Memories of Ireland: The Celestial City

This time last year I was holidaying in Ireland, it was a country I’d always wanted to travel too and my parents were happy to go somewhere nearby and cheap(ish), so Ireland became our destination that summer (as well as Portugal, but I’ll talk about that another time); anyway so while my other friends were partying hard in sunny Cyprus and Majorca I was traveling around gloomy Ireland with my parents.

Despite that premise, I really enjoyed Ireland and luckily I got to see many different parts of the country. On our first (really long) day, we stopped off at the ruins of Clonmacnoise (don’t worry its pronounced exactly as it sounds), based just south of the city of Athlone. When we arrived it was about 11am and I was honestly struggling to stay awake, last night we had taken the overnight ferry from Holyhead to Dublin and I hadn’t had a very comfortable or particularly sleep-filled journey across the Irish sea. We had arrive in Dublin at dawn and driven straight over from the capital to Athlone where we helped ourselves to a breakfast. By this time I hadn’t slept for over 24 hours, but nevertheless I deemed Clonmacnosie (advertised as the Celestial City) worth a couple hours visit.

Grey skies over McCarthy’s Tower

The original monastery at Clonmacnoise was founded in 554AD by Saint Ciaran, who constructed a small wooden chapel on the banks of the River Shannon. By the 12th century this had become the biggest religious center in Ireland and the burial place for Irish royalty. It had grown from a small wooden chapel to half a hundred different churches, temples, holy crosses and cathedrals all crowded together on the same site. by the 1100s an estimated 2000 people lived at Clonmacnoise, a collection of scholars, monks and artisans from all over Europe. In this time the monastery had suffered from not only from plague but also countless raids from Vikings, Normans and other Irish war-bands.

The Temples of Clonmacnoise
The Temples of Clonmacnoise

However Clonmacnosie gradually fell into decline due to the growth of Athlone to the north, which took over as the most popular place for crossing the River Shannon. An influx of new religious orders also created greater competition in Ireland and eventually the monastery was abandoned.

Walking among the ruined chapels

However Clonmacnosie never truly died, from the 1700s buildings such as Temple Hurpan was still being built and in 1979 the site was visited by Pope John Paul II as part of his tour of Ireland. Today, the site still boasts important historical artifacts and some of the most ancient architecture in Ireland, which are a must see for any budding historian.

Marker of where Pope John Paul prayed
Marker of where Pope John Paul prayed

In a way the gloomy day rather matched the grey, broken ruins of Clonmacnoise, now a shadow of its former self and a decaying marker of a bygone era. Walking around the site, I couldn’t help but feel a certain reverence for this place, not just for its significant religious history, but also for the hundreds of people who built these churches and how their work is now forever ingrained in stones of Clonmacnosie, a lasting reminder of their own mortal existence.

Clonmacnoise has always been a graveyard
Clonmacnoise has always been a graveyard

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