The Monks were there that day. They stood with me in front of High Crosses. They walked with me amid the ruins of the cathedral and round towers. They noticed my tears as I read the gravestones embedded in lush green grass. I could hear them chanting in the wind that blew across the River Shannon to a peaceful place known as Clonmacnoise.
Founded by St. Ciaran in the mid-6th century, Clonmacnoise is one of the most famous monastic sites in Ireland; and it wasn’t just any old monastery! It was once a leading center for religion and learning in Europe. It included a 10-acre settlement which housed not only monks, but also lay people – all working in collaboration. There were traders and crafts people with all the skills necessary to run a medieval town. There were artists who created remarkable works in stone and metal. There were learned scholars who wrote manuscripts, including the 11th century Annals of Tighernach, and the 12th century Book of the Dun Cow.
The monastery flourished for 600 years. Today you will find the imposing remains of a cathedral, 2 round towers and no fewer than seven of the original 17 churches constructed here. Among the ruins (which date back to 545AD) are three ancient high crosses. The North Cross, the oldest of the three, was created c.800. Only the limestone shaft and sandstone base survive. The South Cross is a 9th-century piece originally situated at the southern end of the site. It has one Christian scene on its west face; a rough carving of the Crucifixion of Christ. Many believe this cross to have been the inspiration for the third cross, the Cross of the Scriptures, whose sandstone is skillfully carved with intricate figures on all four sides and is the most impressive of the surviving Celtic crosses in Ireland.
I was with a group of tourists listening to a passionate guide explain what life must have been like for the monks and others who lived, learned and died at this place. It didn’t seem right somehow – talking about them as if they weren’t even there, because they WERE there. They were with me that day among the lichen-spotted stones in an ancient place where time stands still!