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Clonfert - A Jewel in the Crown of Ireland's Monastic History
If you're travelling to Ireland, why not take a peek and see how the weather's behaving here in the West.
Clonfert, founded by Saint Brendan the Navigator, is a tiny village in South Galway bordering County Offaly, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in history. It is an area that could be known as the ecclesiastical centre of Ireland, being part of that territory in which were located numerous monastic settlements from the 5th and 6th century, in fact from the time of St. Patrick's conversion of Ireland to Christianity.

Clonmacnoise is the most famous of the monastic settlements and the one most often visited by tourists but this little village in County Galway is a 'jewel in the crown' of an area steeped in church and maritime history. Right in the heart of this rural community is Saint Brendan's Church of Ireland Cathedral, the oldest living church in Ireland with an unbroken history of public worship.

This is the first of 4 pages which look at that most beautiful of tiny cathedrals, the Bishop's Palace and the 1000 year old Yew Walk, the life of Saint Brendan the Navigator and the historic celebrations in Clonfert when it was listed in the World Monuments Watch 2000. All the links can be found below.

The Cathedral

The Cathedral itself stands in the grounds of the monastery founded by St. Brendan in the 6th century. It flourished for many centuries, even through times of great invasions by the Danes who frequently sailed up the River Shannon from Limerick and attacked it. It was burnt down in 1016, 1164, and again in 1179.The monastery and most of the church were destroyed in 1541, and the monastery was not rebuilt after this final assault on it.
Saint Brendan's Cathedral in Clonfert

Saint Brendan's Cathedral in Clonfert

As practically nothing now remains to testify to the fame of this place but the tiny Cathedral, it is difficult for the visitor today to imagine that Clonfert, which is really just a townland, was once a city and celebrated for its school.  There were over 3,000 monks in this place at one time. To quote from one historian:

"In the sixteenth century the College of St Brendan flourished in Clonfert. There were as many as three thousand students there at one time. It is mentioned in a State paper in the reign of Queen Elizabeth that before Trinity College, Dublin was founded, it was proposed to found the University at Clonfert as it was at that time celebrated as a seat of learning and, being in the centre of Ireland, a convenient place for Irish students; but the proposition was rejected and Dublin obtained the Charter."

The West Doorway

The glory of this small Cathedral is it's superb unique west doorway, which is one of the finest specimens of Hiberno-Romanesque work in existence. The west front of the Cathedral including this fine doorway is attributed to Peter 0' Moore, who was Bishop of Clonfert from 1161 to 1171. Notable is the pronounced slope of the twelfth century jambs, emphasised by the fifteenth century inner work of dark blue limestone, which does not slope.
The 12th. Century Door

The 12th. Century Door

The doorway consists of eight orders, which, apart from the one just mentioned, are of warm brown sandstone. It is surmounted by a pediment decorated by carved heads of men within a geometric design. Many authorities have said that no other doorway exhibits such 'fertility of invention and beauty of design'. 

A feature of its decoration is the variety of animal's heads suggestive of a Scandinavian influence, but there is hardly a square inch of this unique doorway where the sculptor's tool has not been at work.

Most authorities agree that the present building dates from the close of the twelfth century when the church was rebuilt as a small Romanesque Cathedral dedicated to St. Brendan. This was a very simple single chamber church with antae at each gable. The early thirteenth century saw the addition of the chancel, but the bell tower and transepts were not added until the fifteenth century.

There were originally two transepts. One has long been in ruins and roofless, while the north transept has disappeared altogether. It was also during the fifteenth century restoration that the present Gothic chancel arch took the place of the original transitional one and that Gothic windows were inserted in the chancel walls.

In the year 1541, the Cathedral was almost totally destroyed, but it was restored by Bishop Wolley in 1664. From that date, no general restoration work apart from minor improvements was effected until 1900 when Canon McLamey's extensive programme of repair and was so satisfactorily carried out.

The Inner Features

The Cathedral is also celebrated for its thirteenth century east window which is described in Brash's Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland as follows: "…the design of this window Is exceedingly chaste and beautiful, the moldings superior to anything I have seen either of ancient or modem times."

On the north side of the Cathedral is a small but very ancient sacristy or vestry, as it is now known. This was restored in 1900. When the plaster was removed from the ceiling, the marks of the old wattle roofing were revealed.

The East Window
The East Window
The Vestry
The Vestry
Many visitors are drawn by the carving of a mermaid combing her hair in the south side of the chancel archway. She dates from the fifteenth century and is a reminder of the story that St. Brendan, on one of his voyages, preached to the creatures of the sea. On the opposite side of the arch can be seen a Celtic sculpture showing the Celtic knot like an anchor chain.

Other features of interest are the Cathedral's fifteenth century large carved stone font and a number of gravestones, some of which bear marks of great antiquity. One of the gravestones bears Celtic lettering in Latin across a Celtic cross.

