It was an absolutely perfect day for traveling.
The moon still continued its waning phase, the clouds were a soft orange/peach bunches of fluff in the sky, and we were well rested. Coffee got us off to a great start, and grabbing our coats, we got in the car and headed to Clonmacnoise. We drove SW on the M-52 until reaching Mullingar, then took the N-6 to the R-444, which led to the site.
As we drove, we noticed an old castle in the town of Delvin and decided that it would be an interesting place to stop on our way back to the cottage that afternoon. Traffic was light as we traveled, even though it was Friday. We stopped long enough for breakfast in Mullingar but didn't stay to look around. The breakfast was delicious, eggs with rashers and toast. We lingered over our coffee for a while. It was early, and we knew we were more than halfway to Clonmacnoise.
Mullingar was founded in 1542 C.E., when Henry VIII of England separated Meath from Westmeath, thus forming another county. Mullingar became the administrative center for the county. The original name Maelblatha means the left-handed mill or the Wry-Mill, from the legend of Colman of Mullingar. In Gaelic, the name is An Muileann gCearr.
There are many lakes ringing Mullingar. One of the more famous lakes in the area is Lough Derravaragh, which is where the four Children of Lir in mythology, after being turned into swans by their stepmother, spent three hundred years. It is a sad and heart-rending tale, worth the reader's time to learn about, and a great retelling of the myth can be found right here on IrishCentral.
We passed acres and acres of endless peat bogs, with commercial harvesting equipment along the sides. The bogs seemed to go on forever. It was interesting to note that peat is not typically harvested by individuals any longer but has become quite an industry. We even purchased this commercial peat ourselves for the stove at the cottage, the fragrance of which is as sweet as the Irish countryside it is found in.
As we neared the R-444, we could see a plume of smoke in the sky. The road began to wind around a hill, but we could still see the smoke. As we followed the road, it seemed as if we were meeting ourselves coming.
We neared the fire, which was a controlled burn on one of the local farms. Just past the farm, in a pasture being grazed by a herd of dairy cows, we saw a wonderful beehive stone hut. There was no way that we could get in to see it since the fence around the pasture was electrified.
Soon after, we began to see the ruins at Clonmacnoise. The car park was not full, mostly buses of other tourists. We walked along a short path to the visitor’s center, where we paid our admission. After using the restrooms, we walked out the doors and into the graveyard.
Clonmacnoise (“meadow of the sons of Nos”), Cluain Mhic Nos in Gaelic, is located at a crossroads in County Offaly and sits along the banks of the River Shannon. It was founded by Saint Ciaran the Younger, in 545 C.E. Saint Ciaran was a disciple of Saint Diarmuid of Clonard, Saint Finian, and Saint Enda of Inis Mor, which is located off of the coast of Galway. This ancient site also borders the three provinces of Connaught, Munster and Leinster. The location by the River Shannon was at one time in the ancient Kingdom of Meath, and the central location afforded an ideal place for the burial of many, amongst them some of the High Kings of Tara.
Shortly after Ciaran's arrival in the area, he met Prince Diarmuid, who then helped him to build a small wooden structure, becoming the first church at Clonmacnoise. It was the first of many smaller churches which were clustered on the site. Shortly thereafter, Diarmuid was crowned the first Christian High King of Ireland. Saint Ciaran did not live to see the monastery flourish as he perished from yellow fever at the age of thirty-three and only four years after beginning construction of the site.
The monastery at Clonmacnoise attracted many scholars, both from Ireland and across Europe, and actually became one of the most illustrious schools in Europe. Some say that it was a precursor to the modern-day universities. The skills which were used to create the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow were mastered here, and some of the finest metal craft work was produced at Clonmacnoise, work that has not been surpassed since the eleventh century.
There was never a large church on the site, but rather a cluster of smaller churches of wooden construction, none of which remain today. The monastery also attracted pilgrims from all walks of life. There is a statue called “The Pilgrim” on the path to the visitor center, which kindles the feeling of humility, and even perhaps illness. Some might even have a sadness come upon them when they view it. Clonmacnoise was well known for welcoming those with disease for the sake of healing them.
The whole complex appears to have been enclosed by an earth or stone rampart. The main Cathedral has what is known as the Whispering Door, which was barred closed during our visit. This Gothic-style door allows a whisper to be carried from one side of the Cathedral to the other. It's thought that this enabled lepers to give confession without the priests having to get too close to them.
The carvings on the doorway are of St Francis, St Patrick, and St Dominic. Even though we know that historically monks lived on the site, there is no longer any evidence of their quarters. What is left on the site now are the ruins of churches inside of the graveyard which were built after the twelfth century.
The entire settlement saw many a violent and destructive time. It was destroyed by fire at least thirteen times and was attacked over forty times from the eighth to the twelfth century. Eight of those times were by the Vikings, six by the Anglo-Normans, and twenty-six times by the Irish. After each attack, the site was rebuilt by the monks.
