County Offaly doesn't have that much to attract the visitor, so saying that the ancient monastic site of Clonmacnoise is one of the best attractions here might create a wrong image. In fact, it is one of the finest early Christian sites in Ireland.
And even though Clonmacnoise is never really on the way (which has been made worse by the creation of the new, fast motorway connecting Dublin and Galway), a detour to see this monastic site is certainly worth the time and petrol consumption. Situated at an ancient crossroads, where the Esker Way and the Shannon intersect, Clonmacnoise is not overrun by tourists. Even on weekends in the summer months it usually remains quite peaceful. This and the simply wonderful location make it a worthwhile target for touring visitors.
Why You Should Visit Clonmacnoise (In a Nutshell)
This is one of the finest, and also one of the most important, early Christian sites in the Midlands ... and maybe in all of Ireland. It is located in the middle of a a beautiful landscape, next to the Shannon, with a (seriously ruined) castle nearby to boot. And it can boost two round towers, two high crosses, a pilgrimage route, and ancient churches.
And while it may be seriously out of the way today, this wasn't always the case — Clonmacnoise guards the ancient crossroads of the River Shannon and the Esker Way, once the most important route from East to West in Ireland. Established in 545 by Saint Ciarán himself, the monastery was supported by King Dermot, leading to Clonmacnoise becoming one of the most important Irish monasteries, and a burial place of kings.
History still is alive here — Saint Ciarán's feast day is even today celebrated by a pilgrimage, on September 9th.
A Short Review of Clonmacnoise
Getting to Clonmacnoise can be a problem — you will need a good road map and then follow quite small and winding country lanes. As the site is next to the Shannon and quite low you will only spot the towers in the last minute.
The ancient crossroads were chosen by St. Ciarán to build his monastery in 545 with the support of King Dermot. Unfortunately, Ciarán died soon after, but Clonmacnoise became one of the most important seats of Christian learning in Europe. In addition it was an important pilgrimage site and the burial place for the High Kings of Tara.
Today the visitor will find a splendid interpretive centre, two round towers, medieval high crosses, impressive churches (albeit mostly in ruins) and the remains of the old pilgrim's route. Unfortunately you will also see the pavilion build for John Paul II's visit - which, frankly speaking, should be razed, papal connection or not. Apart from this eyesore the position of Clonmacnoise directly on the banks of the Shannon provides for magnificent views and peaceful tranquillity.
Outside the main enclosure, you will find the Nun's Church, erected by Dervorgilla. This medieval femme fatale basically caused Strongbow's conquest and 800 years of Irish misery.
When leaving the site and heading for the car park, admire the evocative woodcarving of the "Pilgrim" and then walk out towards the main road. The delicately balanced ruins of a Norman castle are worth a longer look. And look out for the tiny Victorian postbox in the wall - this is still in use!
Visit the Heritage Ireland website dedicated to Clonmacnoise, which will bring you up to speed on opening times and admission prices as well.