Clonmacnois, Nuns' Church

Download as PDF

Feature Sets (3)


Nave and chancel church (external dimensions 12.89 m x 7.82 m, 5.2 m x 5.35 m respectively) set within its own enclosure approximately a quarter of a mile away from the main monastic enclosure at Clonmacnoise. The church is ruined, with low walls but has a reconstructed W doorway and chancel arch (re-erected 1865). The remains of a stone altar survive on the interior. The head of a plain, round-headed splayed window has been rebuilt and set on the E wall.


The earliest reference to the church is in 1026, when the abbot of Clonmacnois made a paved road from the abbess's enclosure to the mound of the three crosses. In 1082 some houses were destroyed at the churchyard of the nuns (AFM, A.Clon). The church was rebuilt by Derbforgaill (Devorgilla ) daughter of Murchadh Maelachlainn (Murchad O'Melachlin) and finished in 1167 (AFM II). Devorgilla retired there as a penitent in 1170. The church and some houses in the churchyard were burnt in a fire in 1180. The church may have become a dependency of Clonard in 1144-8, at the time of St. Malachy, and was confirmed to the Arroasian nuns of Clonard in 1195 (Dugdale, ii, 1043-4). In c. 1223 it was confirmed as a dependency of Kilcreevanty, which had become the head house of Arroasian nuns in Connacht. The church was ruinous until the 1860s when it was the subject of pioneering restoration well carried out by James Graves and the Kilkenny and South East Antiquarian Society.


Exterior Features


W Doorway

Round headed, of four orders.

1. First order

Chamfered bases. Square jambs, mostly rebuilt.

N jamb: the top stone has two rows of lateral chevron flanked by wedges on W and S faces, point-to-point, with notched arris. (The stone only reaches half the width of the jamb, on the W side; the E side is filled with a plain stone).

The impost has bosses on the chamfer. Very weathered, in two pieces.

The S jamb is modern.

In the arch, only the far N voussoir is Romanesque, with two rows of lateral chevron forming lozenges on the soffit, the rolls flanked by beading, with faint traces of foliage in the triangles, and angle rolls flanked by wedges. There are lozenges in shallow relief on both inner and outer faces, with indications of foliage between the lozenges (as on the chancel arch first order). The rest of the arch is restored with plain voussoirs.

2. Second order

Chamfered bases. The jambs have two rows of lateral chevron flanked by wedges on both faces, point-to-point, with notched arris. The Chevron mouldings and wedges terminate in snake heads which are swallowed by monster heads on the angle at the top of the jamb. On the N jamb there are spiral whorls of snakes in the corners behind the monster head. On the S jamb there is foliage in the corner behind the monster head on the inside face. Some jambstones on the S side have beading in place of wedges, and some are placed in the wrong order causing a break in continuity of the chevron mouldings.

The Abaci have beaded borders on the face and spiral bosses on the chamfer (the N abacus is badly weathered).

In the arch are plain springers, and two restored voussoirs at the apex. The remaining eleven voussoirs have a row of beast heads biting an undercut angle roll , one head on each voussoir, with jaws clasping the roll. The heads are varied in detail, some with foliage and interlace patterns carved in low relief on the forehead and snout.

3. Third order

Plain square bases with a chamfered plinth below, cut from the same stone as the three-quarter shafts which are flanked by wedges.

N capital: square, block-like capital with rounded necking. On the angle is a monster head with interlaced strands of mane or lappets and jaws open as if swallowing the shaft, with small foliage motifs in jaws.

S capital: similar to N capital, with angle monster head with large tear-drop shaped eyes and ornate lappets, with jaws entwined in interlaced snakes. the Abaci of both N and S captials has a beaded border on the face and spiral bosses on the chamfer, as on the secon order.

In the arch, three rows of frontal chevron, lateral to the soffit, the rolls separated by beading. The sides of each tooth (soffit) are also carved with lateral chevron in low relief, three rows separated by beading. There are eighteen voussoirs in all, of which eleven are original.

The N springer is modern (?), and voussoirs six to twelve at the top of the arch are modern restorations.

4. Fourth order

The N jamb has a simple reverse cushion base below a beaded band. The S jamb has no base.Three-quarter shafts flanked by wedges survive on N and S. No capitals.

