Roughly translated, Clonmacnoise (Cluain Mhic Nóis) means ‘Meadow of the Sons of Nós’. The marshy land would have been impassable for early traders, who instead chose to travel by water or on eskers (raised ridges formed by glaciers). When St Ciarán founded a monastery here in AD 548 it was the most important crossroads in the country, the intersection of the north–south River Shannon, and the east–west Esker Riada (Highway of the Kings).
The giant ecclesiastical city had a humble beginning and Ciarán died just seven months after building his first church. Over the years Clonmacnoise grew to become an unrivalled bastion of Irish religion, literature and art and attracted a large lay population. Between the 7th and 12th centuries, monks from all over Europe came to study and pray here, helping to earn Ireland the title of the ‘land of saints and scholars’. Even the high kings of Connaught and Tara were brought here for burial.
Most of what you can see today dates from the 10th to 12th centuries. The monks would have lived in small huts scattered in and around the monastery, which would probably have been surrounded by a ditch or rampart of earth.
The site was burned and pillaged on numerous occasions by both the Vikings and the Irish. After the 12th century it fell into decline, and by the 15th century it was home only to an impoverished bishop. In 1552 the English garrison from Athlone reduced the site to a ruin: ‘Not a bell, large or small, or an image, or an altar, or a book, or a gem, or even glass in a window, was left which was not carried away, ’ was reported at the time.
Among the treasures that survived the continued onslaughts are the crosier of the abbots of Clonmacnoise in the National Museum, Dublin, and the 12th-century Leabhar na hUidhre (The Book of the Dun Cow), now in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.