05 August 2012
A tour of ancient church sites on the banks of the Shannon
It was one of those summer days filled with sunshine – and there have been some of them this summer. I was staying in Athlone, and found the town was a good base for visiting some of the most Ireland’s earliest monastic sites on the both banks of the River Shannon.
In the course of that one summer’s day, I visited Saint Brendan’s Cathedral in Clonfert, the ruins of Portumna Priory and Clonmacnoise, where I was brought on a journey through Irish church history from the time of Saint Patrick through the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, the mediaeval changes and the Reformation to the Church of Ireland of today.
A small and remote cathedral
Saint Brendan’s Cathedral in Clonfert, south Co Galway, is one of four cathedrals still open in the United Dioceses of Limerick and Killaloe. Sunday services are only four or five times a year and the cathedral is so small and so remote, it is hard to imagine that this sleepy village was once a cathedral city.
Saint Brendan the Navigator, who is buried here, founded a monastery in Clonfert in 563. The monastery predates stories of the saint’s voyages, and Clonfert became one of the foremost monastic schools in Ireland and the inspiration for many great missionary ventures across Europe.
The monastery was burned in 1016, 1164, and again in 1179, but in its heyday Clonfert may have had 3,000 monks. The centuries-old Yew Walk, with its cross-shaped paths, looks like church transept with a green ceiling. Local lore says the monks walked under the trees in silence, reading their daily office. However, the Diocese of Clonfert was not organised until 1111 and the diocesan boundaries were not fixed until 1152.
The first stone cathedral here was built around 1167 by Bishop Petrus Ua Mórda, and the earliest part of the cathedral dates from this period. The West Doorway is the crowning glory of the cathedral and the greatest masterpiece of Hiberno-Romanesque work, and the cathedral is listed in the 2000 World Monuments Watch.
The doorway has eight orders of jambs, surmounted by seven orders of arches and crowned by a triangular pediment bordered by carved ropes. The triangular pointed hoods and decorations form a unique mediaeval gallery with a truly fabulous variety of motifs, including human faces, bizarre beasts, formalised flowers and interlacing geometrical shapes, representing the way all creation points to the Trinity.
Inside, the early 13th century east windows in the chancel are among the best late Romanesque windows, filled with Victorian glass of a paired Saint Peter and Saint Paul, each decorated with strange swastika-shaped halos.
The chancel arch, inserted in the 15th century, displays angels, a rosette and a mermaid holding a mirror and a comb. The supporting arches of the west tower are decorated with 15th century heads. The vestry at the north side of the cathedral also dates from the 15th century.
The cathedral also has a 15th century carved font and gravestones of great antiquity, one with a Celtic cross and a Latin inscription in Celtic lettering. At one time, there were two transepts, but the Gothic north transept has been demolished and the Romanesque south transept is now in ruins.
Clonfert was such a remote, small and impoverished diocese that many mediaeval bishops refused to live there, and there were lengthy periods when it was without a bishop.
Robert, a Benedictine monk who became Bishop of Clonfert in 1296, was also a suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Canterbury. Robert Petit, a Franciscan friar who became bishop in 1320, was a suffragan bishop in Worcester and Exeter. Another Franciscan, Seán Ó hEidhin, was made Bishop of Clonfert twice, in 1438 and again in 1441, but was challenged by three rival claimants and probably never took office. Instead, he was a suffragan bishop in Worcester, London and Exeter, and when he died was a vicar in Essex.
The monastery survived until the 16th century. During the reign of Elizabeth I, there were proposals for a university in Clonfert, but the university went to Dublin instead.
Clonfert Palace was built in 1640 by Bishop Robert Dawson, and was home to the bishops until Christopher Butson died in 1836. When Clonfert and Kilmacduagh were united with Killaloe and Kilfernora, the palace was sold to the Trench family. The last tenant was the British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley. The palace was destroyed by fire in 1954, and the ruins are now covered in ivy, with trees growing in and around it.
Clonfert is part of a wider parish spread through three counties – Galway, Tipperary and Offaly – and three provinces – Connacht, Munster and Leinster. The Revd Alan Nevin is Rector and the other churches are in Eyrecourt, Portumna and Banagher.
A ruined priory
Heading south, I stayed in the parish as I passed through Eyrecourt to Portumna on the northern shores of Lough Derg, where the Shannon divides Co Galway from Co Tipperary. The lawns to the south of Portumna Castle sweep down to the lake shores, with the ruins of Portumna Priory a few paces to the east.
The priory was built around 1254 by Cistercian monks from Dunbrody Abbey, Co Wexford, but became a Dominican priory around 1426 at the insistence of Pope Martin V.
