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Meet Early Christian Ireland-
Saint Ciaran And The Beginnings Of Clonmacnoise

During the times of early Christian Ireland and right up  into medieval times, Clonmacnoise was the Irish monastery of monasteries. It is located slap bang in the middle of the country at the crossroads of the river Shannon running roughly from North to South and the Eiskir Riada, a medieval highway running up high on long esker stretches left by the ice age, which was the main East-West axis. In medieval times, this place was a hub because of its’ great location.

Replica of Saint Ciarans first church at the museum at Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, which is the most important medieval Irish monastery.

Replica of an early Christian church. These churches were wooden, and very small holding no more than a handful of people.

Saint Ciaran must have been aware that this was the right place to come when he built the first wooden church and some wattle huts here with his tiny community around 550 AD. At this time, the speed of conversion to Christianity had just started to pick up pace after some major natural catastrophe, either a giant volcanic eruption or an impact by a meteor. Sounds like a fairy tale? Read on to find out!

Remnants of a grave marker stone found at Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, and displayed in the museum there. Clonmacnoise was the most important medieval Irish monastery.

Decorative grave marker slab found at the monastic site.

Actually, it is true! Evidence for this catastrophe has been found in tree rings, as well as in ice core samples taken in Greenland. It was an international event affecting most of Europe, not only Ireland. However, many Irish archaeologists and historians now believe that this event helped Christian missionaries in early Christian Ireland in their work of converting the Irish who turned to the new god when looking for answers during the decade of famine and diseases which was to follow. So, St Ciaran was in the right place at the right time which assured his success in founding what would become Ireland’s most important monastery for the next 1400 years to come.

Sadly, the plague was raging when Saint Ciaran founded Clonmacnoise in 550 A.D. and only a short time later, Saint Ciaran himself would fall victim to the disease. He was only in his early thirties, but he will be remembered forever for his association with this place.

Saint Ciaran had been educated on Inishmore at Saint Enda’s monastery which was a rigorous training centre that produced many important names in early Christian Ireland.  Some sources say that it was Saint Enda himself who told Saint Ciaran to go and found a monastery right in the centre of Ireland.

Read More About Clonmacnoise

Find out Clonmacnoise tourist information here including our special tips, and read here about the history and significance of the monastery.

Legends Of Early Christian Ireland

When St Ciaran established Clonmacnoise, he brought a dun cow with him to feed himself but it also fed his community. According to legend, the cow gave amazing amounts of milk, enough for everyone. There are a lot of early Christian legends involving dairy cows and dairy products (compare Saint Brigid legends). Dairy products were difficult to produce and to keep fresh, and were a rare part of the diet. Dairy products were served as a high point at feasts which highlights their status. Understanding this can help put these legends in context.

Saint Ciaran’s Dun Cow was revered to such an extent that the cow’s hide became a relic at Clonmacnoise. Some say that some pages of the Book of the Dun Cow, written at the scriptorium here, were written on the cow’s hide. Another tradition had it that whoever died lying on the hide, would be sure to go to heaven.

Early Christian Ireland, Clonmacnoise, visitor centre display of stone masons workshop of the time

A display at the visitor centre of an artists impression of a stone masons workshop of the time.

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Many thanks and warmest regards from Ireland from Susanna and Colm.

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