- Our group at Clonmacnoise
Wishing Tree near Clonfert
Sea Monster in the Cathedral
Mermaid in Clonfert Cathedral
Today our field trip took us to the center of Ireland to two sites important to Christianity in the Middle Ages. Clonfert Cathedral was founded in the 6th century by “St. Brendan the Navigator,” and according to legend he is buried here. St. Brendan was a monk who traveled extensively. A book he wrote about his travels was translated into many languages. He writes about visiting places that seem likely to be Greenland and Iceland and, many believe, Labrador in North America. This was before the Vikings had explored the coast of North America.
Clonfert cathedral is most well-known as an outstanding example of Romanesque architecture, and the front doorway is of particular interest, with its seven layers of arches and elaborate decoration. Things are repeated in patterns of 3 and 7, both numbers with religious significance. Inside, it’s interesting to see motifs not usually associated with Christianity but with seafaring journeys, such as mermaids and sea monsters. In his journals, Brendan claims to have encountered both.
A short walk from the Cathredral, on a shaded path, we visited a special and somewhat mysterious site. At the base of a very large beech tree (perhaps 150 years old), dozens and dozens of objects have been placed. These included inhalers, prescription bottles, infant objects, photos, rosaries, mass cards, articles of personal clothing. Coins and articles of jewelry have been wedged inside the tree, which in many cases has begun to grow over them. Clearly this tree is being used as some kind of special shrine or site of supplication.
In the class we’ve learned about both the pre-Christian spiritual beliefs of the Irish as well as how Christianity was brought to the island. The early Irish had a strong belief in animism, the idea that all things – even those we would consider “inanimate” – have a spirit. St. Patrick, who came to Ireland in 432 A.D. and is credited with converting the Irish to Christianity. His approach was particularly effective here because it is said that instead of trying to stamp out non-Christian beliefs and practices, he incorporated them into his explanations of Christianity, as if to show the Irish that their beliefs were not wrong, just incomplete. The classic example is his use of the shamrock, which resembles the three-part spiral design common in Celtic design, to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity. The tree at Clonfert seems an excellent example of how the modern-day Irish continue to draw on and incorporate pre-Christian spiritual beliefs (that this tree has a special spirit) even as they practice Catholicism.
Our afternoon was spent at Clonmacnoise, one of Ireland’s most important medieval monasteries. It was established by St. Ciaran in 548 A.D. at the crossroads of Ireland in County Offaly. The river Shannon is the largest river in Ireland, running roughly north to south down the center of the country. At Clonmacnoise this is crossed east to west by the Eskar Riada, a natural raised mound of earth and gravel created by glacier movement thousands of years ago. In a wet and boggy land, this natural roadway was a major route of transportation, as was the Shannon. Between the 7th and 12th centuries monks from all over Europe came to study and work here, with as many as 2000 living in this community at its peak. It has some of the best examples of Irish high crosses that still exist. These were built of sandstone and were used to mark the boundaries of the holy ground, as well as for storytelling and education purposes. They are covered with detailed carvings depicting stories
Just outside Clonmacnoise we saw the remains of an Anglo-Norman fort that had been quite effectively destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in the mid 17th century.