Clonmacnoise: Here’s What You Need To Know Before You Go (2023)

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Curious about visiting Clonmacnoise in Ireland? This post has all of the information you’ll need!

You don’t need to be an expert in Irish history or archeology to appreciate the wonders of Clonmacnoise. The collection of funerary stones, round towers, and churches immediately impressed me, especially when I caught views with the River Shannon in the background. It’s definitely a special place to visit in Ireland if you’re in the area.

I first visited this monastery with Ayuko Moriya on a portion of her journey to retrace her great, great grandfather’s footsteps. Ayuko Moriya is a direct descendent of Lafcadio Hearn, a 19th century Irish travel writer and early Japanologist. I didn’t have any expectations before visiting Clonmacnoise, but I was immediately impressed by the size, natural beauty, and the number of structures at the site.

These monastic ruins were abandoned around the end of the 13th century, but Pope John Paul II paid a visit to the site in 1979 during his trip to Ireland. They’re a great choice for an activity that’s a little off the beaten path in Ireland.

The Clonmacnoise monastery in Ireland.

About Clonmacnoise

Clonmacnoise is a monastic site that dates back to the 6th century. It was founded in 544 by Saint Ciarán who is generally considered to be the first saint who was born in Ireland. It rose to prominence during the 9th century, when it became a European center for scholarship and religious studies.

The site is situated on ancient territory where a major east-west land route meets the River Shannon, meaning it was accessible by both land and boat. The strategic location of Clonmacnoise helped it to grow into a major center of learning, religion, craftsmanship, and trade by the 9th century.

The site contains several limestone boulders. One of these boulders is the Fairy’s or Horseman’s Stone, which could be connected to the inauguration of Gaelic rulers.

A de-roofed church at Clonmacnoise
A main structure at Clonmacnoise

About Saint Ciarán, Founder of Clonmacnoise

Saint Ciarán of Saigir was one of the Twelve Apostle of Ireland and considered to be the first saint born in the country. He was born on Cape Clear Island near Baltimore in West Cork (an area that’s definitely worth visiting on a day trip from Cork!).

Among the miracles that Saint Ciarán is said to have performed include having miraculously performed an abortion for a nun, Bruinnech, who had been sexually assaulted. He was also said to have loved animals and is regarded for his kindness towards them and people.

Until the 9th century, Clonmacnoise was closely associated with the kings of Connacht.

A statue of a man concealing his face with a robe at Clonmacnoise
A statue near the entrance of Clonmacnoise

Significance of the Site

Clonmacnoise was the most important religious site in Ireland for several centuries. Many early Christian manuscripts were written at the monastery, including the 11th century Annals of Tigernach and the 12th-century Book of the Dun Cow.

Note that the site was originally built with wood and may have included more buildings than we see today. The wooden structures were replaced with stone buildings starting around the 9th century.

Author and scholar John Soderberg wrote about the significance of the site in his book, Animals and Sacred Bodies in Early Medieval Ireland: Religion and Urbanism at Clonmacnoise.

One of his arguments is that Clonmacnoise was considered an urban area during its peak activity from the 9th to the 13th centuries. He explores humans’ relationships with animals, as well as the intersections between economics and religion.

I haven’t read the book, but I did listen to a podcast interview with Soderberg and thought it was very interesting. You can also find the interview on your favorite podcast player.

Stone carvings above an entranceway at Clonmacnoise
A stone entryway at Clonmacnoise

Clonmacnoise Today

The Church of Ireland relinquished control of Clonmacnoise to the Irish state in 1955. A visitors’ center was opened in 1993, and each year over 100,000 visitors pass through to see the ruins.

There is an interactive exhibit in the visitor’s center that shows the history of Clonmacnoise, explains the significance of a number of archeological artifacts, and explains a bit about the ecology and local history of that section of the River Shannon.

The area is still used as an active gravesite, and services are routinely held in the modern chapel.

A stone tower at Clonmacnoise
A round tower and a view of the River Shannon from Clonmacnoise.

Where is Clonmacnoise

Clonmacnoise is located in County Offaly, just a short detour from the route that takes you from Dublin to Galway.

📍 Clonmacnoise
Athlone, Co. Offaly N37 V292

Visiting Clonmacnoise: Travel Tips

If you decide to visit Clonmacnoise, here are my top travel tips. When I visited Clonmacnoise, the indoor portion of the visitor’s center was closed, so I wasn’t able to watch the introduction video or see the indoor exhibits.

Dress in layers

Irish weather can be chilly and unpredictable, even during the summer months. I wore a rain jacket and sweater when I visited Clonmacniose during August, and I remember wishing I had another layer I could have added. 

Of course, the weather could also be warm, so definitely dress in layers when you visit Ireland

Don’t miss the intriguing ruins just outside of the site

One of my favorite parts of Clonmacnoise was the set of ruins just outside of the main site. The stone looks like it was twisted and tossed about while still keeping its essential structure. My whole group had to stop and take it in for several minutes, even after we’d seen the main site.

Wear sturdy shoes

In order to see the monastery and explore the grounds, be sure to wear sturdy shoes that are at least water resistant. The path around the grounds includes portions where you’ll need to walk in the grass, and Irish grass is sure to soak your feet.

Don’t skip the visitor’s center

The visitor’s center was closed when I visited Clonmacnoise, but I definitely would’ve gone in if I’d had the option. It was challenging to piece together the history of the site from looking at it and reading the literature the monastery provided, and a little more context would have helped me to appreciate it more.

