|ADVENTURES IN IRELAND
CLOUDED BY RELIGION
AND MYTH, SURROUNDED BY SUBTLE BEAUTY
|ireland revels in its uncertainty.
The Irish enjoy knowing that a thing may not be what it appears to be, that fancy
and fact have much in common, that yes can mean no, too, and that
embellishment changes mere facts to grand stories. Where in other lands fixed lines
determine limits and borders, in Ireland, all hard lines are soft, blurred, and forgiving.
So it is that in Ireland there are no Grand Canyons, majestic Alps, fabulous
cathedrals, or spectacular ruins of great civilizations long gone but not forgotten. There
are no Amazons, no Hollywoods, no Saharas, no Pyramids in Ireland. Indeed, the Irish
mountains are relative hills. Its rivers, even in full flood, are small and short and
pleasing to the eyebetter suited for fishing than as routes to a vast unknown
interior or for white water extremists.
|History in Ireland is equally fuzzy.
chroniclelasted longer here than in other parts of Western Europe. The influence of
the largely illiterate Celts and Vikings dominated Ireland until only 900 years ago. Oral
historiesstories, tales, sagasrecorded history vaguely, with embellishment
leading to moral. The oral tradition explained how things happened, and what things meant,
making it more than historyit became Irish science and religion, too. One still gets
a sense of it in the pubs and pulpits and playhouses of Irelandhow the spoken word
carries more importance and more meanings and shades of meanings than the
Johnny-come-lately written text. And in this sense Irish pre-history never has ended, and
the Celts and Druids and legendary others from the misty, mystic past maintain their
influence to this day.
CAPPED ROUND TOWER
OF TEMPLE FINGHIN, DATING
FROM THE 12TH CENTURY.
In its failed attempt to define and
capture accurate, historical fact, the monastic
ruins at Clonmacnoise tell much about religion, myth, and mysticism in Ireland.
Clonmacnoise is, perhaps (contending with a handful of other sites), the pre-eminent Irish
historic ruins. Typicallyfor Irelandthat means that it is small, untouched
(very ruined), and leaves the visitor with more questions than answers. Indeed,
Clonmacnoise seems to have more in common with the ruins of certain semi-literate
non-Western civilizationsMayan, Aztec, or Toltec, for instancethan much older
and grander ruins of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, or Moorish sites in Europe. This is not to
disparage Clonmacnoiseor Irelandrather to put it into a more understandable
context. Clonmacnoise, despite being a Christian monastic settlement, seems much less
about civilization and order and more about spirituality and timelessness.
It may be typically Irish to use facts to present the mystical, and to offer the
mystical in support of the facts. Heres what we do know as fact about Clonmacnoise:
THE ROUND TOWER,
FROM 1124 AD,
AS A BELL TOWER
AND AS A REFUGE
ARCHED DOORWAY REACHABLE ONLY
the virtual center of the island of Ireland, in County Offaly, at the primary crossroads
of Ireland, where a principal east-west trade route crosses the principal north-south
river, the Shannon. Today, Clonmacnoise is located about 12 miles from both Athlone town
and Ballinasloe in County Galway. The nearest village is Shannonbridge. The site is set
amongst farms in rolling, verdant pasture land just above the River Shannon. (Home at
First lodgings in Central IrelandCounties Tipperary and
Clareare 60-90 minutes drive south of Clonmacnoise. Home
At First lodgings in County Sligo are 2-2.5 hours east-northeast of Clonmacnoise.)
Founded prior to 550 AD by St. Ciaran, at the crossroads of Ireland where the 4
traditional Irish kingdomsUlster, Connaught, Leinster, and Munstercome
together. The settlement flanks the east side of the River Shannon, in a shallow valley
close to the flood plain. The site has been used for burials of various Irish kings for
centuries. After his religious education elsewhere in Ireland, St. Ciaran migrated to
Clonmacnoise, where he helped build its first small, wooden church. He did not live to see
his monastery grow, but died of yellow plague at the age of 33 not long after arriving at
Clonmacnoise. Scholars from around Ireland and perhaps Europe came to study at
Clonmacnoise, making it the early medieval equivalent of a university. As such, writing
was known there, and it was probably a place where religious
scribes learned the fine art of "illuminated writing", which was to
reach its zenith in Ireland with the fabulous Book of Kells.
|A violent past: Three centuries of Viking raids (8 attacks) at the end of
the first millennium resulted in several periods of ruination, contraction, rebuilding and
expansion. Attacks came not just from Scandinavia, but from within Ireland, as Irish (26
times) and Norman-Irish (6 times) kings plundered the monastery often until the end of the
12th century. At the end of the Middle Ages, in 1552, English soldiers from nearby Athlone looted and destroyed Clonmacnoise. By
the end of that century its churches were in ruins, and no monasteries remained in Ireland
for another 300 years.
JOHN'S CASTLE RUINS, BUILT
IN 1214; BLOWN UP SOON AFTER.
Modern history: In 1877 the Clonmacnoise church ruins were taken into the
care of the state. In 1955 the Church of Ireland gave the remaining main buildings and the
extensive graveyard to the state. A visitor center was later built, to house the most
important high crosses. (Replicas currently stand in the original locations of these
crosses.) The visitor center also provides a slide show and various dioramas that portray
the history of Clonmacnoise. In 1979, Pope John Paul II visited Clonmacnoise. The
1500-year-old monastic settlement remains a destination of Catholic pilgrims, especially
on September 9, saints day of St. Ciaran.
|The site: Clonmacnoise never had a large, primary church on its
grounds. Instead, numerous small churches and chapels were scattered among other buildings
and the cemetery. Clonmacnoise is a monastic settlement without proof that monks lived
thereno living quarters remain. Most of the ruins date from after the time of the
Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland, the 12th century.
Questions remaining: How did Clonmacnoise recruit and teach its
students? Was its scholastic tradition insular, or did it send missionaries with a common theology throughout Europe? How
could such a small site really be influential within Ireland and Europe? How could such a
rudimentary settlement really have been wealthy enough to attract so many plunderers? How
much was the Christian theology of Clonmacnoise influenced by Celtic religious traditions?
CROSS OF THE SCRIPTURES DATES FROM ABOUT 900
IT IS ONE OF IRELAND'S
BEST PRESERVED HIGH CROSSES.
Impressions: The landscape of Clonmacnoise is the natural meeting of sky, grass,
stone, and water. The gentle lilt to the landscape encourages the River Shannon to meander
slowly through it. The weathered stone ruins suggest more history than they document.
There must have been something culturally and spiritually important here to draw so many
kings of Ireland to make Clonmacnoise their last rest. That same something continues to
draw visitors from all over the world today.
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