Plain chamfered abaci. This order seems to have been inaccurately restored.

The arch is set behind the level of abaci, and looks like a label. The top four voussoirs are modern restorations. The bottom three voussoirs on N and S have a ridged herringbone pattern on the face, flanked by an outer angle roll and an inner chamfer with bosses. The carving continues onto the S label stop. The label stops are beast heads with broad flat faces and large round eyes. The S label stop has a ridged brow and slight traces of ears.


reset stone

A Romanesque carved stone, is built into the wall of the farmhouse to the E of the church ( Ní Ghradaigh, 2003, 205, n.4).

Interior Features


Chancel arch

Of four orders facing the nave, and two orders facing the chancel.

h. to top of imposts 2.20 m
w. at base of arch 2.60 m
1. First order

Supported on hollow chamfered plinths, the bases are decorated with circular discs, plain on the E face, and containing rosettes on inner (N and S) and W faces. A line of beading frames each face at top and sides, and there is a symmetrical arrangement of foliage palmettes in the centre of the inner (N and S) faces, between the discs. The jambs have three-quarter angle shafts flanked by wedges. On the inner (N and S) faces there are double wedges flanking a broad hollow moulding between the angle shafts. On the W face there is a panel of decoration with interlaced foliage patterns set in lozenges.

The capitals are square and block-like, with recessed angled necking conforming to the angle shafts on the jambs. Beast heads form the angles of the capital, their jaws open above the angle shafts, with protruding tongues and pointed teeth. the S capital is more weathered. The flat surfaces are carved in shallow relief on the E, N and S faces with various Greek key designs and some interlaced foliage. The E faces are plain.

The abaci have zigzag or interlace above a beaded lower border on the face, and spiral bosses on the chamfer.

The arch has lateral chevron on the soffit and face, carved point-to-point with a deeply undercut serrated edge. Contained within a row of beading, the triangles have low relief foliage, some geometric designs, and, on the fourth voussoir from the S, a whorl of snakes. There are four plain restored voussoirs at the apex of the arch.

2. Second order

Bulbous bases inset into the angle of a square block, supported by hollow-chamfered plinths. The jambs have three-quarter angle rolls flanked by wedges, similar to the first order.

N capital: square, block-like capital with recessed angled necking, as first order. The surface of the capital has low relief geometric ornament (Greek key) and a small human head with protruding ears at the angle on the bottom half of the capital.

S capital: square block-like capital similar to the N capital, with low relief geometric ornament and two small human heads, one above the other, on the angle.

The N abacus has triple leaf sprays in triangles above a beaded lower border on the face, and animal masks on the chamfer. the S abacus is restored.

The arch has hyphenated chevron carved laterally to the soffit and face, syncopated with hyphenated lozenges (notched and containing wedges) on the arris. The chevron rolls are flanked by beading, with low relief foliage and geometric designs in the triangles. Ther are eight plain, restored voussoirs at the apex of the arch.

3. Third order

Hollow-chamfered plinths support bulbous bases that are similar to those of the second order, but with shallowly incised decoration on the bulbous section of base.These support jambs with three-quarter angle roll flanked by wedges, similar to the first and second orders.

N capital: triple-scallop, with low scallops and geometric decoration on the cones. The large shield area is decorated with an Irish-Urnes beast and snake motif on the S face. this is illegible on the W face.

S capital: similar to N capital, with Irish-Urnes beast and snake motif on both faces.

The N abacus has half-rosettes above a beaded lower border on the face and animal masks on the chamfer. the S abacus has zigzag and foliage above a beaded lower border on the face and animal masks on the chamfer.

The arch has two rows of lateral chevron, carved point-to-point, on face and soffit, with beading between the rolls. In the lozenges formed on the angle, heads, masks and decorative bosses are carved, including an exhibitionist on the seventh voussoir from the N. The triangles between the chevron are pierced with oval holes at the joints between voussoirs. There are nine plain restored voussoirs at the apex of arch.

4. Fourth order

Only the lower half of the jambs survive: two courses on the S and four courses on the N. Facing the nave is a pilaster with angle rolls.

