh Mountains in the north to Limerick in the south. A long, protected estuary leads the Shannon from Limerick to the Atlantic Ocean.
Eskers, rising above the peat bogs, thus made for great lines of lateral communication in ancient Ireland. Between river-based journeys on the Shannon and travel via esker roadways, almost anyone could reach Clonmacnoise. It was also perfectly situated to launch missionary ventures to the rest of Ireland.
The Round Tower, constructed in 1124, and graveyard of Clonmacnoise.
With the eye of a battle-tested military commander, St. Ciarán had picked the most strategic point in Ireland for his new monastery.
Clonmacnoise takes its name from Cluain Mhic Nóis, which means "Meadow of the Sons of Nós." This note of plural ownership is a significant point. In ancient Ireland, there was no conception of private property, at least in terms of land holdings. Land belonged to families not individuals. It could not be sold or traded away to outsiders.
Land could be donated to the Christian Church. But there was a catch. Family members came along as part of the deal. With the transfer of land came monks or nuns from the family that bequeathed it. More to the point, the abbots who governed the monasteries were members of the leading clans whose generosity contributed to the growth of Christianity in Ireland.
Carvings of medieval saints above the north doorway of Clonmacnoise Cathedral.
Saint Ciarán received support from a local leader named Diarmait Uí Cerbaill. Diarmait later became the first High King of Ireland to embrace Christianity. Diarmait's support was crucial to the success of Clonmacnoise. Saint Ciarán, aged 33, died a few months after founding Clonmacnoise. But the vital work of laying the foundation for the great monastery had been achieved in that brief period.
It would be encouraging to be able to write that Diarmait's generosity brought him success as High King of Ireland. That was not the case. In a dispute over the ownership of a sacred manuscript, Diarmait ruled against the famous St. Columba. The Uí Néill clan rallied to St. Columba's support. A bloody battle was fought around 560, blighting any chance that Diarmait might unite Ireland. St. Columba was exiled from Ireland, becoming the apostle to the Scots.
Following Saint Ciarán's death in 544, the seven monks who had accompanied him continued the work of building the monastery at Clonmacnoise. A scriptorium was established, making Clonmacnoise a vital center in the spread of literacy and of book production. No works comparable to the famed Book of Kells have been identified as coming from Clonmacnoise. References in ancient chronicles however assert the importance of the scriptorium at Clonmacnoise in preserving the word of God.
Saint Ciarán's companions were joined by other monks and hundreds of people from the surrounding region. Clonmacnoise became a thriving town, as well as a monastic site, with a population estimated around two thousand during the early Middle Ages.
The buildings at Clonmacnoise during its first centuries were built of wood and thatch. One of the earliest stone structures is the small church, Temple Ciarán. It was built in the ninth century, replacing an earlier wooden one.
Don't bump your on the doorway of Temple Ciarán!
With its sagging masonry and (dauntingly) low-hanging lintel, Temple Ciarán certainly looks its age. Under the floor of its wooden predecessor, St. Ciarán had been buried and presumably his remains are still there. One theory about this "Leaning Temple" of Clonmacnoise is that so many notables have been interred with St. Ciarán beneath the floor that the foundations have shifted!
There are no ruins of cavernous basilicas at Clonmacnoise. Temple Ciarán is a very small edifice. Its interior measures a mere 3.8 x 2.8 meters (approx. 12 ft. x 9 ft.).
The Cathedral of Clonmacnoise, originally built in 909 and extensively remodeled in the 13th century. A replica of the Cross of the Scriptures appears in the foreground.
Even the biggest church, the Cathedral of Clonmacnoise, is comparatively small with an interior measuring 18.8 x 8.7 meters (approx. 61 x 28 ft.). Several of Ireland's high kings are buried here but the financial resources of medieval Irish lords never could match the wealth of their English or French counterparts.
It is just as well that the Irish kings and nobles could not afford grandiose church endowments. Clonmacnoise is a hauntingly beautiful site but one where "small is beautiful." Clonmacnoise is dedicated to spiritual values. You don't have to be a practicing member of a Christian denomination to feel close to God here.
That might seem a contradictory statement when one looks at the forest of Celtic crosses that features so prominently on the landscape of Clonmacnoise. The design of the Celtic cross is thought to predate Christianity. Some of the earliest examples at Clonmacnoise, inscribed on stone slabs, certainly have the feel of a remote pre-Christian Europe.
A grave slab inscribed with a Celtic cross of the ringed type produced during the 9th century. 600 stone slabs or fragments of slabs have been found at Clonmacnoise.
