St. Finian of ClonardFinian o

Finian was born around 470A.D. and he died around 549-52.He was an Irish monk who lived like Saint Patrick and was the creator of a strict form of Irish monasticism. He had close relations with the Church in Britain.

The legend is that he was born at Myshall, Co.Carlow. St. Finian of Clonard is known as the father of Irish monasticism. It’s said that all the birds in Ireland gather as a portent of the holy life he would have. When he was a young man he founded three churches in Ireland before monastic life in Wales. He spent many years in Wales at monasteries under Saint Cadoc at Llancarfan. When he returned to Ireland, he founded several monasteries. His first was at Aghowle, Co.Wicklow. His most famous being Clonard in Meath, it was the greatest school of the period, renowned particularly for its biblical studies (Finian was a great Biblical scholar). He died at Clonard of the yellow plague, which spread all over Ireland. St.Finian is often called "Teacher of Irish Saints.

Twelve holy Irishmen studied at Clonard, at the school founded by him. They were known as the twelve apostles of Ireland. They were:

St.Ciaran of Saighir

St.Ciaran of Clonmacnoise

St.Brendan of Birr

St.Brendan of Clonfert

St.Colum of Terryglass

St.Columba of Iona

St.Mobhí of Glasnevin

St.Ruadhan of Lorrha

St.Senan of Iniscathay

St.Ninnidh of Loch Erne

St.Lasserian Mac Madfraech

St.Canice of Aghaboe


From Clonard, they carried the Gospel message to Ireland, Britain and Europe.

Perhaps the most famous of these was St. Columcille or Columba.

Columba was born in Gartan, Co.Donegal, on the 7th of December, 521.He was baptised Colum (Columba), meaning ‘Dove’. He always wished to be a priest, and studied in the monasteries of Clonard, Oilean Árainn, Glasnevin and Moville. He came from St.Finians Monastery at Clonard, to be ordained by St.Etchen in the year 550. The story was that Etchen was ploughing when Columba arrived, and that in his haste to perform the ceremony, ordained him a priest, but not a bishop. When Columcille was ordained, he went back to the north of Ireland to live. He founded the monastery of Doire, Calgac, later to be known as Cholm Cille.

The story goes that Columcille had borrowed a Book of the Gospels from St.Finian, and copied it. On receiving back his original work, Finian asked for the copy. Judgement was granted in favour of St.Finian, with the immortal phrase:"To every cow its calf, to every book its copy". But matters were not allowed to rest there, and rival factions took sides in the dispute, leading to a battle, in which many died. The Book in question later was known as the Cathach or the book of the Battles.

The exile that took Columcille to Iona, off the western coast of Scotland, was self-imposed, in punishment for, unnecessary bloodshed Columcille had caused.

The Cathach can be seen today at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.

Clonard itself was in early Christian time the site of an Ancient monastery founded by St. Finian in the 6th century.There was a monastery here right up to the 12th Century.

The religious house of Clonard was an important monastic centre in the midlands under the Native Reform. It was constituted a See and the chief Bishopric of the Diocese, but following the Anglo Norman takeover, the See was transferred to Newtown -Trim where there was an Augustinian house founded by the De Lacys.

During the 12th century, according to the Commissioners Reports, there was a church, cemetery, belfry, and hall, all in a state of decay.

Subsequently the whole property was taken over by Sir William Birmingham of Dunfierth and by the 1700's the whole place was crumbled

to ruin . During the 1800' s a thorough clearance resulted in the disappearance of all but a carved corbel and the large and splendidly decorated font which was moved from St.Finian's Church of Ireland to St.Finian's Catholic Church Clonard.


The Medieval Octagonal font.

The font is octagonal with deeply chamfered under panels and stands on octagonal base which in turn is supported on a modern base. All of the panels on the font and base are richly decorated, with the most significant representation being that of the Flight into Egypt, which fills one entire rectangular panel. Here the Blessed Virgin is seen sitting side-saddle on a clearly defined pony and wearing a full length dress. In her arm is the child Jesus who although large

enough to be a child rather than an infant is wearing swaddling bands. St. Joseph is leading the animal forth, grasping the reins in his right hand, and propelling himself forward with the aid of a sturdy walking stick in his left hand. Another significant representation is that of the Baptism of Christ which is framed in an elliptical arch. Other features include the angels and plants, all remarkably well-defined. It was obviously an expensive piece of work to execute, and this points to the benefaction of a wealthy donor.It was probably executed at the turn of the 15th or 16th centuries.

