The ‘Lost City’ of Clonmacnoise in County Offaly could be described as Ireland’s first true city, founded in the 6th century by St Ciaran.
History of Clonmacnoise
St Ciaran established Clonmacnoise in 544, at the ancient crossroads of Ireland at the junction of the River Shannon and the Eiscir Riada. Along with Diarmait Uí Cerbaill , he built a simple wooden church on the site – when he died, just 5 years later, he was reportedly buried there. Today, a stone oratory stands on the spot. Diarmait was later to become the first Christian crowned High King of Ireland. St Columba was also supposed to have visited Clonmacnoise.
Outbreaks of plague proved to be a continuous problem at the site, and contributed heavily to the city’s fluctuating population. However, there was a period of great growth between the 8th and 12th centuries: durable stone structures began to be erected, and craftsmen and artisans on site created beautifully wrought, ornate metalwork and stonework, which many consider some of the most impressive created in this period in Ireland. Similarly, it was a monastic site, which went hand in hand with education: people flocked to learn and study at Clonmacnoise.
As the Vikings repeatedly raided Ireland, and the Normans invaded, Clonmacnoise declined and the town of Athlone grew – migration led to a steep population drop, and eventually Clonmacnoise was all but abandoned. The remains of the city were looted by the English in the mid-16th century, and it was left in ruins.
The ruins of the city are still very much visible today, and take a good hour or so to explore on foot. The site is well-run, and managed by Heritage Ireland (OPW), with some remarkable 10th century stone crosses still on display. Some have been moved into the snazzy visitor centre on site to better protect them from the elements. Bring decent footwear and possibly waterproofs for time outdoors – the site is quite exposed. The Shannon still runs close by.
The visitor centre is well worth spending another hour in: it’s extremely informative, locating Clonmacnoise within Irish and wider early European history, and charting its rise and fall. Excavated objects are displayed here, and there’s a dated audio-visual presentation too.
Getting to Clonmacnoise
Clonmacnoise is located just of the R444, about 20km east of Ballinasloe. Public transport is in short supply in this part of the world: unless you plan on hitching, you’ll need to come on an organised tour here from Dublin, Galway or Athlone if you don’t have your own car. Otherwise, it’s possible to get a taxi from Athlone or Ballinasloe if you get the train or coach from Dublin.