There are a great many outstanding monastic sites throughout Ireland. Following these routes and visiting these unique places will give the heritage traveller not only first-hand knowledge of Irland's great past but also a sense of the spirituality that belonged to a bygone era.
The first monasteries in the British Isles were in Ireland, where St. Patrick was sent to spread the Christian gospel around 433 AD, the earliest monasteries in Ireland predate his arrival. After the seeds of Christianity were planted in the fifth century, the sixth and seventh centuries saw monks setting up monasteries all over the country. Many monasteries grew in size and importance, establishing a unique way of life and exhibiting special political and cultural influence in Ireland right up until the Anglo-Norman invasions of the twelfth century. In the absence of a centralized authority, these large monasteries became powerful urban centres of population, learning, trade, and craftsmanship, as well as of religion.
Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly
Clonmacnoise is one of the most well-preserved monasteries in Ireland. Founded by St Ciaran in the sixth century, the monastery holds a prominent position on the banks of the River Shannon. The monastery is famed for its High Crosses, particularly the Cross of the Scriptures, which gets its name from the many biblical scenes carved on its face, including the Crucifixion and the Last Judgement. It also has two round towers and the ruins of six churches. Although attacked and plundered on numerous occasions, the monastery played a vital part in Christian Ireland from 545 until despoiled in 1552. The history can be reviewed in the modern Interpretive Centre by the many pilgrims who still make the journey to Clonmacnoise in County Offaly.
Rock of Cashel, Co. Tipperary
The Rock of Cashel, with its well preserved ecclesiastical remains, is one of Ireland's most spectacular landmarks. An impressive group of medieval buildings set on an outcrop of limestone in the Golden Vale including the twelfth century round tower, High Crosses & a Romanesque Chapel, the thirteenth-century Gothic Cathedral, the fifteenth-century castle and the restored Hall of Vicars Choral.
Overnight: Cashel Palace Hotel
Holy Cross Abbey, Co. Tipperary
One of the first relics of the True Cross, physical remains traditionally believed to be from the cross upon which Jesus was crucified, to have reached Ireland was presented to the abbey in Co. Tipperary in the twelfth century. Having been preserved elsewhere for centuries after the abbey was dissolved around 1538, it has now been returned to its old home, to be joined by a second similar relic. The relic of the True Cross made Holycross one of the most famous places of pilgrimage in Ireland during the Middle Ages.
The old monastic cloister has once more become a centre of devotion, continuing the veneration of the True Cross.
Jerpoint Abbey, Co. Kilkenny
The Cistercian Abbey of Jerpoint was founded in 1180. Although what is left is now fragmentary, it still preserves the stout Romanesque pillars of the original twelfth-century structure, and a fine medieval chancel, the space around the alter often enclosed for use by the clergy.
There are also a number of interesting grave monuments from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries to be seen. The abbey is distinguished by having the most decorated cloister arcade of any Irish church; it bears a number of largely secular, carved figures showing details of the clothing and armour worn in Ireland in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
The church and cloister still retain a peaceful and prayerful atmosphere.
Moone High Cross, Co. Kildare
In Moone, Co. Kildare stands the second tallest High Cross in Ireland. The shape of which is quite unique, and consists of three parts, the upper part and base were discovered in the graveyard of the abbey in 1835 and re-erected as a complete cross, but in 1893 the middle section of the shaft was discovered and the cross was finally reconstructed to its original size.
Now standing at 17.5 feet the cross has been erected inside the ruins of the medieval church. The monastery is believed to have been founded by St. Palladius in the fifth century, dedicated to St. Columcille in the sixth century and the cross constructed from granite during the eighth century.
