It’s said that every picture tells a story. Those carved in stone on the three high crosses at Clonmacnoise certainly grab the imagination across the centuries: Biblical scenes, humans and animals that spoke volumes to a largely illiterate medieval public. Masterpieces of early Irish sculpture, they still reach out with spine-tingling freshness. And they are just the beginning.
The whole of this early Christian site – including ruins of a cathedral, seven churches (10th–13th century), two round towers, high crosses and the largest collection of early Christian grave slabs in Western Europe – is a vast story in stone that keeps alive the spirit of Ireland as a Land of Saints and Scholars.
You’ll come upon Clonmacnoise in green fields beside a lazy meander of the River Shannon, quiet now but when founded by St Ciarán in the mid-6th century it was at the Ancient Crossroads of the country. Blossoming from a small monastic settlement into Ireland’s original university and possibly first city, it buzzed with religious, literary and artistic activity and drew patronage from kings.
Such tales are well told in the visitor centre but nothing beats the frisson of walking amid the remains. To think that St Ciarán and distant kings of Tara and Connacht are buried here, that Rory O’Connor, last High King of Ireland, rests in the cathedral. Worship continues in Temple Connor in summer, in the open-air in July and on St Ciarán’s Pattern Day in September when pilgrims come to celebrate the saint’s feast day.
Over the centuries this magnificent site suffered much plundering, not least by Vikings (one way to arrive even now is by replica Viking ship along the Shannon from Athlone). Yet its sanctity in green meadows shines through, the picture of enduring spirituality as the sun sets over the river.
Lough Erne boasts some of the best heritage in Ireland and much of it is on islands, so if you are in a boat, you can gain access so much easier. Devenish Island has a perfect Round Tower with occasional access, and a Visitor Centre. Also an excellent sheltered jetty for you to spend the night. White Island, further north, has a series of 6th Century carved figures which, although not always at the current site, are very well preserved. And another sheltered jetty.
And along the waterway there are numerous heritage sites such as Boyle Abbey, below.