Clonmacnoise from the air
    The beginnings of this monastery are humble. Ciarán sails down the Shannon with seven disciples to Clúan Moccu Nois, the Meadow of the Sons of Nois. His instruction from his former guru, Enda, at Aran, is simple enough: "Found a church on the banks of the Shannon in the centre of our island." This, Ciarán succeeds in doing, with a grant of land from Diarmuid MacCerbhaill.

Well, just about. The operation is only in its seventh month when Ciarán succumbs to the plague, leaving behind a small community and some humble wooden huts. It scarcely has the look of a thriving concern, but in his last moments, the dying abbot exhorts his men to carry on without him. And surprisingly, they do so quite successfully.

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     In time, Clonmacnois bears little resemblance to its modest origins. Huts are replaced by impressive stone buildings as the settlement takes on the appearance of permanence. It becomes a thriving centre for learning and artistic endeavour. Such achievements create a self-sustaining energy of their own, and many young men feel called to religious life there. Unsurprisingly, Clonmacnois enjoys generous patronage and protection.
It isn't all plain sailing, however. These are uncertain times, and while Clonmacnois is an oasis of spirituality and civilisation, it isn't immune to the forces of the temporal realm. Jaundice strikes in the year of the Synod of Whitby - 664- and in the following century, fires damage the monastic buildings. Unsure of their future, the monks fear vague but formidable powers ranged against them. The aurora borealis - the northern lights - appear in the night sky, ominously resembling seaborne raiders. People start to get jittery.


And rightly so, as it turns out. The King of Cashel carries out a massacre in 832, and as if this isn't bad enough, the Vikings arrive ten years later to plunder the monastery's riches. In a supreme act of profanity and defiance, Ota, the wife of the Viking Chieftain, utters prophecies from the altar.
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     In spite of these occasional downturns in fortune however, Clonmacnois' reputation as a place of scholarship survives. Such a name does it gain for itself that when the High King of Ireland, Flann, dies in 915, it is in Clonmacnois that he is buried. Unfortunately, his death causes something of a hiccup in terms of protection, and both Danes and marauding Munstermen seize the opportunity to ransack the treasures of the monastery. The thieves are coming from far and wide, such is the renown of Clonmacnois.


The see-saw of fortune returns to a more favourable position in the eleventh century when the kings of Connaught lend their muscle to the safeguarding of Clonmacnois' covetted riches. They also give much needed financial assistance, leading to a time of renewed development, of new churches and new roads. In this time of revival, new artforms are introduced, and the monk Mael-Muire produces an illuminated manuscript called the Book of the Dun Cow, inscribed on the hide of Ciarán's cow, or so they say!

The twelfth century: decline and fall. The English arrive and the entire monastery is plundered, save for the churches. The last High King of Ireland, Rory O'Connor, dies and is buried in the grounds of Clonmacnois, and in the absence of native authority, the monastery struggles agains the yoke of foreign tyranny. Some calamities refuse to melt into history.

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