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Clonmacnois, Nuns' Church

(53°19′46″N, 7°59′8″W)
Clonmacnois, Nuns' Church
N 01 31
pre-1974 traditional (Republic of Ireland) Offaly
now Offaly
  • Tessa Garton

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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



Interior Features



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. Ní 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.