Clonmacnoise was founded sometime between 545 and 548 by Ciarán Mac a tSaor, a young man from Rathcroghan, Co. Roscommon. Until the 9th century it had close associations with the kings of Connacht. The strategic location of the monastery helped it become a major centre of religion, learning, craftsmanship and trade by the 9th century and together with Clonard it was the most famous in Ireland, visited by scholars from all over Europe. From the 9th until the 11th century, it was allied with the kings of Meath. Many of the high kings of Tara and Connacht were buried here.
Get off just before Athlone or Ballinasloe on the M6 Dublin/Galway motorway and follow the signs.
It is north of Shannonbridge on the R444.
Clonmacnoise is directly beside the River Shannon and there is a place where you can stop your boat and walk up to it.
Walk around the site
- 1 Temple Finghín & McCarthy's Tower. 12th century Romanesque church and round tower. An unusual occurrence was the vandalism of this church in 1864 by a person from Birr on a 'pleasure party' to the "Seven Churches", as Clonmacnoise was often called. This led to a landmark case when a prosecution was brought against the vandal by the Crown, due to the efforts of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. Some of the funds which had been raised for the prosecution were later used by the society to repair the cap of the church's tower. The structure is possibly the earliest example of a church and round tower being part of a single structure in Ireland.
- 2 Temple Connor. Church used by the Church of Ireland (the Anglican church) since the 18th century. It underwent significant restoration works in the second decade of the 20th century, when the pitch of the roof was raised and the internal space was remodelled. The church is maintained under the auspices of the Athlone Union of Parishes, and each Sunday during the summer a service is held at 16:00.
- 3 O'Rourke's Tower. Though named O'Rourkes' Tower after 10th-century Connacht king Fergal O'Rourke the Chronicum Scotorum, records that it was finished in 1124 by Turlough O'Connor, king of Connacht, and Gilla Christ Ua Maoileoin, abbot of Clonmacnoise. 11 years later it was struck by lightning, which knocked off the head of the tower. The upper part of the tower is later work, so there is some speculation that the masonry thus toppled in the storm of 1135 may have been reused in the building of McCarthy's Tower.
- 4 North Cross. Oldest of the three extant crosses. Created c.800 AD. Only the limestone shaft and sandstone base (a former millstone) survive. The decoration is non-Christian, with an image of Cernunnos, the Celtic God of hunting and fertility, displayed on the east face of the shaft. It appears that the piece was badly vandalised at some point in its history, a hypothesis which may explain its current state.
- Temple Kelly. All that remains of this church are the low-lying perimeter stones, which still give a good indication of the church's original size.
- 5 Temple Ciarán. At 2.8 by 3.8 metres, the smallest church in Clonmacnoise. Traditionally presented as the grave site of St. Ciarán, excavations of the church unearthed the Clonmacnoise Crozier, but no saintly remains.
- 6 Cross of the Scriptures. This 4-metre high sandstone cross is one of the most skillfully executed of the surviving high crosses in Ireland, and of particular interest for its surviving inscription, which asks a prayer for Flann Sinna, King of Ireland, and Abbot Colmán who commissioned the cross. Both men were also responsible for the building of the Cathedral. The cross was carved from Clare sandstone c.900 AD. The surface of the cross is divided into panels, showing scenes including the Crucifixion, the Last Judgement, and Christ in the Tomb. The original has been moved into the visitors' centre; a convincing, if hollow, replica stands at the original site.
- Cathedral. Building started around 909 AD (Chronicum Scotorum) by Flann and Colmán. The west doorway has been (and somewhat controversially), comprehensively restored with the Gothic-style north doorway, often called the Whispering Arch, dating to the mid-15th century. The cathedral is the largest of the churches at Clonmacnoise. Rory O'Connor, the last High King of Ireland, was buried near the altar in 1198, joining his father Turlough. Most of the graves in the church are those of the Coghlan family, whose patriarch extensively rebuilt the cathedral in the mid-17th century.
- 7 Temple Melaghlin. Built c.1200. Also called the King's Church, because at least seven generations of Melaghlin Kings are said to be buried underneath the structure. The church is also believed to have housed the scriptorium, the room where the manuscripts were designed and decorated.
- 8 South Cross. A 9th-century piece that used to be at the southern end of the site's central hub. It has one Christian scene on its west face, a rough carving of the Crucifixion of Christ. Many believe that the cross may have been part inspiration for the later Cross of the Scriptures. Again, the original is in the interpretative centre, with a not particularly accomplished replica (wrong colour, for a start) occupying its original site.
- 9 Temple Dowling. This church was built in the 10th century, and is named after Edmund Dowling, who renovated it in 1689, placing a stone carving of his family crest above the door.
- 10 Temple Hurpan. Built in the 17th century at the east end of Temple Dowling, this annex had no religious function outside of being a burial ground for some members of the local parish.
- The Fairy's or Horseman's Stone. Near the Chapel of Clonfinlough at Clonmacnoise there are several limestone boulders, one of which is called the Fairy's or Horseman's Stone. It has many cup-shaped hollows, crosses, daggers, and a pair of human feet (an example of a Petrosomatoglyph) possibly connected with the inauguration of Gaelic rulers. Dunadd in Scotland has a well-known example of this tradition.
- The Annals of Clonmacnoise. The Annals of Clonmacnoise chronicle events in Ireland from pre-history to AD 1408. The original manuscript or manuscripts are lost, and the names of its compilers are unknown. It is so-called because it was thought to be based on materials gathered at the monastery of Clonmacnoise, though there is some doubt about this.