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Ancient Celtic Centers — The Clonmacnoise Monastery

Ancient Celtic Centers — The Clonmacnoise Monastery

In this post Christian author Mark Fisher looks at the ancient Celtic monastery of Clonmacnoise. Join us as we discover a letter from a visitor to that distant time and place.

Clonmacnoise, 9th Century Stone Buildings

In 544, St. Ciarán founded Clonmacnoise, one of the most famous of the early Christian monasteries. Today, its tenth century ruins stand ready for visitors to see, but the original wooden structures are all gone.

Fortunate it is, dear reader, that your author has in his possession a manuscript, written from a visitor to that site. 🙂 So, with some imagination and a bit of history, let us go back in time and see what it was like to enter a sixth century monastery in the years after St. Patrick departed this life…



The Abbey Clonmacnoise

In the Year of Our Lord Five Hundred and Ninety Six,
To My Lord Fiachnae mac Báetáin, Rí Cóicid of Ulster,
From Your Emissary to the Monastery at Clonmacnoise,

I arrived at the abbey weary and ill-used from the journey. Chariot wheels and bog roads do not make for smooth travel, especially when carrying a passenger as unaccustomed to the road as your humble servant. Fortunately, we encountered no bandits or vagabonds. May they all repent and turn to the Lord.

Artist’s Conception of a Celtic Monastery

When St. Ciarán chose to place his abbey on the banks of the River Shannon, he chose well. Green fields, grazing sheep, and slow moving waters all make for a restful, contemplative retreat.

A high wall of wooden stakes surrounds and protects the cloister. Sufficient enough, I suppose, for the occasional marauding clan, those despicable tuatha who do not bow to any authority. Outside the wall are a limekiln, a mill on the river, and farm buildings. Within the enclosure, the buildings are all wooden with thatched roofs. But there is stone aplenty should they decide to make permanent structures.

Inside the walls, my quarters, like everyone else’s, are in a small roundhouse, big enough for three individuals. I share quarters with one large-bellied monk named Onchu who snores. Once a freeman from Galway, he joined the monastery to atone for some sin he will not disclose. His beard is red and his voice rough and coarse. But his heart seems true and dedicated to Christ.

The Church

The church is well-built of oak, enough to accommodate thirty monks. A carved stone altar occupies the front. Upon it lies a golden cup for the wine of the holy Eucharist, a marvelously carved and ornate vessel festooned with jade and rubies. The monks have outdone themselves in its construction. They’ve also made large brass plates to hold the bread and handbells to ring that summon the assembly for prayer. We sit at long benches for daily Mass.

The Refectory

Meals we take in the refectory at a long table. They serve pottage, bread, milk, eggs, fish, and occasionally, beef. How I long for a good, long draught of ale or a flagon of mead! But such is not permitted here. Adjoining the main room is the kitchen, with its open fire, cauldrons, and brass cooking utensils hanging from the walls. When all are seated, someone prays, and then, much to my surprise, the monks participate in jovial conversation. The abbey folk are a merry lot.

The Scriptorium

As instructed, I have closely inspected the scriptorium and attendant library. I know how much you desire your copy of the New Testament and the Psalms. Within the scriptorium, hundreds, if not thousands, of manuscripts already hang from the walls and ceiling in their leather satchels. The gifted monks inside bend over long wooden tables. My heart lifts with joy to see so many well-skilled men, young and old, working their styluses over vellum parchment, dipping pens into inkhorns, tending to their work with eager concentration. The smell of ink and leather still tickles my nose. The scratching of quills on calfskin still fills my ears with music. And the smiles of the monks as they work still lift my heart with joy.

Illustrated Manuscripts

And my lord, how they experiment with their illustrations! With inks of many colors, they craft brilliant, complicated pictures showing the Fall of Adam, with a tree so alive and green, and a snake so writhing and evil, it nearly jumps off the page! Likewise have they depicted The Tower of Babel and Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. I met the man who attends to your Bible, my lord, and I am sure you will be well-pleased with his work. Once a fisherman from Áth Cliath, he is young, thin to the point of consumption, and retires early each night after a long day in the scriptorium. He is conscientious, studious, and dedicated to the work. We could not have found a better, nor more pious man for the task.

Tomorrow is a fast day.  These monks fast twice a week, and though they fested me on my arrival, I now join them in their traditions. I am unused to being parted from the dinner trencher, even for one night. I especially miss my nightly draught of ale. My lord, on my return please remember this sacrifice I do in your service. I leave for home in a month.

Your humble servant in Christ,
Iùrnan mac Laise

Keywords: Clonmacnoise, Celtic monastery, St. Ciarán, scriptorium, refectory

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, click the link above.

Sources for this post were Wikipedia and The Course of Irish History, by T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin.