Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Early Christianity in Ireland

The day was windy and damp, but blankets and complimentary coffee and tea (served with huge scones and sweet jam) chased away the chill as our Viking boat cruised down the Shannon River in Northern Ireland. Sitting on outside benches watching pastoral scenes of cattle and cottages, we made our way from the town of Anthlone to Clonmacnoise, a monastic site one and a half hours away. 

Captain Mike, owner of Viking Tours Ireland helped us understand what cruising on a Viking ship 1200 years ago was like. He was proud of his Viking heritage and provided knowledgeable commentary about this often overlooked branch of the Irish family tree. 

Meadows of grass grow right on the river’s edge; there’s virtually no river bank, so the area is prone to flooding.  But on this summer day, cattle grazed contently, even wandering to patches of land that extended into the water. Because the region is on a migratory path, conservation groups are working to save endangered bird species that come through here in winter or springtime.

As we arrived at the monastic community of Clonmacnoise in the heart of Irish midland, the sun began to shine. Overlooking the River Shannon in County Offaly, Clonmacnoise was founded in 548 by St. Kieran, who brought Christianity to Ireland. Unfortunately, St. Kieran died of the yellow plague at age 33 only seven months after establishing his monastery here.

The settlement was a major center of religion, learning, trade, craftsmanship and politics for several centuries, thanks to its position at a major crossroads of River Shannon.  Although religion was the central focus at Clonmacnoise, the settlement always had a large lay population and thus looked more like a town than a monastery. At its peak, the monastery covered 10 acres.

Scribes labored into the 10th century, and the church prospered, as evidenced in an abundance of artistic and gold items by the 11th century. Like nearly all monastic settlements in Ireland, it was plundered on several occasions by Viking and Anglo-Norman invaders. In addition to these attacks, fires and Irish assaults on the land occurred numerous times between the eighth and twelfth centuries. Although the monastery was rebuilt each time it eventually lost influence.  By 1550 it was in ruins; everything of value had been carried off or destroyed.

From the 16th century onward, there was no actual monastery at Clonmacnoise, but it remains a powerful symbol of early Christianity. Visitors wander among extensive ruins including a cathedral, castle, round tower, numerous churches, two important high crosses, and a large collection of early Christian grave slabs.

Today people make pilgrimages to the tomb of St. Kieran (especially during St. Kieran’s feast day in September) and gather soil to spread on their farms.  Ecumenical ceremonies for Protestants and Catholics are held, and Pope John even preached here in 1979. Clonmacnoise was designated a national monument in 1877, and in 1955 the Church of Ireland transferred the site to the Office of Public Works.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

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