The origins of the name are vague and may have begun to be used only after St. Ciaran founded his monastery there in 545. Few Irish saints are so vividly remembered in local veneration and affection as Ciaran of Clonmacnois. His burial place in Clonmacnois has been a place of pilgrimage for over fifteen hundred years. The commemoration of his feast on Pattern Day still draws enormous crowds of people.
Ciaran chose a magnificent setting for his great monastic foundation. Those who come by boat, preferably down-current, get a magnificent view of the monastic ruins from the water. If one assumes that Ciaran and his companions came by that route, pilgrims can still see how well he chose the spot for his monastery.
What the visitor to Clonmacnois will see today, is what has lain in ruins since its final destruction in 1552.
Visitors can see for themselves how accurate was the description of the Four Masters: “Clonmacnois was plundered and devastated by the English of Athlone; they took the large bells of the Cloicteach and left neither large nor small bell, image, altar, book, gem, nor even glass in a window in the walls of the church, that they did not carry away with them; and that truly was a lamentable deed, to plunder the City of Ciaran, the Saint”.
From what remains it is possible to imagine the splendour of what was.
At the centre of the monastic buildings is the Eaglais Beag, the small church which is said to mark the burial place of St. Ciaran. From here people have carried clay from St. Ciaran’s grave for centuries. The clay was spread on the fields as a protection against pests and diseases which affected the crops. The great Crosses, especially the Cross of the Scriptures, which is now indoors for safety, are a most impressive sight. There is one outstanding little building, the Nuns’ Church, which is seen by few enough visitors because it is some distance from the main monastic ruins.
Because of the repeated destruction and pillage of Clonmacnois we have little enough to show of the wonderful work of its craftsmen. The little that remains is convincing proof that there was a very high standard of excellence achieved in art work. The grave slabs, now carefully preserved indoors, are like pages of manuscripts with intricate interlacing patterns and lettering. We are most fortunate to have the magnificent Shrine of St. Manchan which must, in its original beauty, have been a work of surpassing artistry.