Saint Ciarán's monastery of Clonmacnoise (pronounced Klon-mack-noise), founded in the middle of the sixth century a.d., is situated on the east bank of the River Shannon at a point near the center of Ireland, where the Shannon meets the Slí Mhór (the great road) on the Eiscir Riada. The location of the monastery at this crossing point undoubtedly contributed to the fact that the monastery flourished over the following six centuries. It was, as Conleth Manning has described, not only a great monastic center but also a place of learning, trade, and craftsmanship. In the light of the accumulated results of excavations conducted since the late 1970s, one can now legitimately argue that Clonmacnoise was also an urban settlement.
Within the core of the monastic site, excavations took place on the sites of the three High Crosses, which were located to the north, south, and west of the cathedral. Evidence was found for occupation in this area prior to a.d. 700, followed by a change of use to burial in subsequent centuries. It would appear that on completion of a new cathedral in a.d. 909 King Flann Sinna Mac Maelsechnaill reordered the area to the west of the cathedral by removing older wooden monuments and replacing them with the carved stone crosses.
Two excavations were carried out to the southwest of the monastic site. The first was located about 150 meters from the modern enclosing wall of the old burial ground. It was conducted after the discovery of a hoard of Hiberno-Norse coins beneath the football field of the local national school. The second excavation occurred when the school was enlarged. Although both sites were thought to be within the medieval monastic enclosure, there was no evidence for prolonged activity. The reason for the lack of settlement evidence was explained in 1999, when the enclosing early medieval ditch was located within 100 meters of the monastic site and about 50 meters from the earlier excavations.
Excavations on the site of the new visitor center, immediately west of the monastic core, produced evidence for four phases of early medieval activity. Paths, circular structures, a kiln, and evidence of ironworking were uncovered. Subsequent monitoring of trenches dug for utilities in the adjacent area revealed a continuation of this settlement evidence. Recent excavation on the sloping ground above the Shannon to the north of the visitor center has shown that an extensive area was utilized exclusively for early medieval ironworking. Closer to the Shannon, further settlement features were located. This excavation confirmed the results of geophysical prospecting (the use of noninvasive techniques to identify features below the surface) carried out in the late 1990s.
Dive survey and excavation in the Shannon to the north of the Norman castle revealed substantial remains of a wooden bridge dating to c. a.d. 804, together with eleven dugout canoes and various metalwork finds. Excavations in the northwest corner of the New Graveyard revealed four main phases of activity. The uppermost strata were of the late eleventh century and the twelfth century, characterized by flagged and cobbled areas, pits, well shafts and postholes, below which was the main occupation phase, dating to the ninth and tenth century. The main feature of this period is a metaled road or street more than 18.5 meters in length and about 3 meters in width (fig. 1) running southward from the low-lying callows adjacent to the Shannon toward the core of the monastic site. On either side of the road there was evidence for round houses about 7 meters in diameter, subrectangular structures, corn-drying kilns, hearths for cooking and metalworking, a possible boat slip, a quay, and a number of other features. There is also an earlier phase dating to the seventh and eighth century consisting mainly of stake holes, spreads of burnt soils and charcoal. Monitoring of new graves indicates that settlement extended throughout the area now occupied by the New Graveyard.
Over six thousand objects have been found, and evidence survives for the working of iron, bone, bronze, lignite, glass, silver, and gold. A knife handle with an ogham inscription suggests literacy among the bone workers. Coins dating to the Hiberno-Norse period, together with imported pottery, indicate trade. The quantity of animal bone retrieved from the site has indicated that Clonmacnoise was provisioned in a manner similar to urban centers in Britain and Ireland.
The criteria by which one identifies a town has been the subject of much discussion by archaeologists, but the suggestion put forward here is to use J. Bradley's definitions of a medieval town and a monastic town. In relation to the latter, Bradley noted that "the monastic town is an enclosed settlement, typified by having a major group of ecclesiastical buildings." Because The Annals of Clonmacnoise records that Ciaran was buried in the Eaglias Beag (the little church), one can deduce that within seven months of the foundation of the monastery there may have been two churches on the site. An enclosing boundary is recorded in the closing years of the sixth century. Pilgrimage began as early as the seventh century, and pilgrims and guests were lodged in a guesthouse. The Church of Saint Finghin, the Nun's Church, and the Round Tower are mentioned in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. As a center of commerce, Clonmacnoise hosted one of the great fairs of Ireland. Paved roads were being constructed in the eleventh century, and the extent of the "town" of Clonmacnoise is evident in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when 47 houses were burned near the abbot's lodging and 105 houses burned in the "town."
While similar historical facts can be paralleled at some of the other great early Irish monasteries, such as Kells, Armagh, or Durrow, it is only at Clonmacnoise that fairly extensive archaeological excavation has provided the material evidence necessary to fulfill the remaining criteria for a town. This includes proof of settlement complexity, specialized areas for craft working, habitation and burial in defined areas, streets, trade, and enclosure. All of these features date from the a.d. 600s to the late twelfth century.
The documentary evidence for a town at Clonmacnoise is largely concentrated on the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but evidence from the excavations points to a much earlier urban settlement. This affirms an account possibly written in the eighth century that "a shining and saintly city grew up in that place in honour of Saint Ciaran, and the name of the city was Clonmacnois."
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Heather A. King