Thanks to its location, this legendary monastery survived almost everything thrown at it, including raids by feuding Irish tribes, Vikings, and Normans. But when the English garrison arrived from Athlone in 1552, they ruthlessly reduced the site to ruin. Still, with a little imagination, you can picture life here in medieval times, when the nobles of Europe sent their sons to be educated by the local monks. The monastery was founded on an esker (natural gravel ridge) overlooking the Shannon and a marshy area known as the Callows, which today is protected habitat for the corncrake, a wading bird.
Numerous buildings and ruins remain. The small cathedral dates as far back as the 10th century but has additions from the 15th century. It was the burial place of kings of Connaught and of Tara, and of Rory O'Conor, the last high king of Ireland, who was buried here in 1198. The two round towers include O'Rourke's Tower, which was struck by lightning and subsequently rebuilt in the 12th
century. There are eight smaller churches, the littlest of which is thought to be the burial place of St. Ciaran. The Nun's Church's chancel arch and doorway is a fine example of Romanesque architecture. The High Crosses have been moved into the visitor center to protect them from the elements (copies stand in their original places); the best preserved of these is the Cross of the Scriptures, also known as Flann's Cross. Some of the treasures and manuscripts originating from Clonmacnoise are now housed in Dublin, most at the National Museum.
Clonmacnoise has always been a prestigious burial place. Among the ancient stones are many other graves dating from the 17th to the mid-20th century. The whole place is time-burnished, though in midsummer it can be difficult to avoid the throngs of tourists. There are tours every hour during the summer season. The Shop at Clonmacnoise sells books, pottery, crafts, tweeds, and perfumes, and stocks tourist information.