The Holy Monastery of Clonmacnoise

This Tuesday (9 September) is the commemoration of one of Ireland's most
beloved Saints, Ciaran (Kieran) of Clonmacnoise (+549). Here is a brief
article about his remarkable monastery.

Through his prayers, may God send peace upon Ireland. Amen.

The Holy Monastery of Clonmacnoise

Situated on the Shannon, about half way between Athlone and Banagher,
King's County, Ireland, and the most remarkable of the ancient schools
of Erin. Its founder was St. Ciaran, surnamed Mac an Tsair, or "Son of
the Carpenter", and thus distinguished from his namesake, the patron
saint of Ossory. He chose this rather uninviting region because he
thought it a more suitable dwelling-place for disciples of the Cross
than the luxuriant plains not far away. Ciaran was born at Fuerty,
County Roscommon, in 512, and in his early years was committed to the
care of a deacon named Justus, who had baptized him, and from whose
hands he passed to the school of St. Finnian at Clonard. Here he met all
those saintly youths who with himself were afterwards known as
the "Twelve Apostles of Erin", and he quickly won their esteem.

When Finnian had to absent himself from the monastery, it was to the
youthful Ciaran that he deputed his authority to teach and "give out the
prayers", and when Ciaran announced his intended departure, Finnian
would fain resign to him his cathair, or chair, and keep him in Clonard.
But Ciaran felt himself unripe for such responsibility, and he knew,
moreover, he had work to do elsewhere.

After leaving Clonard, Ciaran, like most of the contemporary Irish
saints, went to Aran to commune with holy Enda. One night the two saints
beheld the same vision, "of a great fruitful tree, beside a stream, in
the middle of Ireland, and it protected the island of Ireland, and its
fruit went forth over the sea that surrounded the island, and the birds
of the world came to carry off somewhat of its fruit". And when Ciaran
spoke of the vision to Enda, the latter said to him:

"The great tree which thou beholdest is thou thyself, for thou art great
in the eyes of God and men, and all Ireland will be full of thy honour.
This island will be protected under the shadow of thy favour, and
multitudes will be satisfied with the grace of thy fasting and prayer.
Go then, with God's word, to a bank of a stream, and there found a

Ciaran obeyed. On reaching the mainland he first paid a visit to St.
Senan of Scattery and then proceeded towards the "middle of Ireland",
founding on his way two monasteries, in one of which, on Inis Ainghin,
he spent over three years. Going farther south he came to a lonely waste
by the Shannon, and seeking out a beautiful grassy ridge, called Ard
Tiprait, or the "Height of the Spring," he said to his companions: "Here
then we will stay, for many souls will go to heaven hence, and there
will be a visit from God and from men forever on this place". Thus, on
23 January, 544, Ciaran laid the foundation of his monastic school of
Clonmacnoise, and on 9 May following he witnessed its completion.
Diarmait, son of Cerball, afterwards High King of Ireland, aided and
encouraged the saint in every way, promising him large grants of land
as an endowment. Ciaran's government of his monastery was of short
duration; he was seized by a plague which had already decimated the
saints of Ireland, and died 9 September, 544.

It is remarkable that a young saint dying before he was thirty-three,
should have been the founder of a school whose fame was to endure for
centuries. But Ciaran was a man of prayer and fasting and labour,
trained in all the science and discipline of the saints, humble and full
of faith, and so was a worthy instrument in the hands of Providence for
the carrying out of a high design. St. Cummian of Clonfert calls him one
of the Patres Priores of the Irish Church, and Alcuin, the most
illustrious alumnus of Clonmacnoise, proclaims him the Gloria Gentis
Scotorum. His festival is kept on 9 September, and his shrine is visited
by many pilgrims.

Ciaran left but little mark upon the literary annals of the famous
school he founded. But in the character which he gave it of a seminary
for a whole nation, and not for a particular tribe or district, is to be
found the secret of its success. The masters were chosen simply for
their learning and zeal; the abbots were elected almost in rotation from
the different provinces; and the pupils thronged thither from all parts
of Ireland, as well as from the remote quarters of France and England.
>From the beginning it enjoyed the confidence of the Irish bishops and
the favour of kings and princes who were happy to be buried in its
shadow. In its sacred clay sleep Diarmait the High King, and his rival
Guaire, King of Connaught; Turlough O'Conor, and his hapless son,
Roderick, the last King of Ireland, and many other royal benefactors,
who believed that the prayers of Ciaran would bring to heaven all those
who were buried there.

But Clonmacnoise was not without its vicissitudes. Towards the close of
the seventh century a plague carried off a large number of its students
and professors; and in the eighth century the monastery was burned three
times, probably by accident, for the buildings were mainly of wood.
During the ninth and tenth centuries it was harassed not only by the
Danes, but also,
and perhaps mainly, by some of the Irish chieftains. One of these, Felim
MacCriffon, sacked the monastery three times, on the last occasion
slaughtering the monks, we are told, like sheep. Even the monks
themselves were infected by the bellicose spirit of the times, which
manifested itself not merely in defensive, but some- times even in
offensive warfare. These were evil days for Clonmacnoise, but with the
blessing of Ciaran, and under the "shadow of his favour", it rose
superior to its trials, and all the while was the Alma Mater of saints
and sages.

Under the date 794 is recorded the death of Colgu the Wise, poet,
theologian, and historian, who is said to have been the teacher of
Alcuin at Clonmacnoise (see Coelchu). Another alumnus of vast erudition,
whose gravestone may still be seen there, was Suibhne, son of Maclume,
who died in 891. He is described as the "wisest and greatest Doctor of
the Scots", and
the annals of Ulster call him a "most excellent scribe". Tighernach, the
most accurate and most ancient prose chronicler of the northern nations,
belongs to Clonmacnoise, and probably also Dicuil (q.v), the world-famed

In this school were composed the "Chronicon Scotorum", a
valuable chronicle of Irish affairs from the earliest times to 1135, and
the "Leabhar na h-Uidhre", which, excepting the "Book of Armagh", is the
oldest Irish historical transcript now in existence.

In the twelfth century Clonmacnoise was a great school of Celtic art,
architecture, sculpture, and metal work. To this period and to this
school we owe the stone crosses of Tuam and Cong, the processional
cross of Cong, and perhaps the Tara Brooch and the Chalice of Ardagh.
The ruined towers and crosses and temples are still to be seen; but there
is no trace of the little church of Ciaran which was the nucleus
of Clonmacnoise.

Web sites: The holy monastery of Clonmacnoise

A Slideshow of Clonmacnoise
Archaeology in Ireland: Investigations of the Celtic High Cross in
Clonmacnois (County Offaly, Ireland)
Clonmacnoise: Ireland's Ancient Monastic Settlement - 6th. century.

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