St. Ciaran's Clonmacnoise - Crosses, Tombs and Ruins on the Shannon

I've been to Clonmacnoise three times. The visits spanned nineteen years, and were each marked by a milestone in my journey through thin places - where the eternal and physical worlds mingle.  I received a marriage proposal at Temple Ciaran, and years later celebrated a wedding anniversary in the same place, though not with the man who offered the proposal.  Clonmacnoise was my first thin place experience.  I was brought there by an old mystic whom I'd known since childhood. Today, even with some age on him, this old bard named Howell McConnell still gives me insight into the places where the veil between this world and the next is thin.  Howell set the stage for my first otherworldy experience before we ever got to the site, by telling me the stories of St. Ciaran, St. Finian, St. Enda, and St. Kevin.

Located between Meath and Connaught, Clonmacnoise (name means "meadow of the sons of Nos") is city of ancient monastic ruins resting on the banks of the River Shannon. The monastery was founded by St. Ciaran somewhere between 543 and 548.  Ciaran is recognized as one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland - 12 men (including St. Columba and St. Brendan) who studied under St. Finian of Clonard.  The last High King of Ireland, Rory O'Connor is buried in the cathedral at Clonmacnoise (now ruins).  The cathedral, built by one of the kings of Tara is known for its carving of Sts.Dominic, Patrick, and Francis of Assisi above one of the arched doorways.


Perhaps Clonmacnoise is most famous for the three high crosses.  Known as the Cross of the Scriptures, the North Cross and the South Cross, these carved masterpieces, which date back to the 9th and 10th centuries, are safely secured away from the elements in the Clonmacnoise museum.  Life-size replicas are strategically placed on the monastery grounds giving the visitor and pilgrim a  feel for how the crosses may have appeared ten centuries ago. The high crosses are a common focal point in photographs taken by visiting tourists and pilgrims.

Castle ruins haunt the western landscape of Clonmacnoise, and just past the castle, down the road a bit is St. Ciaran's Holy Well, now renovated with a sturdy banister and stairway.  Clooties have been left near the well and are tied to a nearby bush... signs of pilgrims who came to well to be filled, healed, renewed.

The tales of Clonmacnoise set the imagination in motion...Tales like St. Ciaran's vision of a large tree sprouting by a river in the center of Ireland, then growing so large that it shaded the entire country and offered abundant fruit, some of which was carried away by birds to foreign lands.  I love the story of St. Ciaran crossing the River Shannon and claiming the Clonmacnoise grounds as a place of resurrections, where many souls will depart for heaven.  Sadly, St. Ciaran himself left the world shortly after claiming the ground.  At the age of 33, he died probably from the plague which was ravaging Ireland about that time and had already claimed the body of his mentor Finian of Clonard.  Though Ciaran got the monastery started, he didn't live to see it in all of its glory as one of the largest monastic cities in Ireland - probably second only to Armagh, which was the original seat of the church - where St. Patrick himself sat as bishop. 

There's a small church ruin near the cathedral with walls that lean inward and a very shallow curved doorway.  This building is known as Temple Ciaran and is believed to be where the saint was buried.  There's a tale that tells of Ciaran, knowing he was about to die, begged for his brothers to fetch his beloved friend Kevin from Glendalough (known now as St. Kevin).  Kevin arrived three days after Ciaran had died.  The brothers had locked Ciaran's dead body in the church.  When Kevin entered Ciaran lifeless body revived itself long enough to have a visit with his soul friend. St. Kevin performed the burial ceremony, then left to return to the monastic community that he had founded in Wicklow - Glendalough. Ciaran went to heaven. 



Clonmacnoise is a magical place. I came there the first time with a sense of wonder, hearing the stories of Ciaran and wondering why the place felt so magical.  I was a young mother, successful in my career and looking at new ventures - and was strangely drawn to Ireland.  Clonmacnoise was my doorway, my entry into mystical Ireland.

When I returned seven years later I was a widow.  My husband died a little over a year after that first visit to Ireland.  I was in a bad place emotionally raising three teenagers by myself.  As I stood near Temple Ciaran, a man probably in his eighties approached me and began to talk.  He said he was a farmer and lived nearby.  He had never married and had a lot of land but no children to leave it to.  I told him I had three children and had lost my husband five years earlier.  The old man asked me to marry him. To him marriage seemed to be a beneficial arrangement.  He'd get a wife, I'd get to live in Ireland, and my children would inherit his lands. Though I'd been single for more than five years and was struggling to raise three teenagers alone, I politely passed on the offer.  The man, who told me his name was Patrick asked if I would take his picture.  I did and I still have it in an album somewhere.  He's leaning against the slanted walls of Temple Ciaran. I recall after he left looking out across the River Shannon feeling like God was having a little chuckle at my expense.  I had been praying for the right man to come along... it was the prayer of my heart at that time. "Is that all you have to offer?" I said.  In checking my journal notes, that day in Clonmacnoise was April 18, 1998.

On April 18, 1999 I met Dan Burgoyne.  We were married exactly five months later.

My third trip to Clonmacnoise was September 18, 2010. I was with my husband on a trip to Ireland celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary.  I stood with Dan in the same spot I had stood with Patrick eleven years earlier.  This time my prayer was a little different, though the sense of the Divine Presence was just as strong.

Thin places are like that.  The God you seek seems so much closer.  Answers to prayers seem a little clearer, and conversations with the Divine, though the language may not be words, is ever richer.

Flickr photo stream of Clonmacnoise photos

Excellent Article Ciaran's Clonmacnoise - by Edward Sellner