Clonmacnoise – Ireland’s First City


Unlock the Heart of History

The history of Ireland fascinates the world: a rich tapestry of ancient kings, stories of saints and scholars, myths and legends, peace and war. And if you’re visiting, there’s no better way to appreciate it all than to go back to one of the fascinating places where it all began: Clonmacnoise. This ancient, holy site is one of the oldest and most important early Christian settlements in Europe – and with its fascinating, beautifully-preserved towers, high crosses and grave slabs, it’s a vital doorway to understanding the history of Athlone and of Ireland. Let Athlone take you back to the heart of it, where it all began…

Clonmacnoise (meaning ‘meadow of the sons of Nois) was founded as a monastery by St Ciarán on the banks of the River Shannon in the 6th Century. But even before this, there is archaeological evidence that the site was inhabited more than 2500 years ago, during the Iron Age. The monastery was intentionally built in the centre of Ireland, where an ancient roadway crossed the River, making the location of great strategic importance.

The monastery began as a simple and modest settlement, but quickly grew to become one of the country’s great seats of learning and a place of pilgrimage. Scholars came from all over Europe to study at this great monastic city which was recognised as the heart of learning and creativity. It was a place admired for its literary and artistic achievements, and Kings and Chieftains would frequent its holy ground. The burial of the High King of Ireland there in the year 915 bears testament to the importance of Clonmacnoise, while the monastery is also credited for providing much of Ireland’s valuable Celtic art and illuminated manuscripts.

Through the years, the holy place was raided by native Kings and later, Vikings fought a notorious battle against St Columba monastery. Few places you’ll visit have so many stories to tell!

What Will You Discover?

“As well as ecclesiastical building there are the remains of roads, bridges, a river port, a crannog, houses, wells, kilns and other structure at the site and many finely worked bronze, glass, silver and bone artefacts have been uncovered.”

There’s so much to see and appreciate at this hallowed space – and we recommend that you start your trip at the Visitor Centre. Here you’ll be able to view a short audio-visual presentation on the site, which will give you a good understanding of its background and context. And our advice – it’s really worth choosing the Guided Tour option and having a knowledgeable guide explain the significance of each relic and artefact, as you go. The tours last about 45 minutes and are included in the admission fee.

Feel the history and breathe in the wonder of this ancient holy place.

On your tour you’ll discover:

The Esker Riada or ‘Great Way’ – the most important roadway in Ireland for hundreds of years and used by pilgrims travelling to Clonmacnoise as early as 606BC. A small section of it remains and is known as ‘Pilgrim’s Road’.

The Cathedral – the largest of the remaining churches, this dates to the start of the 11th century. It’s many Gothic and ornate features are fascinating to see.

Mac Laffey’s Church – dating back to the 10th century and remodelled in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Ancient Crosses – The famous Cross of the Scriptures is beautifully decorated with Bible scenes and dates to around the year 900.

The Whispering Arch – A Gothic style doorway leading into the Cathedral which was one a confessional. This evolved to become a place where lovers declare their love for each other in a whisper!

The Round Tower – built in 1124, this was hit by lightening n 1135.

Castle Remains – built by the Normans in 1214 as a wooden structure but replaced by a stone castle. Seeing this ancient ruin set amongst the greenest of pastures that are home to local dairy cows, will be a picture of Ireland you’ll never forget.

Best by Boat – Why not complete this cultural and historic experience and travel to and from Clonmacnoise by boat? Book a Viking Tours ticket and let the Viking 1 – a 21-metre-long replica Viking Knarr – carry you to the ancient monastic settlement. You’ll hear more about the history of the place from ‘Viking Mike’, and enjoy a unique experience of the river’s flora, fauna, bird and fish life.