The label is carved with lateral chevron on the face. The chevron roll is flanked by beading, with simple foliage (palmette sprays) in the triangles. There are bosses between the points of the chevrons on some voissoirs. The top section of thelabel is missing. The label stops are beast heads, with elaborate surface ornament on the N label stop (similar to the biting beast heads on the W doorway). The S label stop was probably the same as the N but is now to weathered to read.

5. E face, second order

Plain chamfered base. Small three-quarter angle shaft. Double-scallop capital with small scallops and wedges between the cones. Indented shields with large plain shield area (cf. Rahan) . Plain abacus, restored. Chamfered label with groove following chamfer.


Leask assigned the sculpture to two successive phases; the jambs of the chancel arch to an earlier phase, and the arches of the chancel arch and the entire W doorway to the 'completion of 1166'. However, it is now generally accepted that the church's sculptural decoration belongs to a single phase; it shows a consistency of style in the combination of high and low relief carving and the use of similar motifs in the arches and jambs of both doorway and chancel arch (Ní Ghrádaigh, 2003). Similarities with sculpture both of the 1150's (Killeshin, Laois) and of the 1180's (Clonfert, Galway) support the date of 1167 for the completion of the church. Particularly close comparisons to the sculpture can be found at Rahan, where the circular window in the larger church uses the same ridged herringbone pattern with bosses, as found on the W doorway, and a similar chevron pattern to that of the central order of the chancel arch. The chancel arch at Rahan also has similar bulbous bases and abaci with spiral bosses on the chamfer. Other comparisons can be found at nearby Clonfert Cathedral which has similar biting head voussoirs and 'cat's head' abaci, and at Inchagoill (Galway), Kilmore (Cavan) and Boyle which have beast head capitals. The beast heads biting a roll-moulding differ from the typical English beakhead, and may be derived from western France (Henry, 1970). The chevron designs terminating in snake heads are similar to those on the chancel arch at Monaincha (Tipperary), where the W doorway also has biting beast heads at the top of the jambs. The emphasis on low-relief ornament and the use of zoomorphic elements are typical of Irish Romanesque and show the adaptation of English and Continental Romanesque influences to the traditions of Insular art. The simplified articulation of the architecture is similar to the two-dimensional treatment of arcading in the canon tables of Insular manuscripts (Garton, 2001).


  • A. Gwynn, and R. N. Hadcock, Medieval Religious Houses; Ireland, London, 1970, 64.

  • A. Doyle, The Conservation of Ruins in Ireland c.1850-1900, Unpublished M.U.B.C. thesis, University College Dublin, 2003.

  • E. Fitzpatrick, Romanesque Sculpture of Clonmacnoise, Unpublished MA Dissertation University of Galway, 1985.

  • F. Henry, Irish Art in the Romanesque Period, 1020-1170, London, 1970, 157-8.

  • J. Graves, 'Repairs to Clonmacnois Church', JRSAI, 5, 1865, 364-372.

  • J. NĂ­ Ghradaigh, 'But what Exactly Did She Give?: Derbforgaill and the Nun's Church at Clonmacnoise', (ed.) H. King, Clonmacnoise Studies II, Dublin, 2003, 175-208.

  • K. Emerick, 'Whitby and Clonmacnoise' (ed.) H. King, Clonmacnoise Studies II, Dublin, 2003, 209-221.

  • H. G. Leask, Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings, Dundalk, 1955, I, 111-13, 146-7.

  • C. Manning, Clonmacnoise, Dublin, 1994.

  • G. Petrie, The ecclesiastical architecture of Ireland, Dublin , 1845, 271, 275.

  • T. Garton, 'Masks and Monsters: Some Recurring Themes in Irish Romanesque Sculpture', in (ed.) C. Hourihane, From Ireland Coming: Irish Art from the Early Christian to the Late Gothic Period and its European Context, Princeton, 2001, 121-40.

  • T. J. Westropp, 'A Description of the Ancient Buildings and Crosses at Clonmacnois', JRSAI, 37,1907, 277-306.

General view from W
General view from W
Nuns' church, view from W.
Nuns' church, view from W.
Nuns' church, view from W.


Site Location
Clonmacnois, Nuns' Church
National Grid Reference
N 01 31 
now: Offaly
pre-1994 traditional (Republic of Ireland): Offaly
medieval: Clonmacnoise
now: Clonmacnoise
Type of building/monument
Ruined church  
Report authors
Tessa Garton