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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.