Clonard is founded in 520 by Saint Finnian on an expanse of land between the kingdoms of Meath and Leinster. The founder is a well-travelled man, and the monastery is based on his training in France and Britain. Such is Finnian's reputation for learning and teaching, that the brightest and best are soon attracted to his foundation.

In the lifetime of its founding abbot, Clonard gains a reputation for high-calibre graduates, many of whom journey out to set up their own monasteries. Ciarán of Clonmacnoise and Colmcille of Iona are among the most celebrated in this regard.

If Clonard attracts the best, it also tests them. Life here is uncompromising, based on the ascetic models of monasteries in Tours and Llancarfan, where Saint Finnian spent his formation. 'The Penitential of Finnian' prescribes hard penances for misdemeanours, particularly for those involving sexual misconduct, oath-taking and magic.
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     Clonard also sets its cannon against the use of monastic treasure for the redemption of captives. Meath and Leinster are a patchwork of warring kingdoms, and this chaos has no place in Finnian's order. Ironically, his successor, Senach, comes to Clonard from a raiding party, dropping out to warm himself in the kiln-house of the monastery.

Over the next couple of centuries, Clonard remains fiercely loyal to Rome, and begins a tradition of intellectual exports to continental Europe. The monastery also comes to wield some influence in the temporal realm. When King Maél Sechlainn proclaims himself King of Ireland in 857, Abbot Suairleach of Clonard is among those called upon to pursuade Irish nobles of the rightness of the claim.

The gain in worldly status over the centuries is mirrored in the physical growth of the monastic town. When St Finnian arrives in 520, his first act is sink a well, from which to draw holy water. An angel warns him to move his well and to give over the ground to the monastic cemetery, which becomes known as Ard na relige. At an alternative site, Finnian sinks a new well and builds a church, on a hill known ever after as Church Hill. Modest beginnings.
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     By the early 10th century, Clonard has blossomed into something much more spectacular. Coming into the town from a southerly direction, the visitor's attention is drawn to a round tower, a high cross and a new stone church. These features are the work of Bishop Colmán MacAilella, who became Abbot in 888. The high cross is said to be his particular favourite, with Christ crucified on the west face, and Judgement depicted on the east.

There is a secular settlement before the monastic enclosure, and the visitor isn't in Clonard proper before passing through St Colmcille's Gate. This gate stands opposite the site of the cell occupied by Colmcille when he was a student here.


Now inside, the visitor can appreciate the full scale of this foundation: the vestry, the round hall and the library all clustering near the church, and beyond them, the cells of the monks. And further afield, the material support to all this spiritual endeavour: the cowyards, the dairy and the mill.

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    To the west, stands another church at Ros Findchuil, where St Finnian spent his final days on this earth. It lies within an enclosure, known as "lios an memra", the enclosure of the shrine. This is where the relics of Finnian are kept, and below the it, lies his grave.


The health and prosperity of Clonard at this time may surprise those who have read of the Viking raids. Monasteries in Britain and Ireland have paid a high price for the bad blood between Christians and pagans elsewhere in Europe. Saxons fleeing from Charlemagne, have roused their co-religionists in Scandinavia to terrible vengeance on Christendom.

Fortunately, Clonard's location between the sea and the Shannon, has left it less susceptible to attack than coastal settlements or Clonmacnoise. Attacks have occurred, but have been of insufficient magnitude to disrupt the completion of buildings, the copying of manuscripts, or the increase in the size of the town.

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     It isn't until the 12th century, the time of Church reform and the arrival of the Normans, that Clonard monastery begins to take a back seat to the town it spawned. The reform of the Church means a shift of authority from the monastery's abbot to the bishop of the new diocese of east Meath, created at the Synod of Cashel in 1101.


In 1146, two religious houses, one of Augustinian canonesses and the other, of regular canons dedicated to St Peter, are set up in the outskirts of Clonard, under the influence of Saint Malachy. With the bishop's residence some distance north at Killyon, the focus of religious life in the area is becoming fragmented. Men continue to make pilgrimages to the High Cross and Saint Finnian's Well, but it is not as it had been.

Finally, towards the end of the 12th century, Clonard becomes a Norman garrison town. The Normans build a new abbey on the north bank of the river, which promptly becomes the cathedral of the diocese. Colmán MacAilella's church becomes a parish church, and the entire lands of the monastery pass into the hands of Bishop Eugenius. Where the bubonic plague, marauding Vikings and local raiders have failed, Rome and the Normans have conquered in the name of progress. It's time to go.

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 St. Finnian

Clonard Font