I’ve learned a lot researching for this post, and it is making me wish I could go back and see it all again with a bit more context.

Visitor map of Clonmacnoise
The Clonmacnoise Visitor Center map

Visit Clonmacnoise when traveling between Galway and Dublin

This monastery is right on the route from Dublin to Galway, so the best way to visit is by making a pit stop to break up the drive. There is parking available.

Visiting Clonmacnoise

Clonmacnoise is worthy of a visit for travelers with a particular interest in Ireland’s ancient and medieval history. It’s also perfectly situated between Galway and Dublin for a quick detour.

I was pleasantly surprised by the natural beauty and completeness of these ruins, and I’d go back if I were ever in the area again.

Admission Information

You can visit Clonmacnoise nearly all year. The site is closed on December 24, 25, and 26 for the Christmas holiday.

As of this writing, the fee to enter Clonmacnoise is €8 for adults, €6 for seniors, and €4 for children. Discounts for groups and families are available.

You can book tickets ahead of time or buy them when you arrive. If you’re traveling with a group, I’d recommend that you book ahead.

Visitors typically spend about 90 minutes at Clonmacnoise.

How to get to Clonmacnoise

Clonmacnoise rose to prominence in the 10th century because of its convenient location. While it’s not always on tourists’ radar, the site is easy to reach from several cities in Ireland.

If you’re driving between Dublin and Galway, the monastery is only a short detour from the M6. Unless you’re extremely tight on time, I’d recommend that you pay a visit to this intriguing historical site. It only adds about 15 minutes of driving time to the route.

Most tour buses don’t visit Clonmacnoise (this tour if the Irish Southwest is an exception). Therefore, you’ll probably need to rent a car in order to see the monastery. Note that it is not possible to park at Clonmacnoise outside of its operating hours.

A Google maps photo that shows Clonmacnoise is partway between Dublin and Galway.
You can easily visit the monastery when driving between Dublin and Galway.

From Dublin

It takes about an hour and 45 minutes to reach Clonmacnoise from Dublin. Simply take the M6 motorway and drive west. You’ll need to take a slight detour to the south instead of passing through Athlone. 

From Galway

To reach the monastery from Galway, take the M6 and head east. The drive takes about an hour and 15 minutes, and again includes a detour before you reach Athlone. 

You can stay the night in a charming Galway bed and breakfast, then visit Clonmacnoise on your way to Dublin.

From Limerick

Limerick is about an hour and 30 minutes from Clonmacnoise along the M7. You’ll reach the monastery before you get to Atlone. 

By Boat

For a fun and memorable experience, you can visit Clonmacnoise by boat by joining a Viking Tour. The boats are available from Athlone town and take about 90 minutes each way, complete with fabulous views of the Irish countryside.

The boat ride is only offered a few days each year. Take a look at the Viking Tours schedule if you’re interested in this unique way to see Clonmacnoise.  

The River Shannon that runs behind Clonmacnoise
The River Shannon

Visiting Clonmacnoise: FAQs

Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about visiting Clonmacnoise.

What does Clonmacnoise mean?

Clonmacnoise means the Meadow of the Sons of Nós. I wasn’t able to find any additional details on the meaning of the name.

Is Clonmacnoise worth visiting?

Yes, Clonmacnoise is definitely worth visiting if you’re in the area. It’s a great place to stop when driving between Galway and Dublin – it’s in an ideal location to break up the drive. However, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that you take a special trip to visit Clonmacnoise, unless you have a particular interest in this type of site.

What is Clonmacnoise known for?

Clonmacnoise is known for being a major center for scholarship, religious study, trade, and craftsmanship during the 9th century. The site has been abandoned since the 13th century, but you can visit the ruins today in modern day County Offaly.

Clonmacnoise is widely recognized as an important Christian heritage site in Ireland.

Funerary stones at Clonmacnoise
Funerary stones at Clonmacnoise

What is in Clonmacnoise?

Clonmacnoise has a variety of ruins that date back to the 9th century. The site was actively used for many centuries, so the buildings vary in age and size.

Among the ruins you’ll see in Clonmacnoise are two 12th century round stone towers – O’Rourke’s Tower and McCarthy’s Tower, which is connected to Temple Finghín.  There is also Temple Connor, a modern church that has been in use by the Church of Ireland since the 18th century.  Additionally, there are three stone crosses, two temples, and a 10th century cathedral, among other structures and ruins.  

Why is Clonmacnoise important?

For many years, Clonmacnoise was one of the centers of learning and religion in Europe. Students came from across the continent to study at this monastery and it therefore contributed, in its own way, to the history of western civilization.

The site also has two round stone towers, like the ones you’ll find at Glendalough’s monastic site in County Wicklow.

A crumbled set of ruins outside of Clonmacnoise
Stone ruins near the entrance to Clonmacnoise

Conclusion: Visiting Clonmacnoise

For many years, Clonmacnoise was the singular most important religious landmark in Ireland. This monastic site is strategically located between Galway and Dublin, right on the banks of the River Shannon. It’s worth a stop while you’re driving between these two Irish cities, and it’s only a short detour from the route.

You can visit the ruins of Clonmacnoise today and see for yourself the beauty of the site. There’s a visitor’s center that will share even more details about the history of this monastery.

Be sure to wear comfortable, sturdy shoes and bring a warm sweater. There are areas where you’ll need to walk on grass that could be wet, and the weather often feels cooler than the temperatures would suggest. Ireland is known for being rainy, so it’s best to be prepared!