The Traveller’s Rest

The Irish saint Brendan of Clonfert, otherwise known as Brendan the Voyager, is believed to have been born around 484 near what is now Tralee in County Kerry. Following his baptism, he spent five years studying under St Ita, ‘the St Brigid of Munster’ before being ordained a priest by St Erc in 512. Between that date and 530 he travelled around Ireland preaching, and established monastic foundations at Ardfert and in Shanakeel at the foot of Mount Brandon. He also began to undertake longer journeys, visiting the Arran Islands where he founded another monastery, Brittany and, it is related, Hinba an island of now unknown location off the Scottish mainland where he met St Columcille. His legendary longer boat journey is discussed below, but supposedly on returning from this Brendan was still restless and accordingly went to Wales, and thence to Iona and several other places. After three years’ missionary work in Britain he returned to Ireland, and spent time in the province of Leinster. Thence to Connaught where he founded yet another monastery in Annaghdown, as well as a convent for his sister Briga: here he died in 577. However, concerned lest followers would try to keep his remains, he arranged before death that his corpse be secretly carried away concealed in a luggage cart. He was subsequently buried at Clonfert, County Galway, another religious house he had founded.

St Brendan is known as ‘the Voyager’ owing to a journey he is said to have made with a number of companions, one that took seven years and brought them across the Atlantic to the shores of North America. References to an account of this voyage occur as early as the ninth century although extant texts of the Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis (Voyage of St Brendan the Abbot) are somewhat later. These describe the journey in considerable detail, outlining how the saint and his intrepid fellow passengers construct a vessel not unlike the Irish curragh (otherwise known as a coracle) and after forty days of prayer and fasting set off in search of a promised land. En route they experience a series of adventures: on one occasion the boat was ‘raised up on the back of sea monsters’, while the group are also recorded as passing by ‘crystals that rose up to the sky’ and being ‘pelted with flaming, foul smelling rocks by the inhabitants of a large island on their route.’ Finally they reached a beautiful land they named the Promised Land of the Saints. After exploring this as far as a great river that divided the land they turned back and slowly returned to Ireland. The Navigatio was well-known in the Middle Ages and cartographers of the period in their attempts to map the world included a place called ‘St Brendan’s Island.’ Following the voyages of Columbus and other seafarers, the story of St Brendan lost veracity, but almost forty years ago in 1976 the explorer Tim Severin determined to see whether such a passage across the Atlantic was feasible. Having constructed a replica of the boat described in the Navigatio, he likewise set off and over the course of more than a year underwent not dissimilar trials before arriving at Newfoundland. Along the way, he and his crew saw icebergs (‘crystals that rose up in the sky’), the volcanoes of Iceland (‘flaming, fold smelling rocks’) and whales (‘sea monsters’), thereby demonstrating the story of St Brendan’s journey to North America was not so fanciful after all.

Such was the fame of St Brendan that the monastery he founded and where he was buried at Clonfert soon became a place of pilgrimage and a centre of study under the authority of an abbot-bishop: at one time, it is claimed, the resident population of monks numbered some three thousand. None of the buildings in which they would have worked and lived now survives. Like many other religious settlements, wealthy but vulnerable, Clonfert was subject to regular attack first by the Vikings and then by Irish chiefs. Nevertheless it continued to thrive: in 1392 the Bishop of Clonfert paid three hundred florins to the Papal Treasury on his appointment, compared to the two hundred florins expected of the Archbishop of Tuam. Following the suppression of the monasteries in the 16th centuries, the cathedral church was retained for worship by the Anglican community (as is still the case) but it has since much shrunk in size and now measures just fifty-four by twenty-seven feet; the Romanesque north transept is in ruins and a Gothic south transept entirely gone. What remains is an enchantment. Inside the building, the most notable feature are the early 13th century east windows and the limestone chancel arch inserted in the 15th century, the latter decorated with various figures including angels and a mermaid holding a mirror. The glory of Clonfert Cathedral is its late 12th century west door, often considered the finest example of Hiberno-Romanesque workmanship extant. Of sandstone, it is in six orders and is densely carved with an extraordinary selection of motifs including foliage, and animal and human heads: the innermost order was added in similar style in the 15th century. Above the doorway, a triangular hood has ten human masks enclosed within small triangles which alternate with other small triangles. Below is a blind arcade of five arches each of which has a human head within it. A wonderful survivor in a part of the midlands of Ireland now little visited, the doorway of Clonfert Cathedral, like the Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis, serves as testimony to the imagination of the Irish people more than a millennium ago.


11 comments on “The Traveller’s Rest

  1. eimear says:

    its great to read such a comprehensive account of this church. i visited it some years ago and there was little info there (it was also pre internet) and i was amazed by the doorway and yet knew little about it.

  2. Bob Frewen says:

    James Franklin Fuller (also architect of the Hiberno-Roman church at Kylemore) was the man that helped save it in the 1880’s.
    Canon Robert McLarney was appointed rector of Clonfert in 1882. He was an able publicist who set about raising the funds necessary for the restoration of a building that was in a deplorable condition. On his arrival in 1882, Canon McLarney gave this vivid description of the condition of the cathedral.
    “Small trees grew on the roof of the belfry tower. The landings of the tower were in a state of decay. The walls of the interior of the Cathedral were covered with ugly modern plaster, and were reeking with damp. The Cathedral was literally the abode of the rat, the bat, and the beetle. Noisome insects crawled all over the place. Rats frequently ran along the floor during Divine service. The atmosphere of the Cathedral resembled that of a charnel house. The floor of the chancel was of wood, grotesquely painted in squares to resemble oil-cloth. This floor was greatly decayed. The pews were of common wood, high-backed, and narrow, in which it was impossible to kneel.
    The stonework of the east window and chancel arch was painted red, which gave it the appearance of wood. There was no vestry fit for use. The former rector robed in a nook behind the organ. The present rector had to do the same. The ancient sacristy, or vestry, was like a stable, only not so good. Grass and shrubs grew on the roof. The roof leaked. When rain came, it flooded the floor. The windows were unglazed. Boards were substituted for glass. The door of the sacristy had neither lock nor hinges. It was propped up with sticks. The props frequently fell down. On one occasion a stray donkey, grazing in the churchyard, wandered in by the sacristy door into the Cathedral.
    The churchyard was a mass of weeds and nettles, which were seldom cut down. The Cathedral bell had not been rung for years. Church music was unheard in the service for a considerable length of time. The stove was defective, and frequently filled the Cathedral with smoke. The Communion Table was rickety, and of common wood. One leg of the Table having become broken, it was patched up, and spliced in a very clumsy way. The cloth covering the Table was in shreds and tatters, moth-eaten, and decayed. An accumulation of the excrement of bats was frequently found on the Table.”

  3. Love this post! Fantastic photos – great detail. I have not been to Clonfert, But I will make a point of visiting soon!

  4. Hi Robert, I found a website called ”Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland” which describes the sculpture of the west doorway of Clonfert in full detail. Its an excellent source and deals with most Romanesque sites in Ireland (though most of the Irish sites are in ruins). I’m sure you are aware of it.

  5. Vincent Coleman says:

    Hi Robert
    I recently won the IGS original drawing award in their conservation awards 2017. I was inspired by this post and it also came in handy when drawing some of the details. I would gladly send you a jpeg of the drawing if I knew where to send it.

  6. Vincent Coleman says:

    Robert, re. my post, the drawing is of course of the doorway

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