The priory was dissolved at the Reformation and passed to the Earls of Clanricarde, who built Portumna Castle. The priory was revived in 1640, and Patrick Sarsfield was married there in 1689. But the friars left again in 1712 and the priory church served the Church of Ireland parish until a new church was built at the castle gates in 1832.
The ruined priory is now a national monument. The church has fine windows in the east wall and south transept, an unusual west doorway surmounted by a window, and partially restored cloisters.
From Portumna, I crossed the Shannon and followed the road north through Banagher, along the east banks of the Shannon, to Clonmacnoise in Co Offaly. This ancient monastic site stands at the crossroads of Ireland where the main east-west road along the Esker Ridge crossed the river as it flowed from north to south through the Midlands.
Clonmacnoise was founded in 548 by Saint Ciarán and seven companions. He died of the yellow plague within a year later but Clonmacnoise grew and expanded, despite constant raids and attacks. The early wooden buildings gave way to stone structures and the population grew to 2,000 by the 11th century, making the monastery a major centre of learning and creativity.
Clonmacnoise had links with both the Kings of Connacht and the Kings of Tara, and many of them are buried here. In the 12th century, Clonmacnoise became the seat of a diocese, but it was always overshadowed by the neighbouring, richer and more powerful Diocese of Meath.
In the late 12th century, as Athlone became the main trading town in the midlands and the pivotal crossing-point on the Shannon, the monastery fell into decline. The people living in the monastic city drifted north to Athlone and – apart from the ruined castle – none of the domestic buildings now survive.
The arrival of continental religious orders, including the Augustinians, Benedictines, Cistercians and Franciscans, hastened the decline of the monastery. It was finally laid in ruins by the English garrison in Athlone in 1522.
High crosses and round towers
The site has a rich heritage that includes the Cathedral, the Church of Ireland parish church, several other churches, high crosses, round towers, and numerous carved mediaeval grave slabs.
The Cathedral, the largest church, was built in 909 by Flann Sinna, King of Tara, and Abbot Colmán. The last High King, Rory O’Connor, was buried near the altar in 1198. The west doorway dates from 1200 and the Gothic-style north doorway or “Whispering Arch” was inserted by in the 1450s by Odo, Dean of Clonmacnoise. The carved images over the north door represent Saint Dominic, Saint Patrick and Saint Francis.
Temple Melaghlin (1200) is also known as the King’s Church, and generations of Melaghlin Kings of Meath are buried here.
Temple Dowling is a tiny tenth century church but is named after Edward Dowling, who renovated and extended it in 1689, placing a stone carving of his coat of arms above the door. Temple Hurpan, a 17th century annex, was once used for burials.
Temple Finghín is a 12th century Romanesque church with a round tower belfry, McCarthy’s Tower, where the nave and chancel meet – perhaps the earliest example of a church and round tower in a single structure. When the church was vandalised in 1864, the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland initiated a landmark prosecution and later repaired the cap of the tower.
Temple Connor, or Saint Kieran’s Church, dating from the early 13th century, has been the Church of Ireland parish church since the 18th century. Clonmacnoise is part of the Athlone union of parishes in the Diocese of Meath, and during the summer a service is held here at 4 p.m. each Sunday and on Saint Ciarán’s Day (9 September) and an annual open-air service takes place on the third Sunday in July.
Temple Ciarán, the smallest church, is traditionally the burial place of Saint Ciarán. But, while excavations unearthed the Clonmacnoise Crosier, no saintly remains were found. To the west, low-lying stones are all that remain of Temple Kelly.
The Round Tower was built as a free-standing belfry by Turlough O’Connor, King of Connacht, and Abbot Gilla Chroist O Malone in 1124. It was hit by lightning 11 years later, and has been rebuilt in stages in the centuries that followed.
The three main High Crosses on the site have been moved to the visitors’ centre and replicas now stand at their original locations.
The Cross of the Scriptures is one of Ireland’s finest surviving high crosses, and has panels with Biblical scenes, including the Crucifixion, Christ in the Tomb, and the Last Judgment. The shaft and base are all that survive of the North Cross, the oldest of the High Crosses. Its decorations, which have been compared with the Book of Kells, include people, animals and geometrical interlacing. The South Cross has a rough carving of the Crucifixion on its west face.
Clomacnoise has been a national monument since 1877, and the Church of Ireland handed it to the Government in 1955. For centuries, the title of Dean of Clonmacnoise has been held by the Rectors of Trim. But Clonmacnoise, with its churches, towers, high crosses, and castle ruins, all on the banks of the River Shannon, remains one of the most important and picturesque ecclesiastical sites in Ireland.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay was first published in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) in August 2012.