Located beside the River Shannon, in the centre of Ireland, stands the ruined sixth-century monastery of Clonmacnoise. Founded by Saint Ciarán the monastery survived for over a thousand years during which time Clonmacnoise was famed as one of Ireland’s great seats of learning, until it was eventually brought to ruin and looted under the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1552. The name Clonmacnoise, along with some ruins at the site, appear to predate the monastery’s religious associations; with Cluin Mac Nós translating from Irish to English as ‘Meadow of the Sons of Nós.’ Legend has it that the lands were given to Saint Ciarán by Diarmait Mac Cerbaill – who is traditionally held to be the last pagan High King of Ireland. Whether the legend is true or false it is well documented that the Kings of Connaught continued to patronise the monastery of Clonmacnoise until the thirteenth century. In spite the destruction of Clonmacnoise the picturesque ruins of the monastery, with its round tower, seven churches, and stone crosses, have continued to attract large crowds of pilgrims on many days throughout the year but, most particularly on the Feast Day of Saint Ciarán which falls on the ninth of September each year. In 1816 the Reverend Patrick Fitzgerald, who was then Vicar of the Parish Clonmacnoise, stated that on Saint Ciarán’s Day from ‘3000 to 4000 people assemble there to do penance from different parts of Ireland,” remarking that some had travelled from as far away as Donegal.
In his book The Holy Wells of Ireland Patrick Logan explained that by 1980 the traditional longer station at Clonmacnoise had declined in recent decades and had been replaced by a significantly shorter station in more recent years. Each circuit of the old longer station was usually done three times. A person generally did the station barefoot in those days, and would start at Saint Ciarán’s Well, continuing through to the cloister, on to the stone crosses, and further on to the Nun’s church. At each place prayers were offered and decades of the rosary were recited. Logan estimated that to complete the ‘long station’ would take a person over four hours to complete. Although devotion was the primary objective of those who visited Clonmacnoise many devotees hoped to find cures for long lingering ailments. On a visit to the Clonmacnoise in his 1813 Tour of Ireland the Reverend James Hall noted that ‘thousands believe that the waters of the well, at the ruins, gives the blind their sight, and makes the lame walk.’ While a cure for toothache could be got by tying a rag to the hawthorn tree that stands beside according to a relative of Nora Killeen, who noted the traditional belief in the Schools’ Collection in the late nineteen-thirties.* If a pilgrim suffered from epilepsy they could find a cure by sitting on a stone on which, legend had it, Saint Ciarán had sat. Finally, according to Lady Jane Wilde, a woman can clasp her arms around Saint Ciarán’s Cross she ‘would never die in childbirth.
As the burial site of its founder Saint Ciarán, one of the most revered of the Irish saints, it is to be expected that the graveyard of Clonmacnoise remained a popular burial site in the centuries that followed the saint’s death. However, the thirteenth century ancient Registry of Clonmacnoise, which contains transcriptions from the Life of Saint Ciarán, noted another reason for the preference of being buried at Clonmacnoise. The entry explains that Saint Ciarán was granted a favour from God that no soul buried at Clonmacnoise should be deprived of salvation. While visiting Clonmacnoise in 1813 Reverend James Hall noted that this the above guarantee of salvation was still widely to be true, and that ‘those buried near the ruins have half their sins forgiven, and that the soul only remains half the time in purgatory it otherwise would.’ Those buried at Clonmacnoise did not even need to fear purgatory according to an account collected for the Schools’ Collection by a young school girl named Bridget Feehily, who noted that it is ‘believed that all persons who were interred in the Holy Grounds belonging to it insured to themselves a sure and immediate ascent to Heaven.’
* The Schools’ Collection was a project set up by the Irish Folklore Commission which asked young schoolchildren in the late 1930s to gather folklore from their older relations and neighbours.
Tales of the Elders of Ireland. Translated by Ann Dooley and Harry Roe. Oxford 1999.
Fitzgerald, Patrick, “Parish of Clonmacnoise”, Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburgh, 1816.
Hall, James (Rev). Tour Through Ireland; Particularly the Interior and Least Known Parts. London, 1813.
Logan, Patrick. The Holy Wells of Ireland. Buckinghamshire, 1980.
O’Hanlon, John (Rev), Lives of the Irish Saints. New York, 1905.
Wilde, Lady Jane, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. London, 1888.