Grey Abbey, Co. Down
The splendid ruins of this Cistercian Abbey are among the finest examples of Anglo-Norman ecclesiastical architecture in Northern Ireland. Affreca, daughter of Godfred King of Man and wife of John de Courcy, Anglo-Norman invader of East Ulster, founded the abbey in 1193. The abbey was colonised by Cistercian monks from Cumbria. The French background of the Cistercian Order and the English origins of the builders of Greyabbey resulted in a Gothic building with tall pointed lancet windows, the first truly Gothic structure in Ireland.
Down Patrick Cathedral and St. Patrick's Grave, Co. Down
Saint Patrick visited the area many times, preaching at Saul, taking the waters at the baths at Struell Wells and, as the story has it, dying and receiving the last rites from Saint Tassach in Raholp. It is said that Saint Patrick is buried in the graveyard of Down Cathedral. The cathedral had been built on the ancient hill of Down in 1183 by John de Courcy for Benedictine monks from Chester.
He believed that if Saint Patrick and indeed relics of Saint Brigid and Saint Columba were also buried in the graveyard, that Downpatrick would become a place of pilgrimage.
Now, ever-increasing numbers of pilgrims visit Downpatrick to view the massive granite stone that reputedly marks Saint Patrick's grave, especially during March, where they leave wreaths as a mark of respect to the Patron Saint of Ireland.
Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo
Croagh Patrick was a sacred place long before the arrival of Christianity. It was regarded as one of the principal sites for the harvest of Lughnasa and women visited the summit to encourage fertility.
Early Christian stories had Saint Patrick spending forty days and nights on the summit, banishing snakes, dragons and pagan demons. Currently, it is estimated that almost one million pilgrims make the climb to the summit each year with as many as 40,000 making the trek on the last Sunday in July, often barefoot as penance.
Drumcliffe, Co. Sligo
Drumcliffe belonged to the family of monasteries associated with Saint Columba or Colm Cille. The road leading down to the church and the grave of the poet W.B Yeats is dominated by the warm sandstone high cross which has fascinating animals in high relief on both shafts and head of the cross. The east face illustrates Adam and Eve, David slaying Goliath and Daniel in the Lions' Den, while panels more difficult to identify on the west face are presumably of New Testament subjects.
The sides, with holes to attach a no longer extant arm support, are decorated with spirals and interlace patterns. The Virgin and Child make their only solo Irish high cross appearance on the end of the south arm. The cross is often dated to the eleventh century, but may well be earlier.
Overnight: Coopershill House
Glendalough, Co. Wicklow
The Seven Churches of Glendalough have been a point of pilgrimage down through the years. It is acknowledged as the burial ground for the Kings of Leinster.
St. Kevin lived there as a hermit in isolation. However, his fame and holiness attracted so many followers that it was necessary to construct a monastic city to house them.
Much of this still remains including; the cathedral, the round tower and a church which became known as St. Kevin's Kitchen.
Tintern Abbey, Co. Wexford
Cistercian Abbey founded c. 1200 by William the Earl Marshall and named after Tintern in Wales. The remains consist of a nave, a chancel, a tower, a chapel and a cloister.
It was partly converted into living quarters after 1541 and further adapted over the centuries. The abbey was occupied by the Colclough family from the 16th century until the 1960s.
Skellig Michael, Co. Kerry
Skellig Michael (from the Gaelic Sceilig Mhichíl meaning Michael's rock), also known as Great Skellig, is a steep rocky island about 15 kilometres west of the coast of County Kerry.
It is the larger of the two Skellig Islands. For 600 years the island was an important centre of monastic life for Irish Christian monks. An Irish Celtic monastery, which is situated almost at the summit of the 230-metre-high rock, was built in 588 and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. It is one of Europe's better known but least accessible monasteries.
The very sparse conditions inside the monastery illustrate the ascetic lifestyle practised by early Irish Christians. The monks lived in stone 'beehive' huts (clochans), perched above nearly vertical cliff walls.
"Skellig Michael illustrates, as no other site can, the extremes of a Christian monasticism characterizing much of North Africa, the Near East and Europe." - UNESCO World Heritage