Due to the imminent closure of St.Finian's Church of Ireland, it was transferred courtesy of the Board of Works in 1991.The font was installed in a vacant apse area behind the altar . An Ecumenical service of Thanksgiving was held on the 19th January 1992, in the presence of Mgr.Eamonn Marron P.P., Rev. Frederic Gilmor, Rector,together with a large representation of the faithful of both Churches.

St.Finian's well is located about a mile north of the townland of Clonard and local tradition has it that St. Finian bestowed a blessing on the people of Clonard that nobody from the area would ever be killed by lightning.

Following the destruction of the ancient Monastery the early 19th century saw the construction of the present St. Finians Church. It was built by a grant from the Board of First Fruits and was used by the Church of Ireland population until the nineteen eighties.

Meanwhile it is in need of repair and the Clonard community Council in conjunction with Leader in Co. Meath are creating a heritage trail leaflet to encourage tourism in the area. It is proposed to restore and develop the church, but at this stage the project is not decided.

Very little remains on our landscape of the ancient monastery, but there are a few features that are of interest

  1. The Water stone trough
  2. This interesting feature was dug up early in the 20th century and is located near St. Finians Church. It is not quite clear what its function was. It could have been used for washing the feet of travelling monks in the lavabo of the Monastery, and it could easily have served as a bullán stone. A bullán stone was a stone usually round with a hollow scooped out to hold water and herbs, which were used as cures for many ailments.

  3. The Motte

According to tradition the motte at Clonard is famous for its fairy lore and lost treasures. But in fact it was used as part of an early Norman fortification. A wooden watch tower stood on top of it and a ditch of pallisades surrounded the base enclosing a house and some other buildings. This was a temporary dwelling which was abandoned when the local tower house or keep was built. All that remains of this is the mound topped with a lime tree planted there during the 19th century.

3. The Clonard Treasures.

During the 19th century a number of treasures now in the National Museum were found in the Clonard area.

a. The Crozier

This piece dates from c. 1100 A.D. It is said to have been found at Clonard in the course of river drainage. It is typical of a small

abbots' staff or crook which when complete can measure up to one metre in length. Many of

these were regarded in later times as belonging to early Irish Saints. The decoration enables it to be dated to the late eleventh or twelfth century

  1. The chess piece

This piece dates from the 12th century A.D. It was found in a bog near Clonard along with

several others some time before 1817.

It represents a carved figure of a Queen from a chess set. It is made of ivory or polished bone

with a core of lead. It has a small iron spike at the base, presumably for attachment to the

playing surface.The figure has a crown, wears a shoulder length veil over a mantle. The edges of the mantle are folded back revealing a decorative border of dots and crosses. The left hand is raised to the cheek and is supported by the right hand at the elbow. The chair the figure sits on has projecting arms. The back of the chair is decorated with a pair of

two-legged dragons with backward looking heads. Their tails are fishlike and intertwined. The

mouths of the animals are joined by a beaded scroll. The letters S, P and K are written on the

back in Lombardic script. The perforation through the neck seems to have been added at a later date. The figure it seems belongs to the same workshop tradition which produced the group of 78 walrus ivory chessmen found in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis . Only two other figures are known from the same workshop- one in Bargello, Florence, the other found in Óland in Sweden.

The decoration of these pieces is Romanesque in style and were manufactured in some Viking

Kingdom in the second half of the twelfth century. The Clonard piece was found before the Lewis chess pieces, this piece represents the sole survivor of a similar set now lost.

c. The Altar Shrine

This object dates from the 9th century A.D. It may have been found during drainage works in the Clonard area in the 1840's. The fragments consist of two panels representing one long side and one short side of a small house-shaped shrine in which relics of the saints were kept. The long side was decorated with a pair of medallions of which one survives.

d. The Bucket

This ornamental bucket was found in 1839 during drainage works on the Kinnegad river. It is

believed to be of 9th century origin. The vessel is carved from a single block of yew with a

separate disc of yew added to form the base. The rim is reinforced with an inverted U-shaped

binding. The handle which is semi-circular in shape has a central expansion, which is U-shaped

in section also.

The outside of the vessel is covered with a series of four sheets of metal. Three are decorated with

poorly executed openwork patterns.

There are eight complete examples of similar buckets of Irish manufacture. This is a less

elaborate version of a similar bucket found at Birka, Sweden, which is of Pictish or

Northumbrian manufacture with plant and bird motifs. The Irish buckets seem to have engraved

or openwork ribbon interlace and geometric patterns.

The small size of these vessels would suggest that they were used for serving liquid in small quantities-perhaps wine.


Researched by

5th and 6th class April 2000