Saturday, 22 September 2012

An old monastery, an old church, and the beginning of a new ministry

Saint Finian’s Church, Clonard ... stands on the site of a sixth century monastery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

It was a warm and sunny day for late September yesterday [Friday] and in the late afternoon we headed out to the Midlands. We were going to an ordination in the Edenderry, Co Offaly, and as we drove out west along the M4 we decided to stop on the borders of Co Meath and Co Westmeath and visit the old monastic site at Clonard, between Kinnegad and Enfield, north of the M4.

Clonard (Cluain Ioraird, “Iorard’s meadow”), is now a small village in Co Meath and it is hard to imagine that this was once an important centre of learning and one of the most important and earliest monasteries in Ireland.

Clonard may have been a centre of the early missionary activities ca 450 of Palladius, who was the first bishop in Ireland and whose missionary activities predate those of Saint Patrick.

However, the memory of Palladius has faded in Clonard in favour of Saint Finian, who founded his monastery here in the sixth century.

We began our visit at Saint Finian’s, the former Church of Irelabd parish church on the edges of Clonard village. The church has been closed since 1991, but this is the heart of the ancient monastic site and the church was, inevitably, known as Saint Finian’s.

A saint’s life

The entrance to Saint Finian’s Church is at the end of an overgrown, tree-lined drive (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Saint Finian was born at Myshall, Co Carlow. He is said to have studied under Saint Cadoc at Llancarfan, Glamorganshire, and spent 30 years in Wales before returning to Ireland, where his first monastery was at Aghowle, Co Wicklow. Around 520, he was led by an angel to Clonard, on the banks of the River Boyne, on an expanse of land between the kingdoms of Meath and Leinster.

He was told this would be the place of his resurrection, and here he built a little cell and a church of clay and wattle. Saint Finian died about 549 and was buried on the site, perhaps in the church that was later replaced by the Church of Ireland parish church. The church at Ros Findchuil, where he spent his final days, lay within an enclosure known as lios an memra or the enclosure of the shrine. His relics were kept there and his grave lay below.

An imposing monastery

Clonard became known as a distinguished seat of learning in Ireland, and students from all over Ireland and these islands, and from France and Germany came to study here, sp that at one time the school had 3,000 students.

Life in his monastery was based on the ascetic models of the monasteries in Tours and Llancarfan, where Saint Finian had received his monastic training. The Penitential of Finian prescribed hard penances for misdemeanours, particularly those involving sexual misconduct, oath-taking and magic.

An oak tree planted in 1997 remembers Saint Columba of Kells and Iona, one of the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland” who studied at the monastery in Clonard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

During the sixth century, some of the most significant names in the history of Irish Christianity, later known as the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland,” studied at the monastery. These 12 holy men were:

● Saint Ciaran of Seir-Kieran;
● Saint Ciaran of Clonmacnoise;
● Saint Brendan of Birr;
● Saint Brendan of Clonfert;
● Saint Columba of Terryglass;
● Saint Columba of Kells and Iona;
● Saint Mobhi of Glasnevin;
● Saint Ruadhan of Lorrha;
● Saint Senan of Scattery Island;
● Saint Ninnidh of Inismacsaint on Loch Erne;
● Saint Lasserian of Leighlin;
● Saint Canice of Aghaboe.

Clonard was on the boundary of the kingdoms of Leinster and Meath that were often at war with each other. From the eighth century on, Clonard came under the control of various rival political dynasties, and by the mid-ninth century it was the leading church of the Irish midlands.

When King Maél Sechlainn proclaimed himself King of Ireland in 857, Abbot Suairleach of Clonard was called on to persuade the Irish nobles to support his claims.

By the early 10th century, Clonard has blossomed into a monastic town, with a round tower, a high cross, a stone church and a library, built by Bishop Colmán Mac Ailella, who became Abbot in 888.

Visiting the site

Saint Finian’s Church was closed in 1991 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Very little remains of the old monastic site, but the former Church of Ireland parish church, Saint Finian’s Church, is said to have been built on the sixth century monastic site. It was the local Church of Ireland parish church until it was closed in 1991.

The present church, where we began our visit, is down at the end of a long, overgrown path. It was built in 1808 by James Bell, with loan of £400 from the Board of First Fruits. It replaced an older church that had fallen into disrepair, and that stood on the site of the earlier abbey church.

Saint Finian’s Church has no windows on the north side (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The church is a typical 19th century hall-and-tower church, with no windows on the north side. The three-stage entrance tower has pinnacles and castellations to the west, and there is a vestry to the north-east corner. The church has a pitched slate roof, rendered walls with ashlar limestone quoins, string courses, date plaque and a carved mediaeval stone head. The traceried windows set in pointed-arched openings with stone sills and surrounds. The timber-battened double doors have a fanlight above set in a pointed-arched opening with limestone dressings.

A stone corbel-head, inserted into the tower above the door, is believed to have survived from a previous church, perhaps even the monastery. The church is crumbling and the grounds are overgrown, but a local committee is negotiating a lease on the building.

Saint Finian’s Church reflected in the Trough ... this may have been the lavabo of the monastery and is associated with many local superstitions (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Below the tower of the old parish church is “The Trough,” a unique rectangular feature cut in a block of limestone. It is 18 inches deep, 36 inches long and 24 inches wide. This trough may have been the lavabo of the monastery.

