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The first thing you notice once you get past the visitor centre and onto the open grounds of Clonmacnoise is the sense of peace and expanse which still, after all these centuries, pervades the grounds. And yet it was attacked and looted innumerable times over the centuries, by the English, the Irish, the Vikings and the Normans. In 1552 it was looted and destroyed one final time; a rather sad end to one of the most famous monasteries in Ireland, renowned for its learning and craftsmanship, its trade and religion and visited by scholars from all over Europe.
You must enter Clonmacnoise through the modern interpretive centre, a fairly unobtrusive building with friendly and charming staff. Once you are made welcome you are encouraged to have a look around first, read up on the history and admire the exhibits, as well as the three celtic high crosses and other artefacts before venturing onto the monastery grounds proper.
The site of Clonmacnoise lies on the banks of the river Shannon, at a strategic and in past times important location for trade and travel. The hustle and bustle of monks, traders, scholars and dignitaries has now been replaced by the hustle and bustle of large numbers of tourists, but we had arrived fairly early, before the crowds arrived. Walking past the weathered, slanting headstones, running hands along the ruined walls of the little churches, looking out over the low wall onto the banks of the river and the flat lands beyond, it wasn't all that hard to imagine what it might have been like all those centuries ago. Many beautiful illuminated manuscripts and artefacts were created here and many Irish kings - including Rory O'Connor, the last king of Ireland - lie buried under those cold slabs of stone.
After wandering a while my father, brother and sister-in-law walked further on to the Nun's Church, which lies about 500m from the site, but I, still nursing my injured knee and finding the uneven ground a little challenging, wandered back over to that low wall to sit and wait for them, looking out over the river.
We skipped having coffee and lunch at the little on-site coffee shop and instead headed into Athlone. There we had lunch in a little restaurant just beside Athlone Castle. The very same stronghold from which the last death-knell was delivered to Clonmacnoise by the English garrison which was stationed there, in the 1552.
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