Monastic Ireland: the history of Ireland’s monastic sites

By Jacqueline Russe / February 7, 2020
Ireland's monastic sites
This time, we’re taking a look at Ireland’s monastic sites that can be found all over the island, describing the history and the life of the monastic orders of old.

The Emerald Isle is well known for its beautiful ruins of old castles and churches. But even more well known are Ireland’s monastic sites that can be found everywhere, be it on top of a hill, next to a lake or in the middle of a small island. Most of the old monasteries had been strategically placed this way to allow the resident monks to live a quiet life in spiritual reflection. They were built like small villages, allowing the monks to be almost entirely self-sufficient, often enclosed by stone walls. Irish monasteries in particular were renowned for teaching poetry, literature, arts and the gospel, of course, to anyone who wanted to learn. Because of this, Ireland is often called the “Land of Saints and Scholars”, even today.

Clonmacnoise, County OffalyClonmacnoise

The monastic site of Clonmacnoise is one of the most well preserved ones in Ireland. It was founded in the 6th century by St Ciaran and located on the banks of the River Shannon. It is famed for its High Crosses, particularly the Cross of the Scriptures which gets its name from the many biblical scenes carved into its surface. You can also find the ruins of a cathedral, seven different churches and two round towers at this site. The monastery flourished as a prominent centre of learning and instruction for 600 years and many beautiful manuscripts were written there, including the Annals of Tigernach in the 11th century.

Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary

Rock of CashelThe Rock of Cashel, also known as St Patrick’s Rock, is one of Ireland’s most spectacular landmarks with its well preserved monastic remains. It is a collection of medieval ecclesiastical buildings set on an outcrop of limestone in the Golden Vale. The 12th century round tower is one of the oldest surviving buildings on the Rock, together with a high cross and the ruins of a Romanesque chapel, called Cormac’s Chapel. The Rock of Cashel was an ancient royal site of the kings of Munster for several hundred years, before the fortress was donated to the Church.

Skellig Michael, County KerrySkellig Michael

Skellig Michael (Gaelic: Sceilg Mhichíl, meaning Michael’s rock), also known as Great Skellig, is a rocky island about 11 kilometres west of the coast of County Kerry. Its twin island, Little Skellig is pretty much inaccessible to humans, but hosts a large bird population. On Skellig Michael, there is an old Irish Celtic monastery, situated almost at the top of the island. It was founded sometime between the 6th and 8th century and remained an important centre of monastic life in Ireland for 600 years. This monastery is one of Europe’s better known but least accessible monasteries and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. Remember the remote island Luke Skywalker was living on in the new Star Wars movies? It was this island!

Glendalough, County Wicklow

Glendalough

Glendalough is an extensive monastic settlement nestled in a glacial valley in rural County Wicklow between two lakes. It is said to be founded by St Kevin in the late 6th or early 7th century as a place to retreat from the world. Still standing today are a round tower, a large cathedral and a number of other well-preserved monuments. A remarkable number of ruined medieval churches spread out across the valley. This monastic site has attracted many pilgrims and visitors over the centuries because of its hallowed surroundings, its traditions and its stunning scenery, being located in the middle of Wicklow National Park.

Clare Abbey, County Clare

Clare Abbey

The monastic ruins of Clare Abbey lie on the west bank of the River Fergus, south of Ennis and just north of the village of Clarecastle. It is one of a number of Augustinian ruins that can be found alonga the River Fergus valley and estuary. The church of Clare Abbey likely dates back to the 12th century, though its tower was only added in the 15th century. The remains of Clare Abbey are quite extensive and while the architecture is simple, its setting and features makes it well worth a visit. Its most notable architectural features are three 15th century traceried windows. 

Kells Priory, County KilkennyKells Priory

Kells Priory is one of the largest and most impressive of Ireland’s monastic sites. The ruins of the priory are situated along King’s river, close to the present town of Kells and about 15 kilometres south of Kilkenny. It was founded in 1193 by Geoffrey Fitzrobert and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The priory was attacked and burned on at least three occasions during its early years which led to a more fortified monastery, combining both religious and military architecture. You can still see the military influence in what remains of the monastery: a fortified enclosure with six towers and a gateway, with the priory church, the cloister and domestic building inside the protective walls.

There are many more monastic sites scattered around the island, some more well preserved than others. Did you like our history and list of Ireland’s monastic sites? Do you have any favourites? Let us know in the comments below!

About the author

Jacqueline Russe

Jacqueline is a German journalist and editor for Babylon Radio who likes comics, manga and video games. She is a state-certified translator for both English and German, currently working on her Bachelor's in Technical Translation.

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