Many superstitions are associated with the Trough. It is said the water in it has curative powers, particularly for warts, and that no local person has ever seen it dry or empty, even during the hottest summers.

A tree planted in 1998 at the unmarked grave of the Croppies from 1798 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

There are many old headstones in the graveyard, some dating back to the 1690s. But the most interesting gave is the “Croppies” grave. The Battle of Clonard on 11 July 1798 was a turning point in Rising that year. Many of the rebels or “Croppies” lay dead and wounded and those who survived escaped to Carbury about six or seven miles away.

The dead “Croppies” from Wexford and Wicklow were left lying in fields and ditches. Some were buried in a mass grave; others were carried across the Boyne and buried in an unmarked mass grave in the Church of Ireland graveyard, where a commemorative oak tree was planted in their memory on 11 July 1998.

Ard na Reilige, the site of Saint Finian’s first church in Clonard and later the monastic cemetery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

From the old parish church, we drove on to Ard na Reilige, the “high cemetery.” Saint Finian selected this raised grassy site as the site of his first church in Clonard. The church was later moved westward, and the site at Ard na Reilige became the monastic cemetery. It continued to be used as a cemeteryuntil the late 17th century.

Saint Finian’s Well was restored in 2011 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

From there we drove a short distance further to Saint Finian’s Well. When he came to Clonard, Saint Finian’s first acts were to build a church and to sink a well. Monastery wells were sources for holy water and may have been used as baptisteries.

A long grassy path leads down to the well. In recent times, a wall has been built around the well, the area was roofed, and steps were provided to allow access to the water level. A chained beaker is provided for visitors who want to drink water from the well.

A chained beaker invites visitors to drink from the water in Saint Finian’s Well (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)
Back in Clonard village, we passed Saint Finian’s Roman Catholic Church, built in the mid-19th century, on the site of an earlier church. The church windows depict scenes from the life of Saint Finian and life in his monastery. The church also has the panelled, mediaeval stone Baptismal Font that was brought there in 1991 when the Church of Ireland parish church was closed. The font is octagonal in shape with deeply chamfered under panels depicting scenes from the life of Christ.

The bell from the former Church of Ireland parish church is now in Glenstal Abbey.

The end of a monastery

Until the early 12th century, the Kingdom of Meath was divided into eight small monastic episcopal sees, located at Clonard, Duleek, Kells, Trim, Ardbraccan, Dunshaughlin, Slane and Fore. With the reforms of the Irish Church in the 12th century, the Abbot of Clonard became the bishop of the new diocese of East Meath formed at the Synod of Cashel in 1101.

By the time of the Synod of Ráth Breasail in 1111, Ardbraccan, Dunshaughlin, Slane and Fore had been united to Clonard. The Synod of Ráth Breasail made Clonard the centre of the new Diocese of Clonard, and this was confirmed at the Synod of Kells in 1152. Duleek ceased being a separate diocese soon after, and for much of the 12th century, the Bishops of Clonard were frequently called Bishops of Meath.

Meanwhile, under the influence of Saint Malachy, two religious houses, one of Augustinian canonesses and the other, of regular canons dedicated to Saint Peter, were founded at Clonard in 1146.

At the end of the 12th century, the Anglo-Normans built a new abbey on the north bank of the river, which became the cathedral of the diocese, Bishop Colmán Mac Ailella’s church became a parish church, and the monastic lands passed into the hands of Bishop Eugenius.

In 1202, the Anglo-Norman bishop Simon de Rochfort transferred the see from Clonard to Trim and the Diocese of Clonard became the new Diocese of Meath. The Diocese of Kells was incorporated into the Diocese of Meath after 1211. In1569, the Diocese of Clonmacnoise was incorporated into the Diocese of Meath.

And so, on to Edenderry

The Downshire family heraldic symbols at the gates into Castro Petre Church in Edenderry, Co Offaly (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

We stopped briefly in Kinnegad before continuing on our journey. The sun was setting behind us with bight hues of orange and amber and a tint of purple in the western sky as we drove the 16 km south and east to Edenderry.

We were in Edenderry for the ordination of the Revd David White as deacon by Bishop Richard Clarke of Meath and Kildare – the successor of all those bishops of Clonard, Kells, and Clonmacnoise we had been reminded of earlier in the day.

Traditionally, the Parish of Edenderry has been known as Monasteroris, and the church is known as Castro Petre.

Clergy and choir robbing for the ordination of the Revd David White in Edenderry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

I was asked to assist at the administration of Holy Communion at the ordination, and there was large attendance of students and clergy from the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough and Meath and Kildare.

I thought again of the bell of Clonard church when Dom Cuthbert Brennan from Glenstal Abbey stood to read the Old Testament reading.

Afterwards, we went on to a reception in Edenderry Rugby Club. It was about 11 when we eventually left for Dublin. It was a clear, cloudless night, with a beautiful large yellow crescent moon still rising, and clear view of the constellations and galaxies of stars above us.

As we drove west towards Johnstown Bridge and the M4, there was a dramatic array of bright objects like a trailing lantern in the sky above. At first I thought they were shooting stars, but they were too close. Were they the remains of meteor shower? Or was this space junk and satellite debris burning up on their entry into the atmosphere? Whatever they were, they provided a delightful end to a beautiful day.


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