The 15th. Century Holy Water Font
The 15th. Century Holy Water Font
The Embedded Celtic Lettering Headstone
The Embedded Celtic Lettering Headstone

Restoration Work of the Late 1800s.

Cecil J Hodge, author of the short history of the Cathedral writes in an information pamphlet:

'A favourite comment of the antiquarian in his appraisal of an ancient building is the bald statement: "This church has suffered much at the hands of recent restorers."  This is often unfair criticism, for only the efforts of recent restorers have, in many cases, saved priceless monuments from the past from complete ruin and extinction. This is particularly true of Clonfent Cathedral.

When the Rev. Robert McLarney was instituted Rector in 1882, the condition of the building was lamentable. To quote from his writings:

"The cathedral literally the abode of the rat, the bat and the beetle. Noisome insects crawled all over the place. The walls were covered with ugly modem plaster and were reeking with damp; the atmosphere of the cathedral resembled that of a charnel house. The floor was greatly decayed. Small tees and shrubs grew on the roof which leaked badly, etc. etc'

It would seem indeed that the reproach of Bishop Healy, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Clonfert at this time, was no exaggeration: "The ancient cathedral of Clonfert is desolate and decaying"

The Windows in the Chancel

The Windows in the Chancel

Much is owed to Canon McLarney who, throughout his ministry of over twenty years, bent all his efforts to restore the ancient Cathedral. His work can be seen at a glance today. Instead of the decayed wooden flooring in the chancel very attractive tiles were laid. All the ancient stonework was repaired and pointed, stone mullions placed in the windows, and all the windows in the chancel filled with stained glass.

In response to Canon McLarney's appeal, the following are some of the gifts received: A Bishop's Throne of carved oak, in memory of Bishop Young, Bishop of Clonfert in 1798; A Carved oak Pulpit with figures and emblems of the Four Evangelists, A Memorial Brass Communion Rail to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, Four Stained Glass wlndows for the chanceI representing the Four Evangelists Two Stained Glass windows representing St. Peter and St. Paul for the east end of the chancel; A two-lighted window representing King David and King Solomon, and a single-light Stained Glass Window representing the Good Shepherd; a Carved Oak Communion Table made by the boys of an industrial school at Blackrock.

The Bishop's Throne
The Bishop's Throne
The Beautifully Carved 19th Century Pulpit
The Beautifully Carved 19th Century Pulpit
The generosity of the Church of Ireland allows this lovely Cathedral to be left open to the public during the summer daytime hours but there is always the risk of theft. The carving of Saint Matthew, evangelist, was stolen from the pulpit and has only recently been replaced with a magnificent replica sculpted by a local woodcarver.

If anybody reading these pages ever gets the chance to come here and visit this most beautiful of ancient Irish churches with its doorway from over 8 centuries ago yet opening into the new millennium, please leave a donation towards the restoration work. Or if anyone is interested in donating towards the Foundation please contact Reverend Wayne Carney by email.

And so we move on and look at the once beautiful Bishop's Palace and the One Thousand Year old Yew Walk, to a page on the life of Saint Brendan the Navigator and to the historic listing of St. Brendan's Cathedral in the World Monuments Watch 2000.

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the Rest of the Journey
For those who have just joined me on this page why not go to the beginning of our travels and see some of the places in The Start of Our Journey through the West of Ireland.

My Place Amongst the Stones gives the history of my company name, Moytura - a celtic heritage going back thousands of years.

We journey to my own parish of Lackagh - a small village just 12 miles from Galway with a mighty big history. Learn all about the Battle of Knockdoe - one of Irelan'd bloodiest of conflicts in the 16th century.

We then move on to take a quick jaunt around Galway City;  and to the heart of Connemara - with its wild and wonderful beauty.

From there we journey south into County Clare and see The Burren - a place that has lain undisturbed since the Ice-age and of immense botanical, ecological and archaeological importance.

Visit Ireland's finest early monastic heritage centre in Clonmacnoise.

Come with me on my 'Famine Journey' which starts in Westport, and moves to Sligo, my Dad's County and the departure port for many of the 'Coffin Ships'. This part of my journey ends in Grosse-Île on a tiny island east of Quebec City.

On this page you will learn some of the history of our Famine Refugees and find the final resting place of over 6,000 of my country folk who died within sight of their first freedom in over 300 years. This is where many of the Irish roots in North America started.

Our Journey moves on to other places on that visit to Canada where we see Quebec City and some of Ontario's lovely places and then to two of Canada's famous Catholic Shrines - Saint Anne de Beaupré and to Cap-de-la-Madeleine.

Finally, join me on my pilgrimage to a peaceful haven in a war-torn country in Medugorje in Bosnia-Hercegovinia. The other areas of my Web site can be found in the drop-down box below.

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