Abbey and School of Clonmacnoise
Situated on the Shannon, about half way between Athlone and Banagher, King's
County, Ireland, and the most remarkable of the ancient schools of Erin. Its
founder was St. Ciaran, surnamed Mac an Tsair, or
Son of the Carpenter, and
thus distinguished from his namesake, the patron saint of Ossory. He chose this
rather uninviting region because he thought it a more suitable dwelling-place
for disciples of the Cross than the luxuriant plains not far away. Ciaran was
born at Fuerty, County Roscommon, in 512, and in his early years was committed
to the care of a deacon named Justus, who had baptized him, and from whose hands
he passed to the school of St. Finnian at Clonard. Here he met all those saintly
youths who with himself were afterwards known as the
Twelve Apostles of Erin,
and he quickly won their esteem. When Finnian had to absent himself from the
monastery, it was to the youthful Ciaran that he deputed his authority to teach
give out the prayers, and when Ciaran announced his intended departure,
Finnian would fain resign to him his cathair, or chair, and keep him in Clonard.
But Ciaran felt himself unripe for such responsibility, and he knew, moreover,
he had work to do elsewhere.
After leaving Clonard, Ciaran, like most of the contemporary Irish saints,
went to Aran to commune with holy Enda. One night the two saints beheld the same
of a great fruitful tree, beside a stream, in the middle of Ireland,
and it protected the island of Ireland, and its fruit went forth over the sea
that surrounded the island, and the birds of the world came to carry off
somewhat of its fruit. And when Ciaran spoke of the vision to Enda, the latter
said to him:
The great tree which thou beholdest is thou thyself, for thou art great in the eyes of God and men, and all Ireland will be full of thy honour. This island will be protected under the shadow of thy favour, and multitudes will be satisfied with the grace of thy fasting and prayer. Go then, with God's word, to a bank of a stream, and there found a church.
Ciaran obeyed. On reaching the mainland he first paid a visit to St. Senan of
Scattery and then proceeded towards the
middle of Ireland, founding on his way
two monasteries, in one of which, on Inis Ainghin, he spent over three years.
Going farther south he came to a lonely waste by the Shannon, and seeking out a
beautiful grassy ridge, called Ard Tiprait, or the
Height of the Spring, he
said to his companions:
Here then we will stay, for many souls will go to
heaven hence, and there will be a visit from God and from men forever on this
place. Thus, on 23 January, 544, Ciaran laid the foundation of his monastic
school of Clonmacnoise, and on 9 May following he witnessed its completion.
Diarmait, son of Cerball, afterwards High King of Ireland, aided and encouraged
the saint in every way, promising him large grants of land as an endowment.
Ciaran's government of his monastery was of short duration; he was seized by a
plague which had already decimated the saints of Ireland, and died 9 September,
It is remarkable that a young saint dying before he was thirty-three, should have been the founder of a school whose fame was to endure for centuries. But Ciaran was a man of prayer and fasting and labour, trained in all the science and discipline of the saints, humble and full of faith, and so was a worthy instrument in the hands of Providence for the carrying out of a high design. St. Cummian of Clonfert calls him one of the Patres Priores of the Irish Church, and Alcuin, the most illustrious alumnus of Clonmacnoise, proclaims him the Gloria Gentis Scotorum. His festival is kept on 9 September, and his shrine is visited by many pilgrims.
Ciaran left but little mark upon the literary annals of the famous school he founded. But in the character which he gave it of a seminary for a whole nation, and not for a particular tribe or district, is to be found the secret of its success. The masters were chosen simply for their learning and zeal; the abbots were elected almost in rotation from the different provinces; and the pupils thronged thither from all parts of Ireland, as well as from the remote quarters of France and England. From the beginning it enjoyed the confidence of the Irish bishops and the favour of kings and princes who were happy to be buried in its shadow. In its sacred clay sleep Diarmait the High King, and his rival Guaire, King of Connaught; Turlough O'Conor, and his hapless son, Roderick, the last King of Ireland, and many other royal benefactors, who believed that the prayers of Ciaran would bring to heaven all those who were buried there.
But Clonmacnoise was not without its vicissitudes. Towards the close of the
seventh century a plague carried off a large number of its students and
professors; and in the eighth century the monastery was burned three times,
probably by accident, for the buildings were mainly of wood. During the ninth
and tenth centuries it was harassed not only by the Danes, but also, and perhaps
mainly, by some of the Irish chieftains. One of these, Felim MacCriffon, sacked
the monastery three times, on the last occasion slaughtering the monks, we are
told, like sheep. Even the monks themselves were infected by the bellicose
spirit of the times, which manifested itself not merely in defensive, but
sometimes even in offensive warfare. These were evil days for Clonmacnoise, but
with the blessing of Ciaran, and under the
shadow of his favour, it rose
superior to its trials, and all the while was the Alma Mater of saints and sages.
Under date 794, is recorded the death of Colgu the Wise, poet, theologian,
and historian, who is said to have been the teacher of Alcuin at Clonmacnoise
(see Coelchu). Another alumnus of vast erudition, whose gravestone may still be
seen there, was Suibhne, son of Maclume, who died in 891. He is described as the
wisest and greatest Doctor of the Scots, and the annals of Ulster call him a
most excellent scribe. Tighernach, the most accurate and most ancient prose
chronicler of the northern nations, belongs to Clonmacnoise, and probably also
Dicuil (q.v), the world-famed geographer. In this school were composed the
Chronicon Scotorum, a valuable chronicle of Irish affairs from the earliest
times to 1135, and the
Leabhar na h-Uidhre, which, excepting the
Armagh, is the oldest Irish historical transcript now in existence. In the
twelfth century Clonmacnoise was a great school of Celtic art, architecture,
sculpture, and metal work. To this period and to this school we owe the stone
crosses of Tuam and Cong, the processional cross of Cong, and perhaps the Tara
Brooch and the Chalice of Ardagh. The ruined towers and crosses and temples are
still to be seen; but there is no trace of the little church of Ciaran which was
the nucleus of Clonmacnoise.
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