Trying to trace the historic lineage of the Celtic cross, however, can be counter-productive if the basic sanctity of these inspiring objects goes unappreciated.The Celtic cross articulates the human belief in God as do a Buddhist prayer flag or a Navajo sand painting. The wind of course wipes these religious icons away much faster, but the slowly-weathered Celtic cross will eventually succumb to the ages too. Yet the spiritual values inherent in these symbols of faith will endure as long as humanity does.
Ironically, less praiseworthy aspects of human conduct have affected the current state of the crosses at Clonmacnoise.
Air pollution spewing from the automobiles that have replaced the horse-drawn jaunting cart has had a devastating affect on Ireland's historic monuments. When we visited the cemetery in Banagher where Rev. Arthur Bell Nicholls is buried, we could scarcely read the inscriptions on his grave marker, though he died in 1906. Mr. Scully informed us that the marker was perfectly legible only a couple of decades ago.
The original Cross of the Scriptures, relocated for safety to the visitor center in 1992.
With that kind of danger at hand, it is understandable that the curators at Clonmacnoise have moved the the great Cross of the Scriptures, the South Cross and the North Cross (of which only the shaft remains) indoors to the climate controlled visitor center. Replicas mark the spots where these towering crosses, carved in the ninth century, once stood.
The mystery of why the great stone crosses were created may be answered by the estimated date of their creation. If the Cross of the Scriptures and the South Cross were carved around 840 to 850, as a number of historians believe, then the reason may stem from the foreign visitors who came to Clonmacnoise around that time.
In 845, marauding Vikings attacked and burned much of Clonmacnoise. These Scandinavian pirates plagued Ireland for nearly two centuries. They returned to Clonmacnoise for several more raids, hauling-off plunder and captives.
I have a suspicion that the reason why none of the ornamented, hand-copied books produced by the monks of Clonmacnoise have been discovered is due to the ravages of the Vikings. The Vikings prized the gilded covers of these religious books, though certainly not the contents of their text!
By creating massive, towering Celtic crosses like the Cross of the Scriptures, Irish monks thwarted the Vikings' lust for loot. The stone crosses were too big to move and could not be destroyed by the swords and battle axes of the invaders. Christ's cross, as carved and erected at Clonmacnoise, proved more powerful than Thor's hammer.
When I asked Mr. Scully for his opinion about the Viking impact on Ireland, he responded with an impartial list of their contributions, such as the founding of Dublin in 841, and depredations like the sack of Clonmacnoise four years later.
I was prepared for this "pro-con" assessment about the Vikings but not for Mr. Scully's further reflections.
"The Vikings attacked seven times but Irish raids struck Clonmacnoise twenty-seven times during the early Middle Ages," Scully said, adding, "Ireland was a wild place during those ancient times."
Doing some follow-up research of my own revealed that Mr. Scully's analysis was lamentably accurate. In one particularly horrifying incident, King Feidlimid of Munster attacked and burned the monastery and church of Clonmacnoise, with a heavy loss of life, including many of the monks.
By the time that Temple Ri was built in the late 1100’s, the Vikings were gone – and the Normans were raiding Clonmacnoise in their place. These narrow windows at the east end of Temple Ri allowed light in while keeping arrows out.
King Feidlimid's atrocity occurred in 833, a decade before the Viking incursion. Attacks by the Normans, crossing the Irish Sea from England during the twelfth century, added to the destruction and bloodshed. Somehow Clonmacnoise survived these repeated assaults.
Clonmacnoise could not withstand the shift in trade patterns and demographic changes that intensified with the growing power of the Normans in England - and Ireland. The focus of economic development and urbanization moved to the north and east of Ireland, away from the Irish midlands. An English military force, part of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, gave the final coup d'grace to Clonmacnoise in a plundering raid in 1552 - or thought they did.
Clonmacnoise survived as a spiritual Camelot, a "once and future" site of religious revival for Ireland. Catholics and Protestants now hold inter-faith services there and a yearly youth event takes place each summer.
Clonmacnoise is no longer an especially easy place to reach. We made it there thanks to Mr. Scully, but also because this was a place that drew us in. We could have gone to Birr Castle or some other tourist site. But we really wanted to get to Clonmacnoise and I suspect that most tourists who venture there are drawn by its special aura of holiness.
A September sunset over Banagher, Ireland. Such was the setting for the missionary work of Saint Ciarán and other heroic Irish clergymen during the Middle Ages.
A skeptic might view my words as the "purple prose" of an impressionable tourist. Yet, another tourist came away from Clonmacnoise with a similar feeling of the site's spiritual power. And I don't think that anyone would describe Pope John Paul II as gullible or impressionable.
In 1979, Pope John Paul II - now recognized as a Catholic Saint along with St. Ciarán - visited Clonmacnoise and declared that "the walls of these ruins are charged with a great mission."
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved
Images Courtesy of Anne Lloyd © Anne Lloyd