Left Athlone later in the morning and headed to Clonmacnoise. Clonmacnoise is a really famous monastic site. It is early Christian founded by St. Claran in the middle of the 6th Century about 550 AD. It’s quite large and has seven churches, some round towers, and the Nun’s Church a short walk away. It is home to some of the best High Crosses in Ireland. These are replicated in their original positions on the site but the actual crosses are in the small museum housed in the Visitor’s Center. This site is visited by a lot of tour buses so be prepared.
Unfortunately, there was a problem with the electricity and plumbing when we visited so the visitor’s center was shut down as was the museum. However, the tours were still going on so we were able to get a guided tour of the site. Our Heritage Pass gave us free entry and the tour. As always, the OPW tour guide was great and we learned a lot about early Irish history and early Christianity in Ireland.
Clonmacnoise is right on the River Shannon and the views are beautiful. It was easy to imagine what life must have been like in those early days. Clonmacnoise is the burial place of the High Kings of Ireland although they don’t know exactly where. There is a “Whispering Channel” in one of the doorways of the cathedral. Fun to try. It was used so lepers could make confession without contaminating the priest.
We walked through the old cemetery to the new cemetery and out onto the oldest road in Europe. About 500 meters down the road was the Nun’s Church dating to the 12th Century. The ruin has a wonderful Hiberno Romanesque doorway decorated with animal heads and what they think may be a Sheila-na-gig (an unusual carving depicting a woman with large genitals — possibly a fertility thing). The animal heads are interspersed with carvings of human heads which may indicate one way in which the Celtic religion was interwoven with the new Christian Faith.
Our next stop was Shannonbridge and Kileen’s Pub for lunch. This is an interesting place that combines a pub with a grocery store. The food was supposed to be good and it was.
After leaving Killeens we continued on to Clonfert Cathedral. This was my favorite stop of the day. Clonfert Monestary was founded in Clonfert around 550 AD by Saint Brendan the Navigator. Also known as St. Brendan’s Cathedral this is the only remaining building of the Monestary complex and dates to the 12th century. This is probably the best example of an Hiberno Romanesque doorway in Ireland. It’s quite spectacular with six orders of decorated sandstone. There is a tall pediment above the doorway made up of triangles with alternating human heads.
There was no one there the day we visited. The Cathedral is left open so you can go in and explore the churchyard and the inside of the Cathedral.
Inside the Cathedral near the chancel arch is a mermaid carved in stone holding a comb in one hand and a mirror in the other. It could be a reference to St. Brendan and we also heard that it could have been a teaching aid for the sin of vanity. Either way it’s really beautiful and unusual. There are 6 mermaids in different churches around Ireland.
Very close to the mermaid is this image of a dragon carved in stone. I was fascinated by the mix of Celtic mythology and Christian symbols in these early churches. The workmanship is exquisite and so fanciful. We also learned that stone masons had to sign their work in some way in order to get paid.
The best part about visiting some of these out of the way relics is the absence of other tourists. We spent a long time at the Cathedral exploring it’s treasures and reveling in the Medieval atmosphere with not one other person intruding on our explorations. Truly a wonderful find.
Clonfert Cathedral is in an unassuming bend in the road and you really need GPs coordinates to help you find it.
Ended our day having dinner at diBella around the corner from the Castle in Athlone. Great meal.