The final blow came in 1552 C.E. It was at that time that Clonmacnoise was reduced to ruin and rubble by the soldiers who were billeted at the English garrison located in Athlone, and for the next three hundred years there were no monasteries to be found in all of Ireland.
This site lay in decay until the Irish Office of Public Works began the grueling task of renovation, with the end result of making it one of Ireland's most famous attractions. It is truly one of the more interesting sites we had visited so far, and one that would be well worth another visit to in the future should we ever journey to Ireland again.
The North and South High Crosses, now inside the visitor’s center, were constructed from quartz sandstone which was mined at the foot of the Bernagh Mountains located close to Lough Derg. This stone was transported by curragh up the lough and the River Shannon to Clonmacnoise.
Both of the crosses, as well as some of the other precious stone works, are now to be found inside the Heritage Center. The Heritage Center itself was designed to resemble Crannogs, or beehive huts, the ancient living quarters found in Irish monastic settlements in many parts of Ireland.
The preservation work is currently being conducted by Duchas, the National Heritage Service, and Clonmacnoise ranks as one of Ireland's most valuable and impressive heritage sites. The High Crosses that are on the site are excellent replicas of the originals. We wandered the site separately, Tom and me, he video-taping, and me taking photos.
The ruins are beautiful, and in exceptional condition, especially considering their age. We joined back together by what looked like a landing pad, and were to later find out it was indeed a helicopter landing pad, which was used when Pope John Paul II visited Clonmacnoise in 1979. The Pope also celebrated mass in a stone structure known as the Pope's Shelter at that time.
As we moved toward the Round Tower, there was a little bird on the wall next to the steps. We also noticed something peeking over the wall at the River Shannon. I tried to get a picture of it, which unfortunately I was not able to, but Tom did capture it on video tape, peaking at us and hiding. We think it might have been a seal. But what if it was a Selkie?
Selkies are also known as silkies or selchies and are mythological creatures in Irish folklore. I always get butterflies in my tummy when I watch the video. You never know. It is said that Selkies are able to transform into human form by shedding their seal skins and can instantly revert back to seal form just by putting their selkie skin back on.
The stories we have heard about Selkies usually involve romantic tragedy. In the movie “The Secret Of Roan Inish," the human who fell in love with the Selkie actually hid the skin to prevent her from returning to the sea, with extremely tragic results. A strange and gloaming tale, one which strangely resonates within me.
There are two round towers at Clonmacnoise, McCarthy's Tower, and O'Rourkes Tower. McCarthy's Tower, or Teampuill Finghin in Gaelic, is a round tower complete with belfry. The tower, situated closest to the River Shannon, was an important part of the ruined building to which it is still attached. It is believed to have been built around 1169-1170 C.E. It is often called the second round tower of Clonmacnoise.
The one thing unusual about McCarthy's Tower is that its conical cap is intact. In 1879, the Office of Public Works removed it, repaired it, and reset it. There are only two bell-story windows, rather than the traditional four. It is 16.7 meters high with a diameter of almost 4 meters at the base. O'Rourkes Tower is located in the NW corner of the graveyard, and until the wall was built in 1957, actually stood outside of the complex.
The tower is 19.3 meters tall and 17.5 meters at its greatest circumference. It was built of grey rectangular limestone blocks up to the bell-story windows. From there on it is evident that reconstruction occurred, as the stones become smaller and less regular in shape. It is recorded that Turlough O'Connor, one of the last High Kings of Ireland, and Giolla Christ O'Malone, Saint Kieran's successor, were the builders of this tower, and that it was completed in 1124 C.E. The tower was damaged by lightning in 1135, which is when the reconstruction is believed to have taken place. We found both quite interesting to look at, but O'Rourkes Tower was the more impressive of the two.
The last place we visited was the interpretive center, where the original three high crosses (the Cross of the Scriptures, the North Cross, and the South Cross) are located, along with a very large collection of early Christian grave slabs. The crosses were brought into the center in 1993 for protection from the elements.
What stands in the graveyard in their place today are close to exact replicas. The grave slabs are impressive, most of them dating from 700-1200 C.E. One stood out above the others. Even though it is only a simple slab of sandstone, it is marked with unmistakable Ogham script. It is one of the oldest on the site and is thought to be from the time of Saint Ciaran in the fifth century.
Outside of the complex are the ruins of an old church whose walls are askew. It is believed that this is the church of Saint Ciaran and where his body was buried. It was thought in old times that the soil from this area was healing, and the people from the area would often visit to take soil for themselves and their loved ones who were sick. When we were there, it appeared that people were still practicing this tradition, since the soil had the sense of disturbance. Cows grazed next to the ruins, oblivious to any passersby, including ourselves.
*Susan Isabella Sheehan is a published author with four works to her credit, including "Spiraling Words: An Anthology of Selected Poetics & Prose."
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